Bahrain is one of the countries the kiddos have heard very little about. The guesses vary from Africa to different parts of Asia, which isn’t wrong,but when asked to place it on a map, the task becomes trickier. This is the beauty of our Virtual Nomad– this time the kids learn about a country they have heard barely anything about. Enter Bahrain.
Photo: Radio Farda
The Kingdom of Bahrain is another island-state, this time around far removed from the Bahamas, located in the Middle East. It’s the third smallest country in Asia, found on top of Saudi Arabia and connected to the mainland by the King Fahd Causeway (built in 1986). Bahrain is made up of 50 natural islands and 33 artificial islands, with a population just above a million. The capital is called Manana, a name that makes you want to roll your tongue..
Manana is found in the largest island (about 83% of the land mass), called Bahrain, where the name of all the islands of the country Bahrain together comes from.
60-70% of Bahrain’s population is Shia Muslim, while the ruling class is Sunni. Interestingly, less than 50% are Bahraini nationals, the rest being expats from countries such as India and the Philippines. Due to the mainly male immigrant workforce there are many more men than women living there. Furthermore, Bahraini women gained the right to vote in 2002 – well, to be exact, there weren’t any elections from after independence from Britain in 1971 until 2002).
The flag of Bahrain has five white triangles: the white represents peace, and the triangles embody the five pillars of Islam, matching the red which symbolises the blood of martyrs. It is very similar to the flag of Qatar, a country Bahrain has not always had the easiest relationship with. ‘Bahrain’ comes from the Arabic word ‘two seas’ which reflects the connection to water – both the sea and freshwater springs.
As for the economy, Bahrain has not put all its eggs in one basket, having a more diversified economy, with financial services and tourism rather than relying solely on oil as a source of wealth.
The Bahrain night
Since the Bahamian dinner, the Virtual Nomads have become an aging group as most of the youngesters have turned a year older. As the adults, JK, CH (Virtual Nomad Special Advisor who has been to over 140 countries) and I myself stay the same age, we recruit the growing tween and teens, A (10), FK (14), L (16) and L’s boyfriend NA (17) into the mix.
The menu for the night includes:
- Machboos is the national dish of Bahrain. It is a spiced chicken and rice dish with rich flavours of spices and toasted nuts. JK prepares it the night before to make sure the chicken is tasty and juicy, as the dish takes time to prepare.
- Baid Tamat is traditionally a breakfast dish of scrambled eggs with tomatoes with the flavour of cumin. The name comes from Arabic words for eggs (baid) and tomatoes (tamat). We prepare on the night and we find it yummy with its exotic taste.
- Khobez Jebn is store-bought white flatbread.
- Kabeb Bahraini are vegetarian appetizers prepared with chickpea (besan) flour added to tomato, onion and spices.
- Ogaili is a tense saffron cake with two types of flour, which I prepare the previous night. It has a very strong taste that some of us enjoy whereas others find it too intense.
With all the food, our Bahraini night is very successful. We find no Bahraini music lists on Spotify, and we are equally unsuccessful on our other platforms, which means there will be no music for this Virtual Nomad entry. Nevertheless, FK holds a trivia for us and we learn several things about Bahrain such as:
- Bahrain has no personal income tax. Instead, there is a social insurance contribution (7% for Bahraini employees; 1% for expats).
- Healthcare and primary/secondary education are free
- Bahrain has the world’s largest underwater theme park, Dive Bahrain
- There is an over 400-year-old tree in the desert called the “Tree of Life”
- Bahrain has a 3D printed coral reef
An island of absolute power
Once upon a time, Bahrain was green with flourishing nature, part of the ancient Dilmun civilization that dominated trade in the region. Different rulers followed (Assyrians, Achaemenid Persians, Iranians, Persians and others), and in 1783, the Al-Khalifa clan stepped in to rule Bahrain, which they still do to this day. Bahrain has longstanding links with the UK (and later with the US) and in 1892, Bahrain was annexed to the British Empire. After becoming independent in 1971, times were turbulent and human rights violations were rampant. The first emir of the independent Bahrain, Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, was a key figure in herding Bahrain into a modern nation and financial hub, but he dissolved the parliament and installed an initiative called the State Security Law. This law was applied widely by Ian Henderson, a British head of the Bahraini General Directorate for State Security Investigations. Henderson adorned a charming nickname ‘the Butcher of Bahrain’. The law permitted the arrest, killing and torture of thousands of people without any political accountability for over 25 years.
The 1990s (1994-99) saw an uprising in Bahrain, the “uprising of dignity”. The uprising was a joint effort between different groups (such as leftist, liberal, Islamist groups) to demand political reforms and an end to repression.
This did not end until the new emir, Hamir Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa stepped into power after his father’s death in 1999. He fired Henderson, reached out to opposition groups, invited exiled Bahrainis back from overseas and promised political reforms in the shape of a widely supported referendum regarding the National Action Charter in 2001. But Hamad had other changes in mind as well, and the new constitution of 2002 was very different from what he had presented to the people, and what had been approved. Essentially, he basically made the new referendum a vehicle to grow his own power. Until 2002, the Al-Khalifa rulers were referred to as ‘hakims’ (meaning emirs), but Hamid decided to opt for absolute monarchy ( proposed as constitutional monarchy) and rule the country as a king, giving the Al Khalifa family even more power and control. The country changed its name to a Kingdom, but nothing changed, and by 2010, the Bahraini people had grown tired.
