by Pete Lewis
At nine years of age I remember I was devastated that my family was soon to be leaving Wales to live in Bahrain in Persian Gulf. Life was just starting to get exciting and I had no desire to leave the fishing village of Mumbles that was my entire world, to go and live on a mysterious desert Island. There was simply too much to leave behind. I had a crew of friends who I liked to hunt ghosts and explore the cliff tops and beaches with. I also had a paper round that I was far too young for but exceptionally proud of.
I would deliver newspapers and magazines after school, which was OK in the summer but when autumn arrived things became a bit more problematic. On those cold dark evenings the old house that was towards the end of my paper round, with the long unlit driveway that was enshrouded in weeping willows, would often not receive the South Wales Evening Post because I was scared shitless of all the potential hanging bodies, ghostly monks or worse, that were no doubt, lurking all along the way to the giant oak door. Other people who did not receive the publications that they subscribed to were skateboarders, surfers and dart players. Well that’s not strictly true. They would receive their magazines after this I was done flicking through them for a few days. And so began my life long love of surfing and darts, on top of my growing fascination with skateboards. OK, my love of darts didn’t last that long.
Meanwhile, several of my friends with older brothers were starting to talk about surfing and becoming ‘surfies,’ which basically meant adopting surf fashion but not actually surfing yet. So in between discussions about episodes of The Young ones, (which I was not allowed to watch yet) and CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), we discussed surfing. Wait, wait, eight year olds discussing CND?! That’s right. I’m sure, like surfing, discussions about CND stemmed from politically conscious older brothers and sisters spouting off in front of the younger urchins that I mingled with in the playground. So began my political (un)consciousness.
I spent my last summer in Wales scoping out houses that I thought were haunted, exploring World War Two era bomb shelter remains on the top of Mumbles Hill and watching the surfers slash the brown waves that occasionally pumped into Langland Bay. Life was beautifully simple, all I wanted to do was hunt ghosts, ride a bike with no hands, tic-tac a skateboard and catch an episode of The Young Ones. My parents were beginning to discuss the possibility of moving overseas. I thought we already lived in paradise and pretended not to hear them.
Back in school after the summer, my teacher joked that it was going to be so hot in Bahrain that I would soon be wearing a thobe. The only image of Bahrain that I had seen was of local kids running bare foot through the dusty streets chasing a hula hoop with sticks. Not a skateboard or surfboard in sight.
Christmas 1984, my Dad was not with us, he was already in the Persian Gulf on the island Emirate of Bahrain. We spoke on the phone around that time and I asked him if there were good waves in Bahrain and he said no, there was no surfing but there was windsurfing. What the fuck was windsurfing? At this point I was hell bent on becoming a surfer and so this was a harsh blow. After we hung up the phone, I went to look at what I knew was a skateboard, wrapped up under the Christmas tree. It would have to do.
By pure coincidence a new boy had joined our class during those my last few days. His family had just moved back to Wales from Bahrain. He was very clean cut and tanned, didn’t sound Welsh at all, had a gold ring and was shit at rugby. I didn’t like him but he was the centre of attention and so before I left I asked him what Bahrain was like. I don’t think he liked me either and replied,
“Horrible, you’ll hate it there. I’m glad we moved back.”
Two months later, I was cruising bare foot at sunset on my skateboard, pretending palm trees were tubing waves, marveling at the Islamic prayer to call that echoed through the evening. My dad had shipped out my mother, younger brother, sister and grandmother to Bahrain, for three years to earn some tax free salary to pay off our house in Wales and raise some money to build an extension for Gran to live in and generally secure a middle class existence.
