Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bahrain: ...And Every Land Karbala

In ancient times, Bahrain was known as Dilmun, and was an important stop along the shipping routes between Sumer and the Indus Valley Civilization. The most common relics of that time are burial mounds, which cover 5% of the main island's surface area. It was still commercially important during the 1500's, when the Portugese arrived, and as part of their policy of trying to control Indian Ocean trade routes built the huge Ft. Bahrain on the north shore of the island, right next to what is believed to be the ruins of ancient Dilmun's capital - inside the fort is a recreation of the set of thatch structures where the Danish archaeological team which excavated the site during the 1950's stayed.

The Portugese did not last long, however, and during the 17th century the islands passed to the control of shaykhly families tied to Iran. This lasted until 1783, when they were seized by the Al Khalifa, a branch of the B. 'Utub whose namesake ancestor was the brother of the Sabah who is the ancestor of the Kuwaiti royal family. The Khalifas were merchants seeking control of the pearling trade, and under their rule it propered like never before, so that during the 19th century something like half of all the world's pearls were of Bahraini origin. Today in Manama there is a large "Pearl Monument" at one intersection, consisting of six curving white rods forming a base at the top on which rests a white stone pearl. What you don't learn from such monuments, however, is the human cost of pearling, dangerous work carried out mainly by divers indentured to the large merchant families who were the ones who truly profited from the trade.

Bahrain today, like the rest of the Gulf nations, has been developed with oil wealth, though in Bahrain's case the reserves have been depleted. Still, the visitor to the country will be greeted with skyscrapers and construction everywhere, as well as busy freeways shooting by the seemingly ubiquitous shopping malls and domed indoor food courts filled with Saudi men who have come across the 13-mile King Fahd Causeway looking for a good time away from Saudi Arabia's moral laws. These businesses are staffed mainly with the foreign guest workers, mainly of South and Southeast Asian origin, who make up half the islands' residents. It's true what they say about Gulf society having an international flavor: at one point I amused my companions while ordering at Costa Coffee, as they told me the staff probably didn't speak any Arabic. The lingua franca in this region is not the native language but English, desposited in the Gulf by the British during the 19th and 20th centuries, and of course commonly learned around the Indian Ocean littoral in what were once territories of the British Empire.

Despite the seeming prosperity, however, not all is well in Bahrain, and I heard bitter complaints about something or other from almost everyone I talked to. When in passing the white wall which surrounds the Ministry of the Interior one or two people start angrily muttering about how that's a place where people are taken and oppressed and tortured you might just call it par for the course, but when you start getting more than that it seems like a pattern. Many people accuse the Khalifas of running the country solely for the profit of themselves and their own cronies. The nation's long-time Prime Minister, Khalifa b. Salman Al Khalifa, is often called 50/50 after the percentage he demands in approving new business ventures. Often when people pointed out a skyscraper to me, they told me some story about how a certain prince was the one reaping all the profits from it. The imminent jewel on the crown of Manama's skyline is the World Trade Center, two towers each of which comes to a point at the top, so that the ultimate effect will be that they look like three-pointed sails recalling Bahrain's maritime heritage. To celebrate a certain milestone in its construction, workers were taken out on a boat trip, only to have the boat capsize, killing dozens. It's now known that the vessel was unsafe, but its owner is too influential to have paid any consequences.

Getting the short end of the stick of Bahraini prosperity are the country's Shi'ites. As in Iraq, Sunni/Shi'ite differences haven't historically been a big deal, though in the past few years discrimination and anti-sectarian rhetoric have sky-rocketed, which in itself is something people on the street comment on. As near as I can determine, the Sunni Khalifas are trying to pursue a divide-and-rule policy in the face of pressures for democratization. They're also playing the anti-foreigner card, not only against Iran, which gets rhetorically linked to the country's own Shi'ites, but against foreign investors. Last December, the governor of Muharraq, Salman b. al-Hindi, began touting plans to keep his state a pure Arab domain free of Indian and Pakistani influence in particular. From what I've been able to gather, this caused everyone in Bahrain to begin laughing uproariously, as his surname, "Ibn al-Hindi," is Arabic for "son of the Indian." It turned out he was serious, however, upping the level of tragic farce in Bahraini politics.

