Part one: the ‘cleansing’ of the Pearl Roundabout
It all started for me on Valentine’s Day, 2011. Monday, February 14.
Normally, on a Monday, I would have been at work at Bahrain Polytechnic, where I was employed as an English tutor. This day, however, was during the mid-semester break and I planned to spend a quiet day relaxing with my wife in our apartment on the tenth floor of the Abraj Al Lulu (Pearl Towers) apartment complex.
In the months leading up to this day there had been much political activity in Tunisia and Egypt, where outdated rulers had been overthrown. I had discovered on Facebook that a protest was set to take place at ‘Lulu Roundabout’ and I was looking forward to seeing what would happen. I’m rather ashamed to admit it now, but at the time I did not realise that Lulu Roundabout meant the impressive, large ‘Pearl Monument’ roundabout right next to us. Our apartment overlooked Dana Mall and the Lulu Hypermarket contained within. I thought that the protest was to take place at a small roundabout at the entrance to Dana Mall and so I kept looking out our window to see if anything had happened.
After a while I noticed that several police four-wheel-drive vehicles had gathered on the large vacant area opposite Dana Mall. Not long after, I heard many loud bangs and saw a lot of white smoke. It appeared that the police had cornered a group of people in a side street near the roundabout next to Dana Mall, and I assumed that the people were the same ones who used to set fire to tyres around the Sanabis area (the area closest to Dana Mall and the Pearl Roundabout). To me, it looked like they had set off some smoke bombs and had quickly run away. Pretty harmless stuff, it seemed. By the time the smoke had cleared there was no one remaining and the police vehicles soon left the area. I later learnt that there were many other similar protests throughout Bahrain that day, including the death of one protester, which explained the rather small police presence near us.
Later that day, from my apartment window I counted at least 80 police four-wheel-drive vehicles positioned in the vacant lot opposite Dana Mall. The Pearl Roundabout had been completely blocked off and surrounded by police. I was able to see from the open car park in the bottom three floors of the Abraj Al Lulu complex that no one could get in or out of the roundabout. Police were turning back cars that had exited from the Seef highway and there was a lot of traffic held up in the surrounding streets. It was obvious that the police did not want anyone anywhere near the roundabout. The police cars on the vacant lot separated into groups of about ten and all sped off in different directions (I later learnt that these went to various Shi’a villages and fought with protesters). Apart from the traffic disruption, the rest of the day around us was quite peaceful.
The next day, Tuesday 15th, was quite strange. Still on my break from work, I was now greeted by the sight of hundreds of people streaming towards the Pearl Roundabout, parking their cars on the vacant lot and walking, carrying Bahraini flags. I ventured downstairs to the car park and looked out over the roundabout. The police had all gone and it was teeming with people. The mood was one of gaiety. People seemed happy to be there and within a short time there were tents, microphones, a stage, and even sofas! I later learnt that a popcorn machine had been installed. I was fascinated to see many women, all dressed in their black abayas, standing shoulder to shoulder with men chanting and singing songs. Soon there were so many people that cars could not use the surrounding streets. Despite this, the mood was still peaceful and calm and although I did not fully understand what was happening I felt quite safe and not threatened at all. As more public address systems were installed we were able to hear the singing, the chanting, and the speeches from our apartment and in the evening more and more people arrived, especially families. The sounds (I don’t like to call it noise) continued late into the evening and I was surprised to see that many younger men had actually set up camp and were spending the night there.
The ‘occupation’ of Pearl Roundabout continued into the following day, Wednesday, and the number of people swelled considerably. Every square inch of the roundabout was occupied by people and a small city of tents had sprung up. A stage was erected and the day was once again taken up with speeches, singing, and chanting. Food and drink was handed out to all the people and once again the number of women involved was quite interesting. The evening brought the most visitors as many families arrived at the roundabout to join in the peaceful protests. Eventually the whole area was quiet as the people, much more than the previous day, bedded down for another evening.
