It is about 9 am on a working day, as I enter the lane next to the Masjid and a familiar territory of Manama begins. It is an area that i have been frequenting a lot during my total stay of about 4 years in Bahrain.
Rows of tables with wooden benches are neatly arranged to my right in the open lane. Hot meals with cold salads/yoghurt are being served by the waiters, most of whom are from Bangladesh.
On my left I walk past the kitchen tandoor, from where the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked qubuz (the staple Bahraini flatbread) emanates. It makes me smack my lips in anticipation of the meal ahead 🙂
There are majorly 2 communities here – the Arab speaking customers and the Bengali speaking staff. The rest of us are as rare as the Arabian Oryx. I belong to that un-common breed of customer as I step into the air conditioned dining room. On my innumerable visits here I could have counted on my fingers the number of times I would have met a fellow Indian.
Almost this entire lane is ruled by the cafe owner. There are 3 enclosed dining halls – of which 2 are exclusively reserved for families only. The walls speak of the times gone by in Bahrain through the various sepia tinged pictures which adorn them – like a still movie being projected onto the walls.
You can take a walk down memory lane as you view them whilst savouring your meal.
Welcome to Haji’s Cafe, here since 1950!
The food is quintessentially Arabic of course. I did try a couple of those traditional dishes in my initial visits, when curiosity would take over my hunger. But then my palate seemed to settle for something closer home – 2 sunny side up eggs + qubuz so typical to gulf cuisine, in the end a mix of both worlds. The meal washed down with piping hot tea served not in plastic/foam cups but in cutting glass – just like in the days of yore back home in India.
My favourite waiter Mahfooz breezes in the door with a big plate delicately balanced in his hand….to the left of his head. The door is not wide enough to fit both him & his accessory, so he balances the entire paraphernalia carefully and pushes open the door with his foot. On the big plate are numerous quarter plates with various edibles each adding their own delectable aroma to the cafe ‘s homely ambience.
This guy has been working here for about 5 years now. Duty hours are long – 7 am to 7 pm. He visits his country only once in 2 years & shares his room with 4 other people. Yet his smile hides all his hardships. He greets me with a cheery ‘ Assalam o laikum ‘ & asks ‘same same’ ?
Well that is his code word for my usual breakfast. I have been having that consistently for 4 years now (though not daily!) I have simply clung onto the wonderful taste of the both qubuz & the eggs sprinkled with pepper. By now he knows he must serve me crispy qubuz only 1 at a time – so that i enjoy it while it is still hot & breaks easily in my hand. It is served in an unique way – On a wicker plate made of cane.
My 2nd favourite guy is Hussein. He too has been here for donkey’s years. He supports his family back home with whatever he can save from his meagre salary. His income is augumented by tips from some of the kind hearted patrons who visit the cafe.
Together they are in charge of this room. They are assissted by a cleaner who quickly wipes off the table & the floor as people leave after enjoying their meals.
My breakfast lasts just about 15 minutes but it is something I look forward to whenever I am in the mood to visit the Cafe. At the end of it I pay in the telephone booth like counter – and over the years I have realized not only is the meal very afffordable but it’s price has not changed at all ! It seems inflation has forgotten to touch Haji’s cafe and simply by-passed this lane.
I walk back contented to my office desk to take on my share of the day’s work ahead.