The Arab spring
The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests that swept across several Arab nations starting in Tunisia in 2010. In Bahrain, the Arab Spring started on 14 February 2011 with intense protests and frequent clashes between police and protestors with police raids from 17 February (Bloody Thursday) onwards. Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 troops to Bahrain in fear of the protests expanding.
I decided to read Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t by American scholar Toby Matthiesen. While reading a book by a scholar and an ‘expert’ outsider is always risky, reading it offered some information about the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Bahrain. Although interesting, some of the information is outdated as it is 10 years old (2013). The book presents background information explaining sectarian tensions and how Saudi Arabia and Bahrain declared the Arab Spring as Iran’s plot to help the Shia population. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have strong political and economic links (and more ‘liberal’ Bahrain remains a weekend holiday destination for Saudi parties). As the protests in Bahrain were mainly Shia-led, the Shia population in Saudi Arabia was strictly prohibited to enter Bahrain. Matthiessen visited Bahrain several times around 2011 and was a witness to the protests and the aftermath.
The Bahraini royal family did not take the protests lightly. The Bahrain Independent Commission concluded that some of the tactics used were classified as torture, psychological abuse and other human rights violations. The situation for the opposition has not improved much since 2011 despite promises of reforms. In 2019, the King reinstated nationality to hundreds of people, however excluded members of the opposition. Several opposition members have received jail sentences. Rights activist Nabeel Rajab was incarcerated from 2017 to 2020 for accusing Bahraini authorities of torture. The royal family still holds the absolute power they have had for the past two centuries.
The book by Matthiesen is not enough for me so I decided to read Yummah by Sarah A. Al.Shafei. It tells the story of Khadeeja, a young girl sold away as a child bride to an older man at the fragile age of 12. She starts to procreate with the husband from an early age and has eight or nine children (her first at 13). She faces numerous deep losses and tragedies in her life and is abandoned at 25 by her ‘loving’ husband whom she then takes back when he returns to her in a wheelchair, with no one else to care for him. I was prepared for a heart wrenching, emotional and self-reflecting book on a tragic life of someone silenced of her own will. Instead, it is mostly a simple book that in my eyes romanticizes forced marriages and child brides. Yummah is written in a naïve, nearly childish way, with many details regarding dresses and possessions and how to be a good wife. There is a darker tone towards the end when Khadeeja faces hardship and the political times are changing. Her firstborn daughter is sold as a bride at 13, but her younger daughters marry much later in life, and by choice. It is hard to say whether I like the book or not – it is an interesting description of a woman’s place in a changing country, however it reads as very child-like and infuriating at times (especially when it comes to Khadeeja’s devotion to her deceitful husband). The last passage reveals that the story is probably a recounting of Sarah’s grandmother’s life that Sarah has written and self-published. Even if her book is not very well written, we forgive Sarah as it comes from a place of love.
“When Kariya knew about Alkooky’s search for a bride, I was the first one to come to mind. We had the same background and she believed I had all they were looking for. We were both from well-off families, we were from the same class, we were both Sunnis and our grandparents were both religious leaders. I had all the beauty, reputation, smartness, manners and character they were looking for and he was rich so she knew he’d pay her good money”
- You spent all these years giving all you had for others, all your strength and courage, even your beauty, dear friend’, she seemed to say
- It’s fate, Layla, it’s God’s fate and I am happy
- ‘You only think you are, but reality is quite different. I know you miss him.
- He is my life, how can I forget my life?
- But he forgot you.
- No he didn’t, even if he is in the arms of another woman his heart is thinking of me. I know it, I see him in my dreams, I feel him every single day, he smiles when I’m smiling, he aches when I cry. My heart tells me he’s still there for me and I know he knows I’m still here”
Photos of the heart
The movie industry in Bahrain is practically non-existent as there is no public or private funding for production. There have only been a handful of Bahraini feature films, but a number of short films by independent filmmakers. One of the few ( 3-5 depending on the source) feature films is ‘A Bahraini Tale’ by Bassam Al-Thawadi, an award winning director. It is somewhat interesting, albeit has too many faults to be really compelling. The setting is intriguing – it’s 1967,the time of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The main theme of the movie is freedom in unsettling periods of instability. It is also a story about gender inequality and the limiting freedom of Bahraini women at the time. The main protagonist Fatima lives through a series of disappointments and her own sacrifices in life. The setting and premise are attractive but the realisation itself lacks focus. The story has good intent but the plot is unfortunately uneven.
As for the short stories, I watched ‘Yesterday’ by Ammar Al-Kooheji. “Life is a series of photos that pass quickly and we rarely remember them. Yet dear photos are different. We keep them deep in our heart,” says a character in this melancholy, very amateur 17-minute video of loss and longing.
To finish the Virtual Nomad stop in Bahrain, JK and I watched the documentary ‘The Defenders’ by Matthew Bate about Hakeem Al-Araibi, an Australian professional football player. Born in Bahrain, he was part of the national senior team playing for the country . Like many other athletes, he took part in the anti-government protests of the Arab Spring, was arrested and tortured, and applied for asylum in Australia. When travelling on honeymoon to Thailand in 2016 with his wife, he was arrested at the airport and taken into custody (and prison) to wait for extradition to Bahrain on terrorism charges. Led by sport broadcaster Craig Foster, an international campaign followed to free Hakeem, which ultimately saved his life. The documentary is a testimony of the corruption and destructive power of absolute monarchies and international sports associations, but also of the power of the people. It is a highly recommendable, powerful documentary.
Next stop: Bangladesh
edited by LR