Reclaiming Place in Neoliberal Urbanity

by Stany Babu

In 1971, Bahrain, a British Colonial protectorate since the late nineteenth century, claimed independence. In the five decades since then, this tiny island has faced a drastic transformation from being a subsistence-based economy of fisheries, pearling and farming to an oil-based economy. The oil boom of the 1970s completely changed the economic, social and cultural fabric of Bahrain. The country, in the 1980s, continued diversifying its economy by opening up its markets, with the establishment of prominent multinational companies and claimed its position as the Middle East’s financial hub. What ensued was a reconfiguration of cities pursuing a neoliberal urbanity (Elsheshtawy, 2019).  

Fig. 1-2: Bastas of Old Bahrain (Source: https://www.bna.bh/en/.aspx?cms=iQRpheuphYtJ6pyXUGiNqi1fCeO0OPo%2F)

These changes, consequently, led to the rapid urbanisation of the cities in Bahrain. The typical traditional characteristic of towns and cities was left buried beneath these fast transformations. This left the population floundering for a sense of local identity. One of the main urban characteristics lost to the dramatic change in urban morphology were the socially equitable spaces. The old pedestrian-oriented urban centres were lost to this unsympathetic development in which streets and places were taken away to pave way for motorways. The spaces dedicated to socialisation, earlier found across towns and villages, were very much absent in the cacophony of the new urban environment. These social condensers, known colloquially as Barahas (the space) and bastas (the temporary structure), were open enclosures used as small meeting places found on seashores, open grounds and empty squares. These were used as spaces for conversation and gathering for the locals (especially for pearl divers). Bastas were used both for commercial (to sell vegetables, fish, toys, etc) and non-commercial (social spaces) purposes. Historically, people in the region built and farmed on pieces of land sufficient for their needs without any documents or proof. In this scenario, barahas were empty interstitial spaces with no ownership. These acted as interactive spaces created through a mutual agreement between the neighbours – a ‘no man’s land’. According to Bahraini architect and urbanist, G. Khenaizi (personal communication, 14th April 2020), barahas and bastas were seen as strong features of historical Bahraini public space because they came to symbolise communal places of diplomatic encounters. But with colonialism came land ownership, with the introduction of land tenure in 1925-1926. Along with this came the question of legality of occupying spaces that were now being privatised. Soon these interventions came to be seen as illegal occupations on private or government-owned land. These social interactions, once integral to the sustenance of a lively street atmosphere, were submerged under the needs of the so-called modern, fast-moving city. Before the locals could effectively cope with this significant change in lifestyle, cars had restricted their spaces. Additionally, the privatisation of lands and subsequent limitation of setbacks (which they technically occupied), left them feeling isolated in their social sphere, thus deteriorating the sense of Bahraini belonging and identity.

From L to R – Fig. 3: Basta on a playground in Al Janabiyah (Source: G. Khenaizi); Fig. 4: Basta along a seafront at Damistan Beach (Source: G. Author)

From L to R – Fig. 5: Basta on a playground in Sitra (Source: G. Khenaizi); Fig. 6: Basta along a street in Al Meqsha (Source: G. Khenaizi)

However, these social spaces have started reappearing through a citizen-propagated occupation of space in the urban fabric of cities. The locals are re-appropriating these interstitial urban spaces, thus becoming active subjects in the city by countering the passive position forced on them by neoliberal urbanity. There is no proper planning or arrangement to this spatial occupation – it is temporary and organic in its character. With this simple act of occupying a visible space in the urban environment, they are reclaiming the void left behind by the removal of the historical Bahraini character from the urban realm. Bastas are ephemeral in the urban context. Most of them being illegal, irrespective of whether they are commercial (not registered) or non-commercial, as they are occupying a space not belonging to them. Their existence depends on the whim of the owners of the space they inhabit. It has become a usual sight to see old men with their tea and coffee sitting on repurposed furniture at an intersection along a busy road or on an empty playground or along a seafront. These spaces don’t pretend to be fancy or permanent but through their informality, they so eloquently re-establish their Bahraini identity. Khenaizi looks at them with a bit of trepidation since they don’t truly convey or translate the original formation of these places through diplomacy since every land in Bahrain is now privately-owned. But she still sees the occupation of visible space as an encouraging sign as citizens are constantly challenging the boundaries of public space through the appropriation of space, especially since the modern state failed to satisfy the spatial needs of the community. The informal setting can be interpreted as a form of retaliation against an urban environment that is changing too fast and getting lost in memory. These “new” traditional spaces, through active citizen intervention, have started cultivating a sense of place in the city by reclamation of their identity and celebration of local memory and heritage.

References

El-Ghonaimy, I. H., (2020), Street Furniture Influence in Revitalizing the Bahraini Identity, Journal of Contemporary Urban Affairs, 4(1), 11–20. doi: 10.25034/ijcua.2020.v4n1-2

Elsheshtawy, Y., (2019), Temporary cities: Resisting transience in Arabia, Routledge 1st edition

Gardner, A., (2020), Yasser Elsheshtawy: Temporary cities: Resisting transience in Arabia, Urban Design International, https://doi.org/10.1057/s41289-020-00110-0

Hamouche, M. B., (2004), The changing morphology of the gulf cities in the age of globalisation: the case of Bahrain, Habitat International, 28(4), 521–540. doi: 10.1016/j.habitatint.2003.10.006

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