3.00 am, Thursday 17th February. I was woken by my wife, who was very animated, telling me that she thought something was happening at the roundabout. Even with our windows closed we could hear many loud bangs (the same as I had heard on the 14th) and cars hurriedly leaving the vacant lots followed by many people running away. I dressed quickly and grabbed my video camcorder and rushed to the elevator. I don’t have any real recollection why I took my camcorder other than I wanted to obviously film what happened because, for some strange reason, I knew that something bad was happening. While living in Australia, Thailand, and Oman, I had never been exposed to any kind of uprising or protests before and had never witnessed tear gas being used in person, so I guess I wanted to record this. But something told me that this was not going to be a simple situation of nicely asking people to pack up and move away from the roundabout. I knew it was going to be bad.
When I reached the third floor car park of our Gold Tower at Abraj Al Lulu, I was immediately hit with the strange smell of tear gas. It was not strong enough to affect me (or my wife, who had also accompanied me) and I began filming. I saw a large group of white-helmeted police moving in packs and people (all men as far as I could see) trying to stand their ground. I saw the tear gas being fired and glowing when they hit the ground, then releasing their smoke. Other loud explosions were going off, too. I later found out that these were ‘sound bombs’, which were much louder than those of the tear gas being shot. Tragically, I also discovered that shotguns were fired and that four men were later found dead. Despite the clouds of smoke and the general mayhem of the scene, I did not see a single protester carrying anything or fighting with the police in any way.
We moved to another part of the car park and I filmed more of the people hurrying away to their cars from the roundabout in the direction of Dana Mall. The police were chasing them and still firing tear gas. A few defiant protesters tried to stand their ground but were overcome by the fumes and eventually retreated. Soon the fumes wafted up to our position and our eyes began to sting. I thought the sensation would pass but even in the open car park the fumes lingered and we left the area to return to our apartment. My first ever contact with tear gas and I don’t recommend it. Closing and rubbing your eyes has no effect, the only thing to do is seek refuge somewhere.
By the time we were inside our apartment, our eyes were pretty much back to normal and I immediately began uploading my video footage to YouTube. Why did I do this? At the time I was not aware, but now I know the reason: I was mightily pissed off. I had not expected such actions from a government that I had been led to believe were focused on progress, with a vision for the future. The tactics I saw I had only heard about in communist Europe when I was a kid. It confirmed what I briefly saw on Valentine’s Day: that the security forces looked upon the protesters as something that needed to be subdued as quickly as possible.
I uploaded all I had taken. Then my wife and I watched the last of the protesters leave the vacant lot on foot, as it was impossible for them to have time to get into cars and drive away without being set upon by the police. It was obvious that the police were not content on merely clearing the area; they seemed hell bent on trying to injure as many of the protesters as possible. The last of the protesters retreated to the surrounding streets of Sanabis and yet the bangs continued, even though the primary aim of clearing the roundabout had been achieved.
It was difficult to sleep after witnessing such brutality and I was still quite upset and angry at what I had seen. I tried to monitor the events by viewing comments on Facebook and was surprised to learn that many of my friends (most of them students from Bahrain Polytechnic) had already viewed the YouTube videos. I was also surprised at all the messages of thanks I was receiving, many students passing on thanks from their parents to me. At the time, I did not understand the significance of what I had done and I also received warnings to be careful. I assured my friends that I was safe and that the violence had stopped but the warnings continued, telling me that I may be arrested if I was not careful. In my eyes, I had done nothing wrong and, if anything, I had merely recorded a successful (albeit brutal) police operation. The government should be supportive, shouldn’t they? Unless, of course, they did not want others to see what had really happened.
During that Thursday, the roundabout was quickly cleared of anything that the protesters had taken there. The many cars that had been left by their owners were simply dragged away by a fleet of tow trucks. Most of the cars still had their handbrakes on or were engaged in gear and so there was the regular sound of car tyres screeching as they were being taken away. The cars that had been parked on streets were the first priority and this process lasted all day and into the night.
In the days that followed the ‘crackdown’ at the roundabout, I was contacted by CNN and the BBC by email, asking me for permission to use my videos on YouTube. I immediately allowed them to do so, the more people who saw them the better as far as I was concerned. One ‘news agency’ in America wanted me to give them exclusive rights to use them, which I refused. Later, my wife and I got a buzz from seeing my videos on TV as part of the excellent BBC reports. Meanwhile, the entire area around us was surrounded by police, sending a clear message that the protesters were not welcome back. I received a message from one of my students, very upset and afraid after she saw several ‘tanks’ being transported on the backs of trucks pass her house, headed towards Manama (the capital, right next to the Pearl Roundabout). She was adamant at what she saw and, sure enough, later the next morning there was a line of armoured personnel carriers slowly making their way towards us along the main highway.
