The young horse, as skittish as the young man, danced along the packed dirt track, tossing his head. The boy wore flip-flops, toes pointed up—good form—to keep from dropping them. I was barefoot. Neither one of us had a saddle. He caught my eye as we reached “the racetrack,” a strip of soft sand that ran alongside the island’s largest highway. Even if we had spoken, we wouldn’t have heard one another for the whoosh of the cars atop the embankment. The silent challenge was proffered. When a horse begins to gallop, you can feel it flatten beneath you, as the rise and fall of the three-beat canter gives way to a four-beat staccato that you hear rather than feel: hind, hind, front, front, hind, hind, front, front. The gallop is the only gait in which all four hooves leave the ground at the same time.
I waited until he and his mount were a dot in the distance before giving my horse his head. He was dancing too. He knew why we had come.
This is one of my last memories of this place.
When I left eighteen years ago, this part of Bahrain was all stables and farms, the highway the edge of our world. Now I stand in the last patch of green for several miles. Its owner plans to transform it into a housing development. The conversion of Bahrain’s last few acres of designated agricultural land is a matter of rubber-stamping, at least for landowners from powerful families—most of the farmers and stable owners do not own the land they work and do not come from these families. For the moment, though, it is still there.
Nearby couches, their sponge stuffing exposed, sit seemingly at random, facing a charred patch of ground. Concrete-and-glass residential complexes, like spaceships, have landed where palm groves and rocky outcroppings once stood. Yet even with concrete developments like ramparts all around, groups of men still sit on these couches most nights—the closest they can come to nature. Though the land has changed around them, they would rather be here than in the shopping centers and strip malls that have been built for them.
“Would you like a tour?” my friend Tariq asks, his tone wry and resigned. He is offering to take me around what is left of the desert, and to help me see the old landmarks beneath the new ones. He, too, had received a demolition order and had been told to vacate his stable. I eye the pregnant mare in the corner stall.
“I’m not going,” he says, anticipating my question.
Be careful, I want to say. Don’t make them force you. You know what they’re capable of. But I don’t. He knows that better than I do.
“Ok, let’s go.”
He’s thinner than he used to be, and a couple of crow’s feet have crept to the corners of his eyes, though the eyes themselves retain the air of mischief they always had. Hair black as ever, without a hint of gray, Tariq has aged far better than the land around him.
We meet at the stable gates a few moments later, our reins long, feet flopping beside our stirrups, knowing this will be a gentle ride, knowing there is nowhere to gallop anymore.
This week, at one of the last stables in the desert, there was a fire in the middle of the day, Tariq tells me, as our horses walk side by side. I picture the flames against the sun-blanched sky, looking almost beside the point. He rushed to get the horses to safety as the fire ate their stalls. The police came. One of the officers was a childhood friend of his.
“You should get out of here,” the officer said. He meant: “If you’re discovered here, they’ll say you had something to do with it.” Tariq is Shia; his friend the policeman, Sunni. There were still a few horses in their stalls. Tariq gestured toward them. The officer’s face was expressionless. Tariq left.
“That’s horrible,” I say. He shrugs as if to say, don’t act surprised, you know that’s how it is now. Tariq is not my friend’s real name. Since 2011, people have been jailed for far lesser things than talking to a foreign journalist, even one they’ve known since she was a child.
I spent the first 14 years of my life here, but I haven’t lived here in 18 years and I haven’t been back to visit for 12. And yet, when I did go back, every person I saw whom I had known at 14 remembered me. I did not have to remind even one of them who I was. That is Bahrain. Perhaps, too, I’m less different than I think from the unsure 13-year-old with freckles and humidity-frizzed hair that they knew then.
“Do you know where we are?” A lonely structure stands before us, a few breeze block walls and corrugated iron roofs.
I look around, raking the land’s flat face with my eyes for something familiar. The green fuzz of succulent bushes and the spikey fronds of palms have been shaved, leaving the ground bald, cut, and scarred in places. And over the rawness that is left, they have poured concrete—cauterizing the earth against regrowth. In this place, the fertility of the ground is so contingent, so fragile, so easily sterilized.
“I can’t tell.”
“This is Abbas’s stable.” We walk on. This was “the logs.” He gestures to the land around us. I look for a sign, a cluster of palm trees or a stray dead palm trunk, something to prove that what he said is true. There is nothing.
I never meant to stay away this long. For years I lived in the region, less than a three-hour flight away. I could go anytime, I thought. Then 2011 happened. And here, like so many places, demonstrators filled the streets, with the mood of the world on the side of the region’s protesters. In the pearl roundabout (called Pearl Square in western media outlets to conjure analogies to Egypt’s Tahrir) Bahrainis of all religions and ages took to the streets, calling for reform: a new constitution, the release of all political prisoners, the investigation of torture claims, freedom of expression, an independent judiciary, and an investigation into allegations of naturalizations for political reasons. What they notably did not call for was the fall of the regime. I watched along with the rest of the world, hopeful, elated. This change was many decades coming.
