Step back in time, slow down and smell the coffee in the winding lanes of Muharraq with Time Out Bahrain
Melissa van Maasdyk
With Bahrain in the international spotlight this month, we thought we’d showcase the heart and soul of the island: a dose of cultural downtime, if you like, to balance the excitement of the Grand Prix – the influx of visitors, the parties, the fast cars and testosterone. Where would you take visitors to get a sense of what the island is all about and where it’s come from? We’d head straight to Muharraq, where the true soul of the island shines.
Once the seat of government, the centre of the pearl trade and the hub of Bahrain life, in recent times Muharraq has been overtaken by glossy, fast-moving Manama. But as life in the brash new capital speeds up, it continues at much the same pace as it always has in Muharraq. Traditional Islamic houses hide in narrow winding lanes, where the spicy smell of machboos pervades the air, and people have time to stop, chat and savour the coffee. Thanks to an ongoing restoration project led by Sheikha Mai Bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, it’s also regaining its position as a happening place for art. The best way to discover all this is to take to the streets – and what better way than on our walking tour?
1 Beit Sheikh Isa The former residence of ruler Sheikh Isa Bin Ali Al Khalifa is a fine example of Gulf Islamic architecture, where you can see inner courtyards, traditional porticoes and wall carvings, while gaining insights into life before air conditioning – a wind tower cools the rooms. Conveniently situated, this well preserved 19th-century mansion is a good place to start the tour if you’re a first-timer or showing visitors around. (17 334 945). Open Sat-Thu 8am-2pm. Cost 200fils
2 Street art by Saleh Sultan Salmeen Bakeet Follow the signs from Beit Sheikh Isa to Seyadi House (closed for renovations, but worth viewing from outside) and, as you return across the square, you’ll see a striking art installation. Composed of a variety of found objects, including tennis balls, clocks, flags, a traffic light and photographs, it wouldn’t be out of place in a Museum of Modern Art. It is, in fact, the work – and home – of Saleh Sultan Salmeen Bakeet, whose barely distinguishable front door is embedded in the art.
3 Majlis on the square Next door to Bakeet’s house is a small room furnished with floor cushions, a TV and various artefacts. It’s a meeting place for people who live in the area. They each pay a small fee for a key, and can use the room to drink tea, eat machboos and talk. If you fancy a cuppa and a few local insights, drop in on a Saturday when they settle in for the afternoon from around 1.30pm and would be happy to receive you.
4 Sheikh Ebrahim Centre for Culture & Research Founded by Sheikha Mai Bint Mohammed Al Khalifa in 2002, this cultural centre has its origins at the turn of the century when it was the site of a majlis hosted by her grandfather, Sheikh Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who once invited thinkers, politicians, poets and writers to gather every Monday to discuss various issues of the day. Now, once again, Monday nights see artists and intellectuals gathered here for lectures and performances in a state-of-the art auditorium. The organisation has also restored several of the area’s local houses that had fallen into disrepair and are now devoted to different aspects of Bahraini culture. Open Sat-Thu 9am-1pm and 4pm-7pm, except when there is a lecture or performance. Call 17 322 549, email email@example.com or pick up a programme of events at the centre to find out more
5 Abdulla Al Zayed Press Heritage House Dedicated to the man behind Bahrain’s first magazine, Al Bahrain (launched in 1934), this magnificently renovated house contains old copies of magazines, newspapers and some interesting correspondence. An annexe housing books and other documents features a spectacular triple-volume brass wall that glistens under a mod skylight – inspiring.
6 Mohammed bin Faris House Music is the score at this small house devoted to the master of a unique regional form of singing called the Sut. The house features a number of his belongings and provides insight into this old musical genre.
7 Kurar House The focus of the prettiest house of the bunch – and our personal favourite – is the age-old craft of embroidering traditional thobes with gold thread. Downstairs, there’s a leafy courtyard surrounded by rooms displaying handmade garments, while upstairs you can watch women wielding needle and thread. (Note: if you’re going to visit a bathroom anywhere along the route, make it the upstairs one here, which is a gold and white mosaic designer dream).
8 Iqra Library This contemporary kids’ library was built to foster inter-cultural learning through reading for local children. But all kids are welcome to perch on a mini designer chair and read a book from the shelves, while Mum picks up cool tips for the playroom back home.
9 The House of Coffee Since many of the area’s testosterone-heavy coffee shops may not feel welcoming to the fairer sex, it’s good to see a café offering Arabic coffee, as well as varieties to please those with a Starbucks leaning. The light-filled modern interiors are something to be excited about too, created by interior designer Ammar Basheir of MelaBlu. The coffee shop opens on April 2
10 Bin Matar House – Memory of Place A newcomer that could be described as the Sheikh Ebrahim Centre’s jewel in the crown, devoted as it is to Bahrain’s history in pearl trading. Built in 1904 as the majlis of illustrious pearl trader Salman Bin Hussein Matar, it has been restored with many of its original features – such as woven palm-leaf ceilings – intact. There’s an adjoining gallery with a regular programme of exhibitions by Bahraini and visiting international artists. Until April it’ll feature sculptures and paintings by the renowned Egyptian artist Adam Heinen and, in May, Aboriginal art.