Soon there was a large military as well as police presence in the vicinity of the roundabout. The soldiers that had arrived had set up camp (ironically, just as the protesters had done, with tents) with generators and water tanks. It appeared that they were prepared to be there for some time. Strangely, several large tanks were placed in the large vacant lot that was previously filled with protesters’ cars. Also, the lot was completely fenced in with razor wire, as if the police, soldiers, and tanks were not quite enough of a deterrent. It all served as a powerful message to anyone thinking of returning to the roundabout. Despite this, my wife and I decided to walk to Dana Mall as we needed to buy some food. Several cars belonging to the protesters were still parked on the sides of the footpath, the owners abandoning them in their haste to leave. Every single one of them had had their windows smashed. We made our way to the mall and back without any problems and we continued to monitor the situation from our apartment windows and also from regular visits down to our car park.
In the afternoon on Friday the 18th I discovered from messages on Facebook that a large procession of protesters were marching from Salmaniya Hospital to the Pearl Roundabout. Salmaniya had become a refuge for the many injured protesters and their families and friends. It is here where dedicated doctors and medical staff were later accused and arrested for assisting the protesters at the expense of pro-government patients. I anticipated more violence so I ventured down to the vantage point of our car park, but my view of the protesters was obscured by trees. I zoomed in with my camcorder and could see men and a few vehicles approaching the roundabout, which by this time was manned by armoured vehicles and a ridiculous amount of police vehicles. Armed soldiers were crouched behind hedges close to the armoured vehicles. From my zoomed view, I once again saw that none of the marchers were armed in any way at all. Suddenly, there was an almost deafening volley of shots fired from the roundabout and without my camcorder I could see the protesters fleeing away back towards Salmaniya Hospital. I later learnt that several unarmed protesters had been shot by this volley and I was also ‘reliably’ informed by pro-government students that the injuries they suffered had actually been faked, which was nonsense. The police then embarked on their tactics of tear gas and eventually chased the protesters away from the area again. The armoured vehicles stayed where they were and the police vehicles all raced away after the protesters.
It was during this incident that I was first asked by the staff of the apartment not to use camcorders or cameras and to please go inside ‘for your own safety’. The staff (mainly cleaners) told me they had been told to ask people not to film and not to be in the car park. I ignored them, naturally.
Part two: unarmed and shot in the back – the return to the Pearl Roundabout
Unknown to me, there was a lot of activity taking place in Bahrain behind the scenes in a bid to end the unrest. The Crown Prince had become involved and was trying to broker an agreement that began by allowing the protesters back to Pearl Roundabout.
On Saturday February 19th, I was still keenly watching what was happening around our complex, moving between the car park and our apartment windows, trying to see if anything was happening, but the military seemed relaxed and staying in their positions, securing the roundabout. Messages on Facebook indicated that their presence would be withdrawn, but from my vantage point it looked to me that they would be there for some time. Nothing seemed to be happening and my wife and I managed to drive away from the area for some much-needed distraction of badminton (for my wife) and snooker (for me) at the excellent British Club, a short drive away but, once inside, a million miles from what we had witnessed.
We returned safely and without any problems to our apartment later in the afternoon and the first thing we did was to check the situation and, for me, to report to others what was happening, which was nothing. Once again, it was my wife who alerted me to something important happening downstairs after she went down later to check. She rushed into the apartment to tell me that the army had left and the police were shooting protesters again! I felt annoyed again (mainly for missing out on seeing the army leave, which I had felt was not going to happen and also for the fact that my wife got to see it before I did!) and once again raced downstairs with my camcorder to hopefully view the important events. I could not understand why the army would leave the area and yet the police would remain and be shooting the protesters.
