Visit to Bahrain

December 10th, 2014 No comments

Bahrain Manama

Why Bahrain? Apparently people from Bahrain visit Dubai—not the other way around. Still, we wanted a change of scenery and to visit a few of my husband’s relatives. Meanwhile, I have always been curious about this little island.

Bahrain

Its name means “two seas.” Bahrain is an island in the Persian Gulf off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It has a population of more than one million, with more than half expatriate workers. The island of Bahrain is famously connected to Saudi Arabia with the King Fahd Causeway.

Bahrain Map

Bahrain Gulf Map

I couldn’t help but compare Bahrain to the UAE. At first glance, the two Gulf countries do seem similar. Many told me Bahrain is like “Dubai twenty years ago.” I can totally see that. In fact, parts of Manama (the capital city) reminded me of Deira and Bur Dubai—Gulf charm without the glitz.

The first thing I noticed was the air in Bahrain is so much fresher. Then I noticed it’s a lot cooler. The weather in December dips down to 55° F. Chilly for me!

Of course, Bahrain has issues of its own. With a majority Shiite population and a Sunni ruling family, Bahrain has been shaken by unrest for the past four years. The day we traveled to Bahrain, this article appeared in the New York Times, which gives a glimpse of what’s going on.

Bab al-Bahrain Souk Bab al-Bahrain

This souk came highly recommended. With its winding alleyways and authentic shops, it didn’t disappoint. Bab al-Bahrain means “Gateway to Bahrain” and is considered the heart of Manama. Lucky for me, I got a personal tour from a friend who’s a long-time expat living in Bahrain. Her goal was to show me unknown aspects of the souk, places only the locals know.

Bahrain food shop

First, she took me to sample alou basheer in this little hole-in-the-wall eatery, apparently famous among the Bahrainis.

Bahrain street food

Alou basheer is a dish of fried potatoes with a spicy chickpea stew poured over top.  Bahrain sweet shop

Next, my friend took me to this little sweet shop where I sampled Bahraini haluwa, shown in the large tins in the window. This is a variation of the Omani haluwa, a rich sticky dessert made with nuts, saffron and nutmeg.

Bahrain dress shop

Next, my guide pointed out some items common in Bahrain. First, I saw clothing typical of what Bahraini women wear on Eid—so colorful and festive.

Bahrain gold

Here is some standard Bahraini wedding gold.

Bahrain souk shopkeeper

The souk was filled with lots of little grocery spice shops like this one. Bahrain grocery & spices

In fact, the Bahrain Souk had many more barrels of spices than the Spice Souk of Dubai.

Bahrain window

The souk area had some interesting architectural features, including this skinny little house with pretty lattice in the window.

Bahrain mosque

This Iranian-style mosque was right in the middle of the souk, which is a Shiite area. While the indigenous Bahrainis are Arab, many have at least partial Persian ancestry.

Bahrain coffee shop

Finally, we ended our tour back at the entrance to the souk, Bab al-Bahrain, where my friend took me to Café Naseef, which I loved and I found the menu terrifically authentic. Bahrain coffee

We drank karak chai and sampled mahyawa, a kind of anchovy flatbread sandwich, as well as balaleet, an Indian-influenced dish of eggs over sweetened vermicelli with cardamom. I finished it off with Bahraini-style Arabic coffee—my favorite!

Where We Stayed

We stayed at the Ritz Carlton, which according to Lonely Planet is the best hotel in Manama. By Dubai standards we found it modest and understated. Still, I appreciated its colonial vibe with a Trader Vic’s and cigar lounge, as well as its private beach cove and mini-island. Too bad it was so cold!

Bahrain View

In the lobby we were greeted by a cheery Christmas tree. In keeping with the traditions of the region, there was no shortage of holiday decorations, including a life-size gingerbread house in the lobby.

Bahrain Ritz Carlton

The daughter of the ruler (“His Excellency”) was getting married that weekend, and there was a bit of a buzz in the hotel over this event. Each time we sat down in the lobby lounge, we were offered a piece of wedding cake in celebration. I took this as a welcome example of Bahraini hospitality.

Question: What do you appreciate about Bahrain?

Update on my Novel

October 8th, 2014 6 comments

House  MansourAt last! My novel is complete and on submission.

House Mansour is a novel set in Seattle and the Middle East. It tells the story of a sprawling Arab family and the American women married into it.

I am represented by Lotus Lane Literary Agency. For any and all inquiries to House Mansour, please contact Priya Doraswamy at contact@lotuslit.com

Jaipur Literature Festival 2014

February 6th, 2014 18 comments

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ Front Lawn

Recently I returned from my first trip to India. One of the highlights was the Jaipur Literature Festival, where I attended sessions with writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathon Frazen, Reza Aslan and Cheryl Strayed.

I traveled with members of my Dubai book club. We were six women—all excited to see what the Jaipur Lit Fest was all about and how it compared to the Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2014

Map of India ~ Jaipur

Jaipur Literature Festival

This five-day festival is the largest of its kind in Asia and the world’s largest free literary festival. It’s held annually on the green grounds of Diggi Palace Hotel in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. All of the sessions were outside, and because it was free, participants moved freely from session to session. TimeOut Delhi refers to the event as the Woodstock of World Literature.

