By Radhika Sainath
It all started with a simple New Year’s Eve email. I had recently quit my job as a civil rights attorney in California, moved to New York, was finally getting settled in the City and had emailed a friend about the February Bar Exam.
“How wedded are you to being in New York in February?” Adam asked. He explained that democracy activists in Bahrain, where he had spent some time filming in December, were requesting the presence of foreigners with experience getting teargassed, shot at and otherwise attacked, to stand with them at nonviolent protests in the lead-up to the first year anniversary of the revolution.
I had just such experience.
A small group of us were on the initial Skype call with human rights activists from Bahrain. A doctor who I only knew by the name of A* explained how security forces would attack Shia villages with teargas and birdshot on a daily basis, break into houses at night and toss teargas canisters into tightly packed homes, arresting anyone suspected of involvement in the democracy movement.
Would we come and stay in these villages? Surely, the government would behave differently if Americans and Europeans were watching.
I was shocked to hear that things were still so bad and intrigued at his proposal.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is a small island of only 1.2 million people, nearly 700,000 of whom are foreign nationals. Its name means “two seas” in Arabic. My uncle, aunt and cousin had lived there in the 1980s. I had long heard of the county’s repressive security apparatus, beautiful beaches and tasty biryanis.
Last year, as most of the world was focused on Arab Spring Movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, my eyes were turned to the protesters in Pearl Roundabout. These people had guts. What were they thinking? A democracy movement in the Gulf?
Indeed, the government acted with force, teargassing and shooting at protesters sleeping at Pearl Roundabout, killing dozens and arresting the doctors who operated on the injured. Neighboring Saudi Arabia sent in its army; a democracy next door might give their own population ideas. The United Arab Emirates helped out with 500 police. Marital law was implemented and hundreds of people accused of being active with democracy movement were arrested and tortured.
But for a full year, the people have continued to take the street, demanding justice.
Our team came together: attorneys, human rights activists, social workers, journalists and others who had experience with nonviolent resistance and democracy movements in Mexico, Palestine, Pakistan and the United States.
But would the government of Bahrain let us in? Our contacts in Bahrain, which included prominent human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja, was sure their phones were bugged. Perhaps their email was being watched too.
I bought my ticket, and six days later found myself on an 18 hour journey to the Gulf. We were nervous. Our first people were denied after lengthy questioning. In January, the government had told human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch that they would not be allowed to enter in January, and a number of journalists and other human rights workers were denied entry into the country.
Would they let me in? The anniversary of the revolution was a week away. All foreigners were suspect. I got my hair done, and my nails too. I memorized Dr. Mohamed and Zaynab’s phone numbers. I had never looked so good walking off a plane, or really anywhere else, except maybe my wedding.
They let me in, no questions asked.
When we got out of customs in the middle of the night, no one was there to pick us up. I looked around. I waited. Two young men were sitting near the Dairy Queen with no luggage. Could it be them? I called Dr. A.
“Wait there,” he said. We waited. We exchanged money. Finally, our contacts found us. Dr. A had not told them our names, nationalities or ethnicities for risk of exposure.
We got on the freeway. Bahrain, even by night, reminded me of Los Angeles of another era, with its slender palm trees and coastal highways, but without the traffic, congestion and urban sprawl.
We left Manama for the infamous Costa Coffee of the Budaiya highway, meeting place of young revolutionaries and the government spies that watch them. Dr. A’s car pulled up in the parking garage and followed our car to a Shia village where we would be spending the night.
The village walls were covered in Arabic graffiti.
“What does that say?” I asked, attempting to sound out the letters of the words.
“Yascot Hamad,” they said. Down with Hamad. As in King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, of the Al Khalifa family which has ruled Bahrain since 1783. Those words were treason.
Our car passed through the winding village streets until we arrived at a walled-off house. I got out of the car and there was Dr. A in a hoodie and jeans, tall and skinny with large intelligent eyes.
“I’m so glad you made it,” he said. We were in.