Sure enough, when the elevator doors opened and we rushed to the edge of the car park walls we could see jubilant protesters with Bahrain flags running around the grassed area of the roundabout, stopping to bend down and pray, hugging each other, clapping, chanting, and anything else they could think of. I saw no police and was looking quizzically at my wife whilst filming when once again the loud bangs associated with them were heard. A group of white-helmeted police had sprung out from behind the garden on one side of the roundabout and were trying to chase away the celebrators (they weren’t protesting) and had managed to grab a few of them. I was puzzled at the time, but one must remember that the police fall under the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister who, it was later revealed, was not in favour of the roundabout being given back to the people. Just at that very point, one of the men had broken away from the police and was running away. One policeman simply raised his shotgun and calmly shot him in the back. The man disappeared behind a tree so we could not see what had happened to him, but he was definitely not shot with tear gas or a sound bomb. I captured it all on video and felt that the whole exercise was simply an elaborate trap. Remove the army, allow the people back and then the police move in and cut them down. I was prepared to record the whole thing and show it to the world but just then a man who I had never seen before came up to me and asked me to stop filming. He was well dressed and held a walkie-talkie. I was quite upset by seeing an unarmed man shot in the back and very angry that it was allowed to happen. More to the point, what was wrong with filming it? Surely I had a right to do so and I managed to tell this to the man, as well as quite a few words beginning with ‘f’. He appeared quite shocked by my outburst (as was my wife) and he immediately spoke Arabic into his walkie-talkie and hurried away. I took that as my cue to leave and, after a quick look at the roundabout (the police were now leaving, being taunted by the protesters as they did so), we went to the relative safety of our apartment.
I was quite worried inside the apartment and made sure the door was securely locked. My students had warned me earlier about being arrested and told me that the police in Bahrain were nothing like the police in Australia (and that’s saying something!). Some even advised me to leave our apartment. I knew that the man with the walkie-talkie had reported me to someone and sure enough there were men’s voices outside our door followed by the inevitable loud knock. I must admit that they did well to locate our apartment so quickly but I refused to answer the door. I had done nothing wrong (except some swearing) and they could knock all day for all I cared. The only thing that concerned me was if they decided to break down the door, as our apartment belonged to a very nice couple who lived close by in Saudi Arabia. Eventually, the knocking stopped and the voices left our floor. My wife and I were whispering about what we should do when my phone rang and it was our landlord calling! She told me that I was in big trouble and I needed to go and see the security men immediately. She advised me not to be silly about it and also told me that Bahraini prisons were not nice places to be (how I agree with her now!).
My wife and I ventured downstairs to find the walkie-talkie man and eventually saw him in the car park talking to two other men. We walked up to them and I immediately apologised to the walkie-talkie man before the largest of the men introduced himself as the ‘security manager for the apartment complex’. I had never seen any of the three men before in the 14 months that I had been living there. The security manager told me that I had put him in a very difficult position by filming the protests because he was under orders from the Bahrain Ministry of Interior (responsible for law enforcement and public safety in Bahrain) not to allow any resident from the apartments to document anything taking place around us. He said that if it was discovered that a lot of filming had taken place he had the right to go through every apartment searching for cameras and inspecting computers, etc. – and he did not want to do that. He said the best thing I could do was to delete all the film I had taken. I told him that I had already uploaded it all to YouTube and Mr Walkie-Talkie said, ‘Oh no’. The security manager then told me that I needed to assure him that I would stop videotaping. ‘We know you work for the Polytechnic as an English teacher, we know your CPR (Civil Personal Record) number, we know that is your car over there, we know everything about you,’ he said. I know he was trying to intimidate me and that most of this information would have been given to him by my landlady and the guy who operates the boom gate on the car park, but I had no wish to make things any worse and so I agreed to delete my videos and not to take any more.
At the time, I did not think much about it, but I am now convinced that the three men I spoke to were all connected to the Ministry of Interior. As I mentioned, I had never seen them nor heard anything from them before and I only ever saw the third member of the trio again after this day. I am sure that my footage was either noticed by the Ministry staff or was referred to it and the men were sent to the apartment towers to put a stop to it. I ask again, why was there a ban on it unless it was something the government did not want others to see?
