Wonder Bahrain: Psychogeography in the Manama Souq

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It isn’t just humid in the Manama souq this evening; the night is saturated with the damp exhalations of the sea and we don’t walk down the streets, we swim. I’m playing tour guide for my friends who are visiting Bahrain and we have come to the souq for an experiment in the ‘undisciplined discipline’ of psychogeography. In other words, we have come to drift.

Psychogeography is an artistic research method of ‘drifting’ around urban environments that allows practitioners to see familiar settings through new eyes and discover hidden landscapes of culture and atmosphere.

Drifting, or more accurately, dérive, is a central component of psychogeography, and I can think of few places more suited to it than a souq where you can amble for hours, letting the tumult of sights and sounds to be your guide.

We pass under the elegant arch of Bab Al Bahrain just as the sun is setting and the white sweep of building flares gold over our head. Built in 1949, and at one time crouching right at the water’s edge, the Bab is now the perfect entry to the tangled streets and jewel-box shops of the souq.

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Manama means ‘place of dreams’ and entering the souq tonight does feel a little like sinking into the submerged reality of a waking dream. A group of women in saffron, persimmon, and emerald colored saris sails past, like a school of bright fish scudding from reef to reef. I point to an old wooden balcony overhead, its shutters flung open for the hope of a breeze, and we spot a man leaning at the railing, carrying on a lively conversation with a neighbor. At the intersection, shouting children scurry after a football, their sandaled feet slapping clouds of dust from the asphalt. Throngs of people pour up and down the streets, shops and shopkeepers beckon, the aromas of food and spices and incense compete with the briny sea air for prominence. My friends are wearing twin expression of stunned appreciation.

“It’s overwhelming,” one of them says, voice full of wonder. “in the very best way.”

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Turning left, we find a window display of gold jewelry that twinkles like an earthbound constellation, only to be lured away moments later by a shopkeeper holding an armful of sapphire-colored shawls who promises to give us a deal if we visit his shop. I duck under a railing of sequined fabric so I can find the perfect angle for a photo, only to find my way barred by burlap sacks full of cinnamon, turmeric, and peppercorns that have encroached from the shop next door. When the keeper of the shop spots me he springs to life, insisting with a flurry of pride that he has the best cardamom in the souq and he’s willing to give me a special price.

Bahrain has been a vital trade-hub for millennia and even before Manama became the capital of Bahrain, taking the title from Muharraq in 1932, the city has long been the commercial hub of the Kingdom. The friendly haggling employed by the shopkeepers feels like an extension of some ancient, ritualized dance; they play their part, we play ours, and in the end, we all go away happy.

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Rounding another corner, squeezing past swaying towers of luggage and brightly garbed mannequins, we follow a seam of wooden joist running along the side of a building. The architecture of the souq is fascinating; the walls and famous doors are texture upon texture, an unintentional artwork that suspends everything in a grand gesture of timelessness. I feel as if I raised my hand and traced the peeling paint and flaking wood I could read a message in the roughness.

As is typical in Bahrain, history, truly ancient history, is to be found around every corner. Just beyond the shop with the trespassing spices is an archeological excavation site. And just across the street from that we find a door so faded and softened by time that it glows like fresh cream beneath the newly risen moon. The souq’s unabashed blending of very old and very new is almost as surreal as the labyrinthine layout.

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Just when we think we’ve come to the end of a narrow alley and seen the last of its shops overflowing with jasmine garlands and marigold baskets, a hidden wrought iron gate swings open and a pathway of fluorescent lights beckons us forward. We descend a short flight of stairs and find a bunting-decked alley where men sit on stools, swapping stories and sharing a bag of pumpkin seeds, and shops with tetris-like displays of fresh fruit advertise an endless array of juices in a variety of languages.

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After several hours of dérive we have reached our limit. We are sweat-drenched, red-faced, and desperate for dinner. Like bedraggled shipwreck survivors just washed ashore, we stagger down the street toward the bright lights of Anand Bhavan, following the siren song of chilled water, air conditioning, and the best dosas in the souq. The waiter is all smiles, the chef waves hello, and the food arrives quickly, our table filing with an atoll of plates – flaky puri, spicy channa, and a tender, fragrant dosa.

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As we eat, we look through the condensation-fogged windows and out into the night, at the strolling families, the shopkeepers touting their wares, and the brilliant bevy of lights and color and antiquity and progress. The darkness swells with promise.

“Hurry,” I say to my friends, “there is so much more to see…”

2 Comments

  1. Big Tex September 28, 2016 / 8:15 am

    Nice writing, no, superb writing!! I am satisfied and proud beyond what words can express that you find the same excitement and wonder in exploring souqs. I am particularly happy that someone with a gift of writing like yours is expressing all this in words (I read what you wrote and after almost every sentence I say to myself “that’s it!!”

    Thanks for writing this!!

    • tasha September 28, 2016 / 8:23 am

      Bahrain souqs are the best – easy to have good adventures there! Manama is awesome but the Muharraq souq is great, too. Will have to cover that one next.

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