SHAFAQNA – The attempted revolution in Bahrain started quietly, days after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power in Egypt in February 2011. It consisted of a few hundred unarmed protesters dressed in brightly coloured T-shirts and jeans, the women wearing headscarves, waving Bahraini flags, proclaiming themselves ‘people of peace’ and calling for democracy.
Then one young demonstrator was shot in the back at close range by security forces loyal to the state’s authoritarian leader, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. His death changed everything. Thousands of people gathered at the Pearl roundabout – a giant white monument in the centre of the capital, Manama – to protest against his killing, adding fuel to the anti-government movement. ‘It was as if we had been underwater with no oxygen, and suddenly we had managed to get our heads above and were able to breathe for the first time,’ Maryam Alkhawaja, a 27-year-old civil rights protester, told me on the phone from Bahrain in September. ‘I honestly think that if the government hadn’t shot someone on the first day it would not have lasted.’ Nearly four years later, the protests are still going.
In years to come Maryam, her sister Zainab and their father, Abdulhadi, may be looked on as a family who changed the course of history. Undeterred by the threat of arrest and torture, the Alkhawajas fight for democracy in a mainly Shia Muslim country that has been ruled by the same Sunni dynasty for more than 200 years. While Bahrain has an elected legislative assembly, the king is the supreme authority and members of his family hold the main political and military posts.
It is a country where criticising the government, even on Twitter, is an arrestable offence (a friend of Maryam’s, Nabeel Rajab, has been detained in prison since October 2, charged with ‘insulting a public institution’ in a tweet). In September the United Nations voiced concerns about ‘ongoing violations’ of freedom of expression in Bahrain. Yet Maryam and her family persistently criticise the government and are frequently arrested.
Abdulhadi is serving a life sentence in Jaw prison – from which have emerged harrowing reports of torture, including that of child prisoners – charged with ‘organising and managing a terrorist organisation’ (he founded a human rights organisation). Zainab was arrested on October 14 despite being nearly nine months pregnant after she ripped up a picture of the king in court – while already facing a charge of ripping up his picture. ‘We’re worried she will give birth in prison,’ Maryam said. Maryam herself had only just been released from jail, and still had a torn shoulder muscle from a beating she received at the hands of the state security forces.
The Alkhawaja family is the subject of an extraordinary documentary, We Are the Giant, made by Greg Barker, an American former war correspondent turned filmmaker. He tells the stories of three uprisings of the Arab Spring – in Libya, Syria and Bahrain – through the experiences of ordinary citizens: Osama, who describes how his 21-year-old son, Muhannad, who was brought up in Virginia, went back to Libya, the country of his birth, to fight Gaddafi’s forces in Benghazi; Ghassan and Motaz, who try to remain committed to peaceful resistance even as Syria becomes an increasingly violent place in which to live; and Maryam and Zainab.
Abdulhadi Alkawaja (far right) with his four daughters. PHOTO: Bahrain Centre for Human Rights
Barker knew he wanted to make a film about the Arab Spring as soon as the protests began to grow. ‘I felt that we were witnessing a revolutionary moment, which comes in waves across history, and this was the Middle East’s time,’ he said.
Unlike Libya and now Syria, Bahrain has not been the subject of Western government intervention. Barker said this was partly because Bahrain is a key Western ally – a US naval base is located on the north-eastern side of the island, as close to Iran as the US can get – and partly because there is a strong pro-Bahraini lobby in both Britain and the US. ‘There are a lot of powerful forces who don’t want this story to be told,’ he said. ‘That’s why we had to do it.’ Since We Are the Giant premiered at the Sundance film festival in January, the Bahraini government has joined the US-led coalition against Islamic State.
Abdulhadi Alkhawaja first got into trouble with the Bahraini authorities as a student, when he was studying in London in the late 1970s. He participated in demonstrations in reaction to the arrests of pro-democracy campaigners; when some of his fellow protesters returned to Bahrain in 1980 they were arrested and tortured. Abdulhadi decided to stay abroad, in self-imposed exile. He met Khadija al-Mousawi, a former teacher who had been forced to leave Bahrain, and they married and moved to Syria, before being granted political asylum in Denmark in 1991, where they lived for 10 years.
