Tradition and history: The past shapes what Persian Gulf island nation has become today

Impression: the blue bowl of the sky is endless and blinding, and sea breezes are the only thing that cool the heated air.

Sicily in July? No; this is Bahrain in January.

Like a pearl in a clam, it is an archipelago nestled off the Persian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia. Bahrain is a desert country. The main island is only a few miles long, and most of it is uninhabited. In the north is the country’s capital city, Manama; to the south is desert. Surrounded by blue-green waters, the tiny islands are linked by bridges; the one from the airport to Manama is brand new and, brightly lit at night, appears as a flying wing of a bird.

Impression: women, dressed from head to toe in loose black robes, float down the street like ghosts; a fleeting glimpse of dark eyes is all you see -- and sometimes not even that.

Bahrain is a Moslem country, although not so strict as Saudi Arabia, but still a country where Moslem tenets are rigorously observed. Women are still obedient to their husbands, and an unaccompanied woman walking through the souq (or suk), or marketplace, sttracts many stares. There is no need to be concerned for your safety, though; faithful to the stern rule of the past, theives and other miscreants are harshly punished. Crime is virtually nonexistent in Bahrain.

Tradition is strong: even the modern houses are yet built with two living rooms, one for the men and one for the women. Men and women go their separate paths, rarely crossing.

Impresion: a shining white mosque is reflected in the plate glass of a shining modern high-rise, the two buildings so close together that there is only a narrow alley between them.

Bahrain is a country where the old and new meet in startling juxtaposition. From the winding allies of the souq, a scene that appears to be from Disney's Aladdin, to the tall, starkly modern office buildings that dominate Manama's skyline, it is in Bahrain that one sees the centuries of Moslem tradition clashing with the invasion of Western culture.

Downtown Manama is where you'll find the souq, its entrance across the way from the five star Regency Hotel that costs around $60 per night. Within this widespread warren is an experience that shouldn't be missed. There are souqs within souqs: the gold souq, an entire street lined with a bedazzling array of gold; the cloth souq, where rolls of bright cloth loom over the narrow alley; the spice souq, full of the wonderful smells of cinnamon and cloves and curry. Curling among the displays are the strident voices of men hawking their goods. It is a place where cultures cross: the clothes, the color of skin, and the wares change, but beneath this, very little is different from the market in Catania.

Returning to the hotel in the evening, the ululating call to prayer begins to sound from the slender, graceful monarets through loudspeakers.

Impression: minarets thrust into the sky, soaring above the dome and pointed arches of the mosque, its stark white an echo of the white glare of sun.

Everywhere, there are mosques; each neighborhood has and supports its own. Big and little, these places of worship are distinctive in their purity and grace and Arabian architecture. The most outstanding example is Manama's Grand Mosque, or Al-Fateh Islamic Center, located just outside the city. A massive structure with twin minarets, it stands alone on the sands. A native says that it is very beautiful inside; one would never guess from its plain exterior. The reason is religious: in accordance with the Qu'ran (the Koran), it is our interiors, our souls, that matters.

Impression: massive mansions hulk in haughty solidarity, separated from the rest of the world by high walls; across the street are government constructed apartments that resemble unfriendly sandcastles.

Bahrain is a country where there are the very, very rich and the very poor -- there is nothing inbetween. Money flows from the pockets of the reveling Saudis, who cross the bridge they built to Bahrain in order to escape the extreme strictures of their homeland. In Saudi Arabia, alcohol is positively forbidden; in Bahrain, it is not. The Bahraini look on the the loud, pretentious Saudis with contempt -- but take their money.

When your eyes do see past the dazzle of progress and wealth, there are human stories to be told. A young woman, Rowena, and her brother Tilek, work for an American family. Only 26 years old, she looks twice that. She cherishes the family's seven-year-old son as if he were her own; she too has a little boy, whom she left when he was only six months old. A native of Sri Lanka, Rowena was forced to leave her four children with her mother and come here to Bahrain to find a job after her husband left her for another woman. She has not seen those children for seven years.

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Copyright 1997 by Jennifer Tyson