“On the morning of 14th February, a very dear friend took me to get a hospital check up. Her boyfriend caught up with us on the way home to give my friend her Valentine’s bouquet, and because he was polite, he got me a rose too. Little did I know that that this rose will end up going to a funeral of a young protester the next day and little did I know that this year, my valentine was not going to be my loving husband, but rather, Freedom! For as long as it lasted, that is.
The following is a collection of memories and chapters of the life of a young Bahraini woman, who for the purpose of this piece, we will call Lulwa. Lulwa had an extraordinary experience, for one month February – March 2011, she could speak up her mind about every taboo in her homeland, Bahrain. Because history and people’s past always constitute and explain huge parts of our present, we visit Lulwa’s past before it leads to her present, as she thought it was the best and most efficient way to explain why she stands where she does right now.
Now, to Lulwa, I yield the floor:
It was a month, take a day or two, of my life, but over all my memories and my experiences, it has affected me the most.
I have an amazing family, lifelong loyal friends, a husband that I wouldn’t give up for the world, I am not poor, I received public sector education, I graduated with high grades from both school and university, I chose my own path in education and work, I have more or less what could be called a perfect life, but I never felt as free and satisfied as I did in that extremely short period of time. It gave me one thing, that my perfect life didn’t have before, I could raise my voice, open my heart and spill my brains out to the world, I had the freedom to speak up!
I lived in a country where if the whistle is blown on a corruption case, and it turned out royals or government friends were involved – as almost always was the case-, a gag rule was immediately issued, let alone if it was something political, like discrimination or unlawful accumulation of state property or “Bandergate”. If you had an online forum or a blog and the topics didn’t “fall in line” then you were in danger and your family may not have had a future. If you wanted to peacefully protest on the sidewalk with more than 3 people, then you had to obtain permission from the holy Ministry of Interior, which most likely would have been denied, and even when it was denied and you didn’t go on the protest, you expected to be watched and monitored, because you dared to request permission to speak. So people generally didn’t speak outside of their closed social circles, because the price to be paid was quite high. Disagreeing with your ruler was not in question, and if you did, you had to do it internally, for saying it out loud meant you were a trouble maker and, who knew, you could be recruiting terrorists! The next thing we knew we would have had all this youth trained to use their brain! And speak! Not only speak, but speak against their rulers and their country! That was outrageous of course. One had to only say beautiful things about their homeland; it was unbecoming of a young Arab, especially from the “perfect” Gulf States, to air the dirty laundry out.
So you see, when the revolution of 14 February began, it was a rush and a serenity that I seized to the maximum. A lot of my past wounds came rushing like hot blood in my veins. Scenes from my childhood and all the way to that moment in time, they were all I could think of, all I could see.
To put this into context, let me tell you about my family. First a story, of my grandfather, who grew up poor and an orphan, because his father was murdered by orders of the Prince. His father was a religious man, popular in his village and well received by his people, he called for some form of political reform at the time, but before he realized his goal, he and his friend were beheaded while travelling on their donkeys. My grandmother –who lives with us at home- always told me of his greatness. She says he was a great leader and a poet too. She improved her reading in his library, for before, they only had Quran to read and learn reading through. She always laments that her brother-in-law, got most of the books, the library she treasured so much, she wanted us to read them to her again. She went blind after a complication in an eye surgery she had. My heart always hung on the first part of that story, my grandfather who was 7 or 9 (my father and grandmother disagree, and birth certificates, if they existed, weren’t so accurate at those times), how he had to live an orphan and work so young, just because he had a good man for a father, a man who didn’t sit silent and was pretty much a unique example for his time and in his environment. I treasured his memory, even though we’ve never met, and even though so young, I hated those who took him away too soon.
The same tyranny that was in place over my ancestors was there to give me my own experiences as a child. I was around 7 years old, an uprising was taking over Bahrain, demands to bring back the 1973 National Council and constitution, something that many activists and politicians were striving for since it was annulled by the government. That wasn’t of course how I understood it at the time, I was only seven! I understood there were demonstrations and that it was dangerous outside. I understood that there were government agents everywhere, so I mustn’t say anything out of line at school so that my dad doesn’t get hurt. I understood that my mother and one or two of us (my siblings and I) had to accompany dad when he went grocery shopping, because if he’s alone, he might be arrested- men and boys were taken off the streets at random and jailed without a trace.
