I recall where I was when I first found out that I was blacklisted from entering Bahrain. Newcastle, North East England. It was a drizzly autumn afternoon. I had been due to fly back in a few weeks, but a friend with a contact in Bahraini immigration informed me that my name was listed along with the phrase ‘banned from entry to Bahrain’.
The Bahraini government was continually denying access to foreign journalists, commentators and activists if it suspected they were critical of the regime. Many journalists had been killed and tortured, and Bahrain was ranked by Reporters Without Borders as one of the ten most dangerous places in the world for journalists.
I never considered myself a foreign journalist though. I had grown up in Bahrain, gone to school there. For me, it was the place I felt at home. It was the land of my first love, my first fight, and my first machboos. Whenever I smell jasmine, or honeysuckle, I am instantly taken back to those beautiful late spring afternoons, where the light was golden, and the desert outside my front door so flat that the low sun cast long shadows that stretched all the way to the horizon. It was the only time I ever really felt tall.
I am the son of a miner’s boy from South Wales, but it was oil and not coal which brought my family to this small island. The other side of my family has rural roots in Derbyshire. My grandmother’s death certificate listed her simply as ‘caretaker’. Both my grandfathers had been stationed in the Middle East – Palestine and North Africa – so I guess we were continuing a tradition in some respect. Yet perhaps it was my communist Welsh grandfather who influenced my politics. Somehow, unlike a lot of people I knew in Bahrain, I found myself always pushing back, even about the most trivial things. In school in Bahrain, a comic strip I wrote was banned from the school yearbook for critiquing the school’s decision to prohibit hair gel. Their reasoning was that it was a fire hazard. A banal recollection, but I remember it for some reason.
Hair gel notwithstanding, it was generally expected that expats, and in particular Western expats like myself, traded their political voice in exchange for the comforts of large, tax-free salaries. Even South Asians earning a meagre salary tended not to criticise the government. For the most part, expats could usually be counted on to keep their mouths shut, at least in public. There are exceptions of course, like the Australian Tony Mitchell, whose testimony of what he saw in 2011 is documented in Bahrain’s Uprising. Some, like Tony, re-evaluated their political stance in light of what they saw. That is why their testimony is important, and brave.
However, Tony and I were never imprisoned, tortured or brutalised, unlike Bahraini nationals who criticised the system. These were people I did not know much about until 2009, when I began to learn of a new Bahrain that included people like Ebrahim Sharif, who was imprisoned and tortured simply for speaking out. His powerful indictment of Bahraini politics is included in the book. Others too, share their story. Ali Al-Jallawi for example, one of Bahrain’s best writers, describes with startling eloquence his time in a Bahraini prison.
Yet often I wonder. How many people even know these names? When Kim Kardashian came to Bahrain in 2012 to flog her milkshakes (not a euphemism), thousands of screaming fans flocked to see her. I wonder how many of them even knew the name of Ebrahim Sharif. If they did, what did they think of him? I wondered what my own government was doing to secure his release. Nothing? Probably. The complicity of the British establishment is staggering. British arms companies, PR outfits and legal firms have all worked hard to legitimise the Bahraini government and hide its crimes from the rest of the world. So while I celebrate my right to criticise a regime without real danger to myself, I can’t help but feel that a more powerful force works to make whatever I have to say entirely insignificant.
Despite now being banned from Bahrain, I value the experience of researching and editing Bahrain’s Uprising because it brought me closer to a Bahrain that I had never known before. It moved me beyond the façade of privilege, and introduced me to a people struggling to tackle a discriminatory political system that used torture and coercion. The Bahrain I knew as a child, a boy and a young man has been replaced by another Bahrain, one that casts a long shadow on the idyllic place I enjoyed in what now seems like a former life. Yet, as I hope the book demonstrates, this other Bahrain has always existed, only often beyond the scope of the many who choose to turn a blind eye. If I could ever go back, apart from visiting my childhood home, and seeing loved ones, I would probably visit Ebrahim Sharif in prison, just to shake his hand.
Find out about English PEN’s campaigning work on behalf of Bahraini academic and blogger Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace, who is currently serving a life sentence in prison for his peaceful opposition activities.