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ map of Diggi Palace

This literature fest had a very different feel from the Emirates Lit Fest in Dubai, which is more formal and held in conference rooms at the InterContinental Hotel. For me, this Jaipur event reminded me more of Folklife Festival in Seattle, where you find yourself sitting on the grass chatting with whomever is next to you.

This year’s Jaipur Lit Fest also featured Gloria Steinem, who was promoting her new collection of essays, as well as actor Irrfan Khan and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, plus a full catalogue of others. In past years, the Jaipur Lit Fest has hosted Ian McEwan, Orhan Pamuk, Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, and JM Coetzee.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Jhumpa Lahiri

For me, the biggest highlight was seeing one of my all-time favorite writers—Jhumpa Lahiri. Her first book, The Interpreter of Maladies, is a short story collection which won the Pulitzer Prize. Her novel The Namesake was made into a film, but my favorite is Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories and one novella.

At the Jaipur Lit Fest, Lahiri introduced her latest novel The Lowland, the story of two brothers, very close and very different, and set in Calcutta (Kolkata) with tensions swirling. She read from her new book and discussed how her own family’s experiences informed her latest work.

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Jhumpa Lahiri reading The Lowland

Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri described the feeling of “Absence of Place” and her own family’s feelings of dislocation after leaving India. That is, when one stops living in a place and moves away, that place takes on a surreal quality. Lahiri explained that she has always been aware of this longing since her childhood.

Meanwhile, Jhumpa Lahiri’s appearance attracted a huge crowd.

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Crowds to see Jhumpa Lahiri

 

The Global Novel

The most thought-provoking panel I attended was the one entitled “The Global Novel,” featuring writers from five countries and four continents: Jonathon Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jim Crace, Maaza Mengiste and Xiaolu Guo.

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Global Novel Panel

First of all, this panel was not thrilled with the idea of the English-language Global Novel. Jhumpa Lahiri argued that “global” was a commercial term, rather than an aesthetic term. She explained how she is distressed by too much emphasis on work written in English. She argued that other languages and cultures get lost.

Jonathon Frazen, author of Freedom and The Corrections, explained that the current trend is for less diversity in reading. He fears a “global mono-culture” where cultural differences will become a novelty.

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ Jonathon Frazen

The panel all agreed that American books are overly emphasized in the literary world, and as Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo stated, “American literature is massively over-rated.” The panel discussed how readers select books. Jim Crace described that overwhelming feeling: “In the bookshop you feel terrified by all the novels you’ll never read.”

Giving us some hope and direction, Jhumpa Lahiri explained that translation is the bridge that enables us to read across cultures. She advised writers to find their own voices and not think about trying to be “global.”

After listening to this panel, I’ve decided to challenge myself (and my book club) to shoot for more difficult and unusual books, more books from other countries, and especially more translated work. I’ll think twice before buying the latest American book that a big publisher is promoting. I’ll dig deeper, and always remember that the power is in the hands of the reader. 

Cheryl Strayed

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild

What a pleasure to hear Cheryl Strayed discuss her memoir Wild, an Oprah book club pick, soon to be a movie starring Reece Witherspoon. It was terrific to see a writer from the Pacific Northwest (Portland, OR) in Jaipur and one whose work I have admired.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed discussed the journey of memoir writing which she compared to “deep sea diving.” She explained that the process of writing helps one remember their story, gain insights and “taste life twice.” So much of writing, she explained, is making sense of being human.

Reza Aslan

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Reza Aslan

I also attended a session with Reza Aslan, religious scholar and author of a long list of books on religion. He is a terrific and dynamic speaker, and I enjoyed listening to him. He was in a debate defending his latest book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~ Reza Aslan author & religious scholar

Zealot by Reza Aslan

I honesty wished he could have just talked about his book for the hour without him having to debate it with another scholar. We’ve already heard Reza Aslan defend his controversial book on Fox News and other news outlets. Oh well. It seems debates are part of the Jaipur Lit Fest program.

Other Highlights

I also attended panels entitled “Burdens of Identity” and “The Art of Biography.” My travel companions raved about the panel “Who will Rule the World?” Finally, I attended a creative writing workshop given by Anita Roy.

And of course, I visited the bookstore.

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ Book shop

I enjoyed wandering around the grounds of Diggi Palace, visiting the stalls, drinking masala chai, and soaking up the vibe at this inspiring and worthwhile event.

Jaipur Literature Festival ~ Diggi Palace

Jaipur Literature Festival  ~  Chai Tea Sellers

We are already planning our next visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival. Meanwhile, stay tuned for my upcoming posts on the rest of my trip to India: the unique beauty of Jaipur, Agra and Delhi.

Jaipur Literature Festival

Question: What are your impressions of the Jaipur Literature Festival? The Emirates Festival of Literature? Other lit events you have attended?