Thousands of years of history crammed into several meager paragraphs
Bahrain is an archipelago of thirty-three islands tucked away in a corner of the Arabian Gulf, with Saudi Arabia to the West and Qatar to the south. It has a fascinating history that is still being uncovered and researched today. In the 1960s a Danish archaeologist became convinced that Bahrain was the site of the ancient civilization of Dilmun (3000 BC) that lasted for two thousand years. After years of excavation of many of the thousands of burial mounds by an international crew of archaeologists, it is now widely accepted that Bahrain was indeed the center of Dilmun (which at various times in history covered a large area throughout the Gulf and Eastern Saudi Arabia). It was and still is exceptionally fertile and green considering its geographic location due to the freshwater springs that bubble up from beneath the land and sea. The name Bah-rain, actually means “two seas” referring to the salt water sea and the fresh water springs that lie beneath it. The location of the islands was in a key position for trade between the East and Middle East. As more and more traders passed through, Dilmun and later Bahrain became known for its abundance in pearls and the skilled divers that harvested them. Pearls contributed significantly to the wealth of islands. That is, until the discovery of oil. In 1932 Bahrain was the first Gulf nation to discover oil and the first to reap its benefits. And like the pearls the supply of oil was not unlimited.
Location, fertile land, fresh water and wealth also ensured that throughout its history Bahrain has been subject to conquest and occupation by a variety of outside peoples. Bahrain has been occupied by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Omanis, the Portuguese and the British Empire up until 1971. Some Bahrainis will still argue that Bahrain is still under occupation by people who do not belong there.
The current rulers of Bahrain arrived on the islands during the mid-eighteenth century. The Al-Khalifas are descendants of a powerful nomadic tribe from mainland Arabia. They are not native to the islands. The indigenous people of Bahrain, often referred to as Baharnahs are of Persian descent. Furthermore, the Al-khalifas and the ruling class are predominately Sunni Muslims (approx. 20-30% of the Bahraini population), whereas the native Bahrainis are Shi’a Muslims (approx 70-80% of the population). These ethnic and religious differences are at the core but not necessarily the sole reason for the ongoing tensions in the country. The British ensured the puppet rule of the Al-Khalifas throughout their own occupation, until Bahrain gained independence in 1971. It seems it is easier to control a totalitarian regime than a democratic society. For the first three years after gaining independence, Bahrain had a National Assembly, a constitution (drawn up with the aid of Britain) and a system that resembled some form of democracy until it was gradually broken up and dissolved by the ruling elite. Political parties were soon outlawed. Yet, the British and Americans continued to help to advise and manage all aspects of the government, security and military despite the total dismantling of any semblance of democracy.
The majority Shi’a working class population is still governed and ruled by the minority Sunni families, headed by the Al-Khalifa royal family. The distribution of wealth is not coincidently inversely proportionate to population make up. Since independence Human Right’s organizations, the British and US governments have all agreed, to some degree, that democracy, basic freedoms and civil/human rights are lacking. Meanwhile, Bahrain is sold as an Islamic nation that enjoys a ninety percent literacy rate (including women) and a relative lack of absolute destitution in comparison to other ‘third world’ countries. Bahrain is often cited as a shining example of a relatively peaceful, harmonious and liberal country within the Middle East. From an outside perspective (that includes expat residents), the people of Bahrain seemingly enjoy adequate education, health care and housing. Indeed, on the surface it seems that Bahrainis are very proud of their heritage, their culture and even their royal family and they also pride themselves on the fact that so many foreigners from around the world come to Bahrain to make a better life for themselves.
Yet, the roots of a very desperate problem have always been well concealed. Dissent has been all but snuffled out using the most crude and brutal methods over the last few decades. Daily newspapers depict a harmonious and diverse community. Yet, a visitor to the island need only put in a little effort to discover people living in destitute villages and many others begging in the capital city of Manama. There are several hidden “Shanty” towns that have been barricaded from the view of the main roads. Yet, that is just surface level stuff poverty that most people would expect and accept. There is a much deeper issue that it takes some effort to discover and examine. This is the horror that has brought Bahrain to the attention of international Human Rights advocates. It is a horror that has seen the need to shove glass bottles up the arses of teenage boys in punishment spray-painting inflammatory graffiti amongst other things.
Essentially, there are two potentially revolutionary forces that threaten the existing power structure of Bahrain. One is a secular demand for a more open and democratic society including, elections, an open dialogue on local Human and Civil Rights issues and a free press. The other is an Iranian influenced move towards Islamic theocracy. It seems as though the ruling elite have chosen to move along the more democratic path or at least to try and convince the outside world that this is the case. Mainly, because the majority working class have more in common with Iran than they do with the Al Khalifas. Thus an Islamic theocracy would put an end to their rule and has to be avoided even if it means ‘opening up’ to the idea of democracy a tad.