Zainab at a protest. PHOTO: AP
During their exile (‘we thought of ourselves as refugees,’ Maryam told me, ‘the intention was always to go home to Bahrain’), their father read books about Bahrain to his four daughters (Maryam is the third, Zainab the eldest). ‘He taught us always to ask questions and understand why we were in exile.’
The title of the documentary takes its name from an anecdote Abdulhadi would tell the girls when they were growing up, Zainab explains in the film. ‘He said the people are the giant and the government is like a small man. But why is it that the little man controls the giant and keeps him in handcuffs?’
In 1999, after the death of his father, the English-educated Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa took power in Bahrain and oversaw reforms that included releasing political prisoners and allowing those in exile to come back to the country. So in 2001, when Maryam was 14, the family returned to Bahrain. But the wave of liberalism wasn’t to last.
Maryam PHOTO: Susannah Ireland/ EYEVINE
Abdulhadi, who had co-founded the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) while in Denmark, continued to campaign. (‘He always told us that doing nothing wasn’t an option,’ Maryam said.) As a result he was regularly intimidated. He was assaulted by government forces in 2002, arrested and beaten in 2004, sustained more injuries in 2005 during a protest (photographs of his back show long red marks from the beating he received) and arrested again in 2007 after a pro-democracy rally (his offences included ‘promoting change to the political system through illegitimate means’).
Like her father, Maryam studied abroad, spending a year in the US on a Fulbright scholarship at Brown University. When she returned to Bahrain in mid-2010 she worked for the BCHR. In August that year there was a government crackdown on dissidents; prominent activists were arrested and allegedly tortured. ‘By September my father heard that I was next on the list. He told me to leave the country,’ she said. Maryam moved to London.
In February 2011, inspired by the successful protests in Egypt and Libya, Bahrainis started calling for a day of peaceful protest; when the Bahraini authorities tried to block a popular Facebook page calling for a revolution, the ‘likes’ almost doubled from 14,000 in a few days. (In the documentary, tweets from the time pop up on screen – both from Maryam, who has 102,000 followers of her account @MARYAMAlkhawaja, and Zainab, who tweets as @angryarabiya – highlighting the importance of social media to the uprisings.)
‘As soon as I heard the calls to protest I had to come back,’ Maryam said. She returned on February 9 2011. Two days later President Mubarak stepped down in Egypt. ‘It gave us hope,’ she said. ‘Hope is the reason for all of these revolutions in the so-called Arab Spring; they didn’t cause each other, they inspired each other.’
After the killing of 21-year-old Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima in Manama on February 14, protesters camped out on the Pearl roundabout for three days, making speeches calling for justice, peace and change. Abdulhadi Alkhawaja was one of many who spoke. In the film we see him appealing for justice, dignified and reasonable. ‘We ask that someone be held responsible for this murder,’ he says (the documentary splices together footage filmed on camera phones at the time, as well as interviews by the filmmakers). Maryam is also seen on camera that day. ‘Any government that kills its own people is a government that deserves to go,’ she says.
The government response was swift. Security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot to break up demonstrations, and arrested protesters. Because Maryam had been so visible at the protest her father told her again to leave Bahrain; she moved back to Copenhagen on March 2, not knowing if she could ever return.
Meanwhile, Zainab and Abdulhadi kept up their peaceful protest (the Alkhawajas are religious – Maryam and Zainab wear headscarves, along with skinny jeans and heavily kohled eyes – and say that their fight for freedom must be non-violent). There is a touching moment in the documentary where Abdulhadi, armed with only a red carnation, hands it to a policeman in riot gear. Shortly afterwards, the police receive orders to fire. In the ensuing panic, Abdulhadi is shot in the hand and Zainab forces him to go home.
On March 14 about 2,000 troops from Saudi Arabia and UAE arrived in Bahrain, along with tanks, to help quell the protests. The following day the king declared martial law and a three-month state of emergency. On March 18 the authorities demolished the symbolic Pearl roundabout.
