POPULATION: 518,000 (1992 estimate)
LANGUAGE: Arabic (official); English; Farsi (Persian); Hindi; Urdu
RELIGION: Islam (Shi'ite, 70 percent; Sunni, 24 percent); Christianity; Hinduism; Judaism; Baha'iism
Because of its climate, Bahrain (meaning "two seas") has been the only safe port on the Persian Gulf throughout history. Thus this tiny island nation has played an important role in the Gulf region since civilization began there. Despite this, it has had a relatively peaceful history.
At different points in history, Persia (now Iran) has laid claim to Bahrain. The Portuguese took control in 1521 but were forced out by 1602. In 1782, the Arab al-Khalifa family took over the islands and has ruled them ever since. In 1820, Bahrain agreed to become a British-protected state. Britain would protect Bahrain's sovereignty in return for safe sailing up the Gulf for Britain's ships. This agreement lasted until Britain terminated it in 1968. (British soldiers still supervise Bahrain's army and security forces.)
On August 15, 1971, Bahrain proclaimed independence. The constitution of 1972 provided for a parliament, or National Assembly. Elections were held in 1973. Two years later, however, the king disbanded the Assembly, accusing some of its members of subversive activities.
Oil was discovered in 1931, giving Bahrain the first oil well, and then the first oil refinery, on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf. Although production has always been much smaller than that of other Arab states, oil has given Bahrain an important source of income.
Bahrain is an archipelago (chain of islands) in the Persian Gulf. The six major islands are Bahrain (also known as as-Awal), Muharraq, Sitrah, Umm al-Nassan, Jidda (used as the Bahraini prison), and Nabi Salih. The twenty-seven minor islands include the Muhammadiyah and Hawar groups. The capital city, Manama, is located on the north coast of Bahrain island.
In spite of freshwater springs offshore, Bahrain is essentially a desert surrounded by water. In recorded history there has never been any rain during the months of June through September.
In 1992, the Bahraini population was estimated at about 518,000 people.
The official language of Bahrain is Arabic. English is also spoken by many Bahrainis. Farsi (Persian) is spoken by the Iranians in Bahrain. The Indian population speaks Hindi, and the Pakistanis speak Urdu.
Throughout the world, Arabic dialects differ from one country to another. Even within Bahrain, city dwellers find the dialect of the rural population "uncultured." Arabic is written from right to left in a unique alphabet that has no distinction between capital and lower-case letters. It is not necessary for the letters to be written on a straight line, as English letters must be. Punctuation is also quite different from that of English.
"Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan , to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are as-salam alaykum (Peace be with you), with the reply of walaykum as-salam (and to you peace). Ma'assalama means "goodbye." "Thank you" is shukran, and "you're welcome" is afwan ; "yes" is na'am, and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are: wahad , itnin , talata , arba'a , khamsa , sitta , saba'a , tamania , tisa'a , and ashara.
Arabs have very long names, consisting of their first (given) name, their father's name, their paternal grandfather's name, and finally their family name (surname).
A popular Bahraini legend explains the origin of the freshwater springs that bubble up offshore from beneath the sea. According to the story, they were caused by falling stars that knocked holes in the ground.
Pearls have also inspired much folklore. Bahraini parents like to tell their children that pearls are created when a mermaid's tears fall into an open oyster shell. In addition, certain pearls are believed to have supernatural powers. It is thought that they can help locate lost objects or win some-one's love.
At least 94 percent of the Bahraini population is Muslim. About 70 percent are Shi'ite, and 24 percent are Sunni. The royal family of Bahrain and the majority of its wealthy merchant class are Sunn i s. This has created many conflicts between the majority Shi'ites and the ruling Sunn i s.
Islam is a simple, straightforward faith with clear rules for correct living. Muslims pray five times a day; give alms, or zakat, to the poor; and fast during the month of Ramadan. All prayers are said facing Mecca. Each Muslim is expected to make a pilgrimage there (called a hajj ) at least once in their lifetime.
First names usually indicate an Arab's religious affiliation. Muslims use names with Islamic religious significance, such as Muhammad and Fatima, whereas Christians often use Western names.
Secular holidays include New Year's Day on January 1, and National Day on December 16. Because of Bahrain's large Muslim majority, Muslim holy days are treated as official holidays. Among the most important is Ramadan , which is celebrated by complete fasting from dawn until dusk each day for an entire month. Eid al-Fitr is a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Adha is a three-day feast of sacrifice that marks the end of the hajj , a month-long pilgrimage to Mecca. (Families who can afford it slaughter a lamb and share the meat with poorer Muslims.) Friday is the Islamic day of rest. Most businesses and services are closed on this day. All government offices, private businesses, and schools are also closed during Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
Bahrainis observe the rites of passage common to all Islamic societies. Births, baby-namings, male circumcisions, and weddings are all occasions for celebration.
Arab hospitality reigns in Bahrain. As in other Muslim societies, food and drink are always taken with the right hand. The left hand is reserved for "unclean" uses such as personal hygiene.
Arabs are spirited talkers. They speak loudly and use many gestures, repeating themselves often and interrupting each other constantly. When socializing, Arabs touch each other more often and stand closer together than Westerners do. People of the same sex will often hold hands while talking, even if they barely know each other. Members of the opposite sex, however, even married couples, never touch in public.
It is considered rude to ask personal questions.
Bahrain has one of the highest standards of living in the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf area.
Traditionally, Bahraini homes were made from palm fronds, or barasti. Modern homes are made of cement and lime brick. Rooms are built around an inner courtyard, and houses are built vertically (rather than horizontally, like ranch houses) to catch the breezes that blow higher in the air. "Wind towers" on the upper floors of many houses and other buildings catch these breezes and funnel the air down to the lower floors through air shafts.
