We often meet new friends from other countries when traveling and at our sad but inevitable parting we always exchange invitations to visit one another’s home country, whether it be the US, the Netherlands, China, Panama or farther afield. With so many disparate places to visit and so little time to travel, we rarely get to take up friends on their invitations. This made our flight into Bahrain seem somewhat surreal.
Caity met Ala about four years ago when she was working in Boston. He came from Bahrain on a Fulbright, but also studied music and Caity’s voice can even be heard in the songs on his first two CDs, which were recorded in the tiny closet of his Boston apartment. They became close friends and Ala even made it back from Bahrain to be the photographer at our wedding. They always spoke about Caity visiting Bahrain, but the right time never came up. That was, until we started living in Egypt, which is just a hop, skip and a three hour plane flight away.
“I will show you the entire country!” Ala excitedly told us as we were planning our winter trip to Bahrain. That is not exactly a heroic feat however, as all of Bahrain is about 3.5 times the size of Washington D.C. We were going to get to know the country very, very well during our weeklong stay.
We were staying with Ala’s family in a spare room and they were excited to meet the Caity that they had heard so much about (I just introduced myself as Caity’s husband and was quickly accepted). They could not believe that we spoke Arabic so well and we quickly had the mother chatting away with us about Arabic poetry and Reiki in the Egyptian dialect. Although we were easily understood because the Egyptian dialect is famous throughout the Arabic speaking world due to the prominence of Egypt’s movie and music industry, we had a much harder time understanding the Gulf accent that everyone else responded with.
Linguistic difficulties aside, we were quickly adopted into the family with heart-warming hospitality as we made ready to go out for the Ashura festivities. It turns out that we came at the unexpected confluence of two major holidays, Ashura and National Day, which meant that the whole country had about six days off in a row and was decked out in lights and posters.
As a brief Islamic history lesson, the celebration of Ashura goes back to the roots of the divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims. The death of the Prophet Muhammad brought about a crisis of leadership in the Muslim community. According to the Shia, Muhammed named his cousin Ali (and husband of his daughter Fatima) as his rightful successor, yet his words were not followed after his death. Although Ali eventually became the fourth Caliph, his authority was constantly contested and he was eventually assassinated, leading to the beginning of the Umayyad Caliphate. One of his sons, Hussein, was a central figure in the early Muslim community and refused to acknowledge the Umayyad Caliph. He was eventually betrayed, resulting in his death on the plains of Karbala, which solidified the divide between the Shia (the “party” of Ali) and Sunni (those following the caliphate) and became a turning point in the history of Islam.
The events of Ashura showed us the incredible variety of ways in which the date is commemorated by Shia Muslims today. The night begins with gatherings or ma’tams throughout the main city to hear a retelling of the martyrdom of Hussein, which may be for just a small family or a room filled with hundreds of people. The streets will then be filled with various parades of people either performing the ‘azza or less often the haydar. Groups performing the ‘azza will march through the streets to the sound of a drum and amplified chanting, either ceremonially beating their chests in mourning with their hands or their backs with small metal flails.
The haydar can be found by following the sounds of ambulance horns. Those who participate use sharpened metal knives on the ends of flails to flay their backs or cut their forehead with swords and allow blood to pour freely over their intentionally white clothes. This is becoming less and less popular in Bahrain, with many sheikhs outlawing it altogether. Unfortunately, because of its shocking photogenic nature, it is often used to symbolize Ashura and even demonize Islam as a whole.
While munching on some tasty fried vegetables from one of the multitude of stands passing out free food, we made our way to what became our favorite aspect of Ashura in Bahrain, the marsam. Introduced recently to the festivities, the marsam provides a space where artists come together to display work inspired by Ashura, and also to paint on the spot! The two buildings we visited were filled with incredible paintings done by men and women, some of whom were still working as we watched. Ala’s fiancée Noor even spent the night contributing a painting! Throughout the whole city, the feeling of unity and brotherhood amongst the people was incredible and certainly one of the best parts of the holiday.
This was only the beginning of our trip however, as Ala drove us around the rest of the island in the days to come, visiting old forts and new malls, traditional neighborhoods and newer developments thrust out into the sea on artificial peninsulas. Bahrain turned out to be quite a contrast from Egypt. Bahrainis seem to be more educated and wealthier than their Egyptian counterparts but also make up a significantly smaller percentage of theircountries population. Unlike Egypt, Bahrain is filled with a very significant population of immigrants, especially from Southeast Asia, who work many of the service positions, including as maids in most middleclass Bahraini homes.
If one experience were to sum up Bahrain to me however, it would be “camping” in the desert. We arrived at the spot expecting to find a small tent surrounded by shrubbery and a tiny fire pit but were instead surprised to see a small fenced-off complex with two large tents filled with cushions and couches, a wooden gazebo-like structure, toilets with running water, a generator and to top it off, a small soccer field in the sand! This was camping, Bahraini style!
We spent hours before dinner having a fascinating conversation about the problems of international development and spiritual solutions to the world’s ills with Maysam, one of Ala’s good friends who had studied in Edinburgh for six years (we now have an invitation to visit there too!). After a barbeque dinner, we surprised Ala’s fiancée with an early birthday cake, singing happy birthday (oddly in English first, then Arabic) before we all sat around the fire and started passing around a guitar.
As we found out, Ala is good friends with most of Bahrain’s current or up and coming musicians (being one himself) and they are both wonderful and talented people. Interestingly enough however, Caity was the only one who sung in Arabic! Most of the people there sang English songs from their favorite bands, heavily leaning toward the American 60s and 70s and especially favoring Pink Floyd. The song of the night for me was “Hallelujah” with the chorus sung in Arabic by all as the fire slowly burnt down.
After a long and very full week, we sadly left our new friends and made our way to the airport for our early flight to Oman. In the end, Bahrain may not have the oil of its Gulf neighbors or the long history and culture of Egypt or Syria, but it is filled with the sweetest, most wonderful and kind-hearted people, and that is the most important national resource.