Over the years, it has almost become a yearly tradition for me to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan in a Muslim country. I am not a Muslim – hell, I am not even religious – but hailing from the secular, South-Indian state of Kerala has made me a keen observer of other religions, and perhaps even appreciate them much better.
And if I have to learn about the culture and nuances of Islam, what better time to do that then during Ramadan, and in a Muslim country, right?
This quirk of mine has taken me in the past 5 years to countries like Malaysia and Indonesia during Ramadan. And I am currently writing this post during the month of Ramadan from Tunisia. But the most interesting Ramadan travel that I have had was to the little island nation of Bahrain, in 2017.
Bahrain during Ramadan
The small Kingdom of Bahrain is an oddity among the GCC countries. Much better educated than some of its neighbours, Bahrain also has a reputation for being one of the more progressive and liberal countries in the GCC.
And I was indeed going to find how much, on the eve of Eid.
I landed in Manama, the almost palindromic capital city of Bahrain, just 2 days before Eid Al Fitr, the end of Ramadan. And during the month of Ramadan, Bahrain looked exactly like the other Gulf Countries that I have seen before.
Most of the shops – and all of the restaurants – were closed during the morning. The streets were empty, and few people even dared to step out into the sun and get themselves tired from the scorching heat during the fasting month, where every bit of energy counts.
The hotel that I stayed in had 3 restaurants (and a bar), but all of them were shut down during the morning. When I asked for breakfast, they sent it to my room. Needless to say, I skipped lunch, because I was feeling genuine guilt at eating while an entire country was fasting around me.
But the empty streets of Manama allowed me to walk around without the company of other tourists. As the country rested during Ramadan, I went around the boat jetty, watching scores of empty boats that would have been fishing for the local hammour fish (a type of grouper) during other months. And walked around the local squares and museums, about which I will write another post.
Well, Eid Mubarak from Bahrain!
And, after 2 days of me quietly walking around the city, it was Eid Al Fitr! The Eid is the last day of Ramadan, where Muslims celebrate the end of an entire month of fasting. And it was one of the reasons why I love Ramadan. Because, I may not do much fasting, but I do love the feasting! 😀
I had friends in Bahrain, but I did not message them the previous couple of days because I knew it was Ramadan, and they would be troubled to come see me during the heat of the day or show me around town. They were fasting, after all. But the day before Eid, I contacted a friend, who said he will meet me right in the morning after the Eid prayer, and drive me around some parts of Bahrain slightly further than Manama.
And so I woke up early in the morning on Eid, just like the rest of the entire country. At 4.30 AM, in preparation for a sunrise that would happen before 5. And I promptly stepped outside the hotel to see the Eid festivities.
There were none.
The Eid morning is a very pious occasion, as every muslim would be in a mosque, listening to the prayers. So, the streets were almost deserted. Some of the mosques were overflowing with people, so believers stretched into the roads, doing their namaz.
The Causeway Drive to Saudi Arabia
I met my friend just after he had finished his Eid morning prayers. Content that he could finally smoke during the day, he had a cigarette lit up in his mouth, and a smile lit up on his face.
“Do you want to see something really crazy?”, he asked.
“Make it 2, if you have the balls”, I retorted.
After a quick thought, he smiled again. “Ok, you get 2”
He pulled up his car from the parking lot, and asked me to get in. Where were we going, I enquired.
“Lets take you on a drive to Saudi Arabia!”
So, Bahrain is connected to Saudi Arabia through the King Fahd Causeway. A historic road and bridge connection which actually led to Bahrain to change from driving on the left to driving on the right, back in the 1960’s. And one that solidified the relationship between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Actually, the King Fahd Causeway is not 1 single bridge. It’s a series of bridges and roads which first connects Mainland Bahrain to the Bahraini island of Um Al Naasan, and then stretches towards Saudi Arabia, touching the port city of Al Khobar.
And somewhere in the middle, was an artificial island called – not surprisingly – ‘the middle island’. This island was where both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia had set up their passport controls. And this was where my friend was taking me now.
But I don’t have my passport with me! No problem, because we were not going to cross INTO Saudi Arabia. Just until the middle island, explore the neighbourhood, and head back to mainland Bahrain.
And the scene at the middle island, just before the Bahrain passport control, resembled a picnic spot. There is a small park here, called the Bahrain-Saudi causeway park, and there were actually people picnicking around. Additionally, there was a mosque and a tall tower, which turned out to be a restaurant that was undergoing restorations.
Was this the crazy part that my friend had promised me? No. When we finally decided to turn back and drive towards Manama, that was when the craziness hit me. On our way to middle island, we had drove through almost zero traffic, as people in Bahrain had just finished their morning prayers. But on our way back, there was almost a traffic jam! At 6.30 AM in the morning!
Why was it so? I wondered. And my friend explained it to me.
Bahrain being much more liberal than Saudi, many living in the Saudi city of Al Khobar (locals and expats alike) would cross over into Bahrain on the eve of Eid. Mainly for the alcohol, as Bahrain has a decent sprinkling of bars across the country.
Of course, there were some other kind of sinners too, but I don’t judge that too much. To each, their own vices.
From the Causeway to the Camels
But that wasn’t the only surprise for the day.
As we started driving back from the middle island towards Manama, my friend took a short side-trip, just as we entered back into mainland Bahrain. Towards a little village called Al Janabiya.
In search of the legendary dromedary camels at the Royal Camel farm of Bahrain.
As the car rolled into the sealed compound, I learnt that this was not a tourist spot. There were no tourists around and it was completely free of cost. I learnt from my friend that this was a hobby farm started by an uncle of the Bahraini Emir (king). Nearly 600 camels are grown here, most probably for camel racing.
There was just a guard room at the entrance. And a sign informing visitors to keep safe distance from the camels. No further guides or souvenir shops. And as we entered the farm, what lay ahead was the sight of hundreds of camels – all of them chilling under the roof above.
I was told that they were split into males and females, but for the life of me, I couldn’t make out which one of them were dudes or dudettes.
It was not an entirely happy sight, as these camels are tied up and kept in captivity. But they didn’t seemed to mind it so much, as they walked around as much as their rope could hold.
I hung around them for a while, taking pictures. And then I returned too, towards Manama.
I had to make a few Saudi friends today at the hotel bar.
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This post is part of my travel stories about Bahrain. Click here to check out other amazing stories from Bahrain.
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