“I was born in 1947, in a house not far from the Catholic Church in Manama. My name is Essa (which is Arabic for ‘Jesus’). My mother always told me that my name was suggested to her by an Iraqi Christian neighbour who lived by the Church. I see my name as a symbol of interfaith tolerance and respect.
I have a mixed heritage. My mother was Arab and my father Persian. My father came to Bahrain in 1919 to work as a Master Builder on major development projects. In those days, before the discovery of oil, there were many people who moved here from across the Middle East. Those from Southern Iran went on to establish their own quarter in Manama (the area where La Fontaine is located today).
My father returned to Iran when I was 7, whilst my mother stayed in Bahrain with my 6 siblings and me. We were raised in an affluent neighbourhood, but we were stretched financially. My mother, a multi-talented, resourceful woman, supported us by sewing and embroidering clothes for local women. As soon as they were able, my two older brothers travelled to Saudi for work and my older sisters became teachers to help support the family.
We were part of a close-knit community. The neighbourhood had an open-door policy and we celebrated everything together. Whilst the majority of the area was inhabited by South Persians, there was also a multi-ethnic subgroup. We grew up hearing the Balochis sing and eating the food of the Indians. There were also people from Europe (including Armenians and Italians) who set down their roots in the area. We never asked others about their beliefs. We didn’t care about colour or origin. We lived in harmony because we knew where the lines were drawn.
Every afternoon the ladies from the neighbourhood would gather to drink tea and socialize. As children, we recognized each woman by the scent that lingered in the air after she walked past. When someone in our area was getting married, the family of the bride or groom would hire local women to walk from house to house distributing strands of sugar and cardamom and extending an invitation for the forthcoming nuptials on the family’s behalf. For their services, they would be paid in fine clothing or jewellery.
There was also the American Mission House nearby which accommodated a large number of local orphans. They too were part of our community. Thinking back, I recall the interesting characters in the area; there was the man with hundreds of keys hanging from his body, there was also one who carried around snakes to scare the children and an East African couple who we understood had been brought to Bahrain as slaves.
Each house also had its own freshwater well. These were sealed in the 1950s, when the Government began supplying water to all households. In the summers, some families moved to holiday houses in Tubli, Um Al-Hassam, Gudaibiya and Sahel Al Jaboor. In the absence of air-conditioning, the fresh sea breeze provided relief and some would stay there all summer long.
I did well academically and went on to study Medicine in Egypt. My mother and older siblings supported me in this endeavour. Later, I went to Ireland and took up a fellowship in surgery. I also met and married my wife Margaret there. After seven years, I returned to Bahrain with my family.
I am a urologist by profession, but I’ve always loved history. As a schoolboy, I was in the historical society and my mother encouraged us to read widely and have an open mind. I completed a Masters in the History of Imperialism in the Gulf, in the 1990s. I am currently President of the Bahrain Archaeological and Historical Society. It is one of my life’s passions to preserve and celebrate the history of Bahrain.
Bahrain has changed over the years. I sometimes fear that we are losing our community spirit as we no longer know our neighbours by name and stay isolated in our homes. Our ethnically diverse community and unique, multi-layered history deserves to be celebrated. I live in hope that ours remains a country that promotes justice, equality and opportunity for all.”