Protestors clash with riot police in Manama, Bahrain. PHOTO: AP
The Bahraini section of We Are the Giant was filmed by Barker’s co-producer, Razan Ghalayani, on a series of secret missions into the country on a tourist visa; she smuggled footage out. Ghalayani told me about going out to protest with Zainab and seeing the power of peaceful resistance for the first time. ‘I went to a teachers’ union gathering,’ she said. ‘It was in a small courtyard in front of a mosque – very casual; mostly women and children. A tear-gas canister fell to the ground nearby. We looked over to the left and there were about 50 riot police officers standing aiming their guns at us. The riot police started to walk towards us and with each step they took the crowd would just cheer, “Yasqut Hamad” [down with Hamad] over and over again. It was very scary. Zainab and Nabeel Rajab told the crowd to calm down and ushered everyone into the mosque’s front yard. It was my first encounter with a non-violent resistance. I’ll never forget the calm in Zainab’s eyes that day.’
On April 10, in the early hours of the morning, ‘five or six’ police officers raided Zainab’s apartment and attacked her father – one holding his throat while the others beat him. They dragged him down the stairs by his legs, his head banging on the steps as he went, leaving a trail of blood. His two sons-in-law were also arrested, ‘even though they have nothing to do with politics or human rights,’ Maryam said, ‘they’re just connected to our family.’
Zainab protesting. PHOTO: Centre for Bahrain Human Rights
The family was told nothing of Abdulhadi’s whereabouts. On April 17 Zainab, who was still breast-feeding her daughter, Jude, went on hunger strike for 10 days in an attempt to force the police to allow the family contact with Abdulhadi. Finally, after Maryam made sure his plight was reported worldwide, Abdulhadi was allowed a one-minute phone call home.
In Denmark on August 3, Maryam received a call from Rajab, who needed her to write up a report for the BCHR of allegations of torture in a Bahrain prison. He dictated it to her: a man had been tortured so badly that his face was unrecognisable; he had been physically, psychologically and sexually abused; when he realised that his guards were trying to rape him, he banged his head against a wall until he fell unconscious. At the end of the dictation Rajab told Maryam that the man was her father.
‘I could feel tears coming down my face, but I stopped myself and got back to work,’ she says in a startlingly matter-of-fact way in the documentary. How did she manage to stay so controlled, I asked her. ‘I think in our situation you normalise everything, because if you can’t then you don’t survive,’ she said. ‘You normalise feeling hurt or panicked or scared – just about everything.’
Demonstrators in Bahrain’s captial, Manama, show their support for the jailed human rights protestor Abdulhadi Alkawaja. PHOTO: Getty Images
Her father’s torture continued. After a 110-day hunger strike in 2012 he was force-fed with tubes.
In August this year he started another hunger strike – until ‘freedom or death’. A slim man before he went to prison, he was now perilously emaciated. By August 29 Maryam heard that he was close to death. His blood sugar had dropped to two (normal levels are 4.0-5.9) and his blood pressure was at a dangerously low 90/55. She decided to return to Bahrain. ‘I wanted to make sure that if the worst were to happen, that I had seen him,’ she said.
She knew she risked arrest when she boarded the plane on August 30. At the airport she was met by police officers who told her she was no longer a Bahraini citizen. They took her into a room and beat her so badly that she tore a shoulder muscle and ‘my whole body ached’. She was put in prison for 19 days (she was charged with assaulting a police officer, which she vehemently denies).
Desperate to see her father, she started a hunger strike of her own. After four days the authorities relented and the whole family was allowed to visit Abdulhadi on September 15. ‘When I saw him I was really, really scared,’ Maryam said. ‘He was just skin and bones. I never cry, but when I saw him I had tears in my eyes. But mentally he’s still a very strong man and pretty soon he was joking around. He said to me, “What are you doing here?” and he was laughing. I said it wasn’t fair that he’d lost more weight than I had.’