Mr Walkie-Talkie accompanied my wife and me back to our apartment and he watched as I sat at the dining table and deleted all the video I had downloaded onto my computer. I then did the same in front of him with my camcorder. He asked if I had any other film stored anywhere else, to which I said ‘no’. I then offered to give him my camcorder to prove I would stop filming. He took it and said I could collect it from him, probably in a few weeks. I must say, he was quite polite the whole time he was with us, and my wife was indeed able to get our camcorder back. I was relieved to be out of the ‘hot seat’ at our apartment complex but a little disappointed that I could no longer help spread the truth if any further outbreaks of brutality were to occur at the roundabout. I still monitored the situation around us closely and even visited the proceedings and festivities outside to see for myself just how peaceful it was. My ‘reporting’ days were over but little did I realise that my real problems were only just beginning.
Part three: the classroom, the protests, and a foreign army
From the perspective of my wife and me, all was once again well with the world. The peaceful protesters were back at the Pearl Roundabout, there were no police, no army, no bloody tear gas, and no security personnel hanging around. Yes, it was difficult to move in and out of the complex in our car but the protesters had volunteer traffic wardens (as well as cleaners), so it was far from unbearable. I felt like I had dodged a bullet by not being arrested (I still cannot imagine what it must have been like for some families to have had their front door kicked down in the middle of the night and witnessed the head of the household being savagely beaten in from of them before being taken away to be tortured). There was also nothing controversial to videotape, so the lack of camcorder was no problem.
My wife and I visited the roundabout one evening and there was a pleasant, carnival-like atmosphere. Thousands of people united by one primary goal (something called ‘democracy’) were mingling happily as one group. There were free food stalls everywhere (a new popcorn machine had been installed), and a small area set aside for aspiring artists and even free haircuts were available. The pro-government trolls later claimed that these were ‘sex tents’ to cater for you-know-what, which was both preposterous and insulting to the large number of families, women, and children that were in attendance. Once again, at no time did we ever feel unsafe or threatened. Needless to say, we did not see any evidence of weapons on display.
I eventually returned to work at the Polytechnic, as preparations were in order to welcome our students back and there were several meetings with all staff, both academic and non-teaching. In these meetings, the CEO, Mr John Scott, stressed the fact that the Polytechnic needed to be seen as a place where all students were able to feel safe amidst all the turmoil that had happened outside. Security was beefed up and there was a need to search students’ vehicles for weapons, but John wanted everyone to know that we could not be seen to be taking sides and that we needed to remain neutral in front of our students. I fully agreed with him but, after what I had witnessed, I found it very difficult to be neutral. I really struggled with this notion because, to me, it made me feel like I didn’t care. Looking back (which is always so easy to do), I know I should have spoken to more people about this but I could not bring myself to tell anyone I was neutral. In my eyes, it was like saying, ‘Oh, I don’t mind what happens because I’m an expat’ or, ‘it’s your country, it’s got nothing to do with me’.
The group of students that I had the privilege of teaching before February 14th were a wonderful group of young people and made my job so enjoyable. For those who may not know, Bahraini students have superb senses of humour and can speak and listen to English extremely well. I did not have the slightest idea which of my students were Sunni or Shi’a and it did not make any difference before the unrest. Some of my students had formed their own group called ‘The Catalysts’, who wanted to bring about change (obviously) as well as undertaking community projects and charity work. They were all friends and we had a ball together. After February 14th, it was all gone.
My first day back at teaching saw my students sitting in different groups and the air in the classroom was cold. There were no smiles, no laughter, and I immediately knew which students were pro-government: the ones that were the most pissed off. I tried to make them welcome and wanted them to know that we had all been through a tough time but that I hoped we could still have a good semester together. I then told the class that I had been asked to be neutral about the events and that I was sorry, but I could not. I knew this would alienate many in the class but I hoped that they would understand and respect me, based on our good relationship. Wrong.
After the class I was approached by a group of pro-government male students who were very keen to tell me not to be fooled by what I had heard or been told by people from the other side. They played the Iran card, saying protesters wanted Bahrain to be a part of Iran again and that they wanted to change the country with all women covering themselves, etc., etc. I was told that the protesters were liars and had faked their injuries. I tried to state my case, that the protests were about true democracy, but I was wasting my time. I thanked the boys and made my excuse to leave.