Television sets, air conditioning, and refrigerators are common in modern Bahraini homes. The most prized furnishings in Bahraini households are handwoven rugs, either imported from Iran or locally crafted.
The family is the center of life for Bahrainis. Children live with their parents until they are married, and sometimes after marriage as well. Polygyny (up to four wives at a time) is legal, but few men practice it. Divorce is fairly simple, for both men and women, but it rarely occurs.
Bahraini women are more publicly active than are women in most other Arab countries. Traditional women's roles are beginning to change. Fewer marriages are arranged by the couple's parents as more couples choose their own partners. The dowry, or "bride-price," paid by the groom to the bride's family, is disappearing. However, these changes are taking place mostly among the wealthier classes. They are the ones who can afford to provide their daughters with higher education, and hire domestic help so women can work outside the home. The lower and lower-middle classes of Bahrain remain much more traditional.
Following Islamic tradition, women do not take their husband's name when they marry but rather keep their father's family name
Bahraini women were never as strict as other Arabs about covering themselves up in public, and many no longer veil their faces at all. (Most do still wear some sort of head covering and long sleeves.) Bahraini men wear a thobe. This is a long outer robe reaching from neck to ankles. Made of white cotton, it keeps them cool in the hot sun. They also wear a ghutra , a large rectangular piece of material draped over the head. It is held in place with an agal , a thick, black woven band. This headscarf protects them from the sun as well as from sandstorms. (The scarf can quickly be drawn across the face.)
Western-style clothing is beginning to become more popular in the larger cities of Bahrain.
Meals are taken very seriously by Bahrainis. All talking is done for the hour or so before sitting down to eat; there is no conversation during dinner. After the meal, coffee is served, and then any guests leave. Coffee is also always served as a way of welcoming guests when they first arrive. It is most often drunk unsweetened and flavored with cardamom. Fresh vegetables, lamb, fish, chicken, and beef are common foods. (Pork is forbidden by Islam, as is alcohol.) Meals always include a dish made with basmati rice. Khoubz is the name of the local flatbread, and samouli is a white bread (like French bread) that is glazed with water or egg and then sprinkled with salt, sesame, or caraway seeds. One of the most popular dishes is ghouzi. A chicken stuffed with rice, nuts, onions, spices, and shelled hard-boiled eggs is placed inside a whole, slaughtered lamb. The lamb is then sewn up, trussed, and cooked on a spit.
Adapted from Albyn, C. L., and L. S. Webb. The Multicultural Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1993.
Bahrainis love desserts, and they love dates. The accompanying recipe combines both.
Bahrain has had the highest literacy rate in the Arab world for decades. More than 90 percent of Bahrainis are literate (able to read and write). Boys and girls are taught separately but receive a similar level of education. Primary education runs from age six to age eleven. Secondary education lasts from age twelve to age seventeen. The University of Bahrain graduated its first class in 1989.
Bahrain has a well-established artistic community. It includes some of the most respected writers in the Persian Gulf region. Ibrahim al-'Urayyid and Ahmad Muhammad al Khalifah write poetry about heroes and romance in the classical Arab style. Younger poets have developed a more Westernized style, writing about personal and political subjects. Qasim Haddad (1948–) is the best-known present-day Bahraini poet. Hamdah Khamis (1946–) is a journalist and poet.
Popular stringed instruments include the oud, which is related to the European lute, and the rebaba , which has only one string. A traditional Arab dance is the ardha , or men's sword dance. Men carrying swords stand shoulder to shoulder. From among them a poet sings verses while drummers beat out a rhythm.
Islam forbids the depiction of the human form, so Bahraini art focuses on geometric and abstract shapes. Calligraphy (elaborate lettering) is a sacred art. The Koran (the Muslim holy book) serves as the primary subject matter. Muslim art finds its greatest expression in mosques.
Since 1931, the oil and natural gas industry has been a major employer in Bahrain. Unfortunately, Bahrain's oil and natural gas reserves are expected to run out soon after the year 2010. Therefore, the government has begun to develop other industries, including plastics and aluminum.
Shipbuilding has long been a respected trade in Bahrain. Some of the shipbuilders of today can trace their lineage back through many generations, with skills passed down from father to son. Due to the desert climate, there is not much farming in Bahrain, but fishing is a fair-sized industry.
Soccer is the national sport of Bahrain. Other popular modern sports include tennis, water sports, and dune-buggy racing. The ancient pastimes of horse racing and horse breeding are still greatly enjoyed. Falconry (hunting with falcons) is a sport for the rich. A well-trained falcon can cost up to $15,000.
Camping is perhaps the favorite Bahraini family recreation. Men spend a great deal of time in coffeehouses, drinking tea and chatting.
Bahrain is known for its elaborate and uniquely designed coffee servers.
Bahrain's rapidly increasing population has put a tremendous strain on the country's water supply. Freshwater sources are beginning to dry up, and desalination plants (to purify salt water) cannot keep up with demand. The increase in population has also driven up the cost of housing. Many Bahrainis are forced to live in overcrowded, sub-standard conditions.
Albyn, Carole Lisa, and Lois Sinaiko Webb. The Multicultural Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1993.
Fox, Mary Virginia. Enchantment of the World: Bahrain. Chicago: Children's Press, 1992.
Slugged, Peter, and Marion Freak-Slugged. Tuttle Guide to the Middle East. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1992 (originally published London: Times Books, 1991).