Hidden amongst the twisting, claustrophobic streets and alleyways of the Muharraq old souk – a once vibrant centre of Bahrain’s commercial and social life – is a relatively new social and cultural phenomenon in the making. Shyly located around the corner from a traditional gahwa (café) is a restaurant that has become well-known for its bite-size Bahraini kabab à la mattai sandwiches and its mini portions of the local favourite breakfast dish balaleet, customarily accompanied by a cup of warm black tea with milk. Built in a renovated workshop, the restaurant’s design, while cleverly attempting to replicate the traditional Bahraini motif, nonetheless has a distinctly modern feel to it.
The restaurant managed to achieve a certain notoriety in recent months by word of mouth and tweeted recommendations from the cognoscenti - particularly secular, socially liberal, well-meaning bobo types. In France the bobo – short for bohemian bourgeois – typically obeys Renaud’s famous song Les Bobos, enjoying Japanese food, following Korean cinema, purchasing cashmere from Kenzo and invariably voting for the Greens. In Bahrain, it is not a very different animal. The bobo relentlessly infiltrates the heart of Muharraq’s winding paths not to discover the authenticity of its ageing cafés, family-owned sweet shops and textile merchants, but rather to indulge in an over-priced reinterpretation of these social spaces next door.
This bourgeois reconquista of the traditional social spaces has been under way ever since the Ministry of Culture initiated a project aimed at renovating many of the traditional, emblematic houses and monuments of the old city of Muharraq over the past decade, partly in an effort to make them accessible to tourists. The project is nothing so much as the soul-searching mission of a nostalgic, elitist class that not so long ago forsook the downtrodden neighborhoods of Muharraq from which it emerged in return for modern comfort in newer, more developed yet seemingly soul-less urban areas.
However, this re-appropriation has not gone unchallenged by local residents and traditionalist groups. One noteworthy incident was the protest by furious local residents of a small, traditional neighbourhood in Muharraq in April 2012 against the events hosted at the Minister of Culture Shaikha Mai Al-Khalifa’s cultural centre in the vicinity. Residents complained that the music coming out of the centre obstructed prayers in the local mosque. They were outraged, it seems, by the centre’s blatant disregard for the neighborhood’s more conservative social mores. The clash escalated, erupting into a national political scandal the following day when in parliament the Minister clashed with Islamist MPs who took to defending the disgruntled local residents.
Truth be told, these attempts to re-appropriate and reinterpret traditional heritage and spaces have renewed interest in these often forgotten cultural artifacts that would otherwise have remained somewhat unnoticed. They create a sense of identity and belonging for an uprooted segment of the urban bourgeoisie that lacks attachment to a tribe, a geography, a sect or even a nation on the brink of division. One day, these newly recreated and re-appropriated social spaces may even help bring together individuals in a cross-sectarian fashion, as I delightedly witnessed myself in the aforementioned restaurant, under the guise of a new social and cultural identity.
But the drums of war only beat louder as the ageing city of Muharraq struggles to preserve whatever is left of its authentic neighborhoods and spaces. As the liberal bourgeoisie extends its reach progressively throughout the city, local residents and traditionalist groups become increasingly excluded if only through the hefty prices that these reinvented cafés and restaurants charge their clients. This exclusionary cultural gentrification of Muharraq, so to speak, while holding promising social and identity prospects for a handful, may risk alienating many locals who cannot share in this urge to reshape and recreate in their own image Bahrain’s traditional heritage.