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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?

Day Tripping in Tangier, Morocco

January 16th, 2014 7 comments

Tangier Medina View Kasbah

One of the highlights of my summer trip to Spain wasn’t in Spain at all, but rather during a day trip to Morocco. I had been to Morocco before, and I knew a ferry-ride-day-trip was not the ideal way to experience this colorful and exciting country. However, this is how many tourists get their glimpse of Morocco, and I wanted to experience it for myself.

Just a Ferry Ride Away

Jason Bourne did it. Hoards of tourist do it. Friends have done it. Finally it was my turn to take the ferry from Spain to Morocco.

Surprising to me, the ferry was not very different from taking a Washington State Ferry. The smell and feel of the boat were the same. Even the snacks were the same—submarine sandwich, potato chips and a muffin. It was a short ride, just an hour or so, and we were there. Tangier, Morocco ~ ferry

Tangier

Strategically located on the narrow strait the separates Africa from Europe, Tangier is considered the gateway to Africa, as well as Morocco’s face to the world. Throughout history, Tangier has been controlled by an almost endless string of kingdoms and empires. In past decades, Tangier has been a gathering spot for beatniks, artists and writers, as well as a destination for the international jet set.

Tangier Map

Like most who visit Tangier by ferry, we did so with a group of tourists. We had a terrific guide, Mr. Hassan, a professor of history. He explained all about the Ville Nouvelle, the New City, and its glamorous heyday in the early 20th century. We got an overview of the city, the poorer areas, the wide boulevards, as well as the French Quarter and the Spanish neighborhood.

Tangier, Morocco ~

Even more exciting to me was the Medina, the walled old city. As soon as we approached the entrance, I got a chill up my spine and a skip in my step. How I love old Arab walled cities! And my husband and three children perked up as well, turning eager and absorbed in the sights around them.  

Tangier Medina Entrance

Inside the medina, we walked down winding alleys, past intricate doors, bakeries, vegetable souks and enticing trinkets. I loved it all! I even got a kick out of the relentless street hustlers who would not leave us alone the entire day, as we couldn’t help but chat with them. 

Tangier, Morocco ~ slippers

Tangier, Morocco ~ bowl hand of fatima

Tangier, Morocco ~ Bread

Tangier, Morocco ~ Vegetable Souk

Exploring the Medina

We were only in the Medina for an afternoon, but there was much to explore. For example, I stumbled upon this Café Baba, which I found out later was founded in 1943 and was a hippy hangout in the 1970s.

Tangier, Morocco ~ Cafe Baba

Here is the street where Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, jumped from rooftop to rooftop in the film The Bourne Ultimatum.

Tangier, Morocco ~ In the footsteps of jason bourne

Finally, we had a terrific meal at Restaurant Hamadi. We ate harira soup, kebabs, and couscous. The setting was sumptuous and we were entertained by live musicians.

Tangier, Morocco ~ Restaurant Hamadi

The Kasbah

Within the Medina is the Kasbah, the medieval part of the city. Located behind stout walls, the Kasbah is on the highest point of the city with a scenic overlook toward the Strait of Gibraltar.

Tangier, Morocco ~ kasbah wall

Famous People Connected to Tangier

Here a just a few:

Ibn Battuta

Tangier,  Ibn Battuta

Born in 1304 in the bustling port city of Tangier, Ibn Battuta was the greatest traveler of the medieval ages. He traversed most of the known world at that time, spending 30 years crisscrossing the Muslim World. He carefully documented his journeys, which can be read in Travels of Ibn Battutah, written by Ibn Battuta himself (edited by Tim Mackintosh).  

Here in Dubai, Ibn Battuta is especially famous, as we have a shopping mall named after him, the Ibn Battuta Mall. The six courts of the mall are named after the various places he traveled: China, Persia, Andalucía, Egypt, India, and Tunisia.

You can read more about Ibn Battuta’s travels in Travels with a Tangerine by Tim Mackintosh. 

Henri Matisse

The Casbah Gate, Henri Matisse

Of the many artists who passed through Tangier, Henri Matisse is perhaps the most famous. This French impressionist called Tangier a ‘painter’s paradise.” He completed dozens of canvases and sketches during his time in Tangier.

According to our tour guide, Henri Matisse was particularly inspired by this green door to a mosque, which served as a subject for his work.  Tangier, Morocco ~ Henri Matisse Door

Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles, The Sheltering SkyAn American author, Paul Bowles is one of the best known foreign writers who lived in and wrote about Tangier. He is most known for his book The Sheltering Sky, written in 1949 and later made into a film. His other works include Let It Come Down (1952), a thriller set in Tangier, as well as The Spider’s House set in 1950s Fèz. Paul Bowles died in Tangier at the age of 88.

A Terrific Tangier Day

I can understand how Tangier has inspired so many. Meanwhile, our day in the city was a memorable one. We visited a lot of touristy sites on our tour, and I would have preferred more time wandering the Medina. Still, it was a terrific day, and there was something exciting for everyone, including my youngest son.

Tangier, Morocco ~ Camel Ride

As for me, the day wasn’t complete without Moroccan mint tea.

