Salat al-Maghrib has just begun and the courtyard in front of the mosque is full of men performing their ablutions at the communal fountain. Beneath them, a mottled shadow of wetness gathers on the pavement like a cloud. A curbside censer burning oud on the street corner billows smoke into the faces of passersby. The worst of the day’s heat has finally relented and Bahrain’s Manama souq is filling with throngs of slow-moving people, honking cars, and swerving bicycles. Walking by a coffee shop whose crowded benches overflow onto the sidewalk, I hear conversations in Arabic, Malayalam, and Farsi, the languages blending into an aural fog of lilting consonants and cascading vowels. Advertisements on nearby shop windows join the multilingual chorus, listing wares in Arabic, Urdu, English, and Tagalog. To paraphrase writer Inez Baranay, in a transcultural space like the souq, no one — not even the shop windows — is monolingual.
Bahrain, a tiny archipelago scattered off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, has been an influential entrepôt for millennia. From dhows anchored off shore in the Arabian Gulf, peoples and cultures and languages met and mingled, creating a legacy of diversity still exemplified in the modern souq. This dense urban landscape is a vivid tapestry of transcultural existence, with Iraqi ice cream parlors, Indian restaurants, Bangladeshi spice dealers, Syrian oud sellers, Bahraini antiques merchants, and Pakistani tailors. As a person who has spent my life navigating the nebulous borderlands between cultures, I find myself experiencing a profound sense of respite here and so I’ve been coming to the souq, one of my favorite places since childhood, almost every day, to meet friends, to shop, and to tentatively, falteringly, practice my Arabic. More… “Living on the Margins”