All of this was the political context for last month's Ashura commemorations, and here it should be noted that while Husayn's actions are often understood in metaphysical terms, it is not lost on anyone that it was a metaphysical battle in the face of political tyranny, and here and there political societies used the holiday to rally support for their own causes. In downtown Manama, for example, there was one banner for the "Committee for the Unemployed and the Underpaid," with a display that more or less expected people to assume that Husayn today would be standing up for their plight. More controversially in the eyes of much of the world, posters of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah were everywhere, and often had a quote from him at the bottom, "We are the sons of Muhammad and Ali and al-Hassan and al-Husayn," something he once said directed at Israel implying he and his people would never stop resisting what is perceived as Israeli tyranny and aggression.

There is, however, a more strictly Bahraini dimension to Ashura politics, as well. One night I was out in the villages with my former student Kamel and his friend Ayman, a published writer, unpublished poet, and English literature scholar whose voice, appearance, and mannerisms all made me think of NAQT needs list fireman Matt Bruce. Near the village of Bani Jamra was a cemetery where we stopped to pick our way past the graves on the flat gray ground occasionally broken by small stones and small shrublike plants to one grave, larger than the rest and covered with a lighted canopy. Here both Kamel and Ayman placed their hands on the grave and prayed silently; while we were there, a middle-aged man came from the other direction and did the same.

The grave was that of Abd al-Amir al-Jamri, a Shi'ite religious and political leader who died late last year. He preached in a nearby mosque, and was widely loved, not so much for his theological views as for his political activism. He spoke out strongly against the government and in favor of greater democracy, and on a personal level would often go to court with people who had fallen victim to unfair laws or random acts of oppression. A central event in his life was his arrest during a Shi'ite uprising in the mid-1990's, when several people died trying to defend him in what is known among Shi'ites as "Black Some-Day-Of-The-Week-I-Forget." His death was a palpable part of Ashura in Bahrain; one place we visited had dedicated their entire commemoration to him, and was working to write him the longest letter, with people stopping by to write continuations of praise and what he meant to them.

Among those working to fill his shoes is Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, the Director of the officially banned Bahrain Center for Human Rights, commonly known in my circles as Abu Zainab after his fiery Beloiti blogger-daughter. I met him for tea one night in Manama, and we were each momentarily taken aback by the other's youth - he's 46, but looked more like 36, a short, moustached, Napoleon-like package of furious political energy. (Everyone, of course, always thinks I look young.) There were also posters in downtown Manama of people killed during the uprising, all of whom were descibed as "martyrs," and one night there appeared another poster next to them warning the government that the people were not afraid to give up more martyrs.

Some of this came to a head right after I left, when authorities arrested al-Khawaja and two other leading dissidents over speeches they had made during Ashura doing such vile things as calling into question Bahrain's system of government. They were not in custody for very long, however, for immediately people all over Bahrain took to the streets demanding their release, leading to a government crackdown with tear gas and helicopters, but also winning their release. The crackdown on free speech continues, however. I also met Mahmood al-Yousif, whom I knew mainly as a blogger, but whom is apparently famous in Bahrain, so that someone could say, "He's supposed to meet Mahmood al-Yousif" and everyone knew whom was meant. He was rich enough that his vehicle had a GPS system, and when we actually met for lunch, a secretary first set up the call which he then took. In any case, despite all this and his ability to work the system, he too is now charged with defaming a government minister by calling him "stupid" on his blog, and having to fight it in court.

Mahmood is a patriotic Bahraini with initiative. He's been spearheading a "Just Bahraini" campaign to spread paraphenalia everywhere supporting Sunni/Shi'ite unity throughout the country, the sort of thing many Bahrainis say was the way things were until recent years. Now, in response to this new threat to free expression, he's planning training sessions for people to criticize the government and get away with it in the new environment. People like him give me hope for Bahrain's future. It's a country with a rich tradition and in much better shape than a lot of others in the region. We can only hope, however, that the country can develop without unnecessary violence that serves only to destroy its potential.



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