Why Ramadan is perfect opportunity to get out there and experience a bit of Bahraini culture and heritage
1 Learn the language: Not that there’s much call for speaking Arabic in a country where even the locals have to speak English when they go out, but, as they say, when in Riffa… And the pure delight you’ll see on an Arab’s face if you do manage a mumbled ‘marhabbah, shukran, naam...la’ (I’ll leave you to translate those after you’ve had your first lesson) makes it all worthwhile. Almost. Berlitz (17 827847), Discover Islam (17 537 373), Lingo-Ease Language Centre (17 594 132).
2 Camp in the desert: There are no official campsites in the Kingdom, but there are areas of the desert that are known to locals as sites for camping, the most popular being near Sakhir. But, be warned, there are no facilities; it’ll just be you, your tent and the great, sandy yonder. Bahrainis often spend weekends and holidays there during the winter months, October to March. Ideally, it’s best to go with locals to experience an authentic, Arabic atmosphere.
3 Visit the National Museum: Covering 6,000 years of Bahrain’s history (who’d have thought it?), highlights include an ancient burial mound that has been transported from the desert and reassembled inside (visit the real thing in Saar and A’ali afterwards), recreations of Bahraini village life complete with scary mannequins, plus visiting art exhibitions. Bahrain National Museum (17 298 777).
4 Make handicrafts: Basket-weaving, pottery, jewellery making, woodwork, ironwork, embroidery, calligraphy, paper making, rug-weaving, stained glass making, boat building, perfume making… these are just a handful of the handicrafts available to watch being made and to buy here in Bahrain. Visit Manama’s Craft Centre, run entirely by women, the clunkily-named Ministry of Social Development’s Bahraini Productive Families’ Initiative at Capital Mall near Seef, and the family-run pottery workshops in A’ali. The Craft Centre (17 254 688), Capital Mall (17 582 169), Al Jasra Handicrafts Centre (17 611 900).
5 Tour the Grand Mosque: The only mosque in the Kingdom open to non-Muslims, you can turn up at any time other than prayer times, Fridays and religious holidays and be taken on a guided tour by a helpful, knowledgeable guide. Supposedly one of the largest mosques in the Middle East, capable of accommodating approximately 7000 worshippers, it’s actually quite impressive, despite only being about 20 years old. For something slightly older, though no longer in use, drive out to the ancient Al Khamis Mosque in Khamis, one of Islam’s oldest relics in the region. Al Fateh Mosque (the Grand Mosque) (17 727 773).
6 Spit at a camel: What’s the first thing you think of when you think of the Middle East? Yes, it would be a very poor Arabic experience indeed that didn’t feature at least one sighting of one of a smelly, grumpy camel. Sadly not as common in Bahrain as you might think there are still a few opportunities to see them. Head for the camel farm in Janabiya to watch, and smell, and even ride, the 400-odd camels housed there. It’s open every day and it’s free. Janabiya Camel Farm (39 808 574).
7 Smoke sheesha: Despite the rise in calls highlighting the dangers of smoking sheesha, many rating it as more dangerous than smoking cigarettes, this most Arabic of traditions surely can’t hurt all that much if you try it just the once… For sumptuous surroundings, try Casa Blu in Adliya high street, the decidedly non-Arabic-sounding La Masion du Café in Zinj (next to Pizza Hut), Veranda Gallery Café, also in Adliya, or Chez le Café in Budaiya. Casa Blu (17 710 424), Veranda Gallery Café (17 715 868), Chez le Café (17 795 666), La Maison du Café (17 277 722).
8 Pearl diving: Pearl trading used to be Bahrain’s main source of income before the discovery of oil and there are still pearls to be found in the surrounding seas. Contact Robin Bugeja for the island’s only pearl diving programme, on which you get to keep whatever you find. As well as the dives, the programme includes theory classes on the history, ecology, biology and conservation of the natural pearl. If you’re more of a landlubber head instead for the Museum of Pearl Diving near Government Avenue and the Souk. Its many exhibition halls showcase, as well as pearl diving, national costumes, a wedding chamber, archive photographs and the High Court Chamber. Robin Bugeja (39 671 748).
9 Visit the souk: As anyone who’s been here even a week will be able to tell you, Arabs love to shop. For an authentic, gritty, sweaty shopping experience, head up to Bab al Bahrain (Gate of Bahrain) and wander around the narrow, older streets behind. If you’re hoping for the colour and atmosphere of the bazaars of Cairo or Istanbul you’ll be disappointed, but this is fairly typical of souks in the Middle East, and is perfect if you’re looking for tacky Asian souvenirs to take home for the family (think singing camels and mosque alarm clocks). For a slightly less touristy option try the souk on Muharraq. Be prepared to make several wrong turns while looking for it, and unabashed stares, especially if you’re a woman, while you’re there.
10 Fast for a day: If you really want to experience what the locals are going through this Ramadan, give fasting a go. You may not have all your past sins forgiven and the gates of Hell may not close to you for the month, but you may acquire a new-found appreciation of food and especially water at the end of it and, who knows, maybe even a whisper of spirituality. Just be careful of headaches and light-headedness, particularly when driving.