Head out of Seef en route to Budaiya and you’ll likely spot Capital Mall: a solid Arabian-styled building with stained-glass windows, tucked next to the highway. But what you can’t spot from the road is the mall’s alturistic mission – in stark contrast to the many designer-label-heavy shopping centres across Bahrain.
This mall is part of the Ministry of Social Development’s Bahraini Productive Families initiative. So tells me Afnan Al Balooshi, the centre’s production specialist, as we wander through a warren of rooms displaying everything from perfume to pickles, jewellery to jelabiyas. She says that by providing a space for Bahraini craftspeople to sell their wares, and offering training in a variety of skills, the initiative hopes to support lower-income families and preserve traditional Bahraini skills.
‘We offer free courses in finance and marketing, as well as providing technical and creative input to help make products more marketable,’ says Al Balooshi. A cabinet showcases the training’s intentions: there is a selection of ‘before’ and ‘after’ products, including pottery by one artist that, if technically good in the before section, is drab when compared to the bright, quirky and covetable pots painted with flowers and abaya-clad women that sits in the ‘after’ section.
Also given a contemporary spin are brass-studded wooden boxes once used to store clothes, jewellery (made by a group of deaf women in a high-tech studio upstairs), wooden toys, bookmarks and pencils, and perfumes packaged in boxes featuring naive illustrations. One labelled ‘Mishmoom’ features a woman with green leaves in her hair, since it is apparently customary for brides to wear the leaves that form the base scent on their wedding day. It’s one of the many cultural insights offered by the products on display, which, updated or not, are all essentially handmade, following time-worn traditions.You can also watch artisans working in situ; on our visit there were basket weavers and a woman making traditionally- dressed squishy dolls.
‘When people sign up with Productive Families, they generally join a two-year programme,’ Al Balooshi says, ‘during which time they’re eligible to display their products here or at another of our outlets, while receiving training and advice on things like applying for a loan. Then they become “entrepreneurs.”’ That, she explains, means going it alone and giving way to other participants. She points out some beautiful, minimalist dark-wood furniture that should be leaving the building soon, as she is currently helping its makers to get finance for a workshop/outlet away from home (where the nature of their work makes them noisy bedfellows).
Although still fairly young, the project already has several success stories, and promises to yield many more, what with the effective systems in place and an enticing annual cash award offered by Her Highness Shaikha Sabika bint Abrahim Al Khalifa to encourage more people to get productive. For shoppers, the reward is the wide choice of unique products and the education in Bahraini customs. So for a mall trawl with a difference, take a detour from the main Seef drag and shop with a social conscience.
Capital Mall, Al Seef area, Karbabad (17 582 169). Open daily 9am-1pm, 3pm-9pm. On March 24 at 10.30am, Capital Mall invites Time Out readers for a guided tour and traditional tastings. To book, call Afnan Al Balooshi on 36 305 502, or Amina at Time Out on 17 564 111