In 1999 the Emir, Sheikh Isa died and his son Sheikh Hamad replaced him. Not surprisingly, Sheikh Hamad made a commitment to moving towards democracy and improving Human Rights when he assumed the throne. A referendum was held in 2001 to approve constitutional changes. As a result Bahrain is now a constitutional monarchy. Local elections were held in 2002 with women being able to vote. Other gulf states, including Saudi Arabia are watching Bahrain’s steps towards ‘democracy’ with close eyes. While Human Right’s groups and democratic activists continue to criticize the ruling regime. Pro-democracy events continue to get banned. The working class youth continue to spray political graffiti and riot in frustration. According to the French newspaper LaMonde in 2005, 80,000 people are still struggling to survive below the poverty line.
Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s hundreds of mostly young working class Shi’a men were rounded up and imprisoned, often for years without official charges or a fair trial. Oftentimes torture was involved, oftentimes to the knowledge and even under the direction of -British and American ‘security advisors.’ Someone should and could right a book on the hidden struggle of working class Bahrainis and the dynamics of the last four decades of dissent but my role here is to examine to role of expatriates (particularly that of the white western species) in the whole saga.
Expatriates make up about 35% of the population. Human Rights Watch states that between the years 1981 and 1991 15,800 of 74,200 new jobs in the economy were filled by expatriates. Even though there are expatriates from all over the world in Bahrain they can be basically divided into two camps. One is a population that comes from Asia (largely India and Pakistan) who are prepared to do menial work for exceptionally low wages. The second is, professional and/or technically qualified people from the ‘West’ who are paid vast salaries, live tax free and are provided with numerous other ‘perks’ to provide incentive to live and work in Bahrain. It is worth noting that there are obviously many overlaps and exceptions to make up of the expatriate community. However the point remains the same, the situation leaves many Bahrainis unwilling to work the menial jobs for below poverty wages and unqualified for the higher paying jobs. While the government might admit that there is something of an employment problem for working class Bahrainis, Human Rights watch stated in 1994 that unemployment amongst young men in Shi’a communities was twice that of the official 1994/95 rate of 15%. Furthermore, it might not simply be a matter of acceptable wages and qualifications. It has been suggested by dissident groups that the Shi’a have a far harder time working their way up the economic ladder and getting influential jobs because the power structure and rigid hierarchal nature of society intentionally tries to keep them down. One only has to note that the ‘Public Security’ force is largely made up of Pakistani expatriates.
White Filth and Easy Living
I wrote a horrible poem few years ago about not being able to escape squares and rectangles. It was about how we live in squares, work in squares, watch the box and so on while being disconnected from the circles and cycles of nature. It was pretty piss poor but thinking about it now as I ponder the current mode of the expat existence in Bahrain, I think I see some relevance buried beneath my pretentious poetics. It seems as though white western expats go from their barbed wired and guarded ‘compounds’ to air conditioned car to air conditioned office or school, to the exclusive air conditioned private sports club to the expensive air conditioned restaurant in the hotel, to the air conditioned shopping mall -full of McShit between the Gaps- and back to the compound again to swim in private swimming pools or play squash in private air-conditioned squash courts. Of course there is more to the expat existence than my cynical depiction but it is sometimes hard to say what that might be.
It seemed as though back in 1985 there was still some form of meaningful interaction between the western expat community and the local people from the villages. When my family arrived in Bahrain, we moved into a compound not far from the village of A’ali, famed for its pottery and the vast stretch of ancient burial mounds nearby. When I was about 11, I used to venture outside the compound to explore the wider world away from the tennis court and swimming pool of the compound. My friends and I would cycle around on our BMX bikes and go to the village to buy spray paint and exotic brands of chewing gum. Inevitably we would cross the paths of young Bahraini boys our own age. Sometimes the interactions were positive and we would discuss break-dancing and bikes and show off how unquestioningly great we were at both these activities. Without a doubt, sometimes these interactions were negative.
