One of the charms of Bahrain are the old suqs – be it the Manama Bab Al Bahrain or the Al Qaysariya Suq in Muharraq which won the Unesco World Heritage Site recognition in 2012, there is one in almost every governorate.
Hamad Town boasts Suq Waqif near Roundabout One and Isa Town has the so-called Iranian Market. All of them offer a jumble of attractive shopping experiences, especially since they are not as well-organised as the modern malls into corridors of brands and products. You could be browsing a series of clay artefacts made in A’ali’s potteries one moment and come face-to-face with squawking chickens in the next stall, waiting for some ambitious chef to pick them for the night’s dinner.
Personally, I love the Bab Al Bahrain suq which, under the watchful eye of Shaikha Mai and Shaikha Hala of Baca, has been lovingly restored, with wooden name boards for the shops and a nice cobblestone feel for the pedestrian-only zone. Even some of the old houses have been restored so that the latticework balconies that hang over the street lend what a visitor called an ‘Instagrammable’ feel to the place.
But you know, you have to question whether all that prime real estate in the centre of these towns is paying back its value to the community?
In terms of history, we know that these suqs represent a way of life that is well nigh obsolete. Although there are still tailoring shops in Bahrain where you can run up a fairly good imitation of a High Street label, most of us prefer to buy ready-made clothes not textile ‘material’, buy our spices in easy-to-store jars and use nuclear-family size pots and pans instead of nuclear-reactor size cauldrons!
Do we then just keep these suqs alive as museum neighbourhoods to show the generations to come how we traded and the foundation of our commerce? But we can well do that in a dedicated space and repurpose the old area for newer and more meaningful things that resonate with our 21st century life?
Earlier, when the Gold Suq was built, it became a unique market for Bahrain’s thriving jewellery trade which still finds eager customers – as recently as 2021, Bahrain’s gold business saw an uptick as people moved back to parking investment funds in the yellow metal. But that is not always the case. The textile shops in the suqs are amazingly picturesque but not much use otherwise except as tourist photo-ops. And how much income can that generate?
What we need is to identify the future of these historic spaces and harness that instead of trying to recreate the past. And, make everybody stakeholders instead of just pockets of users. Walk through these suqs today and there are alarming gaps where shops have been boarded up because they have outlived their commercial value.
All those committees which are regularly tasked with recasting these spaces should design them with an eye for how to make them pay their way. The beautiful Merchant House boutique hotel in Manama is a fine example of that. It mines the vibrant history of the area, speaks of Bahrain’s past and addresses the country’s active tourism industry while having invested in the glorious and little-trumpeted contemporary art movement of the kingdom with its investment in Bahraini art for its décor.
History is all very well and worthy of being treasured because it gives us a sense of identity. But empty history is an ersatz indulgence. To make it relevant, we need to anchor it in the future and not in the past.