Jeffrey Black | Middle East Diaries

A Tale of Two Villages: Bahrain, 22nd April 2008
April 22, 2008, 10:23 pm
Filed under: Persian Gulf

This evening, I met Mhmd. X, one of the more prominent of Bahrain’s ten or so visible human rights activists. He took me in his car for a tour of the villages surrounding the capital, that I might see the difference between the accommodations of the shia, and the palaces of the sunni. Mhmd himself is of the former category, but well enough off. We drove out past the race track, where the richest sport in the world comes to Bahrain once every twelve months, to the village of Karzakan.

Karzakan is an untidy jumble of concrete houses, uneven streets and some fairly erratic-looking plumbing. It’s not actively unpleasant, at least in the warm evening when the people are socialising in the streets under the banners of their beloved religious dead. It even feels vaguely cosmopolitan– there’s a South Asian element certainly on main street. But, Karzakan is a Shia village, and outright, it is poor. It doesn’t look like there are going to be any fantastic investment opportunities opening up here anytime soon. They only happen 20km down the road, in Manama, in its phallicly banal “Financial Harbour” or the dusty-but-high-rise Seef district.

In Karzakan, on the 9th April, something happened, but all that I can see for sure is the scorch marks. The story from the official side is that a gang of thirty masked men attacked a police vehicle that was being driven by a policeman of Pakistani origin. The mob threw Molotov cocktails (in Arabic, petrol bombs are seemingly always referred to as Molotovs. I don’t know why, maybe the Arab journalists like the exoticism of the name), and the Pakistani policeman was killed. A few days later, police entered the town and arrested 30 or so people that they alleged had been involved with the attack. (If they had been masked, how did they know who to arrest?) Until now, they are being held incommunicado. My unofficial sources tell me that a) perhaps there was no mob, b) perhaps there were no Molotovs, (although I saw scorch marks of something. Maybe they had a bonfire) and c) the grandfather of the Pakistani policeman said that there were no burn marks on his grandson’s body, which, in any case has been conveniently repatriated. The only thing that is fairly clear is that there are a handful of young Shia men in a very Sunni Bahraini jail somewhere, probably not enjoying their stay. I saw the demonstration outside the public prosecutors office on Thursday, of their black-clad female relatives demanding to know their whereabouts, surrounded by feral-looking riot-cops with tear-gas guns. The fact that it was a Pakistani-origin policeman that was involved would seem to point to some truth in the matter. The authorities wouldn’t make that up, because a Pakistani policeman is a very visible symbol of the creeping Sunni-naturalisation process that has the Shia population so indignant in the first place.

On the road out of Karzakan, which is bumpy and full of potholes, the surface suddenly improves as you drive past the high walls of what I was told is the palace of one of the minor Khalifa royals.

We then drove a few miles up the road into a different world. The conjoined villages of A’ali and Rafa’. The velvet streets. The subdued, elegant street lighting. The manicured median between lanes of the empty highway. Date palms swaying over the walls of enormous, darkened villas. Portraits of the Khalifa family adorning the traffic roundabouts. No street-side barber shops, no kebab joints spilling their noisy customers onto the street, no potholes, no dirt. Just manicured, sinecured, privilege. The mosque built in dour, orthodox, sunni style. Apparently empty. This is not just the sunni neighbourhood, but the seat of sunni power in Bahrain. We drove past the diwan of the King, of the Crown Prince, and of the Prime Minister. Couldn’t see the buildings of course, the walls were too high.

Then Sabanis, which is another slummy neighbourhood right beside the Bahrain Mall. Here, the inverse relationship between outdoor social life and poverty. Everybody on the street, having a yarn, riding bicycles, going to and fro. Mhmd pointed to a house he said had eight families in, that barely looked as if it could hold one without falling over. I wonder how many of them had ever driven round Rafa’.

And then Mhmd took me to the mall for a burger.


4 Comments so far
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I probably shouldn’t speculate – might blow his cover and all that – but Mhd X wouldn’t be any relation of Malcolm?

Comment by MC

Glad you enjoyed my Wonderland 🙂

Comment by sillybahrainigirl

[…] Jeffrey Black visits Bahrain and notes his observations in this post. Posted by Amira Al Hussaini Share […]

Pingback by Global Voices Online » Bahrain: A Tale of Two Villages

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