When I was about 12 I insulted a local’s younger brother for holding hands with his friend, something that is very common amongst Arab males of all ages but not that cool to us young white western bigots. The result was a pre-arranged fight. I was to meet the older brother at a designated location (a stretch of ‘wasteland’ between compounds and villages) in the early evening. I arrived with a crew of about a dozen kids my age and as I had suspected so did he. So we were getting ready to rumble when the boy I was supposed to fight pulled out half a pair of scissors and locked the finger hole onto his middle finger and then beckoned me to fight. I told him I would not fight him unless he dropped his weapon but he refused, so then I said to wait while I went home to get my own weapon. Anyway the fight was soon cancelled. I ran into him the next day and he attempted to apologize. I refused to accept his apology and so he sucker punched me in the face and the fight went ahead after all. Even though this incident demonstrated the potentially disastrous results of such a cultural clash, most of our interactions with the Bahraini villagers during that era did not culminate in fights.
Obviously my friends and I were not the only western white expats interacting with Bahraini villagers. Back in the mid 1980s it did seem as though there was a bit more integration (to use the term loosely), than in the years to follow. This was a time when there was still no MacDonald’s on the island so you might go to the village to get shawarmas. There were no chain stores to buy the same clothes as people were buying back home and so you might go into the Souq to purchase some material and then take it to a tailor to fashion you some unique clothing. There was no Coca-Cola, Cadbury’s chocolate or British Home stores and even though we longed for those things, their absence forced us to seek out local alternatives and thus interact and communicate with Bahraini people. Not surprisingly the more these imperialistic mega-brands forged they’re way across Arabia, the more Bahrain lost its character and the more segregated the local community and the expat community became.
While it seemed like a tremendous novelty to finally be able to buy Coke in Bahrain, I now believe the ensuing results were unfortunate and irreversible. When expats got access to everything they missed back home they were arguably no longer living in Bahrain. They were now just driving from one compartmentalized version of western consumer capitalism to the next. The Bahrain of old disappeared in their rear view mirrors, hidden amongst the dust, torn up from the ancient foundations of Dilmun by their Lexus SUVs.
Even before Coke arrived and before the huge shopping malls began to pave their way along the coast the expat community and the Bahraini community obviously led starkly different lifestyles. For one, Expats would frequent expat only (except if you were brown) beaches and private sports and sailing clubs. Even though Bahrain had been independent for well over a decade, by the mid 1980s a colonial mentality was still prevalent, whereby expats felt they were living in some remote outpost, where they had to make an effort to nourish a sense of community amongst themselves. In actuality this was just an excuse to drink a lot and convince each other that despite the stress of training the locals to run their own country, they were living some idyllic lifestyle unlike everyone they had left behind in dreary old pessimistic, unemployment ridden, crime ridden England or wherever. It was also an excuse to avoid thinking about the political implications of their being in Bahrain in the first place and a way of way to ignore the devastating human right’s problem that existed right in font of them.
By our early teens, my friends and I were bored of sailing with our parents and going swimming at the Gulf Hotel Club and so we began to seek out alternative adventure. We began hitch hiking as our primary mode of transportation and as an assertion of independence from parents. We would hitch into the city centre of Manama to ride our skateboards under the glowing neon signs and towering mosques. It was usually a young Bahraini who would pick us up, always male, usually in his twenties, chain smoking cigarettes and listening to reggae. I hated smoke, so I’d usually be leaning out the window trying to get some fresh air, while my friends tried to scrounge fags off the driver. I didn’t mind the reggae though, even if it did not fit into my musical diet of largely thrash metal, punk and hip-hop. A lot of reggae is a not-so-strangely fitting soundtrack to Bahrain. People often associate the music with an idyllic island lifestyle but a closer look reveals a desperate political situation. Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Sonny’s Letta could easily take place in Bahrain as opposed to Brixton. Of course Bob Marley was often the favorite amongst the Bahrainis. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but Marley’s songs about curfews, shanty towns and post colonial Jamaica obviously struck a chord with some of these youths, growing up in Shi’a villages. Sometimes, one of us might try and score some ganja from one of the people who picked us up hitching. The result was often, us being driven into one of the labyrinth like villages while our eager-to-please-the-western boys-driver would attempt to score us some. On more than one occasion we ended up jumping out of the car and running off as we sensed we were being driven into a sketchy situation. Picture a group of three or four scruffy white fifteen year olds, running through a Shi’a village at three in the morning.
