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Creating a national culture

Bahrain National Museum
Bahrain National Museum
Manama harbour: old and new, Photo Shutterstock.

When the Lebanese writer Ameen Rihani visited Bahrain in the late 1920s he was struck by the sight of partially naked Bahrainis wading through the coastal mud at low tide, in order to reach the small boats that shuttled passengers between Manama and Muharraq. ‘No bathing scene along the Jersey coast can surpass in its nudity and merriment this of Bahrain’, Rihani commented in his travel account Around the Coasts of Arabia. In fact, the scene would have caused a scandal in Britain at the time, but in Bahrain it was apparently not considered immoral – at least among the poorer parts of the population – for a woman to publicly roll her dress up high above her breasts, while keeping the obligatory veil in place. When Rihani hesitated to photograph a particularly ‘generous’ lady, his local companion put him at ease with the reassuring words, ‘It is something familiar; there is no harm in taking the picture’.

References to ‘traditional’ Bahraini culture today often present a heavily sanitized – even invented – representation of the nation’s actual cultural traditions. ‘Traditional’ public nudity in Bahrain was effectively banished by the British colonial authorities. Although Bahraini culture is liberal by Gulf standards, foreigners follow somewhat more modest practices, at least in public places.

Official presentations of Bahraini culture in the nation’s museums, ‘traditional-art’ centres, history books, and ‘heritage’ publications, are generally shaped by the norms, tastes, and socio-political considerations of Bahrain’s dominant socio-political groups. Behind this more or less conscious construction of an official ‘national Bahraini heritage’ are two main driving forces. The older of the two arises from the continuing lure of the traditional Arab cultural powerhouses of Cairo, Beirut, and, more recently, London. Urban Arab cultural influences from these cities really began to affect Gulf cultures at the beginning of the oil era. These influences have been overwhelming because of the massive influx of Egyptian teachers since the 1950s, the local tradition of sending young members of the elite to prestigious schools and universities in Cairo, Beirut, and London, and, above all, the local domination – until recently – of Egyptian, Lebanese, and London-based Arab mass media.

The second main force influencing the presentation of Bahrain’s traditional culture flows from the process of creation and development of the Bahraini nation-state, which has been based on the assumption that the monopoly of power will remain in the hands of a small elite, consisting of prominent members of the Al Khalifa and the leading Sunni merchant families. In order to maintain this status quo – which can be seriously harmed when frustration among parts of the population is translated into demands for political emancipation – the construction of a civic myth is being strongly encouraged by the authorities. Civic myths have recently been defined by the American Brooke Thomas as ‘compelling stories about national origin, membership and (shared) values that are generated by conflicts within the concept of citizenship itself’. In Bahrain, this ‘compelling story’ about the nation’s history, citizens, and values is designed not only to strengthen national cohesion but also to legitimize the status quo, especially the dominant position of Sunni citizens and the ruling family.

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