11 Maison Jamsheer Tucked behind the central mosque, Maison Jamsheer is an oasis of calm in the middle of the souk. A collaboration between the Sheikh Ebrahim Centre and the French Institute, this building hasn’t been finished off quite as slickly as the other houses, and we rather like its rustic old-worldy feel. The focus here is on art and architecture, and the centre hosts a variety of design-focused lectures, exhibitions and French-flavoured cultural events throughout the year. For more information on upcoming events, contact the Alliance Francaise (17 683 295)
12 The Souk The souk can be a bit of a disapointment to those expecting the atmospheric warren of little streets one finds in Egypt or Damascus, say, but this hub of the community does have its merits, such as a number of excellent bargains behind its shabby facades and a plethora of sweet shops. Check out one of the Showaiter family’s many outlets, famous for creating its own version of halwa. This jelly-like concoction of saffron and nuts is only for the serious sweet-tooth; if it’s not for you, there are lovely pistachio-filled pastries, traditional sesame-based halwa and Arabic coffee, all of which you’re encouraged to try before you buy.
13 Rashid Al Oraifi Museum Follow Airport Avenue (in a car now) towards the airport, and close to BBK bank you’ll see a brown sign pointing you in the direction of the museum to your right. This bijou space, situated in multiple-award-winning artist Rashid Al Oraifi’s former home, was the first privately owned gallery/museum to open in Bahrain. There’s a pretty paved courtyard featuring a collection of pared-down bronze sculptures, and rooms full of artworks in a variety of media, all notable for capturing the powerful symbols of ancient Dilmun in beautiful modern abstract form. There’s also a shop offering books, postcards, mugs and jewellery bearing Oraifi’s art, and a seating area where you can view documentaries on his work. Building 374, Road 214 (17 335 616). Open Sat-Thu, 8am-2pm and 4pm- 8pm
14 Al Abraaj If all this exploration has worked up a bit of an appetite, then head to Al Abraaj, a short walk from the Al Oraifi museum (walk to the traffic lights near BBK bank, cross the road to the petrol station; next door to this is the cinema and next to that is Al Abraaj). This branch of the popular Middle Eastern chain features intricately carved oriental plasterwork, private niche seating and a fountain courtyard. A bowl of tabouleh, some crunchy kibbeh, fried haloumi, moutabal and a kofta kabab will round off your tour very nicely. Open 12 noon-12.30am daily (17 353 535)
Melissa Enders-Bhatia, Exhibitions curator, Sheikh Ebrahim Centre for Culture & Research
What is your background in art? After studying economics and working as a banker, I decided to switch and follow a life-time passion for art. I did a masters degree in art history and connoisseurship, then worked for Christie’s in London before coming to Bahrain when my husband took up a job at Arcapita.
What does your job entail? Over the past three years, I’ve worked on a number of international art projects for the Ministry of Culture & Information, but my focus is now on coordinating exhibitions at the Bin Matar House, while contributing to other projects such as a recent children’s mural painting workshop.
What excites you most about your role? There is always something new, and the speakers and artists I get to meet are generally outstanding achievers in their fields, whom it’s a real pleasure and privilege to meet. I also get unique insights into the culture of Bahrain and the region; what the main concerns and issues are.
What are some of the interesting projects coming up at the centre? I’m excited about the current exhibition by Adam Heinen at Bin Matar House, as he’s such an important artist. I’m also very excited about the opening of our own coffee house, as this was one thing that was missing here.
What do you particularly like about Muharraq? I love the fact that it’s kept its identity, and feel very lucky to have an office in one of its traditional old houses [Sheikh Zayed House]. I feel my spirits lift the moment I step inside.
Ammar Basheir, Interior designer
‘I love Muharraq’s traditional architecture, and when designing the House of Coffee respected this while bringing in modern design, so there’s a juxtaposition of old and new and an element of surprise when you enter through a small wooden, traditional Bahraini door. Inside, the lines of the space reflect the patterns of the coffee leaf, as well as the shapes made by the grounds in the bottom of a cup. We’ve mixed coffee essence into the paint on the walls and integrated coffee beans into the floors, so that the whole space speaks the international language of coffee, uniting people from all over the world.’
Rashid Al oraifi, Contemporary artist
‘Forty years ago, when I was at teacher training college, I visited the excavation site at the Bahrain Fort, where I watched the archaeologists at work and saw an ancient Dilmun seal for the first time. It was then that I realised Bahrain had its own very real art form. I loved the symbols on these tools of trade and started to incorporate them into my paintings, later translating them into 3D sculptures and establishing the Dilmun School of Art along the way. I have also written a number of books on Bahraini folklore and the seals, which offer valuable insights into the culture of 3,000 years ago, and which I think people should know about. So when I built a new home, I decided to convert my existing one into a museum where people can find out more via my artworks and books.’
Sum advice for the time poor
Time limited? Here’s our advice on what adds up to the best experience for you depending on your particular tastes. 4 + 5 + 9 + 10 = a round-up of the newcomers to the area worth a look-in for everyone.
2 + 10 + 13 = the perfect combo for those who want to view art
4 + 5 + 8 + 9 + 11 = a whole lot of inspiration for architecture and design aficionados
4 + 10 + 11 = worthwhile keeping an eye on for an ever-changing array of exhibitions, lectures and performances