But then everything seemed to veer off-course. After a few brief conciliatory efforts by Bahrain’s Crown Prince, Saudi tanks rolled over the causeway—the one everyone said was built for just this purpose the year I was born. Suddenly, the images on the news switched from joyful crowds of smiling men and women singing songs and eating popcorn, to policemen beating protesters, soldiers marching into hospitals. Stories trickled out of injured protesters dragged from their hospital beds, doctors and nurses who treated them arrested, tortured. The crackdown on protesters that began that spring is still going on, eight years later. Over 4,000 people are in jail for political reasons, in a country with just over 677,000 citizens. Hundreds have been stripped of their citizenship, rendering them stateless.
And still I stayed away, reporting from countries nearby, wanting to wait for the right moment, afraid they might not let me in—in 2013 they began Googling people at the border and turning those away whom they found to be journalists or human rights workers. So, Bahrain was covered less and less. And with all the conflict going on in other parts of the region, who was going to care about a tiny country in the middle of the Arabian Gulf? I knew this might be my last visit.
She meets me at a shopping center, picks me up as though she’s an Uber driver. All over the world, we are used to getting into strangers’ cars now. The shopping center is far from the village—a village that has been engulfed by the city—but when you enter, something changes. Here, people know each other; here, people are afraid. We drive in, straight, then right, then left; I lose track of the rights and lefts. She doesn’t take her eyes off the rearview mirror. For a while there is an SUV behind us. “Police,” she says. I do not say anything. She turns down an alley and the SUV continues on past us. We pull into a garage. A woman comes out of a door to the house. She looks beyond us, into the street. A few young teenage boys are standing around. This does not seem to worry her, but she does not greet them. We open the car doors and scuttle in. I am sorry I did not wear an abaya; if someone sees us, I will raise suspicion.
Inside are four middle-aged ladies—mothers, all of them. Here, when women greet one another, it is with three kisses or sets of kisses on three alternating cheeks. Each one embraces me, and the woman whose house it is brings out cake and bottled water and peanuts for each of us. Each one asks, in turn, if she can take me home to make me dinner. Each took a risk to come here. Had we met in one of the island’s ubiquitous luxury cafes, they might have been arrested. Each woman is the mother of at least one child imprisoned for protesting.
As soon as we are settled, everyone begins speaking at once. Because I cannot use their identities, the effect is one of a kind of chorus:
“My son cannot hear out of his left ear and cannot see out of his right eye because he has been so brutally beaten. He was fifteen years old when he was arrested,” one mother tells me, Zainab, we’ll call her.
“When my son was first arrested, he was 13. The police hit him on the nose and broke it. Now he is in custody again and they always hit him in the nose,” says another mother, Maryam.
“My son has been stripped of his citizenship.” For now he is in jail for protesting, but when I ask her what that will mean when he comes out she shakes her head.
“My son has cancer. The doctors won’t let me see him. He has become almost blind from not getting the proper care in prison,” another mother, Amal, says. Her son was arrested in 2012 for protesting. His mother says he was at home at the time but that another boy gave his name under torture. He has been sentenced to 15 years in prison. When she tried to visit him in the military hospital, a prison official threatened to arrest her or to harm her son. Now she sometimes goes to the hospital in a face veil so she won’t be recognized. She looks at me intently, her oval face set. It’s hot, and she has taken off her abaya and sits with one foot folded under her on the couch.
“In 2011 we wanted reform. Now we want the fall of the regime,” says Maryam.
“After the uprising, I became political,” says Zainab, “I wasn’t before. The citizens have become foreign in their own country and the newly naturalized have become the sons of this country.” The government has accused members of Bahrain’s Shia majority of being supported by Iran. She scoffs. “If we go to Iran, we don’t even understand their language.”
“I used to be weak. I cried easily. Now I am strong. What God has written will happen,” says Amal, the mother whose imprisoned son has cancer.
“My son has 120 shotgun pellets in his body,” says a mother who has been silent until now. She sits next to me on a mat on the floor, her body hunched making her seem smaller than she is. “The doctors say it is safer to leave them there. One is lodged in the wall of his heart.”
As we drive out of the village and onto the highway, my companion visibly relaxes. She drops me off in a mall parking lot. She does not wave as she drives away, but texts me later to make sure I got home safely.
The powerlessness of Bahrain’s majority is mirrored in its landscapes, which have been irrevocably altered by the powerful, with little to no input from the population.
Walking into palm groves here as a child, the air was immediately cooler, the shade a dizzying relief from the melting heat. It was as though you could feel the oxygen from the trees around you, easing your breathing. And there, sheltered from the sun, you could find other plants, and lizards, and frogs, a thriving ecosystem that seemed so miraculous in that unforgiving climate. Now the palm groves are all but gone. And for those who do not remember them, the idea that they once existed—that Bahrain was once an agrarian society—must seem like fantasy.
It is illegal to kill a palm tree on the island, according to a local environmentalist. Yet somehow, the groves have disappeared all the same. When agricultural land is razed for building, its palms are often replanted throughout the city, in highway medians or public parks. But alone, poking out of sidewalks, bricks almost touching their trunks, these trees lose their power. No longer can they change the very air around them. Alone, they cannot be the foundation on which more delicate life is built.
