Monday, 4 June 2018

Drama in Manama: A Foreigner's Guide to Muharram in Bahrain (1940 Edition)

Bahrain holds a special place in the Persian Gulf for being one of the few countries to openly host processions commemorating the Islamic month of Muharram throughout the country. However, this post will not go into the history of Muharram itself and its significance to Shia Muslims in particular (though I do encourage independent research on the matter). In Bahrain, the first recorded public processions occurred in Manama in 1891, with it becoming an annual public event since. British records showed public Muharram processions also emerged in villages throughout the country in 1939.

Now the main subject of this post is the Muharram of 1939 which was during a significant time in Bahrain's history; oil was discovered in the country only 8 years before (the first in the Gulf region). With this oil and the establishment of the Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO), the country saw an influx of engineers and experts in the oil & gas industry (predominantly British and Americans). For the most part, the westerners intermingled well with their Bahraini counterparts.

However in the Muharram of 1939, British records indicated that some minor altercations occurred between western employees of BAPCO and procession-goers after the foreigners laughed and photographed the processions, no injuries were reported. The following are excerpts from British records.

Written by Charles Belgrave, Advisor to the Bahrain Government in 1939
Scanned and posted by the Qatar Digital Library
As a result of the massive influx of foreigners, processions during 1939 changed course of their regular procession paths and some of the foreigners followed into the side streets, causing minor altercations. In an effort to avoid the possibility of a riot in future Muharram processions, it was advised by the British political agency in Bahrain to BAPCO to restrict the number of foreigners in Manama to 100 persons during the month of Muharram.

Preparations were drawn up for the Muharram of 1940 and included a map that highlighted and identified areas for the public & those out of bounds to foreigners. Furthermore, a document was prepared on how foreigners should present themselves in Manama, should they wish to observe the processions of Manama (which many do to this present day). These plans were for the next Muharram procession, estimated to take place on 19th February, 1940.
"The Muharram square and the two main roads leading from the bazaar (highlighted in red, including the Jama Mosque) shall be open to the public and the rest of the area highlighted in yellow will be out of bounds for foreigners." Originally posted in the Qatar Digital Library


The Foreigner's Guide to Muharram in Bahrain, prepared for the Muharram of 1940. Originally posted by the Qatar Digital Library.

Bonus: this page includes side commentary on Muharram by Charles Belgrave and include some inflammatory statements.

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