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  • Vinod Jain

Dinner at a Bahraini Home During Ramadan

Updated: 3 days ago



I arrived in Bahrain on April 18, 1988, to take up a job with Falcon Publishing, W.L.L, a prominent publishing company in the Middle East. I had recently left my job as Vice President at the Indian subsidiary of Macmillan Publishers and was looking for another job, preferably overseas. (We had returned to India in late 1977, partly with a view to taking care of my parents. Being the only son, I was responsible for looking after my parents when they grew old.)


Falcon Publishing’s Managing Director (CEO), Abdulnabi Alshoala, had previously come to India to recruit staff, especially senior executives. He offered me the position of head of the sales and marketing department, which I accepted. It was a reasonably nice job, and I would replace the earlier incumbent, a Britisher (though probably getting a much smaller salary than he did). In addition to airfares for me and my family, annual paid vacation back home, a car (which I received after I passed the Bahraini driving license test), and a top-floor three-bedroom furnished apartment in a three-story building (which the CEO used to call a “penthouse suite”). I went alone; my wife and daughters were to join me later.


The flight to Bahrain on a Gulf Air airplane took about five hours. During the flight, a flight attendant told everyone something like, “Today is the start of Ramadan; please be sensitive to local traditions.” (What she didn’t say was, and which I learned later, that if someone did violate a Ramadan tradition, they would likely spend the night as a guest of the government.) More about Ramadan later.


I seem to recall that working hours at Falcon Publishing were 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with a three-hour siesta break. The people in my department included a sales manager, a Bahraini, and about a dozen sales executives (mostly from India, Pakistan, and Bahrain). The weekly off day was Friday, with people working for a half day on Saturday.


Falcon Publishing was the official publisher of Yellow Pages for all six Arab Gulf (Persian Gulf) countries, called the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE), and a monthly color magazine in Arabic and English, the Arab Traveler. All publications were distributed free of charge, with revenue generated solely through advertising sales. The sales executives’ main job was to travel to all these countries for extended periods of time to book ads in our publications. To some advertisers like airlines and hotels, ads were sold on barter. So, no cash transactions took place whenever we traveled. Airfares and hotel room nights were paid for by their ads in our publications.


At the time, Bahrain was a tiny country with a population of less than half a million; about 40% of the population comprised foreign workers, mostly from South Asia, the Philippines, etc. Still a tiny country, Bahrain now has three times as many people in its population. Bahrain was a relatively free country (free from strict Islamic traditions); women could study, work, and drive. In fact, it was like Europe’s Switzerland for Arabs from other Gulf countries. I was told that some rich Sheikhs (males) from nearby countries would start their weekend in Bahrain on a Wednesday, stay there until Sunday, and do the kinds of things they could not do back home.


Enough of the background.


About a month after my arrival, my sales manager (Abdulla) invited me, most others in the sales, advertising, and related departments, and the CEO to dinner at his home. Each invitee was requested to give two Bahraini Dinars toward the dinner cost. (The Rate of Exchange was BD 1.00 = US$2.65, about the same as now.). The dinner was to take place on the last day of Ramadan, a major holiday called Eid ul-Fitr, the “Festival of the Breaking of the Fast.”


I asked Abdulla for directions to his house and when we should arrive. He said to come around 10:00 p.m. and meet outside a nearby cinema hall. Meet at 10:00 p.m. for dinner? I was a bit surprised, but then I was still learning about Bahraini customs. So, I had a little something to eat at home at my usual dinnertime and got ready to go. Several of us assembled near the cinema hall, and Abdulla came and walked us to his home through narrow lanes. The men were led upstairs to the roof, while the women stayed downstairs with other women. (Yes, we had some women sales executives).


About 15-16 men were on the roof, sitting on a carpet (not a Disney flying carpet, mind you) and chatting, waiting for food. Most of those in attendance were on single-status visas in Bahrain; only executives received family visas. There were jokes, some not repeatable here, and even the CEO joined in with his own joke. It was a pretty pleasant evening, but still no food!


I waited and waited and was glad I ate a little something that evening. I was new and didn’t know the local customs for celebrating Eid ul-Fitr. Around midnight, someone brought a large basket of fish and barbecue equipment. One by one, the fish were being barbecued. (Bahrain used to be a fishing country, and perhaps still is.). My first reaction was my goodness – this is what we have to eat tonight; I didn’t even like fish.  


I learned later that on Eid ul-Fitr, Muslims eat food after seeing the new moon at night.


Then, around 2:00 a.m., food started coming. A large platter of chicken biryani was set at the center of the carpet, with all of us sitting around it. If you have not yet eaten chicken biryani, do try it. It’s delicious. (Hopefully, none of my Jain relatives is reading this!). Then came a dozen or so other dishes, equally tasty. Everyone began to eat out of the biryani platter.


I was hesitating, not just waiting for a plate, but I generally don’t eat from the same plate with others! And here I am to eat from the same platter with over a dozen men, and of different religions. Sacrilege!


The CEO, a man of the world who had perhaps studied in Bombay and traveled extensively, understood what was happening. He said, “Vinod, what are you waiting for? Pick up a fork and dig in.”


I mentally carved out a small area on the biryani platter so that no one else would violate it, and I began eating.


It was one of the best meals I had ever had! Learning about Bahraini customs was a bonus.


Ramadan


Ramadan is one of the holiest months of the year for Muslims. During Ramadan, Muslims commemorate the revelation of the Qur’an, and fast from food, drink, and smoking from sunrise to sunset to draw closer to God and cultivate self-control, gratitude, and compassion for those less fortunate. In many Muslim countries, especially in the Middle East, they are very strict about keeping to Ramadan traditions. No one can eat, drink, or smoke in public during the day; perhaps some do it at home. When we lived there, we used to have lunch delivered to us every day from a Gujarati restaurant; they had special permission to deliver food during the day. 

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