My last day in Bahrain was not without some impressionable experiences. Three scenes in particular exemplify a revolution that, two years later, has little left to lose and continues to make itself heard.
On my last day, my host took me on one last tour through the country. After being taken on a tour of many villages the prior day, today’s goal was to see as much as possible in terms of protests, police activity, and witness whatever human rights violations may occur.
Much is revealed about the nature of these demonstrations in this much: both were non-violent, but one was peacefully allowed to commence & adjourn; the other was violently attacked.
In the late afternoon, we arrived at the home of imprisoned opposition leader Hassan Mushaima, located in the village of Sanabis.
Mushaima is a highly popular opposition figure who returned from exile from London in late February of 2011, after what appeared to be a calculated decision on the part of the regime to allow him back in. Once he returned, Mushaima was hailed as a hero to the pro-democracy movement, and co-founded the “Alliance for the Republic” and called for the regime to step down, believing it had lost legitimacy for its violent crackdowns. On 22 June 2011, Mushaima was sentenced to life imprisonment by a military court for “attempting to overthrow the monarchy.”
As we walked up to the home, demonstrators began to gather outside with signs and flags. A photographer with a full-face mask stood by, as the group’s numbers began to grow. By the time the demonstration began, the group numbered roughly 45 people. Men stood together on one side of the street, with the women standing to the opposite side.
The protestors shouted chants in solidarity with the imprisoned figure, as well as calls for the downfall of the Khalifa regime. The demonstration was peaceful the entire time. The energy of the crowd was nonetheless electrifying, as was the feeling that at any moment police could arrive and attack. The intent of the protesters was, however, to not catch the attention of the police, and was thus not announced beforehand on Twitter. To some degree, demonstrators can influence whether they want the police to respond. I trusted my host that we would be fine. If the police were to show up, we would have more than enough time to get in the car and leave. Yet one’s own fears become insignificant in light of the sumood, or resistance, that it takes to withstand the repression that many protestors sooner or later face.
On this occasion, the group chose to demonstrate then go quietly, as if they were never there. Having acquired plenty of photos and videos, my guide and I did the same.
There is a Costa Coffee branch in a mall on the Budaiya highway that is known to be a gathering place for revolutionaries. On the way back from the home of Mushaima, my host and I drove past a scene of riot police gathering in front of a building on the edge of a village, across from Costa Coffee. It appeared that they were preparing to advance on someone or some people, and so we drove into the mall parking ramp and went to a window from the top floor, above the coffee shop, to get a view. I pulled out my iPhone to record whatever was about to happen as shop workers gathered next to us to peer out. I didn’t have the best view and didn’t see anything beside a fog of tear gas enveloping in the village. There may have been other security members deeper into the village that I could not see, but the ones that were visible appeared to be standing around and waiting. It then became clear that nothing of great significance was going on.
However, the peculiar irony of watching a poor village being gassed, from the comfort of a western-looking mall, seemed to signify a dichotomy that was becoming increasingly apparent to me: the two versions of Bahrain. The first version of Bahrain is that which is immediately apparent to any visitor upon entering the country. From the airport, one first passes through the shiny, upscale Manama and its towering business district. Going a little further along the Budaiya highway, one can see and visit the many different malls, shops, and American restaurants that flaunt the monarchy’s warm reception of western capitalism. But capitalism doesn’t describe a system in which the State has monopolized the country’s oil wealth for its own gain. Veering off the Budaiya highway into the destitute Shia-majority villages that dominate the northern country, one quickly gets a visual understanding of why the Shia majority of the country (estimated to be 60-70% of the population) accuses the ruling family of economic discrimination. “Oligarchy” would probably be the word for how they describe their economic system. It is this majority that lives in what I call the second version of Bahrain. My initial impressions of Bahrain were of the first. Yet the former cannot conceal the latter.
