Henny Harald Hansen was a Danish ethnographer looking into the lives and costumes of Islamic communities in the Middle East. I was very surprised to have discovered her book Investigations in a Shia’a Village in Bahrain (in reference to Sar) at the British Museum’s Anthropology Center. The book, a monograph published by the National Museum of Denmark, was written in 1960 and gives a very interesting account of a place that has by now changed drastically. The Sar she describes has no electricity and is made up of compound-structured homes housing extended polygamous families. But before going into her descriptions of the material culture of the people of Sar, she delves into some history, even briefly going into the explanation of life pre-pearls.
Thousands of years ago:
Henny goes back into the civilizations of Dilmun and Tylos. In the retrospective lineage, she identifies three natural sources of wealth that in Bahrain: fresh water, pearls and then oil. However it is as far back as around 2000BC that an Assyrian inscription about Dilmun mentions “fish eyes” which some people have interpreted to be pearls. Henny also found accounts from Planius and, years later, the great traveler Muhammed al-Idrisi both speaking of pearls in their descriptions Bahrain. By the time Henny was writing her ethnography, people were pearl diving in much the same way as it had been described in Ibn Batutta’s account 600 years before that. In its hey-day, pearls were mainly sold to Baghdad, Syria and Turkey with most of it heading to India.
But by the 1920’s two major external forces lead to the demise of Bahrain’s pearl trade. The Japanese introduced cultured pearls to the market, making them more widely and easily available – though clearly not with the same luster that Bahrain’s combination salt and fresh water produced – making the cost value drop considerably. By the same time the commercial world was about to step into the Great Depression, a time of very little purchase power and thus a low demand for commodity goods like pearls. Serendipitously, the discovery of oil put Bahrain back in the trade. By 1934 BAPCO opened as a full subsidiary of Standard Oil Company and a member of CALTEX.
The discovery of oil made Bahrain more valuable to outsiders. Its position on the silk route to India was very significant to the British. Having protected the country from invaders of the Persian Empire, the British had appointed Charles Belgrave as political advisor to the ruling family representing Britain. By 1946, the British transferred their residency to Bahrain, the city of pearl merchants and commercial center of the Gulf Arabian shores. By then, the Al Khalifa seat was also moved from Muharraq to Riffaa, just north of Awali where the oil business headquarters were active.
Town life in Sar, 1960:
But coming back to the core topic of the monograph, Henny writes very clearly about life in Sar. According to the 1959 consensus, the population of Bahrain was 142,213; by 1960 there were about 450 people living in Sar, which, as according to Henny, is the oldest village in Bahrain.
She describes the architecture of the time being a cross between Arab and Persian structures. The wind towers that worked like a modern day air condition (trapping air and creating a breeze) were an influence from the eastern neighbors in Iran. But the houses were not singular structures. They were bundles of homes grouped together by a single gate or wall. The homes, each consisting of one room, would each go to one of the wives of the man of the house (if he had more than one), she would have a padlock and key to her own door and live there with her children while the man would interchangeably sleep with his various wives. In the case that the husband would die, each woman would then have an allocated home for herself and her children. There would also be the room of the ‘majlis’, where the men would gather in evenings for discussion, tea and backgammon. This room would also be allocated as the eldest unmarried son’s room.
There was no market in Sar at that time, no shops and no suqs. But ‘peddlers’ would come into the village every now and then on donkey-back selling items like kerosene, fish, pots, bowls, incense burners. They would also trade items like sweets, shampoos, soap, rose water, needle and thread. But the most frequent dealers were those who had women’s garments and fabrics.
One reviewer from University of Pennsylvania thought the monograph 'fell way below professional standards'.