12:52 PM, Apr 1, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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.