For example: on my first day out exploring along Budaiya, even before I discovered this second version of Bahrain, the faint smell of tear gas from creeping into my nostrils from somewhere afar was the first intimation that there was an ongoing struggle behind this veneer of prosperity. I didn’t see any clashes going on along the highway, but I could smell traces of one not too far off. I boarded a bus to Manama just to escape the burning sensation lingering in the air. On the way into town, I saw for the first time a military checkpoint that had likely been set up in response to the major protest that occurred the day before. And just as I realized from the comfortable view from the mall, it became obvious that one could not avoid the uprising, even in places that pretend it doesn’t exist.
Later that night, another activist had set up a way for me to view one last protest. This one, while peaceful in nature, would not end peacefully.
A night in Bilad Al Qadeem
“Baba, there is a smell.”
These are routine words spoken by the three-year-old son of a certain Bahraini resident of Bilad Al Qadeem. The large-scale use of tear gas against protesters is but one form of suppression against peaceful and violent protesters alike, but its toll is a form of collective punishment on the village at large. This man’s son is no exception to the rule.
I met up with this resident, who will be referred to as “H”, in order to witness what might occur during a protest. “H” is experienced in documenting protests & riot police responses, and took me into his home inside the village before the protest was scheduled to begin. We planned on covertly recording the demonstration from a rooftop. He handed me a gas mask as a way of letting me know what was likely to occur.
After the protesters finished their prayers in preparation for the march, it was time to go outside and get our cameras set up. We went up the staircase of nearby building, outside on top and jumped up to the next rooftop. We planted ourselves behind a water tank to hide.
It was imperative that I wear a full headscarf to mask my western identity. “H” told me that the authorities don’t want any journalists witnessing what we were about to see. In light of the severely limited access given to foreign journalists, the only way I was able to be there was with a tourist visa.
Not long after we set up our camera, a small group of protesters emerged below us, moving down the street towards an intersection below our perch. Straight ahead, the riot police stood at the ready, watching as they waved their flags & shouted a common cry of the uprising, “Down, down Hamad.” From a balcony across the street, a little girl joined in, youthfully echoing the voices below. I tried to remain steady as I filmed and snapped photos from my iPhone.
While some protesters in Bahrain do resort to violence, this protest was a peaceful act of expression. The demonstrators continued to march steadfastly around the intersection.
Curiously, the protest was allowed to go on longer than usual, according to “H”. Finally, the riot police responded, firing tear gas canisters directly at the protesters and indiscriminately into the air. Loud pops and whizzes sounded off as we ducked for cover. Then, a can landed on the roof right next to us. Toxic gas spread around us quickly. I hastily fastened my gas mask but it was not on tight enough. The sickening gas quickly entered my mouth and my lungs. It was not a taste I would soon forget. “H”, while covering his face with a mere scarf, pushed my mask on tightly and told me to keep it that way. We would have to wait a couple minutes in the enveloping smog until the police left. Finally, after what seemed to be never-ending wait, we could exit and go back downstairs.
Tear gas commonly permeates indiscriminately into homes, and it was filling the stairway through which we were trying to escape. A tenant on the second floor allowed us to come inside his apartment while we waited for the gas to dissipate. While this instance in particular was at least manageable, prolonged exposure to these attacks has become very dangerous and even deadly for the residents who endure them. As this New York Times article documents, Physicians For Human Rights has reported that the regular use of tear gas has lead to “alarming increase in miscarriages, respiratory ailments and other maladies.”
“…the report also described instances in which people not engaged in protests were attacked with tear gas fired into their cars and through the windows or doors of their homes, including at least two cases in which residents died from complications from exposure to the gas because they were trapped in enclosed spaces.”
Once the gas cleared, we went downstairs, outside, and back into the apartment. A few cups of tea would have to do their best to get the toxic taste out of my mouth. Yet I was fine. In a few hours, I would have the luxury of getting on a plane and returning to a country where I wouldn’t have to worry about this. “H” and his three-year-old son would remain.
“H” thanked me for coming and on my way out, he showed me evidence of violent police raids on the outside of his house. After protests, any home can be the next target of regular night raids. His windows were barricaded up to prevent police and tear gas canisters from entering. His door also appeared to have endured heavy damage. One wonders just who the police are protecting by subjecting citizens at random to this form of terror.