Friday, August 11, 2006

Letter from Juffair - 1

It is Friday morning, and I'm sitting here in my villa in Juffair wondering what I should write about in this new weekly column that I plan to include in this blog. The idea to have a weekly column was not really my idea, but was part of a writing exercise in Shakespeare and Company, an online writing forum, part of the Ryze Business Network.

There are a couple of things I could write about -- maybe offer my own perspective on the war in Lebanon (or rather the bulldozing of Beirut, to be precise) or express my outrage at the latest Al Qaeda plot to bomb airlines in London (don't these bearded dudes have anything else to do in life?) or I could talk about the latest celebrity shenanigans and give them the same importance that I would to any half-baked policy doctrine concocted at a UN congress.

Instead I'll talk about villas in Juffair. This is not exactly a topic that will shake the earth from its axis, but important enough if one is into architecture, heritage and that kind of thing. Now how did heritage creep into a concrete jungle like Juffair, I hear the murmuring voices ask. Obviously the answer to that question is not as simple as one would think, and would require a trip to the past but I'll take a detour from my compound.

"Cunningham Garden" is, probably, the last old-style compound in Juffair ever since the nearby Dawani Compound (where we lived before) was demolished to make way for... not sure what, but rumours suggest an apartment block. There are, roughly, twelve villas in our compound and each one has a large garden area. The villas have a little bit of art deco look with a bit of 60's architecture style thrown in, making these villas, probably, relics of a bygone era.

Prior to 1971 when Bahrain gained independence from the British government, Juffair was, primarily, known to be the base for the British Royal Navy. It was from here that the naval warlords ran the show and even stayed within its vicinity. Hence, numerous such villas dotted Juffair's landscape because they were occupied by naval officers and their families. With the departure of the British navy, the Americans quickly followed and though they did not occupy the whole of Juffair as the British did, nevertheless, they did occupy a significant portion of Juffair to render the whole area a bit exclusive.

Juffair maintained this idyllic situation for good many years, but not for long. 1990 was a watershed year because Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and changed the face of the Arab world, but nearer home, it also changed Juffair completely. With the invasion and post-invasion monitoring activities, it necessitated a large number of American naval personnel to be permanently stationed in Bahrain.

Juffair was nearer the base, and so, it was logical that accommodation had to be managed somewhere nearby. Some basic problems had to be sorted out first. Sea was reclaimed and soon a large number of fancy buildings began dotting Juffair as the sea began to recede further and more apartment blocks began to make their appearance. Naval personnel had lot of money in their hands, and the US Government was generous with paying house rents. Naturally, a lot of people began to smell money, and every Tom, Dick and Harry got into real-estate and hoped to make a quick buck. Villas and compounds became unviable, and apartment blocks gave many a landlord the ka-ching experience.

These days most people recognise Juffair for these apartment blocks and fail to understand that Juffair was once a villa dotted idyllic suburb. Greed has been the driving force behind the growth of New Juffair (that is, buildings constructed over the reclaimed area) because it is clear that no planning or foresight has gone into the construction spree that one sees in this area. It is, also, probably, the only upmarket residential area where roads are constructed after the buildings have come up, and there is a total absence of parks, groceries and other basic necessities. The rationale goes: have land will build.

The sad thing is, Juffair is losing its character and is now recognised more for these concrete monstrosities than for what it once was. Change is a fact of life, and Juffair, too, has to undergo change if we subscribe to this logic. But my contention is -- why can't change be accompanied by a little planning?

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