Friday, November 17, 2017

I’ve been to 50+ countries and never, ever met kinder, more welcoming people than the citizens of Bahrain. I’m visiting for the occasion of International Combat Week, which featured the 2017 IMMAF World Championships and culminated in Brave 9, the largest MMA event in Middle East history. The week flows from the vision of His Highness Sheikh Khaled bin Hamad Al Khalifa.

The prince fights, too. I don’t mean metaphorically, I mean in the cage. When he corners, the prince carries a spit bucket. And he fights for the sport, putting resources into MMA as a vehicle for the development of character in his home nation, across the Middle East, and the world.

“Through MMA, you learn to stay humble,” he says. “Because there is always someone who is more skilled than you, and there is always someone you can learn from. You earn a teacher and a mentor, and this instills values needed to bring out the best in every individual.”

On the short hop from Abu Dhabi, a gentleman from Bahrain struck up a conversation and insisted he take me out during my stay. I was surprised to meet someone so genial before even landing. Upon arrival, I was shocked to learn from repeated experience that this is the norm.

A British fighter who will remain unnamed decided to walk around the city alone, and a native of the capital struck up a conversation, eventually inviting him to his home. At one point the Bahraini left the room and the fighter, by himself, in a foreign land, subject to unfortunate stereotypes about Arab-Western relations, thought briefly that he might end up on the bad side of a scene from Taken 4. When the host returned, he wanted the fighter to borrow his car for the afternoon.

Don’t get me wrong – these are not amicable but placid, dull people. Bahrain really knows how to party. And they love a good fight – the arena was wild with excitement at Brave 9.

But above all, as I said, Bahrainis are the kindest, most welcoming people on Earth. In a world overrun with trouble, that may be the most important quality of all. And it gives me hope – Bahrain’s beginnings date back to the origins of civilization itself, and the island nation historically has often looked abroad at least as much as to the Arab world. Bahrain has an ancient history of interaction, with Persians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Portuguese, Arabs, and the British. It gives me hope that if we the peoples of the world interact more, we become better.

I’m honored beyond words to be a tiny part of MMA bringing together fighters and coaches from 21 nations, and fans from, well, everywhere, at Brave 9. And I hope the trip leaves me a better person, that I leave a little more like a Bahraini.