From the perspective of my wife and I, all was once again well with the world. The peaceful protesters were back at Pearl Roundabout, there were no police, no army, no bloody teargas and no security personnel hanging around. Yes, it was difficult to move in and out of the complex in our car but the protesters had volunteer traffic wardens (as well as cleaners) so it was far from unbearable. I felt like I had dodged a bullet by not being arrested (I still cannot imagine what it must have been like for some families to have had their front door kicked down in the middle of the night and witnessed the head of the household being savagely beaten in from of them before being taken away to be tortured) and there was nothing controversial to videotape, so the lack of camcorder was no problem.
My wife and I visited the roundabout one evening and there was a pleasant, carnival-like atmosphere. Thousands of people united by one primary goal (something called ‘democracy’) were mingling happily as one group. There were free food stalls everywhere (a new popcorn machine had been installed), a small area set aside for aspiring artists and even free haircuts were available. The pro-government trolls later claimed that there were “sex tents” to cater for you-know-what, which was both preposterous and insulting to the large number of families, women and children that were in attendance. Once again, at no time did we ever feel unsafe or threatened and, needless to say, did we see any evidence of weapons on display.
I eventually returned to work at the Polytechnic as preparations were in order to welcome our students back and there were several meetings with all staff, both academic and non-teaching. In these meetings the CEO, Mr. John Scott, stressed the fact that the Polytechnic needed to be seen as a place where all students were able to feel safe amidst all the turmoil that had happened outside. Security was beefed up and there was a need to search students’ vehicles for weapons but John wanted everyone to know that we could not be seen to be taking sides and that we needed to remain neutral in front of our students. I fully agreed with him but after what I had witnessed I found it very difficult to be neutral. I really struggled with this notion because to me, it made me feel like I didn’t care. Looking back (which is always so easy to do) I know I should have spoken to more people about this but I could not bring myself to tell anyone I was neutral. In my eyes it was like saying, “Oh, I don’t mind what happens because I’m an expat” or “It’s your country, it’s got nothing to do with me”.
The group of students that I had the priviledge of teaching before February 14th (I also taught them in the previous semester) were a wonderful group of young people and made my job so enjoyable. For those who may not know, Bahraini students have superb senses of humour and can speak and listen to English extremely well (I won’t mention their writing!). I did not have the slightest idea which of my students were Sunni or Shia and it did not make any difference before the unrest. Some of my students had formed their own group called The Catalysts who wanted to bring about change (obviously) as well as undertaking community projects and charity work. They were all friends and we had a ball together. After February 14th it was all gone.
My first day back at teaching saw my students sitting in different groups and the air in the classroom was cold (I’m not talking about the air-conditioning). There were no smiles, no laughter and I immediately knew which students were pro-government: the ones that were the most pissed off. I tried to make them welcome and wanted them to know that we had all been through a tough time but that I hoped we could still have a good semester together. I then told the class that I had been asked to be neutral about the events and that I was sorry, but I could not. I knew this would alienate many in the class but I hoped that they would understand and respect me, based on our good relationship. Wrong.
After the class I was approached by a group of pro-government male students who were very keen to tell me not to be fooled by what I had heard or been told by people from the other side. They played the Iran card, saying protesters wanted Bahrain to be a part of Iran again and that they wanted to change the country with all women covering themselves, etc, etc. I was told that the protesters were liars and had faked their injuries. I tried to state my case that the protests were about true democracy but I was wasting my time. I thanked the boys and made my excuse to leave.
Meanwhile, away from work I was kept busy on Facebook keeping up with the stream of information about what had been happening. To my dismay, there was a huge amount of misinformation about what had occurred. Alegations of weapons being found during the roundabout clearance on February 17th, the sex-tent rumours, the faking of injuries and photographs, etc. I was appalled that students, including some of my own, would spread such malicious gossip. I took it upon myself to try to correct some of these errors based on my own experience, living with the Pearl Roundabout on my back doorstep. I got involved in several discussions with a few students in particular, “friends” on my Facebook account, who had severely warped and prejudiced views on the protesters and outrageous and blinkered opinions about their own government and so-called leaders. The use of the word “terrorists” was introduced and one student classified the protesters as worse that Hitler because “even Hitler kept the schools going”. Enough said.
As February drew to a close we were treated to the spectacle of the protest marches, the likes of which I had not seen before in real life. We could see from our apartment the protesters stretched from Seef all the way to the roundabout, about 2 kilometres of united protest. Once again the women were easily distinguished in their black and there was even a long Bahraini strip flag that was hundreds of metres long. As they slowly passed our building we could hear their chants and singing and each of these marches were, once again, conducted peacefully and respectfully.
Not to appear to be outdone, the pro-government Bahrainis organised their own gatherings ostensibly as a show of support for the ruling family but obviously a clear attempt at one-upmanship and “anything you can do we can do better”. Unfortunately it was discovered that many of the pro-government crowd consisted of expat labourers from the sub-continent who were paid in food vouchers to join in and wave small Bahraini flags. Once again, enough said.
On March 3rd things started to get ugly. There was reportedly a clash in Hamad Town between Shia and Sunni and on March 10th another Sunni/Shia altercation occurred following an incident at a girls’ school. I was informed that the Sunni involved were the naturalised ones who are imported by the government to help bolster their numbers in return for plum jobs (usually in security) and free housing. A few days after this I awoke to see a strange sight from our bedroom window: no cars at all on the normally busy Seef highway. I discovered later that it had been blocked at both ends by protesters and I knew this would eventually mean trouble. In the subsequent days the large malls surrounding the area (Bahrain City Centre, Dana Mall, Seef Mall, Bahrain Mall) all closed as few customers could enter. Thankfully my wife had left the country at this time but things were starting to get uncomfortable for me. The enormous numbers at the roundabout made travel in our car virtually impossible and now most of the shops in the area were shut. Two of my fellow-teachers were also living in my apartment complex and we all received an offer from the Polytechnic to move away and stay at a hotel if we wanted to, which was extremely kind of them.
On the 13th of March the government had had enough and sent the police in to clear the protesters but had to force their way in via the blocked highway first. I watched the events unfolding from my windows and from the carpark (until teargas intervened) and eventually the police retreated, much to the delight of the protesters. The battle had lasted for most of the morning and only ended when the police knew that they did not have the numbers.
That was to change when the King called on Saudi Arabia to help him control his own country the following day. Something told me that things would only get worse and I accepted the Polytechnic’s offer and packed my bags and drove to the Gulf Hotel, figuring out what to do. My wife at this time was understandably concerned about me and we decided a break in Thailand was called for, so I booked a flight online and flew there the next day.
Next blog: Return to Bahrain and termination from work.