Witness to an Uprising: Taking Sides in a Dividing Bahrain

When an Australian teacher in Manama saw the government's brutal response to a fledgling revolution, he knew he couldn't stay neutral

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Bahraini protesters gather in front of riot police / Reuters

This is part three of a four-part series. Read the whole series here.

By late February, all seemed once again well in Bahrain. The peaceful protesters who had first gathered on February 14 were back at Pearl Roundabout, there were no police, no army, none of the teargas that had once covered the roundabout and floated up to our adjacent apartment complex, and no security personnel hanging around. Yes, it was difficult to move in and out of the complex but the protesters had volunteer traffic wardens (as well as cleaners) that made it easier. I had dodged possible arrest after mysterious men, probably from the Ministry of Interior, had seen me filming from my building's above-ground parking garage, come to my apartment, and then stood over my shoulder as they forced me to erase the footage (which, fortunately, I had already posted online. The incident made me think about what it must be like for the Bahraini families -- not treated as gently as I, an Australian here to teach at the university -- who've had their front door kicked down in the middle of the night and watched as the head of the household was savagely beaten in from of them before being taken away to be tortured.

My wife and I visited the roundabout one evening and found a pleasant, carnival-like atmosphere. Thousands of people united by one primary goal -- democracy in a country that is still ruled by a king -- were mingling happily as one group. Free food stalls were everywhere (a new popcorn machine had been installed), a small area was set aside for aspiring artists, and even free haircuts were available. Pro-government trolls would later claim that there were "sex tents" to cater for you-know-what, which was both preposterous and insulting to the large number of families, women, and children that were in attendance. Once again, at no time did we ever feel unsafe or threatened and, needless to say, did we see any evidence of weapons on display.

I eventually returned to work at Bahrain Polytechnic University, which had been on mid-semester break. In staff meetings, the CEO, John Scott, stressed that the Polytechnic needed to be seen as a place where all students were able to feel safe amid all the turmoil that had happened outside. Security was increased and police wanted to search students' vehicles for weapons, but John wanted everyone to know that we could not be seen to be taking sides -- we needed to remain neutral in front of our students. I agreed with him but, after what I had witnessed, I found it difficult to be neutral -- which felt too close to not caring. Looking back, I now know I should have spoken to more people about this, but I could not bring myself to tell anyone I was neutral. In my eyes it was like saying, "Oh, I don't mind what happens because I'm an expat" or "It's your country, it's got nothing to do with me."

The group of students that I had the privilege of teaching before February 14 were a wonderful group of young people. Bahraini students have superb senses of humor and can speak and listen to English extremely well. I did not have the slightest idea which of my students were Sunni or Shia (most Bahrainis are the latter, but the king and his monarchy are the former) and, before the unrest, it never made any difference. Some of my students had formed a own group called "The Catalysts" to bring about political change and undertake community projects and charity work. They were all friends and we had a ball together. But, after February 14, that was all gone.

I returned to teaching to find my classroom divided. Students sat in different groups and the air in the classroom was cold. There were no smiles, no laughter, and I immediately knew which students were pro-government: the ones that were the most pissed off. I tried to make them welcome and wanted them to know that we had all been through a tough time but that I hoped we could still have a good semester together. I then told the class that I had been asked to be neutral about the events and that I was sorry, but I could not. I knew this would alienate many in the class but I hoped that they would understand and respect me, based on our good relationship. I was wrong.

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Tony Mitchell is an Australian English instructor who has taught in Thailand, Oman, and most recently Bahrain.

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