I was just deported from Bahrain. Not really something to tell my Mum about, but she’ll find out anyway. With what’s going on one could presume it was because I am a journalist. But alas, that is so cliché. I have no proof, other than soviet style silence and sour expressions, but I think Bahrain’s airport Gestapo suspect I am an agent of Iran. Wow. Me? I’ve waited all my life to be an agent of something. Mostly an agent of chaos because that sounds cool. But of Iran?
I was heading there to see some people I met during the turning point in the pro reform uprising (and I say pro-reform because initially, reform was all people wanted). That day, February 17, Bahrani forces opened fire on peaceful protesters at Pearl Roundabout, in the capital Manama. Four died. In all, Bahrain’s Centre for Human Rights says 31 people have been killed since the uprising began and more than 800 arrested and detained, including more than 80 women.
People are living in fear. Communication lines, phone and email, are allegedly tapped and people are being monitored. All this with Saudi Arabia’s army keeping a watchful eye on and in the country.
With this in mind I headed back to Bahrain. It had been difficult for journalists to enter the country after the first shooting, inside many were working illegally because the Government stopped processing press visas. It has become much worse in the past few weeks and security forces continue to drag protesters, activists, doctors and nurses from their homes at all hours of the night.
But it was not my occupation that caused problems. The grumpy man at the counter didn’t even ask. Unfortunate really, because I had done some serious preparation work... I wasn’t going to offer up my occupation unless they figured it out...But why so shifty you ask? Well when a Government is arbitrarily detaining its citizens, torturing them to death in prisons and kicking the crap out of human rights activists in front of their children, it’s not something you want to publicise. And they don’t permit journalists to work legally so in trying to get the story out, there are little options left.
But I digress.. back to the airport.
Bahrain had lost its sense of humour and sense of reality. I knew it as soon as I stepped into Arrivals. I was hoping for a kind looking young man, the type I might be able to convince. But, the crowd of people parted like Moses did the Red Sea and it was not the promised land that awaited, but the fiery legions of Pharaoh. The immigration official waved me towards him. Yes, you will not be lenient nor fair I thought.
I handed over my little blue book, with the Emu and Kangaroo on its cover, hoping they would give me protection. His face didn’t change. He was not a nature lover.
Our exchange was brief, something like the following:
Grumpy Man: Where are you from?
Doe eyed pessimist: Australia (I think the Emu, Kangaroo and word Australia emblazoned across my passport said it all, but I refrained from sarcasm. I’m told its the lowest form of humour.)
Grumpy Man: (studying my picture and passport details intently.) Are you here for a meeting?
Doe eyed pessimist: No (feigning shock), not at all. I’m here for a break.
Grumpy Man: To do?
Doe eye pessimist: To enjoy two days here, you know, I want to sit by the pool, maybe go to the beach, relax (I knew it was stupid as soon as the words left my mouth).
Grumpy Man continues flipping: The beach? (yes that’s what us filthy heathens do in our spare time, lather ourselves in oil, lay about with sand creeping into our nether regions and pray for damaged yet glowing skin).
As he continues flipping I see several of my Qatar visas flash by, as well as two Iranian ones. Including, unfortunately, the one that was stuck in my passport yesterday. He paused on that page, my black and white visa photo, (necessary) hijab covering my hair, stared back at me like a traitor. He’d seen enough. Abruptly, he snapped my passport shut and told me to go wait on a maroon bench next to some South Asian labourers, caught in bureaucratic limbo.
It was then I realised this was not the Bahrain I knew.
I sat and waited as half a dozen men, coming and going, pushed my little blue passport around on a table, in a little white room. Pictures of the King adorned its windows and door. Eventually I asked what was going on. They told me they were sending me back. The Immigration official said it with a half smirk on his face and as though he was doing me a grand favour, shunting me back to the glitz and fake glamour of Doha. Not even pretending to misunderstand garnered any sympathy. Why? I asked. ‘You’re a security risk,’ he replies seriously. I protests, ‘Me?’ I can’t help but laugh, ‘You can’t be serious?’ Another man, dressed in a white uniform, chimes in, ‘Don’t ask us, we’re passport control you must talk to security.’ I then tried to talk to security, the boss dressed in a white robe and headdress, he just looked at me with disgust and mumbled something. He either didn’t understand English or didn’t want to. ‘You must call the Immigration Department to find out,’ said the uniformed (or uninformed) man.
A businessman from Doha introduced himself, hearing my conundrum. His name was Reza, worked in finance and was being deported too. Apparently, Iran has agents in banking who wear purple ties as well as Jim Morrison shirts (me). Poor Reza was born with an unfortunate name, a Shia very Iranian sounding one (he was British of Pakistani decent fyi and had an Iraqi visa in his passport). We were not alone in having the great Persian Cat shed fur on our clothes. Nearby, a women chimed in, her friend's husband was Iranian. They were supposed to drive from Manama to Saudi Arabia that day together. Immigration had given them one hour to get over the border or else. Or else, she emphasized.
I would have understood if they took issue with my occupation. Persecution is the safe house of dictatorships and the press is the first to feel the guillotine. And sometimes that’s fair enough, the press is mostly full of rubbish anyway. But to see a visa in a passport and raise the national guard?
Bahrain’s Saudi backers (puppet masters as many say) are waging both an ideological and influential war with Iran, unfortunately Bahrain is the battleground. In Iran’s defence (and I can’t get into too much detail because I’m just a rookie agent without the proper security clearance) they didn’t start it. Even Julian Assange and Wikileaks said Bahrain’s government uses the threat of Iran as a reason to snatch billions in US military funding and that there is no evidence of any such threat.
My little debacle, which I’m sure has been mirrored countless times at Bahrain’s International Airport over the past two months, is just one example of the spiral out of control. Bahrain is a secular economic playground in the Persian Gulf, where Gulf Arabs, including Saudi’s, mix with ex pat – red as beetroot Brits at bars. Now it’s unrecognizable. Even from the chilly cold interior of the airport.
Just a last note of irony. The headline of the Gulf Daily Mail that day (April 21), ‘the voice of Bahrain’: ‘Bahrain’s door open to business, says King.’ Could someone please tell him I’m at the airport and the roller doors have just come down?
Soraya Esfahani is a journalist based in the Middle East.
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