Meanwhile, away from work I was kept busy on Facebook keeping up with the stream of information about what had been happening. To my dismay, there was a huge amount of misinformation about what had occurred. Allegations of weapons being found during the roundabout clearance on February 17th, the sex-tent rumours, the faking of injuries and photographs, etc. I was appalled that students, including some of my own, would spread such malicious gossip. I took it upon myself to try to correct some of these errors based on my own experience, living with the Pearl Roundabout on my back doorstep. I got involved in several discussions with a few students in particular, ‘friends’ on my Facebook account, who had severely warped and prejudiced views on the protesters and outrageous and blinkered opinions about their own government and so-called leaders. The use of the word ‘terrorists’ was introduced and one student classified the protesters as worse than Hitler because ‘even Hitler kept the schools going’. Enough said.
As February drew to a close we were treated to the spectacle of the protest marches, the likes of which I had not seen before in ‘real life’. We could see from our apartment the protesters stretched from Seef all the way to the roundabout, about two kilometres of united protest. Once again, the women were easily distinguished in their black and there was even a long Bahraini strip flag that was hundreds of metres long. As they slowly passed our building, we could hear their chants and singing and each of these marches were, once again, conducted peacefully and respectfully.
Not to appear to be outdone, the pro-government Bahrainis organised their own gatherings, ostensibly as a show of support for the ruling family but obviously a clear attempt at one-upmanship and ‘anything you can do we can do better’. Unfortunately, it was discovered that many of the pro-government crowd consisted of expat labourers from the Subcontinent, who were paid in food vouchers to join in and wave small Bahraini flags. Once again, enough said.
On March 3rd things started to get ugly. There was reportedly a clash in Hamad Town between Shi’a and Sunni, and on March 10th another Sunni–Shi’a altercation occurred following an incident at a girls’ school. I was informed that the Sunni involved were the naturalised ones who are imported by the government to help bolster their numbers in return for plum jobs (usually in security) and free housing. A few days after this I awoke to see a strange sight from our bedroom window: no cars at all on the normally busy Seef highway. I discovered later that it had been blocked at both ends by protesters and I knew this would eventually mean trouble. In the subsequent days, the large malls surrounding the area (Bahrain City Centre, Dana Mall, Seef Mall, Bahrain Mall) all closed as few customers could enter. Thankfully, my wife had left the country at this time but things were starting to get uncomfortable for me. The enormous numbers at the roundabout made travel in our car virtually impossible and now most of the shops in the area were shut. Two of my fellow teachers were also living in my apartment complex, and we all received an offer from the Polytechnic to move away and stay at a hotel if we wanted to, which was extremely kind of them.
On the 13th of March, the government had had enough and sent the police in to clear the protesters, but had to force their way in via the blocked highway first. I watched the events unfolding from my windows and from the car park (until tear gas intervened) and eventually the police retreated, much to the delight of the protesters. The battle had lasted for most of the morning and only ended when the police knew that they did not have the numbers.
That was to change when the King called on Saudi Arabia to help him control his own country the following day. Something told me that things would only get worse and I accepted the Polytechnic’s offer and packed my bags and drove to the Gulf Hotel in order to figure out what to do. My wife at this time was understandably concerned about me and we decided a break in Thailand was called for, so I booked a flight online and flew there the next day.
Part four: back to Bahrain and goodbye
I arrived back in Bahrain on the 2nd of April, after what should have been a pleasant stay in Bangkok with my wife. I found it difficult to relax with my thoughts focused on what would happen to the protesters at Pearl Roundabout after the King had asked for help, requesting the use of the GCCPS (Gulf Cooperation Council Peninsula Shield) troops to obviously control the situation with force. The GCCPS was set up to defend against external threats but was now being deployed against Bahrain’s own unarmed civilians, and the roundabout was cleared again while I was away.
While I was in Bangkok, I learnt that the wonderful Pearl Monument had been demolished. I found this very difficult to understand but it only confirmed the Khalifa regime’s determination to remove all traces of the peaceful protests that had occurred there. State television said the area needed to be ‘cleansed’ and the Bahraini Foreign Minister, Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, said the demolition was ‘a removal of a bad memory’.
