MANAMA, Bahrain—”The name ‘Bahrain’ means ‘two seas,’” our tour guide explained as we walked away from the old Portuguese fort on the outskirts of Manama. “There’s the saltwater sea that surrounds Bahrain. Then there’s the fresh water that bubbles up in the middle of the sea to our north.”
The fort itself is breathtaking, set on a hill overlooking the city on one side and the ocean on the other. Next to it stands a brand new visitors’ center, replete with a gift shop and an upscale café. A few yards away stand new, middle-class houses. But next to them stand shanties, all crumbling cinderblock and chipping paint and rusted tin.
Still in the grips of a two-year uprising, Bahrain is a country filled with such extreme economic contradictions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Manama’s main street market, or souq. The government has built a new, indoor souq with automatic doors, air conditioning, and high-end shops — part of a multi-part, $13.26 million renovation plan aimed at attracting tourists.
A friend and I walked through the souq one Friday afternoon. The old outdoor section was a bustle of activity. Arab men wearing thawbs and gutras sat in circles talking under the shade of its main gate, Bab al Bahrain. Out front, migrant workers from India and Pakistan filled the lawn, chatting and enjoying their one day off for the week. But despite the grandness of the expansive new indoor section, hardly anyone sipped tea in its courtyard café. Few people shopped in its high-end stores, and its spacious bathrooms were often locked to keep out locals.
Perhaps the tourists were discouraged by all the security outside. First came police officers from the Interior Ministry, who loitered next to barricades and prisoner transport vans with shotguns slung casually over their shoulders. (I saw one load some birdshot, which looked like a Victory Starlight #8 cartridge.) Then came paramilitary troops from the Special Security Force Command, with full riot gear, long batons, and riot guns for firing tear gas. They patrolled up and down the narrow alleys in packs; opposition groups had called for demonstrations across the country in response to a raid on the house of a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim, that morning.
Just a few blocks from the fancy new building, the crowds thinned out and we started seeing anti-government graffiti: “Down with the Government,” “We bow down to God only.” An Arab man stopped us and told us to turn around. “In half an hour, don’t go past that line” he said, “There will be tear gas.”
Later, in the same area, a woman in a plain black abaya and veil stood up from off a stoop, looked directly at us, and started shouting “Down with Hamad.”
That’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who came to power in 1999. He’s the eleventh ruler from the House of Khalifa, the Sunni family who have ruled over Bahrain’s largely Shia population since 1786. The divide between Sunni elites and Shia underclass is central to Bahraini politics, as is the dominance of the Al Khalifa family. Around fifty percent of cabinet ministers are drawn from it. The country’s current and only prime minister—the king’s uncle, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa—was appointed by his brother in 1971, making him the longest-serving prime minister in the world. And pictures of the royal family are everywhere: billboards, lamp posts, building façades, shop windows, hotel lobbies, the front page of every newspaper.
An uprising in support of democratization and greater rights for the Shia majority began in February 2011, spurred by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. It was crushed one month later with help from troops sent by other Gulf Cooperation Council nations, especiallySaudi Arabia. Demonstrations continue, kept in check by police and security forces composed largely of foreign mercenaries — and by systematic torture.
According to a 2010 report by Human Rights Watch, much of that torture takes place at the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Criminal Investigation (CID). The report listed methods including electroshock, beating, stress positions, and threats against prisoners’ families.
Meanwhile, a quick walk from CID across Sheikh Isa Avenue brings you to the artsy, upscale Adliya district, where I spent much of my time in Manama. The streets are filled with public art — murals, sculptures, a wall made of doors. Cafés, bistros and art galleries line the broad streets. Inside, cosmopolitan middle- and upper-class Bahrainis and European expatriates swipe their iPads and listen to jazz while eating quiche. But even the boutiques and studios are interspersed with tiny, dilapidated apartments where old rugs and mattresses hang from rusting patios.
Some of Bahrain sees itself as a Dubai in the making, a gleaming center of tourism and high finance. For Bahrainis thirsty for greater equality and political reform—the disenfranchised Shia minority, the destitute migrant workers, the disaffected young poets and radicals—that vision is about as satisfying as a glass of saltwater. But, no matter how hard the government tries to stifle it, fresh water has a way of bubbling to the surface.
Joshua Eaton is the interim editor-in-chief of SPARE CHANGE NEWS. He visited Manama, Bahrain between May 14 and May 20 to see the situation there first-hand with Laura Guerry, whose work is also featured in this issue.
– Joshua Eaton