Tangier, Morocco ~ mint tea

Our family spent a leisurely time partaking in Tangier’s café culture. Here are the two of us, my Palestinian husband and I enjoying the moment.

Cafe Culture in Tangier, Morocco

I found Tangier to be worn-out but friendly, rough around the edges, but full of secrets, both quaint and cosmopolitan. Not typically Moroccan, nor European, nor even African, Tangier is a cultural mix of all three. These were just my first impressions. I look forward to visiting Tangier again, and exploring more.

Tangier Vintage Travel Poster

Question: What is your favorite city in Morocco?

The Alhambra in Granada ~ The Jewel of Islamic Spain

September 13th, 2013 2 comments

Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain

The Alhambra is one of the Islamic World’s most beautiful creations. In fact, it’s the most visited site in all of Spain. Visitors from all the world are drawn to the Alhambra’s exquisite palace complex and gardens, all evoking the exotic past of Islamic Spain.

Alhambra, Granada

I had been dreaming of visiting the Alhambra since I took Art History in university. My husband had studied the significance of Andalucía (Al-Andalus in Arabic) in school, and he, too, was keen to see the Alhambra. However, our three children were less than thrilled about this full-day excursion. There were concerned it would be “boring history.”

Fortunately, we had a terrific tour guide, who was well versed in the history and culture of Andalucía. We wore headsets to listen to his detailed story-telling. Whenever we fell behind the group, even our children scrambled to keep up and not miss a word.

Alhambra Calligraphy & Tile

Muslims in Spain

In my last post I wrote about the Muslim surge into the Iberian Peninsula and about the Mosque of Córdoba, where Muslim caliphate ruled for nearly 300 years. This was followed by 200 years of Muslim Rule in Seville. Gradually Muslim power weakened, until a single tiny Muslim state survived in the mountains of Granada.

Alhambra Calligraphy Detail

Granada ~ The Last Muslim Enclave in Spain

By 1230, Muslims had been living for 800 years in Granada, the longest lasting Muslim enclave in Spain. At this time, the Muslim territory was reduced to about half of modern day Andalucía.

The Nasrid Dynasty ~ A Society of Taste & Luxury

The Nasrid dynasty ruled this Muslim territory from the lavish Alhambra Palace for 250 years. During this time, Granada became one of the richest cities in Medieval Europe, flourishing with artisans and traders. 

Alhambra Door, Tiles & Calligraphy

Even though Muslim presence in Spain had shrunk to a small territory, Muslim society in Granada was thriving. The Nasrid dynasty at Granada is remembered for its high levels of taste and luxury, symbolized by the delicate architecture of the Alhambra Palace.

While the rest of Europe was still in the Dark Ages, Granada experienced the final cultural flowering of Muslim society in Spain when the splendors of Alhambra reached their peak.

Alhambra Windows & Arch

The Alhambra Complex

Its name comes from Arabic: al-qala’at al-hambra, the “Red Castle.” From the outside, its red fortress on the hills of Granada are gorgeous and imposing.

Alhambra Mountains of Granada

Distinctive Architectural Features

With the construction of the Alhambra, Islamic art reached new heights of elegance. The architects and designers sought to refine existing architectural forms—such as geometric patterns, decorative calligraphy, and stalactite ceiling adornment. No matter how many mosques and palaces one visits, one can’t helped but be awed by the beauty of the Alhambra.

Alhambra Palace, Delicate Details

The Moors introduced new design elements, such as the peaceful inner courtyards, which offer a full sensory experience: the sound of the fountain, the feel of the water’s mist, the scent of the flowers, and the sight of the beauty all around.

Alhambra Fountain

The Palacio Nazaries

The Palacio Nazaries is the true gem of Alhambra. It is considered the most brilliant Islamic building in Europe. My favorite feature is the mesmerizing geometric patterns of the tiles, as well as the elaborate Arabic calligraphy.

Alhambra, Granada, Tile & Calligraphy

The Palace of the Lions is an icon with its lion fountains, intricately molded stucco, and elaborate stalactite-like vaulting.

Alhambra, Granada, Lion courtyard & Fountain

The Collapse of Muslim Rule

1492 was most important year in Spanish history, when Spain became united and when Columbus reached North America.

In Granada in 1492 the conquering Catholic monarchs Fernando and Isabel entered the emirate and took up court in the Alhambra. Even though they ultimately expelled the Muslims from Spain, the conquering rulers appreciated the beauty of the Alhambra and chose to keep it.

Alhambra, Granada, Palace Archway

The Alhambra complex has been heavily restored and continues to evolve. The Alhambra is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

To visit the Alhambra, it’s best to buy your tickets in advance or get there early. Each ticket is stamped with a 30 minute time slot for entry to the Palacio Nazaries.

Alhambra Palace Door, geometric pattern

To keep Alhambra in my mind, I plan to read Tales of Alhambra written by Washington Irving, an American writer and US Ambassador to Spain in the 1840s. He is best known for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. Written in 1831, Tales of Alhambra is a classic collection of short stories amid the grandeur of the Alhambra. Until I visit Andalucía again, at least I can read (and dream) about it.

Alhambra ~ Elegant Water Nook

In case you missed it, see my post on The Mosque at Córdoba.

Question: What are your impressions of Alhambra?