MANAMA // This year, Ramadan will usher in a new era for the traditional majlis, a cultural institution that thrives during the Muslim holy month, as it makes the leap into the digital world. A young Bahraini man plans to launch a first-of-its-kind website dedicated to covering the majlis and its history, in the hope of preserving the tradition and educating others about their historical value and the role majlises play in modern life in Bahrain and other Gulf states.
Majlises, also known as dewaniya in Kuwait, are casual gathering places in annexed sections of private homes where men gather daily or weekly - mainly on weekend evenings - to discuss, over light snacks, issues ranging from politics to sports and entertainment in a laid-back atmosphere. Ahmad Abdulaziz, the developer of almajales.net, said that its primary purpose was to document the history of the majlis in Bahrain.
"To achieve that, we will carry out videotaped interviews with the owners of these majlises and the people who attend them, with these interviews being posted on the site," Mr Abdulaziz said. "We later hope to have these interviews published in a book which will be translated into English as well as publishing the interviews on DVDs that will have seven languages subtitles." The launch of the book is expected to be the middle of next year. Mr Abdulaziz added that the website's second purpose was to have on-going and updated coverage of majlises.
"These majlises play an important role in shaping the political, economic, and social public perception of such issues among the people," he said. "Some of these majlises have a rich history dating back more than 100 years. "They are one of the oldest public gatherings in this part of the world and from them evolved the Shura [consultative] and parliamentary houses of today, as well as the boards of various social and economic establishments in the countries of the region."
News of these rarely-focused-on gatherings will be posted daily in digital video format, alongside two daily briefs of what went on at the majlises the night before and what is expected during the day, according to Mr Abdulaziz. "The videos will be edited and montaged before being posted to ensure that there is a matter of substance and benefit to the viewer," he said. The 32-year-old marketing manager for a public relations company is aware a lot of sensitive political issues are discussed during these meetings, and said the site will be accurate and balanced.
"We are a registered website with the ministry of culture and information affairs and the laws of printing and publishing apply to us. Our coverage will encompass all the majlises with no exceptions, but our purpose is to play a positive role [and] that is why the staff will be editing the inappropriate material, as it is the case with any respected publication," he said. "Our goal is to benefit the viewer and the user, not to use sensationalism to market ourselves."
The task of documenting and reporting on the gatherings is a large one, considering that there are between 150 to 200 weekly majlis meetings that take place in the small Gulf island. That number mushrooms to more than 400 during the holy month of Ramadan, according to Mr Abdulaziz, who added that he had to hire staff to help with the coverage. "Half of these gatherings have activities that need to be covered while the other half only constitute social gatherings," Mr Abdulaziz said.
"That is why I had to hire staff either as full-time or part-time to assist with the administration and coverage, to ensure that these meetings are accurately reported," he said. "We are in the process of finalising the staff and it will grow from the present 25 people to more than 30 in the coming months following the launch." He would not disclose the costs he has had to incur so far, only pointing out that the launch of the project was "extremely expensive".
He did reveal, however, that it was being funded by the public as well as the private sector, including some funds from the majlis owners. Mr Abdulaziz added that part of his future plans following the launch days before Ramadan include the introduction of a mobile SMS service to notify members of upcoming events and recent majlis news. According to him, the launch will phased, with the daily 10 to 15 minutes reports - which will be subtitled in English - being part of that initial introduction.
"The initial phase will consist of Arabic and English coverage, but by the end of this year all the phases should be completed and we should be able to support publishing in more languages," he said. He also plans to link to other similar websites across the Gulf to document the history of the majlis in those countries and show the cultural links between them. "The website will not only be dedicated to Bahraini and Gulf majlises but we are hoping to reach out to the international audience through the internet to help the people understand the important role the majlis plays and how they could benefit from it," he said.
Mr Abdulaziz said he was in contact with local correspondents for wire agencies from Germany, France, and Japan as well as reporters from recognised news websites to ensure that journalists also benefit from his website as a news gathering tool. According to him, a special service nicknamed the "specialised journalist" would also be included as part of the services offered by the website. "I cannot give much detail about that service prior to its launch but it will be beneficial to reporters and media people working with the government or the private sector," he said.
Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, the culture and information minister, described the expected launch of the website during a ceremony earlier this month as an attempt to digitally document the country's history via new technology. She also said the website would give the youth of this generation and generations to come the opportunity to get in touch with their ancestors' history and keep the tradition alive.