Monday, February 28, 2011

The Pearl of the Arabian Gulf

Bahrain School, Manama, Bahrain

Ms Daugherty drew on the board of my freshman world history class, making a simple diagram of the political spectrum from left to right. She turned at looked at us, a mixture of young teens collected from across the world and living in the small Arab nation of Bahrain. “And where do you think Bahrain falls?”

I shifted, uncomfortable with the question. I knew where I'd put it, but I also knew that the Bahrainis in the room were likely to be offended, maybe even hurt, by being labelled as insanely ultra-right.

“On the left,” someone said.

“Here?” Ms Daugherty touched a point slightly left of the middle.

“No, further left.”

A few of the Arab kids worked together to place the dot well into the liberal zone.

One of my American friends and I exchanged a glance, then looked quickly away before we started laughing.

Ms Daugherty ran her eyes over all of us. I met her gaze for a second, seeing she knew that while my lips were silent, my mind was screaming, “Are you freaking kidding me?”

No one said anything, we just shuffled in our seats as the seconds ticked by.

“So everyone agrees?” Ms Daugherty asked, looking straight at my section of the classroom. IE, the American corner.

I shook my head, but wasn't the one brave enough to say, “No.”

The American and European members of the class moved the dot to the far right while the Arab kids looked at us like we were nuts. It was an excellent demonstration on how relative terms like “conservative” and “liberal” really are.

I've been thinking about that class a lot over the last few weeks, as my former host nation has been rocked by violence. I've been trying to find the words to write about my thoughts and feelings about what's happening over there, but I find them really hard to pin down. I know I'm upset, more upset than I would have thought considering that it's been eighteen years since I was last there and considering that I didn't really love living there all that much. (Note: I was angsty at sixteen. I'm not certain I would have liked living anywhere.)

A lot of things have bothered me about the coverage of Bahrain I've seen recently. As my sister pointed out, a number of people writing about it kept referring to “Pearl Square” in an obvious attempt to make the situation seem more like Egypt than it is. “If anyone ever needed proof that the media just plain doesn't get certain things, that right there is a starting point,” she wrote. “How are they supposed to grasp what is really going on when they can't even figure out the difference between a circle and a square?”

(Pearl Roundabout)

Yeah, the Pearl ROUNDABOUT is circular. My sister and I used to commute past it to get to school, so we're pretty sure of this point. (Note: Tahrir Square isn't a square either. It is also a traffic circle. Here's an entire article about these places being circles: Roundabouts and Revolutions)

Also, I saw several references to “Bahrainians,” including some supposed expert on CNN. If you use this word, I will instantly stop listening to you. The people of Bahrain are Bahrainis. I don't expect the average American to know this, but anyone who's going to try to shape my opinion on these protests should. If you don't know at least that much about the country, I guarantee you don't understand what the protests are about.

I don't think anyone who isn't Bahraini really has much of a clue what is going on there right now, myself included. In fact, I'd take that further and say a large number of Bahrainis don't really understand it either. How can they? The choice of sources is between the protesters' propaganda, the government's propaganda, and a bunch of people who failed Kindergarten geometry. I frankly don't trust any of them very far.

I do think I know several things about the situation. I know this isn't the first time the government has been protested. I know that the lives of the poor in Bahrain really are difficult and that religious discrimination in Bahrain is a very real thing. (This was a serious problem when I was living there. Things have improved in as far as there is now a Parliament, but it is a Parliament set up to give the common people as little voice as possible, as evidenced by the fact that any of their rulings can be overridden by a committee appointed by the king.) I know the ruling family has a lot of faults, but that actively being monsters isn't one of them. (Remember that I went to school with some of them! I didn't like them all, but that doesn't make them evil. Call them foolish, misguided, or spoiled, and I probably won't argue with you, but they aren't demonic.) I know that by the standards of the Middle East, Bahrain is a permissive and easy-going place.

I think a lot of stuff too. I think that even as things stand, every Bahraini is lucky to be from Bahrain and not from Saudi or Iran or a number of other places in the region. I think Bahrain needs more democracy and less discrimination, although I don't think they need to completely axe the monarchy immediately. I think the protesters aren't puppets of Iran. I think they really do want more democracy, not a different and more restrictive government. I think Sheikh Khalid Al Khalifa, Bahrain's Foreign Minister, was honest when he tweeted about being appalled by Qaddafi's actions against the Libyan people. And I don't think that was hypocritical of him, because there's a big difference between people dying because the police force got out of hand and people being slaughtered en masse by their leader. (Not trying to make light of the deaths in Bahrain. I do consider them tragic and am upset by them. And I don't think that the middle of the night was an appropriate time to tell the protesters to vacate their camp. However, it does bother me how many people have been lumping the Bahraini government in with that of Libya.)

I'm not sure why I share all this with you. I don't expect it to sway opinions or even to explain anything. (The best summary I've seen so far, IMO, is here: A Revolution Paused in Bahrain. Note that the authors can recognize basic shapes!) But I have a blog so that I can think things out in writing and I haven't been doing enough of that lately.

I've moved a lot in my life and everywhere I've lived has left a mark, whether I wanted it to or not. Even though I was only in Bahrain for two years and I left without intending to ever return, it hurts me to see the nation in so much pain. I don't know how this will resolve. It's been two weeks since the outbreak of violence was ended and nothing seems to have been decided, other than the Grand Prix being moved elsewhere. I sincerely hope, insha'Allah, a resolution will be found to give a voice to all citizens of Bahrain without completely abandoning their cultural hertitage. And I hope even more fervently that it will happen without any more bloodshed.

Bahrain, for what it's worth, I'm thinking about you...

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