My nine days in Bahrain changed me more than any other experience I’ve had in my twenty-five years. I understand that’s not a long time and, listen, I’ve lived a charmed life — I have a loving family, grew up in a nice suburb of DC, attended NYU and have remarkably talented and intelligent BFF’s around the world. I’d like to think I’ve expanded my horizons and tried to experience the world a little bit. I’ve had my heart broken into a million pieces, volunteered at Palestinian refugee camps and filmed on a remote island inhabited by just 400 people in the Indian Ocean. But nothing, I repeat, NOTHING could have prepared me for the wake up call I experienced on a trip to Bahrain this summer.
If you’ve been keeping up with the Arab Spring you’ll know that on February 14, 2011, a revolution began in Bahrain. In late February and March, thousands of people converged upon Pearl Roundabout (quick explanation of what that is?) in an attempt to reclaim their government from King Hamad, a regent whose family has run Bahrain for oh, about 230 years. The educated reader will know that Bahrain’s revolution has been nicknamed “The Forgotten Revolution*” because, well—let’s face it, do YOU know anything about Bahrain? And honestly, before heading over to Bahrain, neither did I.
I went under the impression the revolution was largely over and the situation on the ground was fairly peaceful. My loving parents worried for my safety until I quelled their fears with a poolside photo of myself reading Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me at my boutique hotel. (This is real, people.) It wasn’t until a day later, standing face to face with about fifty riot police, (Imperial Stormtroopers?) that I understood the revolution was not over at all. It wasn’t until I threw myself in front of a stranger’s five-year-old child (in what can only be described as a futile attempt to protect them) that I realized how ridiculous (serious? immediate? extreme?) the situation at hand really was. If the riot police, now surrounding us wanted to shoot, there was no way for me to protect myself OR this child.
I looked over at my Bahraini BFF, Zainab AlKhawaja, (more famously known as @AngryArabiya**) and was struck by how unafraid she looked. She was completely unfazed. In fact, everyone except me seemed to be unafraid. The crowd began to chant “Down with Hamad! Down with Hamad!” as the riot police marched closer to us. Nabeel Rajab, a prominent human rights leader, calmed the crowd and encouraged them to keep quiet in order to protect the children. The brave people around me showed no fear as we were herded into the front yard of a mosque. Within minutes, the crowd cooled down and someone was passing out bite-size pizzas and tea. It was totally unreal.
This is life in Bahrain. This is what people deal with DAILY.
In my naivety, I looked over at Zainab and asked her what the hell had just happened. She coolly explained that in Bahrain, an unapproved gathering of more than five people is illegal. (A restriction on the right to assemble eerily similar to Professor Umbridge’s ban on gatherings of more than three students at Hogwarts.)
A few days and a few riot police confrontations later, I went with Zainab, Nabeel and a man named Sayed Yousef to the village of Dih in order to pay our respects to the family of an 18-year-old who was beaten to death by the police. Before going into the family’s home, we stopped for a cigarette. There wasn’t a soul on the street and since there were only four of us, we weren’t “illegally gathering.” Yet, for some inexplicable reason, tear gas was shot into the village. Canister after canister fell to the ground and within minutes the village was submerged in a blanket of thick tear gas. Why was this happening? These people were being punished and they hadn’t done anything! “Life’s not fair!” Nabeel said to me as we hopped in our car and drove down the street, leaving the cloud of tear-gas behind.
The family was happy to see us. They were gracious with our condolences and open with their emotions. Nabeel praised their son’s efforts in the fight for freedom and assured them that history would remember his death as an honorable one. The father, sisters, brothers, aunts and cousins all teared up remembering the young man. The mother, however, did not. I cannot forget her face. This woman looked straight ahead with eyes filled with a rage that can only come from grave injustice; a rage I hope never to feel. This was the second son she had lost to the Bahraini revolution, this was the second son she had lost to the so-called “Forgotten Revolution” and none of our condolences could bring her son back.
Zainab is also a mother, she has a beautiful two-year old baby girl named Jude. She is also a wife and a sister. Both her husband and father have been tortured and jailed; her husband Wafi’s sentence is four years, her father Abdu-Hadi is in jail for life. Just weeks ago, Zainab was arrested, detained and beaten for her non-violent protest***. Zainab is one of thousands of women in Bahrain who fight daily for their rights and for a better future for their children. Their strength and steadfast commitment to life is mind-blowing.
Since February 14th, there have been 45 killings, 1500 cases of arbitrary arrest, 1866 cases of torture, 500 prisoners of conscience, 500 Bahrainis in exile and 3 men on death row. In each case ,there is a family worrying and mourning. No amount of TV coverage, tweets, sound bites or New York Times articles can fix the pain resulting from this “forgotten” revolution.
And yet, the Bahraini people don’t stop fighting. Even though the odds are stacked against them, they forge on with fierce conviction in their non-violent revolution. They believe that a self-determined life is worth it. I have never felt life pulsating through a place like I did in Bahrain. It’s remarkably beautiful and it reminded me how similar we all are. We’re all just people. We come from different countries, practice different religions and participate in different cultures but we all feel sadness, happiness and the burn of injustice.
I am not a political person. I do, however, believe in human rights and human compassion. When I was with Zainab my last night in Bahrain we talked about boys, life, dictators, the Kardashians and her hopes for Bahrain. This is what she said,
“Before February 14th I would sit and write all this sad poetry about how we were all living in a graveyard among the dead, people were accepting oppression and living without honor and dignity and just teaching their kids to live that way. And that’s not a life. You know, that isn’t a life. You’re supposed to demand your rights. This is our country, we’re supposed to have self-determination. It is our right to have self-determination in this country. Why should we be dying to get that right? Why should democracy be so, so, so expensive? Why should there be so much suffering by the people in Bahrain to get that? I mean, I want a happy ending. You know, I want a happy ending for all those people who are suffering. And they deserve a happy ending for all that they’ve given and lost. And it’s not a little, it’s a lot.”
It is a lot. It’s a hell of a lot.
Let’s not forget Bahrain. After all, love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.
By Laila Salam
Image via DefendtheRighttoProtest