Behind Door #1

The door that caught my attention in Muharram, Bahrain.

Ever see a door and imagine what’s behind it?

A few years back, I was on assignment to Bahrain. I was there to cover the inaugural Challenge Family triathlon in the tiny desert kingdom. It was my first trip to the Middle East, and I planned an early arrival so that I could spend some time exploring before my work responsibilities kicked in. Thanks to the Streetsmart Bahrain guidebook, I knew exactly where I wanted to go: Muharraq. I planned to meander the streets of the old souq and eventually make my way to Saffron for a traditional Bahraini breakfast.

After wandering for a bit, I found the foodie hotspot, where there was a 45-minute wait for a table. With time to kill, I walked around until I came upon a beautiful wooden doorway. I took a photo or two, and continued to admire the architecture of the building. Just then a modern SUV pulled up. A man in western dress hopped out and headed toward the door. He waved hello and asked in English whether I’d like to take some pictures.

“I already did,” I admitted. “Is that OK?”

“Of course! But you must see the inside as well,” he said. “It’s my family home. Come, come inside.”

Go inside a strange house, with a strange man, in a strange country, where I had only arrived the night before, telling no one where I would be that day? I followed him without hesitation.

Let’s pause for a minute. I’m not suggesting it’s a great idea to trot off into the unknown with a stranger. But I am an advocate of listening to your gut. My gut told me that this man was perfectly safe. What’s more, it told me that whatever lay beyond this door was significant. And as you know by now, adventure is kind of my style. In I went.

With obvious pride, the man led me through the door and into a central courtyard, off of which were several rooms. He showed them to me one at a time, encouraging me to take pictures. First, the modern kitchen, then two or three ornately decorated salons.

“We hold a party here every week for all of our neighbors and friends,” he said, showing me the largest of the rooms. “Next time you visit, you must come.”

I learned that the home once belonged to the royal family, before they relocated from Muharraq to Riffa, in the south of Bahrain. For several decades, the Abdulmalik family— including this kind man, whose first name I’m not sure I ever learned—had proudly inhabited the place.

Further along the courtyard, we reached a doorway with five or six pairs of sandals in front.

“Come this way. You must meet my mother,” said the man.

I kicked off my shoes and followed him into the room, where a group of women dressed in traditional abayas and head scarves sat on the floor. A Bahraini morning TV news show played in the background, and the women circled around trays of drinks and snacks. A brief exchange in Arabic ensued between mother and son. He informed me that his mother would like me to stay for coffee. I took my place in the circle.

“I’ll be back in a while,” said the son. With that, he disappeared and I was left to hold my own in the women’s group. We shared plenty of smiles, but not a word of common language between us. A few times the women laughed, and although I was sure they were laughing at something about me, it felt good-spirited. I laughed right along with them.

One of the women poured a Turkish coffee for me. Another passed a tray of treats, and I helped myself to a fresh date. When the tray came around a second time, I took another. Noticing my choice, the matriarch picked up the phone and spoke something in Arabic to whoever was on the other end of the line. A moment later the maid arrived, and the mother sent her off with instructions I did not understand.

My parting gift: a goblet-shaped incense burner.

After I spent a good 20-30 minutes with the women, the son returned. He was armed with parting gifts: a large bag of delicious dates, a goblet-shaped incense burner, and an open-ended invitation to return.

I stumbled through my thank yous, masking my lack of Arabic with more smiles. I left, filled with the warmth of unexpected friendship and the awe at what can happen on the other side of an unknown doorway. And I made it back to Saffron just as my table was ready.

A traditional Bahraini breakfast at Saffron in Muharraq.


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