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.