Saudi Arabians who had driven across the Saudi causewayfor a weekend of debauchery also were often eager to pick us up. Inevitably, not long into the journey, they would offer us beer or drugs in exchange for us taking them to where some of our female friends might be. I had lifts where the driver had nearly completed three cans of beer in a half hour journey and lifts where someone had to pull a knife to get the driver to stop to let us out. Sometimes I am amazed that I came out of such situations unscathed. A few expat kids weren’t so lucky.
By my mid-teens, much like most teens, I was pretty fucking angry at the world. Angry at the stupid British education system, angry that girls wouldn’t talk to me and I was incapable at talking to them, angry that I would be eaten alive if I was return to school in Wales, confused at parent’s growing prosperity and angry at Bahrainis who would stare at me for riding a skateboard with stupid hair cuts and bad fashion. Boohoo, woe was I.
Sometimes my anger would result in me stabbing my mattress and slicing up my school uniform. Sometimes it would result in me picking fights, usually with friends who were not white. I once beat a good friend until he admitted that he was a ‘Paki-shit.’ For the life of me I can’t think of what he did to provoke that. On one occasion, two friends and I were turned away from a nightclub for having inappropriate attire. So we snuck into the toilet armed with ketchup bottles, Tabasco sauce and mustard that we had nicked from a nearby food trolley. We proceeded to paint the whole room a wild mix of red, white and orange, screaming at the top of our lungs. We were caught by the club security and they proceeded to call the police as they guarded the exit. However, I spied another exit and made ‘eye signals’ at my friends to make a run for it. I nodded the count to signal our break and bolted for the door. Several blocks into the city centre we realized that there were only two of us. Our other friend was caught and left to clean that almighty mess up by himself or go to jail. Needless to say I nearly lost a good friend that night. On another occasion, I once got blind drunk and stormed through Mananma on a crowded weekend night shouting obscenities about Islam. I was chased by some angry Muslims and had to hide out in the maze of alleyways in the Souq before it was safe to re-find my friends. I should have a Fatwa issue against me for that one. Other stupidity included, spending a night in a Bahraini jail cell for crashing my mother’s car while under the influence of Foster’s lager and I once decked a security guard who attempted to confiscate my skateboard.
Thankfully, most of my anger was not that miss-directed. I never went into a mosque, shat on the Koran and shouted obscenities through the loud speaker that Muslims pray through, as one expat kid from Liverpool did. I never beat an Indian security guard within an inch of his life as two other English kids did, which resulted in a year or so in a Bahraini jail for both of them.
I’d like to think that each one of my misadventures provided me with a growing education of the expat role in Bahrain. For instance, my night in a Bahraini jail cell brutally opened my eyes to my privilege. I had been slapped by cops before but this time they were very cordial and kept telling me I was a ‘good boy’ because I was not drunk and only had one beer. Then in the police station they offered me sweet Arabic tea and allowed me to make numerous phone calls to try and get someone to bail me out. Essentially, they said that if I called the right person I would be able to leave without consequence. The right person would have been a member of an influential family. Being that many members of the royal family attended the same schools as western expats this possibility was not that remote. However, no one was willing to help me out at two in the morning, probably because I was an anti-social bastard. My parents were back in Wales so I could not call them. So in the cells it was.
I got to choose from four or five different cells, each with about four other people crashed out on the floor. I was given a blanket and that was that. I covered my matted blonde hair and white legs with the blanket and just left my boots showing. All night, I was kept awake by the praying and wailing of various people who were about to be deported. It was the first does of the harsh reality of life in Bahrain for the underprivileged that I was forced to witness close up. I was eventually bailed out by a friend of my Dad after a long hot morning in a stinking cell with brawling Kuwaitis, drunk Saudis and weeping Indians who had no idea when they were getting out. All of them were very cool to me, offered food and were curious as to why a white teenager would end up on a concrete floor in a festering jail cell.
