Bahrain, such a neat little island.

Ive only been to Bahrain once and I was stuck at the airport! When we flew from the US to Saudi Arabia we actually had to go via Bahrain. So we over landed in Manama and then had to run to the other side of the airport to catch our flight to Dammam. I will never forget the moment I stepped outside the the plane in Manama. It was about 8pm at night, mid-ramadan and all of a sudden I was unable to breath, the air was incredibly muggy and humid and hot! So hot, within 2 seconds of being out of the plane I was soaking wet from sweat and humidity! I’ll never forget the moment…what a great introduction to summ in the Gulf!

But I digress, Bahrain is a mere 30min-1hr drive across the King Fahd Causeway. Unfortunately we havent been there as my husband keeps forgetting to get us entry/exit visas but he promises as soon as the semester starts next week he will do so, so we can start venturing over the causeway. At night, from the Al Khobar Corniche you can see Bahrain! Bright lights rise out of the Gulf…and you can see the lights on the Causeway bridge. Bahrain is a popular place for Saudi’s and Expats here in the Eastern Province as it offers a chance to have fun in a more relaxed and liberal atmosphere and Bahrainis of all stripes flock to Al-Khobar and Dammam for cheap shopping! Ramiz and the textile suq in Dammam is always full of Bahrainis shopping, as is Ikea, Taba and Carrafour in Al Khobar. They tend to dress, look and act a bit distinctively from Saudi Arabs and most are easily recognizable as Bahraini.

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The first time I saw Bahrainis I was in the new Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran flying back to the USA. There was a flight before ours which was headed to Manama and the terminal we were waiting in was full – to the gills with Bahrainis and all of them were slipping back and forth between Persian and Arabic! My husband and I speculated that maybe many were living in Iran or something and so were going back home.

But the place was FULL of Bahrainis so really, that assumption could not have been right but at the time we were busy, just like everyone else, staring at all the Persian speaking Bahrainis women running around in silk overhead abayaat, some in niqab, men with thobes on and ofcourse the older ladies sitting in circles here and then, speaking loudly and eating fruit, some had on the traditional gold “burqa” masks which is the traditional facial covering of this region. EVERYONE was staring, really they stood out. I remember thinking…wow, so cool! I LOVE their outfits and wow, they speak Farsi!  How cool is that. Some other people standing near us thought they must be Arabs from Southern Iran. Serious mystique.

The second time I saw Bahrainis was when my husbandwas in the last year of his PhD, and I was doing my Masters. He got a part-time job at this pizza place owned by a Bahraini guy. His family was in Bahrain but he and his brother preferred to live in the US. He was married to a non-Muslim American woman. My husband came home the first evening and told me how the owner speaks Persian and over the course of the months he moonlighted there we came to know a lot about Bahrain, Bahraini culture and why the heck they speak Persian!!!

Because of all this, during my Masters in Library Info Sci I did one of my final papers on the Persian speaking community of Bahrain (and the rest of the Persian Gulf countries) and was surprised to learn that although Bahrain is considered an Arab country it’s actually a very ethnically, linguistically and religiously mixed country. Over several thousand years there was a lot of interaction, trade, wars and political whatnots between the Gulf countries and Persia and several times Bahrain, Oman and the Eastern Provinces of Saudi Arabia was under Persian control. Due to all of this there have been successive waves of  Persian speakers to Bahrain and other countries. Some remained, others went back while others went back and forth regularly.

The Persian speakers in Bahrain consider themselves Persians and the only real differences between them are due to when they   arrived in Bahrain and what part of modern day Iran they hail from.

Many of the Persian speaking Bahrainis actually have roots in Southern and SouthEastern Iran and are ethnically Balochi  or Loor (tribal/ethnic groups) and the Persian they speak is a bit different from modern standard Persian, they also have a distinctive look and even within Iran one can usually pick them out. Most are Shia’a, some are Zartushti while some of the older groups are Sunni. Bahrainis of Persian background tend to be equally fluent in Arabic and Persian and according to the Bahraini guy my husband worked for, Persian Bahrainis make an intense effort to only use Persian at home and many of their children grow up with Persian as their first language. So they can slip and slide easily between the two languages.

I was in Ikea a month ago, in line to buy something for my son and a group of five Persian speaking Bahraini ladies got in behind me and they moved fluently between both languages…I could follow them when they spoke Persian but would loose them as they switched to Arabic and they looked Persian the only thing about them which made me realize they were not from Iran was their accent and their ease of using both languages.

