In the wake of the Bahraini uprising in 2011 and 2012, expatriates living in Bahrain as well as international observers could not have failed to notice that something is indeed rotten in the tiny kingdom on the Persian Gulf. Before the political unrest highlighted the grievances of many Bahrainis, casual visitors or expats coming to live in Bahrain for a couple of years would mostly have seen the comparatively high quality of life and the vibrant atmosphere of Manama. For oppositional voices from Bahrain, however, such amenities no longer matter in the light of their country’s political failures, a flawed homeland giving rise to poetic prophecies like this: ‘We celebrated your death / Until you became great.’
These lines were penned by Bahraini writer Ali Al Jallawi in his volume of poetry Al Isyan (Arabic for ‘revolt’, ‘disobedience’) – which was published years before the Arab Spring. Al Jallawi is not only one of the Gulf region’s most notable modern poets, but he has also been an outspoken critic of Bahrain’s government for the last two decades. Born in Manama in 1975, as the eighth child in a large family, he started writing poetry at the age of 14: A mere three years later, he ran into trouble with Bahrain’s authorities for the first time when he was arrested for publishing a poem critical of the ruling monarchy.
His seven volumes of poetry and his numerous appearances at national as well as international festivals garnered him praise in literary circles while his political ideas and humanitarian ideals led to his political persecution at the hands of the Bahraini state. In 1995, after his second arrest, he was incarcerated for three years and suffered torture in prison. This harrowing experience is at the centre of his recent memoir, God after Ten o’Clock, which nonetheless reaffirms Al Jallawi’s staunchest beliefs.
In an absurd, almost comical anecdote, one of the prison officials tries to become god for the people at his mercy. He writes ‘God’ on a scrap of paper, locks it in the desk drawer, and tersely states: ‘God is there. I am here.’ With guards like that, the poet’s passionate speeches fall on deaf ears – and yet they serve to remind him of his core values. Even though his jailer may consider himself a willful, vengeful deity, the writer remains committed to a human, even animal existence. Comparing himself to a ‘seagull’ (which has wings, even when caged, to rise in the air), a ‘jellyfish’ (soft, luminous, thriving in water), and a ‘son of the first nucleus, which could be considered clay’ (as the first man in Abrahamic religion, created from simple earth), he disdains to derive his own status from tribal interests, religious authorities, social class, or a feeling of racial superiority towards people from different ethnicities.
This radical humanitarianism becomes apparent in many facets of Al Jallawi’s work. He has written two books on religious minorities in Bahrain (the Jewish community and the Baha’ i faith), and from 2005 to 2007, he contributed as a journalist to coverage on local arts and culture and to the country’s only oppositional newspaper. His lyrical oeuvre keeps coming back, again and again, to what he calls the three biggest taboos in Bahrain’s literature: sexuality, religion, and politics. ‘If Earth were higher / I’d appeal for / God’s hat to be hung on the moon / and the clothes line of heaven to be stretched between two rhymes,’ Al Jallawi writes in the poem provocatively titled ‘Letter to Quaraish’ (the name of the tribe the prophet Mohammed belonged to). Such challenges to religious and secular hierarchies alike are, however, not likely to find favour in a politically volatile climate and under a regime routinely criticised for suppressing freedom of speech.
While Al Jallawi rejects violence as part of anti-government protests, he did peacefully participate in mass demonstrations in 2011, publicly reciting some of his poems during gatherings at the Manama Pearl Roundabout. When security forces then paid a visit to his family and he heard about the fate of two fellow writers (a publisher and a blogger, both of whom mysteriously died in prison), he decided to leave his country. As he already had a visa for participating in a literary festival in Germany, he set out from Bahrain prematurely and finally arrived via the UAE, Lebanon, Jordan, and the UK. Ironically enough, he was arrested at Heathrow Airport and held in custody for several weeks, since his visa was not considered valid for Britain.
A support network for persecuted journalists and authors helped Al Jallawi to get to Germany after all and organized a PEN fellowship to save him a lengthy asylum application. He thus resided as an official guest in the city of Weimar for half a year and now lives in Berlin as a fellow of the Akademie der Künste. The poet has expressed both his deep gratitude to the individual people in Europe who offered him their help and his disappointment with feeling like ‘a second-class human’, due to his non-European passport, dark skin tone, and Arab name. On the one hand, Western government and organisations, as Al Jallawi does not tire of pointing out, celebrate freedom of speech – and then export military equipment to nations such as Saudi Arabia, which played a vital part in putting down Bahrain’s popular opposition with brute force.
As relieved as he was to leave Bahrain unhindered and unscathed, he also wants to return some day. His wife and his ten-year-old son were not able to join him, and while exile is a better option than prison, it is ‘the slow murder of your memories.’ Al Jallawi uses his exile in Germany for further appearances at literary events and political lectures on the Arab Spring, for interviews with German media outlining his hopes for a democratic Bahrain, and for working on a novel called Yadallah’s Shoes, another meditation on the ways that society and ideology can influence people, for better or worse.
‘Your nation is not a piece of land, though,’ he states. ‘Your nation is your sense of belonging. I still belong to my country.’ And Al Jallawi will still wrestle with questions like ‘O Lord… / How have you allowed children to dispatch all this death?’ (‘Letters for Those to Be Slain’) and come to the resounding answer, ‘there is no one worthy of worship but Man’ (‘Letter to Quraish’), a conclusion that is less cynical than it is ultimately hopeful.
This article has been provided by InterNations, the leading online community for expatriates worldwide. InterNations is present with Local Communities in 322 cities and with currently over 500.000 members across the globe and aims to help expats socially integrate into their new cities abroad, both online and offline.