A couple of months after I turned 18, I left Bahrain for Wales. I chose to return to Wales to attend university as I wanted to rediscover my roots. Even so, I left thinking I was far superior for being an expat kid. I felt like I was a worldly internationalist in comparison to those who grew up in the UK. I was in for a rude awakening but it needed to happen. Thanks in part to the people I befriended who were from far different backgrounds to that of my own, I slowly developed a bit more of a political consciousness that eventually helped me understand my role in Bahrain. I began to consider the class structure of the country and the totalitarian nature of the absolute monarchy. I also began to read up on the Human Rights struggle, largely through the Voice of Bahrain (VOB) website (http://www.vob.org/). VOB is made up of pro-democracy activists from all sectors of Bahraini society, both Islamists and those of a more secular persuasion. Part of the website details arrests, prison time without trial but what struck me the most was the detailing of torture. I knew some of these things were happening but the extent just boggled my mind. What further boggled my mind was that many, mainly British and American expats were indirectly and sometimes directly involved with it all.
It is no secret that Bahraini security forces have violently suppressed dissent. It is no secret that a Brit, named Ian Henderson, was the chief advisor to said security forces. Henderson (who helped suppress the Mau Mau in Kenya before moving to Bahrain) is a wanted man amongst Human Rights activists. The only secret is why he isn’t being held accountable for his actions. When I realized that I had socialized with people who had worked under this wanker, I was outraged. I was even more outraged when I sparked this discussion with fellow expats and they came off so disinterested. I could find very little sympathy for the plight of disenfranchised Bahrainis amongst those who had profited from the socioeconomic/political structure of Bahrain. Amongst many expats who were in Bahrain at the time of the protests and riots, the traditional colonial attitude prevailed.
What are they shouting about now? Blocking roads, burning tires, and blowing up gas canisters isn’t going to get them anywhere is it?
Perhaps, I was expecting too much. I returned to visit Bahrain in 1994 just in time for a mini uprising. It was largely contained in the Shi’a villages, hidden from the expats in their confined compounds and the rich in their villas with barbed wired perimeters, but I sought it out.
My brother, a friend and I decided to drive around the island one afternoon to have a look at all the anti-government graffiti. We were leaving the city centre when we could see several helicopters hovering over a particular area. There were also columns of black smoke rising from this area. We decided to investigate and drove over to what we determined was the Shi’a village of Jidhafs. There was a heavy police presence on the roads surrounding the village, so we drove in through the narrow back alleys. As we got deeper into the village, we could see hundreds of people waving black flags and chanting in the face of the heavily armed security who were marching towards them. A thick black smoke was in the air from the burning tires. The security forces were unlike any I had seen before in Bahrain. They were dressed in all black combat gear with riot protection helmets and shields.
We tried to drive closer to get a better look when we came across one of the security/policemen. They motioned wildly for us to turn around but there were several cars behind us and it was difficult to turn in the confined area. Then the tear gas began to fly. We were trying to turn the car around when a tear gas canister was shot through the air towards us and landed about fifty feet away. Unfortunately, we could not turn the air-conditioning off before some of it leaked into the car. On our way out of the village I attempted to take a few photographs but I panicked as the security forces furiously directed us out of the scene. On the way home we stopped by the sight of the aftermath of another protest and found a burnt Bahraini flag. I can say that at that point, I knew I had witnessed something exceptional in that these events were not being documented anywhere. It was my responsibility not to ignore what I had seen. Elsewhere the island was peaceful and calm as usual. I later learned that some of the faces behind the riot gear were white.
Since then a few articles have appeared in the likes The Guardian newspaper and Lord Avebury (ironically, a member of House of Lords, perhaps the most undemocratic of British institutions but that is another story) has spearheaded a campaign to look into pro-democracy struggle and the ensuing abuses of Human Rights. Also, Bahrain has taken more baby steps towards a more open and democratic society. Meanwhile, more shopping malls have sprung up by the dozen, more and more American and European goods are available for consumption, compounds are more secure and clubs more exclusive. Many Bahraini dissidents have aligned their struggle in solidarity with Palestine and Iraq, perhaps encouraging a more anti-Western sentiment to their dissent. Yet, it seems as though the atmosphere in Bahrain is currently pretty calm. Elections have been held, free association and a free press are supposedly legal again. The people have been thrown just enough crumbs to keep them quiet for awhile. As demonstrated by The Battle of Algiers, a reaction to hundreds of years of oppression by colonial and post-colonial forces remains inevitable. The chickens could still come home to roost.