Those Marvelous Hinged Portals

Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain reflects on the many meanings of doors

Those Marvelous Hinged Portals
Doors, those ubiquitous and marvelously convenient portals between spaces, large and small, have been with us since the dawn of history. From primitive dwellings of the ancients to the present day with its comforting homes and mansions, doors continue to serve their intended and desired purpose; to protect, to isolate, to invite and sometimes to rebuff. Like the people who install and own them, their appearance can be arrogant, humble or grandiose.

They are silent storytellers. They stand sentry to the secrets and intrigues, love and lament, births and deaths – all happening on the other side. Doors are not only used, but they are abused as well. We slam them in peoples’ faces, literally and figuratively. We get a toehold in a door as a prelude to gain entry and on occasions doors are left open to entice others to enter and then be ambushed. And sometimes we kick them open in an act of aggression to gain entry when such an entry is denied.

Entrance to a Chinese mosque

It is hard to get through a closed door. But one Mughal ruler of India, Emperor Jahangir, while keeping the doors to his palace closed shut to the outside world, stayed connected with his subjects through a gold chain strung between the palace gate and his sleeping chamber. A citizen could, at all hours, draw His Majesty’s attention by pulling the public end of the chain that rang a bell in the sanctum sanctorum of king’s quarters. Call it an invisible window through the closed doors that the petitioners could beach and connect with the king. No one knows how many times the chain of justice or zanjir-e-adal was pulled and how many times – the shadow of God on Earth – awoke from his opium- and alcohol-induced slumber to dispense justice!

In Eastern cultures doors, in addition to their intended purpose, are also used as poetic metaphors that denote barriers in the way of a romantic love. In Urdu and Persian poetry “dar” (door) has a much wider meaning than the simple hinged portal between two spaces. You enter someone’s heart through a hidden door and you humble yourself by putting your head at the threshold of your beloved’s door.

No wonder so much of romantic love happens behind closed doors. Doors hide us from peering eyes and poking noses that would definitely be a distraction to an otherwise perfect interlude. A bedroom door is perhaps the most sanctified portal anywhere.

In 1964 Andy Rooney, the resident curmudgeon at Columbia Broadcasting Service, a television network in the US, wrote an essay on doors. Mr. Rooney said that there is something basically dramatic about a door because our attitude towards one is markedly different if we are outside wanting to get in, than if we were inside wanting to get out. One could extrapolate this insight and think of those who are incarcerated in prisons and mental asylums. The reasons for their incarceration may vary but they remain prisoners, literally and figuratively, behind formidable doors. Those hinged portals become extremely fixed and unyielding.

We decorate our front doors to reflect our personalities. In Eastern cultures the outside doors are usually decorated with talismans and holy writings to ward off evil spirits. It is not unusual to find a small black flag hoisted above the door to ricochet evil glances. I recently saw the front door of an opulent home inscribed with verses from the Quran. Such a tradition is common amongst Jews, eastern Christians, Sikhs and Hindus as well.

A few years ago I got enmeshed in an unusual and unique quest to search for some very special doors (and windows). Our 125-year-old ancestral home in Peshawar in northwest Pakistan was torn down to make room for a shopping arcade. As is the custom, the material was hauled away to one of the tens of warehouses that recycle salvaged materials.

In the dark and damp world of warehouses – those gigantic chop shops if you will – one sees forgotten relics of unknown and obscure people: faded doors, old almirahs and vintage windows that had been witness to countless loves, many quarrels and quiet a few intrigues that are part of any family.

I finally found the familiar doors and windows stacked against a wall, forlorn and totally out of place. Each scratch, each tiny dent on the faded and dilapidated doors had a story to tell. There were doors I had swung on, windows I had peered through at the outside world and the ceiling beams I had counted innumerable times.

And there was this one particular door that hung on the entrance to the terrace upstairs. On top of its frame, in my childhood, sat an old book that I used to leaf through on lazy summer afternoons and wondered if I would some day be able to read it. To a 4-year old it was amazing how books spoke to older people.

Seventy six years on, that nondescript and humble door remains an important portal in my mind’s eye through which I passed on my life journeys and learned to read and write.

Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain holds emeritus professorships in Humanities and cardiovascular surgery at the University of Toledo, USA. He is also an op-ed columnist for Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar.


Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Surgery and an Emeritus Professor of Humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. He is the author more recently of A Tapestry of Medicine and Life, a book of essays, and Hasde Wasde Log, a book of profiles in Urdu. He may be reached at: