I arrived back in Bahrain on the 2nd of April after what should have been a pleasant stay in Bangkok with my wife. I found it difficult to relax with my thoughts focused on what would happen to the protesters at Pearl Roundabout after the King had asked for help, requesting the use of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) troops to obviously control the situation with force. The GCC was set up to defend against external threats but was now being deployed against Bahrain’s own unarmed civilians, and the roundabout was cleared again while I was away.
While I was in Bangkok I learnt that the wonderful Pearl Monument had been demolished. I found this very difficult to understand but it only confirmed the Khalifa regime’s determination to remove all traces of the peaceful protests that had occurred there. State television said the area needed to be ‘cleansed’ and the Bahraini Foreign Minister, Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, said the demolition was “a removal of a bad memory”.
I felt a huge sense of loss when I drove my car towards Abraj Al Lulu and found there was no Lulu anymore. I had been told that when the monument was contructed in 1982 (for the 3rd summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council held in Bahrain) it was the tallest structure in the country at the time. It had since been dwarfed by several nearby apartment buildings but it was no less significant or impressive. Now it was gone.
The Polytechnic started up again following the break due to the “social unrest” and there was another full meeting of staff. We learnt that the Polytechnic, formerly under the guidance of the Economic Development Board was now to be a part of the Ministry of Education. A “deputy CEO” had been appointed from the Ministry, Dr Mohammed Ebrahim Al Aseeri (who was not present at the meeting), whose role was to liaise with the Minister in Arabic so that the Minister could answer questions about the Polytechnic in parliament. In stark contrast to his statement of neutrality in February, John Scott then announced that the Polytechnic was now part of the government and that we should be seen to support the government. “Like hell I will”, I said to myself. One of my colleagues summed up the situation perfectly when he said, “He’s been nobbled”. [Verb: Try to influence or thwart (someone or something) by underhanded or unfair methods: “an attempt to nobble the jury”.] Finally, John informed us that all staff and students would be “investigated” for participation in any of the recent demonstrations just as soon as the investigations had been completed at the University of Bahrain.
I resumed my teaching at the Polytechnic, devoting my time to squeezing my English course into the time that remained in the semester. My students had been given the option of morning or afternoon classes and had used this opportunity to form themselves mainly into a morning pro-government group and an afternoon pro-democracy group. Now the tables had been turned and my morning class was upbeat and smiling, whereas my afternoon class was quiet but determined. I still tried (as always) to teach without any favouritism or discrimination but the overwhelming arrogance of my morning class made it quite difficult for me. The students did not seem interested, some arriving very late, some not even bringing paper or pen, some simply operating their mobile phones for the duration of the lesson. I never mentioned what had happened outside the Polytechnic to them but I feel that many of the students were aware of my feelings and had simply dismissed me. I now feel that some of them were struggling as much as I was with their own inner conflict of appearing to support the government but secretly questioning what had taken place.
In May the investigations started as promised and the mood of the Polytechnic was difficult to explain. We learnt that Bahraini staff had been identified from photographs as having attended protests and were singled out for investigation. One of the non-teaching staff was arrested and severely beaten but was able to resume work. I have since learnt that Facebook pages were expressly set up displaying photographs taken at demonstrations, asking for pro-government supporters to identify the circled faces so that they could be identified, traced and arrested. One of my former students told me his terrifying story: he was called to the administration building at the Polytechnic and he, with five other students, was taken to the nearby military building where they were all put in a room. They stayed in there all night and were interrogated the next morning. My student was very fortunate as he had been confused with another young man with a similar name and was allowed to leave. Three of the youths (students from the University of Bahrain) were handcuffed, hoods were placed over their heads and they were taken away on a bus, never to be seen again.
I was finding it more and more difficult coping at this time but I tried not to think to much about what might happen to me, which was not easy. I tried to be positive and reassured myself that I had not taken part in any protests and therefore was safe. My videos from February had been dealt with by the “security staff” at my apartment and so I felt safe about them. I know I had made comments to my “friends” on Facebook but they were not critical of the ruling family or the government, simply trying to correct wrong and misleading information. I did not know what the future held at the Polytechnic for me and I did not know if I could continue working for a government that resorted to unlawful arrests, torture and now identification from social networking.
Students had now started to be expelled, including one from my afternoon class. Again, my morning class were as happy as usual, totally unaffected by what was now happening at the Polytechnic and in Bahrain. Understandably, my afternoon class was very upset and worried and I tried to give them as much leeway as I could to cope with everything. Some of my afternoon students came from villages that were now being raided by police, arresting suspects and damaging property. They bravely came to class, passing through checkpoints and still continued to work hard. I found their courage very inspiring.
