” Ladies and gentlemen, I am not a prince of Sunni Bahrain, I am not a prince of Shia Bahrain. I am a prince of the Kingdom of Bahrain and all mean a great deal to me personally. I soon hope to see a meeting between all sides – and I call for a meeting between all sides – as I believe that only through face – to – face contact will any real progress be made.”
HRH Crown Prince Salman
Manama is a modern, cosmopolitan city with skyscrapers sitting right in the heart of a desert island. The giant Christmas tree in the posh Bahraini hotel (where I stayed) reflects one face of Bahrain – the tourist-friendly, tolerant country that is known for its relative liberalism in comparison to other Arab Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. For example, it is well- known that Saudi women often go to Bahrain to get a driver’s license, an act that is prohibited in their own strict Islamic country.
The Kingdom may be modern, but it has a long history due to its strategic location in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf. Ancient Sumerians described it as an island paradise to which the wise and the brave were taken to enjoy eternal life. Excavations in the Qal’at al-Bahrain (Bahrain Fort, a world heritage site since 2005) have unearthed antiquities created by various occupants dating from 2300 B.C. Although most of the island is a low-lying, barren desert, there is a fertile strip that is five kilometres wide along the northern coast where date, almond, fig and pomegranate trees grow.
The aforementioned modern face is just one of many on this intriguing Island; there are several others projected by its three main communities: The Sunni, the Shia and the ex-pats, which are multinational communities mainly from the Asian subcontinent. Sadly, the current political climate is tense and occasionally violent. There are long-running tensions between Bahrain’s Sunnis and the Shia Muslim majority. In early 2011, the government called in the Saudi military to crush protests by demonstrators who were demanding a greater say in government and an end to what Shias say is systematic discrimination against them in jobs and services. Despite the crackdown, Shia resentment has continued to simmer, sporadically erupting in anti-government protests.
The fertile land of the Island
During my brief visit, I was a bit surprised by how they were willing to talk politics (even with a complete stranger like me), and how each has a very firm, fixed opinion about the situation in Bahrain. Some views of Asian ex-pats were particularly alarming. Here are some examples:
“The Indian community has been here for more than a hundred years. If those Shia get into government, they will kick us out.” An Indian worker.
“The Shia are victim of oppression, but I worry if they take over, they will mistreat us.” Another Filipino worker.
“ The Shia must understand that this country is not as rich as other Gulf states and the king cannot provide everything they want.” A Bangladeshi taxi driver.
But perhaps the most interesting comment was from an Egyptian man:
“Everyone here, including me, is biased one way or another; take what they say with a pinch of salt.”
Finally, a Bangladeshi taxi driver agreed to take me to the Shia neighbourhood of Sanabis, – only after he rang two of his friends who reassured him that it was safe to visit. He later confessed that he had never ventured inside Shia areas in his 18 years inside the Kingdom; “only main streets; still it may not be safe,” he said. He looked tense as we started to walk the narrow alleys. “No police here; if anything happened to us, no one would know,” he said. It was so odd, that I – the foreigner – had to reassure a local that it would be fine and that the area looked safe.
A local man offered to guide us around; he even let us park the car in his private garage, while we went to the Matem (a mourning remembrance for Imam Husain). It was amazing, and the photos do not do it justice; the music, the chanting and the lyrics were simply beautiful.
A Shiite Matem
Every one dressed in black
A congregation Chanting in love of Hussain
Kids are part of the carnival
It was a men-only celebration; in such a conservative environment, women hardly ever mix with men. All of the women were reluctant to speak to me and definitely avoided my camera. Men were polite and let me wander around freely but many were not keen to talk. However, the graffiti on the walls was more telling; literally every house has one and they all share a common theme: “Down with Hamad.”
Here are some quotes from Bahraini Shia (not just from Sanabis):
“ We don’t hate Sunni, we just want equality and justice.” A Shia man speaking n Arabic.
“The King can do more for Shia. I work daily for long hours, still earn peanuts and it is very expensive here.” A Shia young lady who works in a shopping Centre.
“ Wefaq is not a violent party. We renounce violence and we welcome the Crown Prince’s invitation.” A Shia member of Wefaq. (indeed, Wefaq issued a statement, which you can read here.)
A sign say: the resilience of our free women would never resolve
Despite the call for dialogue, it seems that there is ongoing tension, also there was news that the Bahraini court reduced (rather than annulled) rights activist Nabil Rajab’s sentence from three to two years.
I left Bahrain with the Crown Prince’s words still resonating in my mind: “Without justice, there can be no freedom, and without freedom, there can be no true security.” It was well-crafted and worthy of his first public speech since April 2011. I hope his wise words prevail; otherwise, it could be déjà vu reminiscent of 2011.
Nothing grows without seeds, and reconciliation and reforms are no exception.
All photos are mine. Copyright protected.