I felt a huge sense of loss when I drove my car towards Abraj Al Lulu and found there was no Lulu anymore. I had been told that, when the monument was constructed in 1982 (for the third summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council held in Bahrain), it was the tallest structure in the country at the time. It had since been dwarfed by several nearby apartment buildings but it was no less significant or impressive. Now it was gone.
The Polytechnic started up again following the break due to the ‘social unrest’ and there was another full meeting of staff. We learnt that the Polytechnic, formerly under the guidance of the Economic Development Board, was now to be a part of the Ministry of Education. A ‘deputy CEO’ had been appointed from the Ministry, Dr Mohammed Ebrahim al-Asiri (who was not present at the meeting), whose role was to liaise with the Minister in Arabic, so that the Minister could answer questions about the Polytechnic in parliament. In stark contrast to his statement of neutrality in February, John Scott then announced that the Polytechnic was now part of the government and that we should be seen to support the government. ‘Like hell I will,’ I said to myself. One of my colleagues summed up the situation perfectly when he said, ‘He’s been nobbled’. [Verb: Try to influence or thwart (someone or something) by underhand or unfair methods: ‘an attempt to nobble the jury’.] Finally, John informed us that all staff and students would be ‘investigated’ for participation in any of the recent demonstrations just as soon as the investigations had been completed at the University of Bahrain.
I resumed my teaching at the Polytechnic, devoting my time to squeezing my English course into the time that remained in the semester. My students had been given the option of morning or afternoon classes and had used this opportunity to form themselves mainly into a morning pro-government group and an afternoon pro-democracy group. Now the tables had been turned and my morning class was upbeat and smiling, whereas my afternoon class was quiet but determined. I still tried (as always) to teach without any favouritism or discrimination, but the overwhelming arrogance of my morning class made it quite difficult for me. The students did not seem interested, some arriving very late, some not even bringing paper or pen, some simply operating their mobile phones for the duration of the lesson. I never mentioned what had happened outside the Polytechnic to them, but I feel that many of the students were aware of my feelings and had simply dismissed me. I now feel that some of them were struggling as much as I was with their own inner conflict of appearing to support the government but secretly questioning what had taken place.
In May, the investigations started as promised and the mood of the Polytechnic was difficult to explain. We learnt that Bahraini staff had been identified from photographs as having attended protests and were singled out for investigation. One of the non-teaching staff was arrested and severely beaten, but was able to resume work. I have since learnt that Facebook pages were expressly set up displaying photographs taken at demonstrations, asking for pro-government supporters to identify the circled faces so that they could be identified, traced, and arrested. One of my former students told me his terrifying story: he was called to the administration building at the Polytechnic and he, with five other students, was taken to the nearby military building where they were all put in a room. They stayed in there all night and were interrogated the next morning. My student was very fortunate, as he had been confused with another young man with a similar name, and was allowed to leave. Three of the youths (students from the University of Bahrain) were handcuffed, hoods were placed over their heads, and they were taken away on a bus, never to be seen again.
I was finding it more and more difficult coping at this time, but I tried not to think too much about what might happen to me, which was not easy. I tried to be positive and reassured myself that I had not taken part in any protests and therefore was safe. My videos from February had been dealt with by the ‘security staff’ at my apartment and so I felt safe about them. I know I had made comments to my ‘friends’ on Facebook, but they were not critical of the ruling family or the government, simply trying to correct wrong and misleading information. I did not know what the future held at the Polytechnic for me and I did not know if I could continue working for a government that resorted to unlawful arrests, torture, and now identification from social networking.
Students had now started to be expelled, including one from my afternoon class. Again, my morning class was as happy as usual, totally unaffected by what was now happening at the Polytechnic and in Bahrain. Understandably, my afternoon class was very upset and worried and I tried to give them as much leeway as I could to cope with everything. Some of my afternoon students came from villages that were now being raided by police, who were arresting suspects and damaging property. They bravely came to class, passing through checkpoints, and still continued to work hard. I found their courage very inspiring.
