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More from the Arab spring

Bahrain, consumerist and proud of its past, is now crying out for democracy, writes Bhavya Dore.

india Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:36 IST
Bhavya Dore

Sitting at a coffee shop off Exhibition Road near the heart of Manama, the capital of Bahrain, are four men in keffiyeh playing carrom and smoking hookahs. As tendrils of smoke curl in the background, I sip my Arabic coffee in the foreground.

Coffee, keffiyeh, hookahs - it might as well be a product placement for West Asia. As anger implodes through the region, that product placement could well do with an update - the image of the impassioned protestor.

When I visited Bahrain five months ago, the Pearl Square, lately converted into Rebel Central, was nothing more than a showpiece monument, commemorating the island nation's pearl industry. Now, it is the centre of a churning.

The country the world sees now is one trying to build a new political system, the one I saw last year was one simply building. Buildings colonised the skyline and hordes of malls announced the country's membership to the fellowship of consumerism. Economic prosperity, yes; democracy, not so much. Ensconced in a blanket of well-being, a city of fairly placid environs seemed to have everything going for it.

Among other historical high points, Bahrain lays claims to being the original site of the Garden of Eden. The latest visitors - chaos and reformist urges - have temporarily derailed Bahrain's showcase sporting event, the Grand Prix.

The nation has done an excellent job of preserving its past, offering glimpses of ancient burial grounds, older life styles and some fine specimens of calligraphy.

As the death toll mounted last week, a nation that styles itself as 'business-friendly Bahrain' will have its public relations work cut out for it. It may also have to wait some more to bring back the tourists.

Last year, locals and visitors alike seemed genuinely fond of the royals in general, and the prince in particular. "He's very charming, well-educated and knows a lot about western culture," an American visitor who had met Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifah remarked to me. "And he's got a good sense of humour too." Pity now that the joke's on him.