How an English instructor's struggle to stay neutral at his state-run university got him fired, evicted, and forced to flee
Bahraini protesters gather in Manama / AP
This is part four of a four-part series. Read the whole series here.
I returned to Bahrain, where I taught English at the small island nation's Polytechnic University, on the 2nd of April, eight weeks into the popular protests and increasingly severe police crackdown. My wife and I had taken a break from Bahrain, where society was increasingly divided, for a vacation in Thailand. But I'd found it difficult to relax, my thoughts focused on what would happen to the demonstrators at Pearl Roundabout, the center of protest, after King Hamad Khalifa had asked for outside help from the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arabian Peninsula's Saudi-dominated political collective) to send troops to control the situation with force. The GCC, originally established to defend against external threats, deployed soldiers against Bahrain's unarmed civilians, and the roundabout was cleared again while I was away.
The wonderful Pearl Monument, at the center of the roundabout, had been demolished while I was away. I found this very difficult to understand, but it only confirmed the Khalifa regime's determination to remove all traces of the peaceful protests that had occurred there. State television said the area needed to be "cleansed" and the Bahraini Foreign Minister, Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, said the demolition was "a removal of a bad memory."
I felt a huge sense of loss when I drove my car towards Abraj Al Lulu roundabout and found there was no Lulu anymore. I had been told that when the monument was constructed in 1982 (for the third summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, held in Bahrain) it was the tallest structure in the country. It had since been dwarfed by several nearby apartment buildings -- including my own, just neighboring the roundabout -- but it was no less significant or impressive. Now it was gone.
The Polytechnic started up again following a break due to the "social unrest" and there was another full meeting of staff. We learned that the Polytechnic, formerly under the guidance of the Economic Development Board was now to be a part of the Ministry of Education. A "deputy CEO" had been appointed from the Ministry, Dr. Mohammed Ebrahim Al Aseeri (who was not present at the meeting), whose role was to liaise with the Minister so that the Minister could answer questions about the Polytechnic in parliament. In stark contrast to his statement of neutrality in February, university CEO John Scott announced that the Polytechnic was now part of the state and that we should be seen to support the government. "Like hell I will," I said to myself. John informed us that all staff and students would be "investigated" for participation in any of the recent demonstrations as soon as similar investigations were completed at the University of Bahrain.
I resumed my teaching, squeezing my English course into the time that remained in the semester. My students had been given the option of morning or afternoon classes and had used this opportunity to form themselves mainly into a morning pro-government group and an afternoon pro-democracy group. Now my morning class was upbeat and smiling, whereas my afternoon class was quiet but determined.
I still tried (as always) to teach without any favoritism or discrimination but the overwhelming arrogance of my morning class made it quite difficult for me. The students did not seem interested, some arriving very late, some not even bringing paper or pen, some simply playing on their mobile phones for the duration of the lesson. I never mentioned what had happened outside the Polytechnic to them but I feel that many of the students were aware of my feelings and had simply dismissed me. I now feel that some of them were struggling as much as I was with their own inner conflict of appearing to support the government but secretly questioning what had taken place.
In May the investigations started as promised and the mood of the Polytechnic was difficult. We learned that Bahraini staff had been identified from photographs as having attended protests and were singled out for investigation. One of the non-teaching staff was arrested and severely beaten but was able to resume work. Facebook pages were set up displaying photographs taken at demonstrations and asking pro-government supporters to identify the circled faces so that they could be traced and arrested.
One of my former students told me his terrifying story: he was called to the administration building at the Polytechnic and, with five other students, was taken to the nearby military building where they were all put in a room. They stayed in there all night and were interrogated the next morning. My student was very fortunate as he had been confused with another young man with a similar name and was allowed to leave. Three of the youths (students from the University of Bahrain) were handcuffed, hoods were placed over their heads, and they were taken away on a bus, never to be seen again.
I was finding it more and more difficult coping at this time but I tried not to think too much about what might happen to me. I reassured myself that I had not taken part in any protests and therefore was safe. My videos from February had been dealt with by the "security staff" at my apartment and so I felt safe about them. I know I had made comments to my "friends" on Facebook but they were not critical of the ruling family or the government, simply trying to correct false or misleading information. I did not know what the future held at the Polytechnic for me and I did not know if I could continue working for a government that resorted to unlawful arrests, torture, and now identification from social networking.