Taher flipped a perfectly browned panacake onto my plate. “Perfetto!” He propped up his iPad on its stand so I could see and flipped through the morning’s Facebook photos. His friends had posted second-story shots of a narrow street crowded with protestors and Bahraini flags, typical for a Friday morning but charged today with the power of a new and tragic martyr: Seventy year-old Ali Hasen al-Dehi was brutally attacked by police on Wednesday night; hours later, he was found dead in his home. The Ministry of Health announced that he “died of natural causes.”
It would have been just the latest entry in the history of police killings that number around 40 since the uprising began on the 14th of February (in late March, the Interior Minister confirmed 24 deaths; in April, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights reported 31.) But Ali was in name and symbol more than an innocent participant — he was the father of Hussein al-Dehi, vice chairman of Bahrain’s largest political party, a Shi’ite organization. The protestors on Taher’s iPad had found a way around the road blocks to join together and scream against injustice.
Taher explained this to me rather matter-of-factly. In eight months, the pre-emptive crackdowns and the demonstrations and the resulting crackdowns had become a weekend standard — one that left some locals numb, expats mildly frustrated, and the rest of us tingling with faint hope, sadness, and guilty excitement.
Eleanor arrived to take me to brunch. The fifteen-minute drive had taken forty-five, and she damned the road blocks in the pleasantest of English accents. It did use to be worse, she said, describing heavier lockdowns in “Shia-ville”.
Traffic slowed before a black plume. Seven policemen had arrived to do their duty in SUVs with caged-over windows. One was manning the hose, one was stamping out the last flames, another seemed to be yelling at passing cars, and a couple more stood lazily in the smoke. Demonstrators had left a burning tire by the side of the road — less disruptive than the new tactic of parking cars in the center of the highway and walking away, but still a powerful image on the heavily regulated Arabian Peninsula.
I never had to cope with the congestion, with being cooped up at home. I never had to witness the violence firsthand. Time-zones away from stubborn governments and outdated monarchies, it is increasingly hard not to wish for chaos and for the tearing down of walls in the hopes that something better can be pulled from the rubble. “It’s kind of cool, actually,” said Eleanor, driving over the burn marks in the road. Cars passed the shouting policemen and sped up again.
That night, Taher got me the number of a friend of a friend with a car (cabs are sparse in Bahrain but everyone knows a driver). Jozif showed up wearing an FC Barcelona jersey and the kind of smile that said he was excited to be working with foreigners. He sometimes went to the protests, informed via text or by messages from the “Bahrain Revolution February 14” Facebook group.
“Before, it was like, ‘Okay, the police has come.’ Now it is ‘The police has come! What do they want.’” He sounded cheerful. “I feel like they are the criminals now.”
Aside from Dari-speaking Afghans that decried the Taliban in closed spaces, I hadn’t heard such uninhibited criticism of local powers anywhere else in the Middle East. In Bahrain, it is common. Protestors first sought to expand democracy and to empower the country’s neglected Shia majority; of Bahrain’s 46% indigenous population, Shias are an estimated 70% (there is no official data). They denounce prejudiced housing policies, discriminatory government hiring, and the kinds of gerrymandering that kept al-Dehi’s party from winning a majority in the Council of Representatives despite winning every district they contended. They are fragmented in their opposition, some calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister and the ouster of the Royal Family, others pleading for more moderate reforms. “We must take them both — in the middle,” Jozif said, by replacing the world’s longest-serving unelected prime minister but only tweaking the monarchy’s hold on the legislative branch.
The immigration booths at the Manama Airport are plastered with posters of the Prime Minister Khalifa’s face and a small number of simple slogans: Khalifa, we are all your delegation. Khalifa, glory of the nation. Khalifa, all of us are with you! With the royal family and private land owners controlling 90% of the Bahraini coastline and numerous other commercial projects, Khalifa (the uncle of the King) is seen as having a finger in many kunafa. But the quiet faith I felt from the opposition was a testimony to something else — that the majority didn’t have a face yet, and that power is not only for the poster-makers.
I paid my ten dollars and was stamped into the country.
It has been worse and it has been better in Bahrain. Jozif described the sting of tear gas like “that feeling just after you turn off the TV.” And running from the police: “You know Call of Duty? It was like Call of Duty.” He sometimes went to the protests with his friends, Shi’as, Sunnis, whoever — different backgrounds, different ideologies. He said one Sunni friend was there looking for girls, although, he grinned, “I am also there for this reason.”
It is infinitely important not to conflate the Bahraini uprising with sectarian conflict of Shia against Sunni — the February 14 Revolution has sought to empower all voices of the citizenry, not to shut one out. Gulf Air, the largest national airline canceled all of its flights to Iraq and Iran for the month of November, clearly attempting to separate Bahrainis from conservative Shia power bases. On February 16, police descended on the Pearl Roundabout where Sunni and Shia were celebrating multi-partisan commitment to a plan for a reformed constitutional-monarchy; four were killed. But boxing nationals out of their own political system will only drive them closer to friends across the Gulf, and breaking up national unities can only hurry the corrosion of existing institutions. No matter what, likeminded and unlikeminded individuals tired of the same old, same old and worse will join together to change things for the better. And to look for girls.
Just out of university, Jozif, 21, and his friends are all looking for a fair chance and a bigger world. Most nights they meet up to fish or to go to the cinema or to demonstrate. “You have more experience than me,” he said. He wanted to travel, to see the world beyond Bahrain and Saudi and Kuwait. “I’ve never been in a protest,” I said.
* * *
In the year 661 AD, Ali ibn Abd Munaf was killed with a poisoned sword. In the years after his death, Islam split into two major factions: One, the Sunnis, saw Ali as the last of the four “right guided Caliphs”, seen as models for righteous behavior. The second, the Shi’as, believed Ali was the first legitimate successor to Muhammad. A millennium and a half later, the name Ali is a clear mark of Shiism (Shia comes from Shiat-Ali, “the Party of Ali”), and a death is no sign of progress.
As the story is told, Ali ordered his followers not to retaliate. The attacker (who, it should be noted, was not Sunni) was to be pardoned if Ali lived, and struck equally if he died.
“I don’t know what they will do.” Jozif spoke calmly about the opposition and its future. “People here are patient. They know how to wait.”
More pictures from Bahrain: here.