Changes in the sea are just as dramatic as those on land. Look at a satellite map of Bahrain and you’ll notice something strange: At the densely populated northern end of the island, the land juts into the sea in straight lines and rectangles; there are no organic shapes, no irregular lines. And in the water, one can see brown plumes in the blue: sediment created by dredging, the process of scraping up sand from the sea floor to use in land reclamation. These plumes can travel as far as five kilometers up and downstream with the tide, smothering ecosystems and killing coral. Dredging has punctured Bahrain’s freshwater aquifer, allowing seawater to seep in, contaminating what was once the island’s most precious resource. In Bahrain, the colloquial term for land reclamation is “burying the sea.” Since 1987, the island’s land area has been expanded by over 12.5 percent; over 60 square kilometers of sea have been “buried.” Villages that once stood at the water’s edge have been encircled by a band of land owned by private investors, cutting off their access to the shoreline. Less than ten percent of the coast is publicly accessible. In 2010 a parliamentary committee led by al-Wefaq, a largely Shia opposition group, released a report investigating irregularities in government deals selling land to private investors. Much of the money from public land sales never made it into public coffers. The al-Wefaq party was banned in 2014.
After leaving the mothers, driving down one of Bahrain’s main roads, I pass Diraz, Bahrain’s largest Shia village and one of the oldest inhabited places on the island—a temple here to an unknown god dates from 2400 BC. These days, Diraz looks like East Jerusalem on a tense day. Concrete blocks and barbed wire bar all of its entrances but two, and those are heavily guarded by security forces and armored vehicles. No one is allowed in without a Diraz identity card, even to visit family. About 20,000 people live behind this barricade, which has been in place for more than three years. In 2017, five young protesters were killed by security forces in Diraz in a raid on a sit-in for one of the country’s Shia leaders, Sheikh Isa Qassim, who was stripped of his citizenship. The deaths shook the island. It was the largest number of people killed by the state in living memory.
Two years on, people are trying to get along as best they can. “I’m Su-Shi,” the young mother, a Diraz resident, smiles at me over her lowered sunglasses. “Half Sunni, half Shia.” So are many Bahrainis. She looks around the Western-style café to see if anyone overheard her. Even here, she is apprehensive. She puts on a brave face, but her husband lost his job because of his outspoken political views. and she worries constantly about her son, who attends an international school. She is afraid he will say something critical of the government within hearing of a student from one of the island’s powerful Sunni families. Her son tells her there are new sectarian tensions at school since the uprisings. One day there was even anti-Shia graffiti on one of the walls of a classroom.
Bahrain is a port on trade routes that connected the Middle East and the South Asia for more than four thousand years. The population has always been as shifting and unstable as any place on the sea. Sunni and Shia families from Iran have been settling in Bahrain for two thousand years. Some still speak Farsi, or a mix of Farsi and Arabic, at home. You can still hear these roots in their names and the names of some towns in Bahrain: Karbabad, Damistan, Karzakan. Then there are the Baharna Shia, who have lived on the island for as long as there has been any historical record.
For decades, the government has been bringing Sunni Muslims from Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, and other places, and providing them with jobs—often in the security forces, where Bahrain’s Shia population is de facto prohibited from serving —offering them Bahraini nationality in order to increase the percentage of Sunnis on the island. But since 2001, this explicit process of shifting the sectarian balance has been taking place at a rate that is alarming even the local Sunni population.
“The demographic change is so that if one day there were elections, the Sunnis would win,” one Bahraini journalist told me. For the moment, the majority of Bahrainis remain Shia, though reliable statistics are hard to come by for political reasons.
But not all Bahraini Sunnis, or even all royal family members, are convinced of the wisdom of this plan. Who’s to say that these immigrants, a few generations along, are any more likely to side with the government than its citizens who already live there? After all, government support in Bahrain doesn’t split neatly down sectarian lines: some Shias support the government, while some Sunnis oppose it. And both Shia and Sunni Bahrainis participated in the 2011 uprising.
In the past, when tensions have arisen, the government has eventually made concessions, as though opening a pressure valve to allow things on the island to return to normal. But this time, Saudi Arabia, the Bahraini royal family’s political and economical backer, views the island as a battleground in its Sunni-Shia proxy war against Iran. And no such release seems likely any time soon.
Meanwhile, the mothers of other imprisoned young men wait and pray for their sons to come home.
A hundred years ago, much of the island’s wealth was derived from pearl diving. For thousands of years, ships would stop in Bahrain on their way from Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley to buy pearls collected from the island’s oyster beds and replenish their fresh water supply from its aquifers. The pearl divers would go to sea for months at a time. On land, throughout the diving season, another group of mothers, daughters, and sisters would wait for their men to come home. They conducted rituals and sang songs to bribe or cajole the sea to carry their husbands, fathers, and sons back to them.
All through the pearling season, along the shore, the women would sing:
Repent, repent, O Sea Four [months] and the fifth has begun
Bring them back With their pockets full
Don’t you fear God, O Sea? Four and the fifth has begun
O’ their captain Do not be hard on them
. . .
I wish I were a cloud So I could cast shade on them.