by Jay Romano
“These kids were killed by the police during our revolution.”
A week ago I landed in Bahrain. After exiting the comfort of the air-conditioned airport into the harsh desert heat, I jumped into a cab and sped from Muharraq to the capital, Manama, a major financial hub for the region. The lightning fast sports cars, extravagant shopping malls, and bright lights beaming from the five-star hotels were my first impression of this tiny island kingdom. I felt as if I had arrived in a Middle Eastern Las Vegas.
While separated from Saudi Arabia by only a 16-mile causeway that links the two monarchies, Bahrain is truly a world apart in terms of social norms. By western standards, Bahrain is socially conservative, yet it is the most liberal Gulf state with respect to alcohol and gender norms.
Manama’s female drivers, live rock bands, easily available prostitutes, and bikini-clad women are publicly visible. Salafists from across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states mock the country, frequently referring to it as the “brothel of the Gulf.” For Saudis looking for a weekend getaway from Sharia law, Manama is indeed their Las Vegas. But I had visited Bahrain for a different reason: I wanted to understand the country’s political and social affairs.
I was determined to visit Sitra, a tiny island situated south of Manama and connected to the main island by a short causeway. While Bahrain’s Shia and Sunni Muslims live side by side throughout the country, Sitra’s native population is nearly 100 percent Shia. Bahrain’s Shia, who constitute 70 percent of the native population, say they suffer from job discrimination, political exclusion, and human rights abuses under the rule of the Sunni-dominated government, led by the al-Khalifa family since independence in 1971. Sitra is considered the heart of the Shia resistance to the Sunni monarchy. Since 2011, much of Bahrain’s violent unrest has taken place there.
Everyone—ranging from the US Department of State to all of my contacts in Manama—
advised me to avoid Sitra’s villages due to the risk of being caught in the crossfire of the relatively frequent violent clashes. Despite these warnings, I visited Sitra.
I took a taxi from one side of the causeway to the other and was dropped off at the Sitra Mall, adjacent to several car dealerships on the outskirts of the island’s villages. After walking along the side of the road for 15 minutes, I approached a major intersection. I immediately noticed government tanks and armored jeeps patrolling the main street.
I walked down a street littered with shards of broken glass. Countless vacant properties that appeared abandoned surrounded me. Absent in Sitra were the flashy skyscrapers and bright lights that Sitra’s residents are reminded of each day by simply turning their heads and looking across the water.
I headed off the main road to explore the villages. I soon approached a graveyard. While I stood there, two teenagers walked up behind me. I turned around and asked them if they spoke English. One said that he did.
“Can you tell me who is buried here?” I asked.
He replied, “These kids were killed by the police during our revolution.”
I asked him if I could get closer to take a better look. He responded, “Please do so.” The two continued down the road as I neared the graves.
Several minutes later I saw even more graveyards. I entered one and noticed a crying veiled woman. I departed in order to give her space to mourn her loss.
As I walked through the village, every car slowed down and the drivers and passengers stared at me. Along the dirt roads were trucks and sedans packed with people. What a contrast to the flashy Porsches and Lamborghinis that race through Manama’s first-world infrastructure.
By 2pm the afternoon heat prompted me to buy some water and juice at a nearby store. As I quenched my thirst, a local man slowly cruised by in his SUV before putting on the brakes. He rolled down his window and asked me in excellent English if I were a sailor in the US Navy (the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain). Given that the US supports Bahrain’s government—which, according to Amnesty International, kills, tortures, and detains Shia men, women and children for their alleged role in threatening the kingdom’s security—I lied and told the man that I was an Italian tourist. We conversed for several minutes before I jumped in his SUV and accepted his generous offer for a tour.
We drove down the narrow dirt roads of Sitra’s villages. While most of the cement walls were covered with graffiti written in Arabic, we drove past one tag I could understand: “We will gain freedom with our blood.”
Huge rocks blocked off many roads. My guide explained that the locals had put them up “to protect their families from the police.”
I saw hundreds of posters on the walls of buildings, most with the faces of Shia who were killed in 2011 by Bahraini and other GCC security forces that had entered the kingdom to crush anti-government demonstrations. One poster showed Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Another showed a Saudi Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who has been sentenced to execution. Twelve days earlier, scores of Bahraini Shia had gathered on the streets of Sitra to hold a solidarity protest for Nimr.
Moments later we drove by the police station in Sitra. The compound was surrounded by a cement wall, tanks, roadblocks, and armed police sitting on folding chairs.
My companion drove me to more graves, all adjacent to small mosques scattered throughout Sitra’s villages. The man claimed either to have known all those who died during the uprising, or to have had contact with someone connected to the various Shia whose graves we visited. As we walked past the graves, he explained the gruesome details of their deaths, pointing out on his own body where the bullets had hit each person. He also described the hardship (poverty, unemployment, etc.) that had prompted them to take their grievances to the street, where they lost their lives.
While we were standing in one graveyard, he placed his hand on my shoulder and pointed across the water to the Manama skyline. “Jay, in Bahrain we have two countries. There is one country there with the lights, money, and tourists, and then there is Sitra. The western tourists whose governments back the king have no interest in coming to this Bahrain.”
Still pointing across the water he continued, “They only care about that Bahrain. Those people mean nothing to me, and I have nothing to offer them. However, I thank you for leaving your hotel in Manama to walk around Sitra.”
During the drive back to my hotel I demanded that he accept some money for his time. But as a pious man, he refused. Eventually he gave in after I stuffed some cash in his glove compartment.
As he dropped me off at my hotel he said, “Jay, you have a friend in Bahrain, so please tell me when you return to this country.” At that point I confessed that I was actually from the United States. He laughed and told me that he had suspected I was American. Before we parted he said, “Thank you for your money but I did not give you the tour to receive your money. I gave you the tour because I want you to return home and tell as many people as possible about the difference between the two Bahrains. Also, do not forget to show everyone your pictures because the BBC will never show its viewers the graves of Sitra.”
— Jay Romano (a pseudonym) is a freelance foreign affairs analyst in Washington, DC.
Photo: The grave of a child near the village of al-Kharijiya. Credit: Jay Romano