With every passing day that I was at the Polytechnic I was expecting to be asked to appear at an interview with the investigating committee that had been set up by the deputy CEO. And with every passing day that I wasn’t asked I felt that maybe I had flown under their radar and escaped detection. It was a stressful time and I can remember being on edge and not being able to sleep well at home. Sure enough, I received a text message on my mobile phone while I was in class asking me to visit the Director of Human Resources in the CEO’s office.
The meeting was direct and to the point. The Ministry of Education knew all about me, knew all about my videos and my comments on Facebook. It turns out that my ‘friends’ had kept copies of my comments and these were presented to me, although none of them could seriously be used to show that I had been critical of the government in any way. I knew that my number was up and there was nothing I could do. To his credit, John Scott had insisted that I not front the other investigative committee, as I was the only expat under investigation. I told him that I did not hold him responsible for what was taking place in any way, for which he thanked me. It was also obvious that the Ministry wanted me out immediately (as had happened to the students), but John said he would try to see if he could arrange for me to finish up later. I appreciated this, as I needed to assess my students before their classes finished in four weeks. We later agreed that I could finish on 30th June, which would also give me time to sell my car and arrange to pack and send all our belongings to Thailand. I was asked to please stop making any comments at all on Facebook, to which I agreed. I did not want the Polytechnic or anyone from management to get into trouble for anything I did, because they had all treated me so well in the past.
I remember walking back to my office with very mixed thoughts. I had been sacked from my job, not because of my teaching ability or for any normal disciplinary reason, but because I had taken videos and made comments on Facebook. I now had to think of my future after June 30th, look for a new job somewhere and tell my wife that we had to leave our beautiful apartment and the life we enjoyed together in Bahrain. On the other hand, I felt a huge sense of relief that I had been freed from having to work for the Bahraini government and that I would no longer have any association with them whatsoever.
I would like to take this opportunity to mention the expat staff who remain at the Polytechnic and my feelings towards them. I do not want anyone to assume that I look at them differently simply because they continue to work there. Their reasons for being there are private and to be respected and if there is anything I have learnt from my experiences this year in Bahrain, it is that personal feelings and decisions should be respected. I am still good friends with many of them.
In the weeks following my dismissal I still monitored Facebook, mainly to try to keep track of the students that had been expelled, as I was appalled to learn that many outstanding young Bahrainis and student leaders of the Polytechnic had been ordered to leave. It was during this time that several comments appeared criticising John Scott for being personally responsible for the expulsions and for going back on his word of the Polytechnic being neutral. I felt I could not allow this to happen, as I knew John’s authority had been diminished by the intervention of the Ministry and that he truly had the students’ best interests at heart at all times. So I posted what I thought was an innocent comment: ‘I will tell you more about this after June 30th.’ Bad move, Tony.
The next morning, June 14th, I was called to the HR Director’s office (John Scott was on leave) and told that my Facebook post had been brought to the Minister of Education’s attention (no doubt by one of my Facebook ‘friends’) and that he was ‘up in arms about it’. I know that he would have been more upset with the Polytechnic for not controlling me but nevertheless he demanded that I leave immediately. This meant I could not assess my students but, thankfully, that was done later by two very capable tutors. So I packed up my belongings, copied all my files from my Polytechnic laptop to my external hard drive, and gave the laptop back. The Polytechnic had already booked flights to Thailand for my wife and me for July 1st and I was asked if I wanted them to change the tickets.
I didn’t want to cause a fuss and I felt the extra two weeks would give us more time to pack, sell the car, say our goodbyes, and leave. The HR staff I was with at the time all looked at each other nervously and I was advised to think seriously about leaving the country as soon as possible. I didn’t like the sound of that. Was I that much of a threat to the government? It was unnerving but it showed me just how paranoid those in the government had become and how determined they were to eradicate all opposition to their practices.
My wife and I flew out from Bahrain on June 23rd. We frantically managed to send all our possessions safely to Thailand and I managed to sell my car (with the wonderful assistance of my former student, the one who was arrested), but at least we had possessions and my car had not been smashed up, as was happening in many villages at the time. On the Etihad flight I had time to reflect on my three years in Bahrain, what I had experienced and what I had achieved. I also wondered what would happen to the amazing country and the brave people I was leaving behind.