Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Antique Arab Teapot

The Story:

We lived in Bahrain for nearly 2 years. That was 30 years ago.
Living in Bahrain was very different. It was not easy. It was incredibly interesting.

I couldn't just write a check and pay my electric bill; I had to go to the money changer's shop to change dollars into dinars, drive to the electric power office in downtown Manama, the capital city, present my bill and pay in cash.

I shopped in three different stores to accumulate our groceries. They were small shops with limited inventories, so to fill out our entire list of food and sundries, it took many small trips here and there.

There were streets of nothing but golden jewelry, whole streets of nothing but fabric, a street of nothing but shops that did custom sewing, a covered suq (pronounced sook) or shopping street filled with Western goods like watches, hardware and junk shops.

Many times I passed a closet-sized shop stacked from floor to ceiling with ancient "Arab chests" or "Bombay Chests" heavy, solid wood brass trimmed trunks of indeterminable age used to store clothing in homes, goods on dhows (old sailing ships the are still used to carry cargo, or for fishing).

Some chests had secret compartments and hidden drawers. No one seemed to know where they came from. Originally they were painted a vermilion red, but because there was a rumor that Westerners didn't like the color, they were usually wire-brushed until the paint was taken off. I had one friend that managed to buy one before this happened.

A crusty old man sat in the middle of this shop smoking a water-pipe and gossiping with his friends. I would wave at him and pause to see what new booty he had stacked into this little space. Somehow, he was able to find intriguing and unusual things. Although a great many people in Bahrain speak English, he spoke only Arabic.

I always admired this teapot. It was perched high up on a shelf and you could only see it if you stepped into the stall. I always admired it because of the unique shape and was pretty sure it was quite old. The first time I asked what the price was, he asked a fortune for it. "Ha," I thought, "I'll not fall for that. I'm not going to cough up that kind of money like the oil company wives who just fork over the cash." (That was a real handicap to bargaining like the Navy wives had to do. Sets a bad precedent.)

Every time I was in town on some errand, I would cruise by this junk shop and check it out. Occasionally, I would ask about the pot and, using a notepad, write down a figure which the old codger would line out and write a higher price on the page. I would shake my head and wave goodbye.

Finally, finally as we ended our tour there, I stopped by his stall and pantomimed to my old competitor that I would be leaving soon. I wrote down a figure. He answered with another, higher one. I raised my bid. He lowered his price, but still we were pretty far apart.

I scowled (what a faker I was!) He began to show just a hint of a smile. I inched up my offer; he inched down his price. I slashed the air diagonally; stuck my index finger in the air and wrote down My Absolute Final Offer, underline, underline!! He studied it thoughtfully. He stood up and climbed to the top shelf. I expected to be tantalized into offering more. He turned one palm up and slapped his other hand down on top of it, smiled and, saying something I didn't understand, held his hand out to receive the cash.

And I went triumphantly home with teapot.

I have never polished it, only wiped the dust off . The thing is very top heavy. The hollow lid is filled with rattly gravel. The spout has an attached lid too. I guess if you're going to set something down in the sand, and it's filled with liquid, made of metal that will cool if the wind is blowing, you want it to sit there with it's lid down and not go anywhere. I still don't know where it came from originally--I've never seen another.

I also love the "earrings".

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