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So now your probably like, Oh get on with the clothing part!

November 1968: Veiled women crossing a street in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. (Photo by Tim Graham/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Now, since I’ve never been to Bahrain, the information below will be based primarily upon my observation of Bahraini women  on this side of the Causeway.

The traditional clothing worn by women in Bahrain is quite similar to what was traditionally worn in this area of Saudi Arabia, neighboring Qatar and probably UAE. A Saudi friend of mine told me that originally the women in this area  wore an outfit called a “ridde3” (something like this). They wore wide leg pants with a knee length or calf length wide, pleated skirt and over that a rather snug fitting, long sleeved shirt OR a long sleeved, knee length dress. Over this, a large scarf was worn topped off with a large, silk batwing abaya (the older kind with the seam in the center, like the style used still in Kuwait and Bahrain). Many women also wore the gold mask (burqa/betula) which is worn around the Gulf region. Women in this area only started to favor long dresses under their  batwing abaya or a black abaya from the shoulders about 50-70 years ago. I speculate that the change in clothing styles about due to the change in society from a predominantly rural, fishing/pearling and agricultural society to a urban one.

The current clothing style of Bahraini women seems to have changed relatively  little compared to Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states.  Although I have seen some Bahraini women wearing the decorated abaya from the shoulder and a shaylah styled up with or without niqab . Many Bahraini women continue to wear their own style of dress; the  shiny, heavy silk overhead abaya   paired with a black shaylah worn over either jeans and a shirt or a long, casual jalabeeya, some of the older women continue to wear the gold mask or wear a piece of sheer material over the face (boushiyyah/gashwa/gashwiyeh). They really do stand out here in the Eastern Province as their style of overhead is no longer popular here  and most are silk, so they are very shiny and also most dont wear niqab so the overhead abaya without niqab is a rather striking look. Another interesting feature is the way they wear and handle their overhead abayaat is quite different from how Saudi women do . Their way of doing so usually  reminds me of how a woman wears a chador. You always see Bahraini women hiking their abaya up, wrapping it around themselves and pushing it under one arm. Just like what you do when you wear a chador. Saudi women dont do this, Saudi women generally dont fiddle with their overhead abayaat when out and even if the abaya is  long,they  tend to not pick it up much and if they do, its rather minimal.

Here are a few pictures to illustrate the overheads that they wear. Al-Hediya which is based in Kuwait sells this style of overhead and I’m hoping to get to Bahrain soon as I want to get one in silk (I have one from Al-Hediya which is getting threadbare) as silk lasts for ever, and ever!

2 thoughts on “Bahrain, such a neat little island.

  1. nice piece! so much interesting information from such a tiny little nation! I’m always fascinated by those Arab cultures/societies, highly influence by Persian/Shia culture. Is it me, or is it kinda like a little secret, that most people don’t really know or speak about? I’ve heard the same about the UAE and that many original inhabitants are Persian-Arabs, and I remember I knew some one in my undergrad days originally from Basra, Iraq who would always say, you know we feel much more culturally closer to Iranians then other Iraqis (but i guess that one’s kinda obvious…)

  2. I *loved* this post. I met my in laws in Bahrain and fell in love with the country… I really hope you get to go. I got a visa on arrival so I don’t see why you can’t? There’s a website for the Bahraini govt that you can go to – http://www.evisa.gov.bh
    Re clothing, when I was there, the majority of women covered their face with a niqab. I think that 99% of the women I saw there did, which included young teenage girls. *But* that’s only based on what I saw on a two week stay, I didn’t stay longer than that and tended to stick to visiting mosques and traditional areas.

    You’re 100% right about the overhead batwing abayat! The only time I saw shoulder abayat were on some younger women at the mall. At the main market though, most of the abaya shops only sell shoulder abayat – most of which are shiny and soso nice ^_^

    I think that if you go to Qatif, a lot of the women there look very similar to Bahraini women in terms of style/language accent too. My MIL wears her overhead abaya as you described – she has a shiny one and she holds it together with her hand as she walks (coincidentally she also wears her mishmar [house chador] in the styles you posted a while ago). I did notice though that the younger Saudi women I met didn’t do this; it might be something to do with my MIL being part of an older generation.

    Anyway I loved this post… really made me so nostalgic.

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