Manama, Bahrain

Bahrain is so small that there doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the island one can’t reach within fifteen minutes by car. One local wag told me that it takes no more than two hours on foot to cover the entire perimeter of the country—if you exclude the Manama-based U.S. Fifth Fleet, an island by itself. Bahrain means “two seas” but actually refers to the ancient freshwater springs in the briny waters of the Persian Gulf. The springs disappeared sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, maybe due to oil exploration, but there are plenty of theories and opinions among the 1.2 million who inhabit this tiny island.

Yet, as small as Bahrain is, we’re lost. We’re due at the headquarters of Al Wefaq—a Shia political society (the word “party” is forbidden) and the country’s largest political bloc—for a meeting with a few deputies and sheikhs, and we’re running late. My new friend Al pleads that he doesn’t drive much; it’s his brother’s car, he says. And so he claims that the green headbands proclaiming the martyrdom of Hussein as well as the silver Hussein medallions hanging from the mirror also belong to his brother. It seems the Shia of Bahrain have a taste in interior vehicle design analogous to that of the Puerto Ricans of the Bronx. Island people, a local Sunni opposition figure told me, are always more civilized—an intuition that my Puerto Rican mother would’ve been happy to hear.

What’s really slowing us down is that the Gulf Cooperation Council troops, a coalition of mostly Saudi forces, has set up checkpoints all around Manama and are forbidding motorists from passing through a main thoroughfare where the Pearl Roundabout used to be. This monument to the island’s pre-petroleum industrial history as a pearl-diving port was ground zero of the Bahrain uprising, until the local security forces dismantled it. Al speaks of it wistfully, the speeches, the camaraderie and the emotion—now it’s just another legendary noun in the history of Shia political activism, like Zinj, which also happens to be the name of the district that we can’t seem to find our way out of.

The Zinj were slaves in what is today southern Iraq who rebelled against their Abbasid masters in Baghdad in 868 and sacked Basra three years later. It seems that the revolt had explicitly Shia associations, even if Shiism wasn’t yet a fully formed institution of religious laws and beliefs. The twelfth, and occulted, imam, who lends his place in the order of Shia imams to the name of the faith’s mainstream sect, Twelver Shiism, was born the same year the Zinj rebellion started.

I wonder if Al, whose large eyes and curly hair that make him resemble a figure from early Ethiopian Orthodox Christian iconography, has any Zinj blood. The Shia here are of mixed ethnic and racial stock. Many of them are relatively recent arrivals from Iran, known as the Ajam. But the island’s indigenous inhabitants seem to be a mixture of, among others, the Indian and Persian traders who intermarried with Bahrain’s original Arab tribes—these Shia are called the Baharna. The Sunnis, including the ruling Al Khalifa family who conquered the country some 200 years ago, are known as Bahrainis.

The Baharna and Bahrainis speak different dialects of Arabic, a fact that seems to be a great source of amusement to the former. When they illustrate the differences between the two, the Baharna emphasize the light-hearted whimsy of their own dialect, in contrast to the thick, blunt grunts of their Sunni neighbors. Of course, differences in dialect can also be dangerous. One of the most famously gruesome stories from the Lebanese civil wars recounts how life and death decisions were made by armed men at checkpoints who required drivers to pronounce the Arabic word for “tomato”—if in your dialect you said it one way, you lived; the other way, you died. Al thinks that sometimes he’s getting harassed by the security forces just because he speaks like a Shia.

Al believes that the Baharna are Shia because after the death of the prophet of Islam, those who defended the succession of the three caliphs who preceded Ali—Abu Bakr, Omar. and Othman—pushed to the margins of Arabia those who sought Ali’s immediate succession. There may be something to Al’s narrative, but what became known as the Sunni-Shia divide was not so highly schematized until much later. Shiism is associated with political dissent partly because it was the habit of those in power to force to the peripheries rivals of the established order, which was later seen to be Sunni insofar as it followed in the wake of the four rightly guided caliphs. The Umayyads moved their adversaries out of Damascus and into Iraq, which eventually became the capital of the Abbasid dynasty, which while not Shia was not based on Arab kinship either, as was the leadership of the Umayyad empire. The Abbasids in turn exiled their enemies from Baghdad, their seat of political power, scattering them throughout the empire.

