Returning to strict alphabetical order after our New York City detour to Barbados in December, our next stop was the island kingdom of Bahrain. This small country sits on (literally) a desert island in the Persian Gulf near Saudi Arabia and Quatar. Not too long ago, Bahrain served as the financial center of the Middle East, but today that title best describes the thriving United Arab Emirates, also in the Gulf region. Because we could find so little about Bahrain both in the Boston area and online, we decided to explore the country in a single day—a globetrotting first.
To begin our Bahraini adventure, Jess cooked some balaleet—a dish made from rice vermicelli that seems to be a traditional breakfast item (especially during the holy month of Ramadan) throughout the Gulf region.
The balaleet doesn’t look like much, but I found it surprisingly filling. Shortly after breakfast, we began to acquaint ourselves with Bahrain’s musical culture by listening to this recording by Khalid al Shaikh, one of Bahrain’s most popular musicians.
Later that morning, we began to explore the country’s history and culture through two short video clips. The first was a promotional tourism film which showed us around the island and taught us a bit about Bahrain’s past, while the second consisted of some rather amusing footage of Manama, the capital city, as experienced by an obnoxious tourist. Once we had gotten a sense of what Bahrain looked like, our exploration turned to a more serious matter: the country’s human rights record. The Revolt that Never Went Away, an undercover documentary produced by Vice News, showed us that while the people of Bahrain had joined in the political protests that swept the Middle East in 2011, the resulting government crackdown has been among the strictest and most violent in the region.
Our visit to Bahrain fell on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and this documentary reminded us that even in 2015, not everyone enjoys the freedoms that leaders like King have fought to protect. Although globetrotting can often be great fun, we’d never want to sugarcoat the lives of the people whom we are trying to get to know from afar.
On the bright side, we had learned that Bahrain also has a flourishing café culture. We therefore decided to visit the Andala Café for lunch. Owned by a Palestinian family, the café is located only a few blocks from our apartment in Central Square. Here is some of the interior decor:
We first ordered some authentic Arabic coffee, a very strong brew served with the actual coffee grounds as well as small bits of cardamom. You can see me pouring the coffee from its little copper serving pot in the photo at the top of the page. Supposedly, a real Arab would be able to finish the tiny cup in 2–3 sips, but it was so hot and strong that I could only swallow the tiniest amounts at a time. Soon our food arrived as well:
Jess ordered the Jerusalem egg salad sandwich, served with potatoes. I ordered the chicken musakhan sandwich, served with hummus. Both sandwiches came on toasted Arabic bread. Although our lunch wasn’t exactly Bahraini in origin, we had learned that this eastern Mediterranean cuisine (from Lebanon, Israel, Syria, etc.) had long been popular across the Arab world. We’d like to think that someone from Bahrain would therefore have found the food to be quite familiar.
On our way home, we stopped at a bookstore and an international gift shop to see whether we would happen upon anything from Bahrain, but except for one glimpse of the country’s red and white flag in a coffee table book about the United Arab Emirates, we didn’t have any luck.
In the afternoon, we watched a National Georgaphic documentary about the architecture and construction of the Bahrain World Trade Center.
For dinner, I made two Bahraini recipes that Jess had located on the web: khubz, a pita bread that was traditionally cooked in a clay oven (we cranked our electric oven up to 500° F), and uukous al-badinjan, a roasted eggplant dip.
The meal was simple, but filling. We ate all four of the crispy pita breads, and have plenty of eggplant dip left over for snacking on later in the week. In the end, our day in Bahrain seems to have given us a well-rounded picture of what life can be like in this small Middle-Eastern nation.