I grew up on a tiny island. Driving from one end to the other took around an hour and a half if the traffic was good. It was extremely conservative, but it put up a liberal front for the tourists. “Guilt-free trip to the Middle East!” it seemed to say, “Arab culture without all that pesky oppression.” If I was fully American, I would have had the time of my life. Unfortunately, I was also Bahraini and the relaxed “Arab-lite” image that had been so carefully constructed began to fall apart.
Peaceful protests started popping up all over the country. It was like a huge party to 8-year-old me. Hopeful voices all around me, finally the government would listen to us. The king didn’t have to go! We could have a constitutional monarchy like Britain. There were huge community cook-outs, I banged drums, shouted chants, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. This lasted a month.
I wasn’t there for what came next, but I remember it in the first person. My mind must have pieced together memories from pictures, videos, things I heard later. My dad was there working as a journalist for the Associated Press. His memories are real. We were gathered at a huge statue that had become a symbol of the rebellion. The riot police attacked without warning. They fired tear gas into the crowd who panicked, trampling each other. They shot the stragglers. Years later, I saw the videos. Boys bleeding on the ground _ a man, wounded, staggering toward the police. They shot him twice more in the stomach from two meters away. My neighbor was the first person shot that day.
After that, things changed. You couldn’t talk anymore, my American life and Bahraini life became two separate worlds. Phones were bugged, houses were bugged. My parents sat up until dawn waiting for the riot police to raid our house. We were lucky. I got used to the smell of tear gas and burning rubber, I stopped noticing the sound of gunshots. My dad went to a lot of funerals. I have a memory of the body of a cousin who was so swollen and bruised you couldn’t see his face. I wonder if I would have recognized him anyway, I didn’t know him that well. Two meters in front of me, a young boy got shot. The canister sank into his stomach and heavy tear gas flowed from the wound. I buried that memory and kept living. My life was normal. I was happy and optimistic. I didn’t know any other way of living.
I once heard my mother describe Bahrain as a black hole for news. A tweet could land you a jail sentence. Image was very important to the Bahraini government. They maintained friendly relations with other world leaders, and aside from a few petitions no global action was taken against them.
My dad was a photojournalist. The government tried to buy him and he refused. Eventually, he was banned from working. We lived for two years scraping by. We heard rumors that he would be arrested or killed. We moved to Cyprus.
I had lived in fear since I was eight. Without that fear to support me I didn’t know how to function. I joined a school for musical theatre and started to dance for the first time. Slowly I learned that there were other motivations. I could suddenly breathe _ surrounded by bright lights, sweat, smiles, and people who shared my dreams and passions. I spoke to them freely, knowing they couldn’t turn me in even if they’d wanted to.
I had a voice. I immersed myself in politics, educated myself on LGBTQ+ rights, and accepted my sexuality. I talked and talked at anyone who would listen. Sharing opinions without fear of retribution is exhilarating. I marched for gay rights, against climate change, for the rights of migrant workers. Every time I march, that old fear comes back, but slowly my triggers are gaining new associations. Smoke can be fog as well as tear gas, you can march to Lady Gaga as well as desperate chants, and not all angry teenagers become martyrs.