INGULFED

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The Temple on Lane 253: Bahrain’s Synagogue

As rumor had it, the one synagogue on the Arabian Peninsula was in Bahrain. It seemed like an easy find — a sore thumb somewhere in two mile-wide downtown Manama. Earlier in the day the address I had plucked from an online forum, “Sasa’ah street,” seemed to get vague grunts of recognition from taxi drivers: near the souq, maybe. I decided not to make the trip to the desert to see the “Tree of Life”, a large mesquite that seems to spring miraculously from arid ground; instead, buzzing and sleepy from a long, bacony brunch, I went in search of the country’s Jewish roots.

A friend dropped me at the arched gate of the Manama Souq, a mostly pedestrian criss-cross of simple stands and boutiques. I forgot my phone (GPS and all, though unlikely to be helpful) — this quest would depend entirely upon the knowledge and forthrightness of passersby and standers around.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I had no idea where I was walking. After a few blocks, the bustling lights of the central shopping district gave way to construction and inauspicious quiet. I figured I’d ask around. I didn’t know how people would feel about any past or present Jewish structures, but I was leaving the country in a few hours and I had a better shot playing honest than sneaky. I greeted two older men chatting in the street beneath the pointed dome of a beautifully ornate blue and green Shia mosque. “Do you know where the Jewish synagogue is?”

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The Poster-Makers — صناع الملصقات

The martyr's grip.


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.

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New Sense

“I can’t talk Arabic when I’m drunk,” said Yasser, a Bahraini born and bred. Alcohol and the official language of a religion that forbids it, I thought — something about this dissonance was too much. Plus, he told me with a light flick of his cigarette, we think everything western is better.

It felt honest, that Bahrain was a country that had handed over the reigns to someone else. On the weekends, SUV-loads of shop-and-drink-deprived Saudis drive the 16 mile-long bridge from Dammam to use the tiny island nation as their playground — the kind of playground teachers let the older kids supervise while they have their cigarette break somewhere far away.

I had spent the night on the sofa of a friendly local host who answered my CouchSurfing request. When I woke up, he was making banana pancakes.

Perfetto!” Taher was pleased. His other guest, a young Swiss woman looking for work in town, seemed used to the treatment. Taher, 36, had started a contracting business to become his own boss and to leave more time for travel — a month earlier, he was touring Southeast Asia; before that, Europe. “No one even knows anyone that has done what I’ve done,” he said, unaffected. For a country that pulls so much in, it seems to send very little out.

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“شو بتفكّر عن ثورتنا؟” — “What do you think about our revolution?”

“What do you think about our revolution?”
“Freedom is beautiful.”
Beaming: “Yes!”

The university’s security staff is mostly Egyptian, almost exclusively supporting family back home, and quite openly champions of the overthrow of Mubarak’s autocracy. (Supporters, dejected, are less visible.) Engulfed in the politics of the Arabian peninsula, this American institution has made very evident the support for non-violent protesters, democratic ideals, and all Middle Eastern countries’ fights against their respective “the Man”.

But other than these interpersonal connections to the region’s groundswell, the UAE is barricaded in an impenetrable bubble — a piece apart from the line of dictatorial dominos that have fallen in rapid succession in recent weeks. A good reason for this: the word protest once meant, for Romans, to “assert publicly”. How could this be in the UAE when those most relegated are hardly even members of the public?

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