On a recent April day, I dragged the kids and my visiting mother out to Al Fateh Grand Mosque, located in Juffair. This was actually my and the kids' second visit here. Following our arrival last July, we explored it one sweltering August weekend. My primary memory of that day was that it was the first time I was wearing the abaya I had purchased in Jordan and the day was so hot I could feel my skin evaporating. Once we finished the tour of the mosque, we had to make a bathroom break for the kids and I could see the bathrooms way across the parking lot through the haze of heat. I remember pushing the stroller and getting madder and madder, wondering how my children had any liquid reserves left to pee because I was certain I was just sweating everything out and may never pee again. That final push from the bathroom to the car felt interminable. I couldn't get into the car's air conditioning fast enough. So obviously I was not in the right frame of mind to appreciate the mosque, which made me grateful for a second chance. Having lived and explored a lot of the Middle East over the last nine years, I've seen many mosques; big ones and little ones, old ones and new ones. But this was the first mosque I've ever been in where they had docents ready to give tours and explain Islam. Both guides we had were women who spoke flawless English and had tremendous knowledge of the history and practices of Islam as well as the architectural features of the mosque. I was impressed both times. In truth, I wish more churches and mosques had similar offerings around the world.
They offer these tours six days a week, Sunday through Thursday, from 9 AM until 4:30 PM. If your group is less than 10 people and you require English or Arabic, you can just show up between those hours. If you require another language, or have a larger group, they said just to call ahead so they could accommodate you (phone 1772-7773).
For our second visit, due to a scheduling glitch, meaning I was running late as usual, we arrived at about 4:25 PM. I think the woman took pity on me and said that she would be willing to give us a tour in spite of the late time. I was extremely appreciative. I asked how long the tour was and she said it could be 10 minutes or two hours, completely depends on our interest and questions. Considering the kids' attention spans and wiggle needs, I was hoping for something somewhere in the happy middle.
Following all of us donning an abaya (they provide them if you don't have your own) to cover our clothing, and a head scarf to cover our hair, out of respect, we then removed our shoes and placed them in the little cubbies provided. This was only the second time I've had to completely cover up to visit a mosque. In Egypt I used to just carry a head scarf and that would typically suffice. But there was one incident where I was asked to put on a heavy abaya even though I had dressed in long sleeves and long pants. I was also told I had to enter through a separate door and that incensed me far more than wearing the abaya. Our guide started off explaining that the mosque is the largest in Bahrain (and one of the largest in the world). It can hold 7,000 people and is open for prayers every day. It was built in 1987 and the construction was truly an international effort. The carpet in the prayer hall was made in Ireland, the stunning crystal chandelier was made in Austria, Italian marble covered the floors, the huge carved teak doors were from India, and the hundreds of glass globes were hand-blown in France.
The walls were covered in Bahraini limestone which helps to absorb the moisture. And one of the most impressive features is the central dome ("qubba" in Arabic) which is made entirely out of fiberglass and is currently the largest fiberglass dome in the world. She explained, like all mosques, how there is no depiction of any living being, human or animal, just symbols and artistic calligraphy. She pointed out the mihrab (niche set into the wall), which always indicates the direction of Mecca and the direction in which they pray, and the minbar (steps) where the imam stands to lead the Friday prayers.
It was very insightful and had I not had three children who could not resist running in circles, I would have loved to have sat and learned more from her. We thanked her for her kindness and patience, then returned the abayas, gathered up our shoes and wandered back outside. We took a cookie break in the shade and then let the kids run around and headed off to the infamous bathrooms across the parking lot before filing back in to the air-conditioned car.
TripAdviser lists Al Fateh as the #1 thing to do in Manama. I think it's always hard to define the very best thing to do, but I would definitely put it way up there. And maybe one day I'll stop by without the kids and learn a little more. Education is always a good thing.