Potters Wheel

Yesterday we decided to do some cultural activities having got too hot aboard our little boat on Friday despite spending most of the day either in or on the water. Bahrain has plenty to do but you have to work hard to find it and I wonder if most visitors manage to see anything at all. Our choice for the morning was to track down the traditional potteries in A’Ali a small village close to Isa Town, south of Manama. Whether it was cooler than a day at sea was debateable as we’d woken up quite late and the sun was already approaching its zenith by the time we stepped out of the car in A’Ali.

Like many tourist destinations here the signage left something to be desired. Having passed our turning (Kevin spotted a sign off to our right at one round about on the edge of the village), we executed a U-turn and found that heading back towards A’Ali the brown heritage signs were plain for all to see. Obviously it had been assumed that sightseers would arrive from the direction of the Saudi Causeway and not from Manama via Isa Town. Behind a huge mound of broken earthenware topped by a supersized pot are the sheds where the various pottery companies do their work. There’s plenty of parking in a nearby layby. Once out of the cocooning aircon of the car the heat hit us like opening the oven door and that was without the kilns! Was this a wise choice of activity for a June morning?

Kevin & I strolled along the dusty track from the entrance and amongst the tin and wood sheds; everything was a fairly uniform, earthenware colour, even the clothing of the few men we saw about. The first shed was open doored and appeared to be some sort of shop with shelves along all four sides inside. A group of guys were sitting on the floor in a corner drinking tea, probably glad to be out of the sun and proffered a few greetings as we reviewed the goods on offer. Mostly unglazed lamps, sheesha pipe bodies and safe pots (a money box) were on offer plus a few large plant pots, no prices, no hard sell.

In an adjacent shed we found a single potter hard a work, sitting in a pit with the floor as his work table. In front of him a spinning disc turned the clay, presumably somewhere out of sight in the pit his feet where propelling it. Rapidly and with practised ease he raised the clay into a bowl, created a stem below and cut the work off half way down the piece of clay. The completed goblet shaped bowl, too thick to be a drinking vessel joined ten or so others on a wooden board in front of him then he deftly shaped the remaining greyish clay into a second. His colleagues returned from their tea drinking in the adjacent shed and took up their places at their own wheels. Quickly the place was a hive of activity turning out a variety of shapes. Pottery has always fascinated, you start with an unpromising lump of sticky clay yet by co-ordinating squiggy material, wet hands and a turning wheel all sorts of useful or purely ornamental shapes can be formed. However its a real skill as I remember from art classes at school, it looks easy but isn’t and these guys were turning out pot after pot identical in size with little or no waste.

Further down, in another shed we came across a man making the safe pots. A large lump of clay was lifted up to form a pillar a few inches across and a more than a foot tall. Then with his thumbs he gently started an indent, followed by his hand until his arm was elbow deep in the pillar of clay. The pillar was then gently raised upwards as by applying pressure he worked a bulging curve from the bottom outwards and then back in to seal the pot and finish off the top with a little finial or knob. The outsides were then tidied up with a wooden spatula and the pot joined a hoard of others ready for the slit to be cut, drying and firing

In a gap between a kiln and a potters shed stood dozens of similar safe pots, all just over a foot tall. In their midst a young man sat with minimal shade over his head as he applied sqiggly patterns of glaze followed by an all over coating of thin white slip. Pot after pot were painstakingly being decorated and in yet another shed we found fired pots ready for sale, few were glazed except some rather elegant planters with reddish brown rims and grainy golden sand bodys (from the colour of the sand it was definitely not local in origin). There were more proto-sheesha pipes with bodies awaiting the pipes and tubes as well as decoration. In the centre was a huge cut-work lantern six or eight feet tall – not certain quite what you would do with it though the smaller ones hung from the roof with their coloured electric bulbs could make nice table lamp presents for folk back at home. There were also thousands of safe pots with lurid pink, yellow or blue patterns on a white background, each one wrapped in a blue plastic carrier bag! Presumably they were for export as, unusually for Bahrain no one offered to sell us anything!

For a glimpse into a traditional craft not just of Bahrain but the world over a trip to the potteries of A’Ali make an interesting morning out, though I would recommend not making it in the Summer months. There is no fuss, no frills but you do get to see craftsmen working and the process of pot production close up.