With every passing day that I was at the Polytechnic I was expecting to be asked to appear at an interview with the investigating committee that had been set up by the deputy CEO. And with every passing day that I wasn’t asked I felt that maybe I had flown under their radar and escaped detection. It was a stressful time and I can remember being on edge and not being able to sleep well at home. Sure enough, I received a text message on my mobile phone while I was in class asking me to visit the Director of Human Resources in the CEO’s office.
The meeting was direct and to the point. The Ministry of Education knew all about me, knew all about my videos and my comments on Facebook. It turns out that my “friends” had kept copies of my comments and these were presented to me, although none of them could seriously be used to show that I had been critical of the government in any way. I knew that my number was up and there was nothing I could do. To his credit, John Scott had insisted that I not front the other investigative committee as I was the only expat under investigation. I told him that I did not hold him responsible for what was taking place in any way, for which he thanked me. It was also obvious that the Ministry wanted me out immediately (as had happened to the students) but John said he would try to see if he could arrange for me to finish up later. I appreciated this as I needed to assess my students before their classes finished in four weeks. We later agreed that I could finish on 30th June, which would also give me time to sell my car and arrange to pack and send all our belongings to Thailand. I was asked to please stop making any comments at all on Facebook, to which I agreed. I did not want the Polytechnic or anyone from management to get into trouble by anything I did because they had all treated me so well in the past.
I remember walking back to my office with very mixed thoughts. I had been sacked from my job, not because of my teaching ability or for any normal disciplinary reason, but because I had taken videos and made comments on Facebook. I now had to think of my future after June 30th, look for a new job somewhere and tell my wife that we had to leave our beautiful apartment and the life we enjoyed together in Bahrain. On the other hand, I felt a huge sense of relief that I had been freed from having to work for the Bahraini government and that I would no longer have any association with them whatsoever.
I would like to take this opportunity to mention the expat staff who remain at the Polytechnic and my feelings towards them. I do not want anyone to assume that I look at them differently simply because they continue to work there. Their reasons for being there are private and to be respected and if there is anything I have learnt from my experiences this year in Bahrain it is that personal feelings and decisions should be respected. I am still good friends with many of them.
In the weeks following my dismissal I still monitored Facebook, mainly to try to keep track of the students that had been expelled as I was appalled to learn that many outstanding young Bahrainis and student leaders of the Polytechnic had been ordered to leave. It was during this time that several comments appeared criticising John Scott for being personally responsible for the expulsions and for going back on his word of the Polytechnic being neutral. I felt I could not allow this to happen as I knew John’s authority had been diminished by the intervention of the Ministry and that he truly had the students’ best interests at heart at all times. So I posted what I thought was an innocent comment: “I will tell you more about this after June 30th”. Bad move, Tony.
The next morning, June 14th, I was called to the HR Director’s office (John Scott was on leave) and told that my Facebook post had been brought to the Minister of Education’s attention (no doubt by one of my Facebook “friends”) and that he was “up in arms about it”. I know that he would have been more upset with the Polytechnic for not controlling me but nevertheless he demanded that I leave immediately. This meant I could not assess my students but thankfully that was done later by two very capable tutors. So I packed up my belongings, copied all my files from my Polytechnic laptop to my external hard drive and gave the laptop back. The Polytechnic had already booked flights to Thailand for my wife and I for July 1st and I was asked if I wanted them to change the tickets.
I didn’t want to cause a fuss and I felt the extra two weeks would give us more time to pack, sell the car, say our goodbyes and leave. The HR staff I was with at the time all looked at each other nervously and I was advised to think seriously about leaving the country as soon as possible. I didn’t like the sound of that. Was I that much of a threat to the government? It was unnerving but it showed me just how paranoid those in the government had become and how determined they were to eradicate all opposition to their practices.
My wife and I flew out from Bahrain on June 23rd. We frantically managed to send all our possessions safely to Thailand and I managed to sell my car (with the wonderful assistance of my former student, the one who was arrested) but at least we had possessions and my car had not been smashed up, as was happening in many villages at the time. On the Etihad flight I had time to reflect on my three years in Bahrain, what I had experienced and what I had achieved. I also wondered what would happen to the amazing country and the brave people I was leaving behind.
Next blog: My thoughts on Bahrain during my time there.