I didn’t comprehend one thing though; my uncle of seeds wasn’t visiting anymore! He was my grandmother’s only brother, he always carried sunflower seeds in his pockets, always had some as a treat for us when he visited –which was often- and I loved him to pieces because he’s so funny and generous. I don’t remember his talks now, but I remember his laughs, how he made me laugh and the seeds. Grandmother laughing every single time I call him my uncle of the seeds. I found out soon after it happened, the riot police broke into his poor home, shot him in the head with a rubber bullet, which killed him shortly. My grandmother was sad for a good while, she turned me down a lot of the time when I asked her to tell me a fairytale- she wasn’t in the mood, she said. She’s a very strong woman, endured a lot of loss in her life, but time was unkind to her.
That same year, I woke up one day to some noise. I went straight to my parents’ room; my father was by the window, with tears in his eyes- I had never seen my father cry before. Mom was sitting on the sofa, I asked her quietly what’s wrong, but she told me to go to bed. A couple of hours later, my father entered the house. I ran downstairs to see him, he mimed to me to be quiet. He was approaching my grandmother, who was passing near the bottom of the stairs. He led her to sit, asked her to listen closely and not panic- naturally; she panicked, got snappy and told him to speak up. The next part made me freeze half way through the stairs- he said his cousin had been killed, grandmother screamed and demanded to be taken to his house, she didn’t believe it. He was her only sister’s son, the only thing left of her only sister, he had five kids, and he was a fisherman. That cousin of dad’s we knew very well. He always brought dad some of the special finds that he caught and he always made sure to visit his only aunt (my grandmother). He was kind and loyal, his kids were the same. One of his daughters, who is about four years older than me, would walk me home every day just to make sure I got there okay. She didn’t care that I slowed her and her friends down and never complained, on the contrary, she was sad when we moved to the other side of the village and she wasn’t able to walk me home anymore! I found out the details later, from listening to adults speaking; my father’s cousin was fishing at 5 am, with his son and others, riot police found them and shot them. He passed away because he got the bullet in his head; his son sustained a major injury in his shoulder. Years later, I could still hear my father speaking of his son getting follow up surgeries or repairing surgeries for his shoulder.
The times that followed continued to be dark. All my friends at school were facing similar losses. My aunt watched her husband arrested from home in the middle of the night, in front of her kids. He was in for six months. During those months, her son was arrested too for a few days. Riot police just walked up to their school bus and arrested a bunch at random. My aunt was a wreck; those were the longest few days in my life at the time. When her husband was released after six months in jail, things were beginning to calm down on the surface. Many others were released and the population was seemingly silenced. Political leaders and figures and their families were the only ones still being persecuted and/or targeted and more severely harassed in their daily life than others. Small demonstrations broke out every now and then, but no regular movement was sustained for long, at least from my point of view as a youngster in the middle of all that history.
The next big event I remember was when Shaikh Abdul Amir Al Jamri (main opposition leader at the time) was released from jail. People went out in numbers that I have never seen in my life up to that point. We weren’t allowed out as children, so we watched from the roof; the main street had thousands and thousands of people outside welcoming Shaikh Al Jamri, it was surreal to me, because things had been so silent for a while, then their leader came out and it was as if someone breathed life into all of these crowds. The next time that I saw such crowds, and even more, was years after this day, in 2006, when that great man passed away affected by his illness. I believe that was singlehandedly the largest funeral in Bahrain in my lifetime. Shaikh Al Jamri was a unique voice, a moderate man who called for unison of the people, for the various sectors of society to go hand in hand towards the future, rather than one stepping over the other, and thus that voice had to be assassinated. It’s true that he died of illness, but I, like many other Bahrainis, know that this illness was caused by the time he spent in jail as well as the condition of his release. Sheikh Al Jamri was forced to read a prepared speech in front of the late Prince, apologizing for his actions before his release. Of course, at the time, false tv confessions were quite trendy and people on the opposition weren’t shaken by them, except for this one by Shaikh Al Jamri, this one broke their hearts and angered them beyond belief.
The atrocities that took over Bahrain in previous decades are very similar to those of nowadays. The difference is in the way people are connected all over the world now and the abilities that people have to make their cause seen and heard. However, it is still a large challenge because of the sectarian divide the government is advocating and because of the incredibly frustrating effects of foreign policy. Despite all this, I believe we are in a better place than we were before again because of the constant documentation of the majority of the events and details of the violations and crimes committed since the beginning of the Pearl Revolution. Some have been viewing the variety of voices and opinions as well as the immense amount of power and decision making being owned by youth as a threat, however, to me, that’s just the right foundation for democracy. We’re not supposed to all agree on one thing, but we’re supposed to respect each other despite those differences. Youth participation, involvement and leadership is just the cherry on top of that cake.
To be continued…
Photo of Sheikh Ali Jamri’s funeral from Bahrain Centre for Human Rights webpage
This is a short video with some shots of Bahrain during the 90s with a couple of testimonies from protesters who have been injured. Even if you don’t understand Arabic, the pictures bear a great resemblance to those from our present.