by Mike Diboll
Beachy Head, East Sussex, December 2012: the body would be smashed open as it hit the crags as it plummeted, white cliffs stained blood-red against the gunmetal sea and leaden sky. The pounding waves would merely flush away the mess. The phone rings:
‘It’s Richard from Time to Talk … How are you feeling today?’
Is this some kind of tracking app?, I wonder.
‘Where are you?’
‘Beachy Head … It’s okay, there’s someone with me, I’m just going for a walk ….’
Still the waves crash and flush: as with the Brighton express that cuts through Mid Sussex stations at full speed, ending this way would be to stop the pain, not a cry for help.
December 2008, Jidd Hafs Maternity Hospital, Bahrain. My daughter’s a day old. Just outside the hospital white-helmeted mercenary-police in riot gear confront a small group of shabaab in this most Baharna of neighbourhoods.
My wife asks for something from my 4X4, I leave the ward to fetch. Something’s wrong. My eyes, my throat, burn. An ecstasy of fumbling: a CS gas canister or two over the hospital’s perimeter wall. My mucus membranes choke off my throat, I stagger back to the ward. My daughter’s not in her cot.
‘Where is she?’
‘In an incubator ….’ The jidd hafsy nurse senses my panic. ‘We always put the babies there when the gas comes into the hospital … it’s just routine ….’
Two years, three months later I’ll see entire villages carpet-gassed, houses and shops invisible in a thick fog of CS.
A Comparative Literature class, University of Bahrain, January 2009. We’re doing Irish stories of 1916. One of the brightest students makes connections between Ireland then, Bahrain now, and Britain. Walking out to my car a Man in White stops me.
‘Don’t listen to her. If you know what’s good for you, you won’t let her be disruptive again. She supports Khomeini, her whole family does. We’re watching them. I’d keep your distance.’
Bahrain Teachers College, October 2009: ‘Where’s Hussein?’ The student’s missed three classes.
‘Don’t worry where Hussein is’, the senior academic mercenary tells me, ‘he’s the authorities’ problem now, not ours. Make sure his name’s taken off the records.’
Bahrain Teachers College, 11th March 2011. I refuse to leave with the mercenary-educators. I must bear witness. I was in the middle of a class. At the height of the Bahrain Revolution: unarmed protestors have had their brains blown out. Students, predominantly female undergraduates, predominantly education, humanities and social sciences students, have begun a peaceful protest. Peaceful but assertive. They are attacked by baltajiyya: regime-loyalist vigilante gangs who seemed to have turned up on campus by pre-arrangement, police and military out of uniform, sectarian street gangs, jihadist fanatics, gym-bunnies anxious to flex their muscles. They brutalise the students. The male students try to form a protective ring. The thugs brandish swords, spears, clubs, chains. Heads split, blood spills. Students’ fathers, brothers, uncles turn up to rescue them form their ordeal. The ‘police’ arrive, riot guns, CS, baton rounds, birdshot. Then the military, helicopters, live fire. I run and hide … pools of congealing blood, scattered handbags and women’s shoes, wrecked vehicles. Higher education has been murdered in Bahrain. The counter-revolution has begun. Soon Saudi tanks will snuff out the occupations of public space. The villages will face a defensive rear-guard action against the juggernaut that wants to crush them. This will last years.
My last days in Bahrain: an automatic weapon poked in my face by jumpy teenage Saudi soldiers blocking the road along which I used to take my son to school; being stopped and questioned near my home by a pick-up truck full of loyalist thugs; the nauseating celebrations of ‘expat’ (British immigrant) former friends who now reject me; surveillance of my electronic communications.
I arrive in my native UK having lost everything. My children and partner having lost everything. Refugees in effect, apart from our crucial possession of a UK passport. I am broken, traumatised, I’ve lost savings, a job, a career, friends, a home. Aged seven as of 2016 my daughter is persona non-grata on account of her name.
‘We’re watching them.’
November 2012. Someone at Job Centre Plus has suggested – ordered – me to take a role as a Christmas Santa.
Iain Duncan Smith opines that the unemployed are unemployed because of the moral choices they have made. Tell me about it.
Hayhaat minnaa al-dhilla – not for us humiliation: death has started to seem a happier prospect.
In moments of anger I say that Bahrain has made me mad, made me suicidal. But this is unfair. Bahrain is dear to me, and Bahrain’s people.
The waves wash and flush away the human remains. But I have a plan. Later, in some ethnographic research, undertaken when I’m more well, but not cured, former students tell me of the psychological traumatisation that was a deliberate aspect of the counter-revolution. The Saudi-led and British-supported counter-revolution.
Bahrain didn’t make me mad, or even the nastly little quasi-colonial family-state regime that currently rules it. I’m tougher than that.
No, it was coming back to Britain that pushed me to the brink of that cliff, to the edge of that platform. I felt like a witness to a rape or a murder. I had to tell the world what I’d seen, felt. But the powers of this world denied it. It never happened. I wandered, going slowly crazy until, like the Ancient Mariner, I’d stop strangers and try to tell my tale: ‘Off, grey-haired loon!’
Britain’s 200 years, not of ‘friendship, but of Colonialism and Oppression in Bahrain. The suffocating blanket tear-gas-fog of its PR machine. Britain’s Northern Ireland in the Middle East.
But, though wounded, I have survived.
Others have not.
The struggle continues.