Since the unrest in Bahrain started, I could only think of my Bahraini friends and what they were going through; I would recall their thoughtful quiet concern for me and my family when we were facing our own forms of conflict in Lebanon, and I shuddered at the analogy. That sweet island nation that I had always held as the pride of the gulf (from the opinion of an expat who grew up in one of the gulf states), that country and those people were too sweet and, well, innocent to become jaded like us.
The twist that drove me completely mad was when the ripple effect of a Lebanese leader’s speech led to the discontinuation of all flights between our two countries, also cutting off phone connections. We were left to the one last channel of communication – the gracious internet.
I was ecstatic to see Dunya appear online and could not find larger letters in which to greet her. Her sweet subdued greetings were immediately followed with a sardonic “See, we can’t come to Lebanon these days”. I could imagine her mirroring my disappointed restrained smile at her end of the connection, and a simultaneous unspoken thought “thank goodness they managed to come for a visit to Beirut late last year”.
I wanted to know how she and her family were, if the images we were seeing on the news were accurate or exaggerated, and I wanted her to write about it. I so desperately wanted to hear the inside voice of someone as secular and balanced as her infusing the overriding discourse with simple humane insight. She had already started it with a short poignant email that she sent to her friends, simply saying “My name is Dunya, I’m not Sunni and I’m not Shiite: I’m Bahraini; I want to live in peace and justice”. This would be the sentiment she would repeat when I asked how she was, “we are all a mix in Bahrain, you see it in my family and others (families of mixed religions) and we are all okay… (how can) we have a clash between Sunni and Shiite? We never thought of it that way, we were always only Bahraini.” She was upset at this instigation of sectarian confrontations, insisting that they represented a smaller portion of Bahrainis trying to change the system, which was not accepted by all of them. “Even here”, she continues, “we say that not all who acted were Shiite”. And right then came the exclamation that news reporters and politicians often overlook, “I just hope everything will finish soon”, she sighed, “so we can get back to normal life.”
These are the voices that people needed to hear, I insisted, and went on trying to persuade, push and goad her into writing something, at how important it was for the outside world to access what was actually happening on the ground. “We are trying”, she would say, “but we need them to be stopped first…” I would insist, then she would demure “I am not a good writer”, I would continue with offers to assist, trying hard not to push her too far. I paused, waited for a response, a little silent lapse was followed with “will try, but writing is very emotional these days”.
I stopped. I just continued with our chat instead, and found myself asking her when we were wrapping up if I could share what she had told me with others.
“I know you know more thank you think, you met my family which gives you a sample of what it is in Bahrain. I am Bahraini, the thought of being Sunni or Shiite was irrelevant, we live in one house and you can see that I am Sunni, my sister is Shiite, but quite simply we are all Bahrainis.” She continued, “We all need more rights in Bahrain, as everywhere, but we want the royal family because we don’t want the country to be ruled by religious men, like in Iran or Saudi Arabia. When I was in the UK, I hated it when people looked at me suspiciously because I am Muslim (because of my veil), as if I was the one who had a hand in what happened in the US or the undergrounds, so I will never do that to a Shiite. I believe that in this world we have two types of people: good people and bad people, regardless of religion and ethnicity.” Dunya was raised in a Sunni-Shiite home and I asked whether that balance from inside the family and home might have had the larger influence on her. “I’m sure it has”, she said, “but this is how we all lived in Bahrain. I might have been more affected, but you will see that even Bahrainies today, when this is passed and forgotten, they will get back to how we were. As we always say ‘al deen lillah wal watan lil jamee’ (religion is for God and the country is for all)”.
But if that was the overriding Bahraini sentiment, then why were some people resorting to protests and clashes and touting them as rights along sectarian lines? “Politics is a dirty game”, she said simply, “people play it for their own agendas.” As much of the protest was against the royal family, I wondered for a moment what would happen to Bahrain without them, “We would be like Lebanon”, she stated plainly, the analogy that I had chased away at the beginning of our chat re-emerging on its own. “We would end up in civil war, because the Shiites and the Sunnis will fight for everything, and religious leaders will rule. So, yes, we do need change, we all say we deserve a better life, more freedoms, more rights, but removing the royal family is not the way to get those things. Besides, those factors are not all controlled by the royal family, and if you compare us to other gulf states, it’s clear that Bahrain is better off than the others.”
With that insight, I was suddenly a little more confused and had to ask what other factors were there, then, that stood in the way of reforms? My wise diplomatic friend lobbed it back at me saying “people like you will know the truth without me saying it; some will only believe what they want.”
The subject somehow changed, could have been by either one of us, as we both needed a breather to take in all that was said. I was still bewitched by her response when I asked her what it meant for her to be a Bahraini. She was quiet for what seemed like a very strained minute and replied “Bahrain nour el ‘ein (Bahrain is the light of my eye)”. That statement took my breath away.
We got a little distracted with news of impending storms when she said, “You know, when the tsunami happened in Japan, I told all my friends (Sunni and Shiite) that it would be very bad if we died hating each other, so let’s work for improvement instead.”