Two days after we spoke Maryam was allowed to leave Bahrain, and she travelled first to Denmark and then on to London. ‘I can’t do my work with the restrictions that exist here,’ she said. Her work – raising awareness and documenting human rights abuses – is seemingly endless. When I called to speak to her she was in the middle of writing yet another urgent report at 9pm; she travels continuously between 10 countries, documenting abuse and lobbying politicians around the world. ‘I have two or three days a month at home [in Denmark] and they are not always consecutive days,’ she said. It’s a lonely existence. ‘Since I left Bahrain [in 2011] I’ve spent most of my time on my own. My life is the revolution. I don’t have time for anything else.’
Zainab and Maryam. PHOTO: Bahrain Centre for Human Rights
The documentary shows her very politely ambushing Hillary Clinton on the red carpet before an event (pursed lips, Clinton nods politely as Maryam talks, but does not reply). She is also filmed lobbying MPs in Britain. They listen to her, but nothing is ever promised.
Maryam understands the political situation they face. But it infuriates her. ‘Is a Bahraini life not as valuable as a Libyan or a Syrian life?’ she said. ‘When the West says that human rights is the cornerstone of foreign policy there’s a massive double standard. The point of my work is that it doesn’t matter what passport you carry, what nationality you are, what gender, what religion, as a human being you have rights that are guaranteed to you by international standards and those rights have to be respected by everyone.’
As a 12-year-old, Maryam remembers having had three ambitions for when she grew up. ‘One, to be a taxi driver, so I could drive any car I wanted,’ she said, laughing. ‘Two, to be a teacher, and three, to be a human rights activist like my father. I think the taxi driver might have been easier.’ But she has no plans to switch professions. ‘Being an activist is a blessing and a curse,’ she said. ‘It’s a blessing because you feel like you’ve dedicated your life to serving people and it gives your life meaning, but it’s a curse because I don’t think you can ever come out of it. Even as an activist I suffer from a sort of survivor’s guilt – that I’m not doing enough. Imagine if I decided not to do anything – how would I feel then?’
Maryam regularly receives death and rape threats on Twitter, which, she said, she takes ‘very seriously’. The charges against her – the alleged assault of a police officer and insulting the king – are still active, so she can’t return to Bahrain to see her family. Zainab, now eight months pregnant, is facing a sentence of up to seven years (she has been in and out of prison for the past year). In the documentary there is a heartbreaking moment when Zainab talks about her daughter, Jude, who has begged her not to go back to prison.
Zainab and her daughter Jude. PHOTO: Bahrain Centre for Human Rights
Why, you have to wonder, does this family keep protesting when they seem to be making such little progress? ‘We do it partly for our people and our country, but also we do it for our family,’ Maryam explained. ‘A lot of people say Zainab should be at home with her kid, but she’s doing it for her kid. Same for me. I don’t want my nieces and nephew to grow up in a country where if they speak out they go to prison, or if they demand dignity as human beings they are beaten down. I want them to enjoy the same human rights that I enjoyed growing up in Denmark.’
Barker, who followed Maryam for nearly four years over the course of the film, described her as ‘amazing’. ‘It’s really humbling to be around people like her who act out the ideals that we all think we stand for but that are so rarely tested,’ he said. ‘All the people we read about – Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks – they were all ordinary people who faced an extraordinary challenge of their time and ended up becoming extraordinary themselves.’ Ghalayani agrees. ‘She is an incredibly strong woman and she has a fierce sense of humour,’ she said. ‘Her laugh is infectious and she always, no matter how dire the situation, finds a way to laugh. I think this is her secret strength.’
I got a glimpse of Maryam’s dark sense of humour when, describing her time in prison, she said, ‘It was dirty, the toilets didn’t flush, and we were sharing four to a cell; it was like the Arab version of Orange Is the New Black.’
We Are the Giant ends with Zainab talking about the spread of revolutions across the Middle East. ‘There are dictators using violence to put fear back on the streets and make people go back into their homes,’ she says. ‘But what they’re doing is the opposite. They’re creating heroes. Everyday heroes.’
She is not talking about herself or her sister, but she should be.
Source : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/bahrain/11196656/The-family-that-protests-against-Bahrains-brutal-regime.html