The second great Shia uprising that targeted the Abbasids, just recovering from the Zinj rebellion, was that of the Qarmatians. Their stronghold was here, Bahrain. The political dispensation of the Qarmatians, or “those who wrote in small letters,” seems to have been utopian—and their disposition was fanatical. They launched attacks against caravans destined for the hajj pilgrimage, which they believed to be a pagan superstition. In the year 930, the Qarmatians seized Mecca, where they littered the holy waters of the well of Zamzam with the corpses of pilgrims and stole the Ka’ba, the large black stone in the courtyard of the great mosque of Mecca that is the focal point of the hajj. The rebels brought the rock back with them to Bahrain, where they kept it for 20 years before the Abbasids paid a huge ransom to have it returned.

If Bahrain’s ancient Qarmatian extremists are among the most radical sects in Islamic history, I can find none of their influence among the members of Al Wefaq. Al says he’s not a member of the group, but when we finally arrive he seems to know everyone in the office, mostly working men who volunteer their time to the cause. This is the one Gulf state where most of the menial labor force is not foreign, and so it is the Baharna who drive cabs, tend gardens, and pick up garbage, rather than say Pakistanis, Sudanese, or Yemenis, well-paid foreigners who serve in the armed forces here, where Shia are largely unwelcome. These days, with so many workplaces closed due to the political turmoil, the Al Wefaq office seems especially busy, with deputies briefing members of the international press and volunteers preparing lunch.

What strange Shia these men are, eating lunch side by side, all of them kneeling on one leg, crouched on the floor. Strange, I mean, because in many ways the Shia are the engine of Muslim Middle Eastern politics, from the initial schism with the death of the prophet, to their early rebellions up to the twentieth century. Even before Khomeini’s 1979 revolution, the Shia contribution to radical causes was extensive. They constituted the core of the Iraqi Communist Party, and in Lebanon, long before Hezbollah was born, the Shia looked to the left for political representation. Shia bars in Beirut are still plastered with posters of their left-wing heroes, their portraits, posters, and ballads. It’s true there are many Hezbollah supporters among Wefaq’s deputies and the rank and file. Al has Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei as his spiritual model, or marja’a. And yet there is nothing discernibly radical about Al Wefaq, which says it just wants a fair shake, a constitutional monarchy. They don’t want to topple the regime but simply want it to abide by the country’s constitution, to write laws against discrimination, and to allow the Shia parliamentary representation proportionate to their numbers. In other words, Al Wefaq aspires toward many U.S. values.

And yet defenders of the ruling Al Khalifa family explain that Bahrain’s rulers are Westernized and point to the liberal cultural atmosphere, where Saudi tourists can drink and procure women. That is to say, there seem to be many Arabs and Americans alike who believe that booze and whores are pillars of Western civilization. Other Western values are less important to the Al Khalifa, like rule of law, equality under the law, etc. Yesterday Al Wefaq announced that 250 people have been detained and 44 have gone missing, many of whom, Al Wefaq officials believe, will turn up dead in the coming days and weeks.

Even if they do not like it, everyone here understands why the Obama administration gave a free pass to the Bahraini regime when it invited in the GCC force. The Americans are not going to cross the Saudis at this very delicate moment in the region; and so Manama used the Saudis’ special relationship with the U.S. as cover to use force to put down the uprising. Nonetheless, around these offices and elsewhere, others warn that it is Washington’s blind eye to their Bahraini allies’ abuses that may eventually open a large window for the Iranians to operate here.

And yet many also believe that the Iran will do no good in Bahrain, since Tehran sees the Shia largely as pawns to be used against their Saudi adversaries, as well as against Washington. For Iran, says the independent Lebanese Shia activist Lokman Slim back in Beirut, the investment is small. “All they need is a good preacher, and a Husseineya, or any meeting point where Shia can gather, cry over Hussein and curse Sunnis, from Abu Bakr to the Saud and Khalifa families. The Iranians don’t need to send arms. Back in the 90s, the Shia in Bahrain took those small butane canisters used for kitchen stoves and set them off with bic lighters.”

That would be something: the Baharna chasing America’s blue-water navy out of the Persian Gulf with items found in any Arab household—remarkable, and not unlike kidnapping the Ka’ba, which cost the Abbasids dearly in tribute as well as prestige. How could the Abbasids present themselves as the defenders of Islam if they could not protect the black stone? The Qarmatians believed that history keeps repeating itself; in a sense, the Shia don’t really believe in the past but that history is always present.

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