Was I a State Dept. Stooge?


Events of the last week in Bahrain have made me see how naive I was about the country — even after my visit there last October. Before this last week, I had no idea that much of Bahrain’s internal tensions stem from a Sunni minority’s rule over a Shia majority. Other factors are at work, of course — including basic tenets of democratic civil societies like the rights of free assembly — but the heart of it really does seem to be this artificially imposed sectarian divide. The Sunni king — part of a royal line that goes back over 200 years — even brings in Sunni (or at least non-Shi’ite) foreigners to serve in the police force and military. All this just to ensure that Shi’ites don’t have easy access to weapons.

What really frustrates me is that I was specifically not informed of any of this background when I was brought in by the U.S. State Dept. to visit the country last fall. I’ve gone back over the literature they gave me, and nowhere does it mention the sectarian split. My foreign national handler (who I now have to presume was Sunni) never made mention of it, nor did any of the people or institutions I visited. (These places included an American university operating in Bahrain, a college for wealthy female students, an art society, and a journalists association.)

Maybe it didn’t come up because it’s considered impolite to talk about such things. But I would have expected better from the State Dept. to inform me, an official visitor, about the political realities on the ground. After all, in Egypt, Algeria, and Israel/Palestine, my American hosts were very upfront about the political/ethnic divisions in the respective countries. (I tried to do as much independent research as I could before I got there, but there were no guidebooks for Bahrain to be had, and I was visiting so many countries in such a condensed period that I just didn’t have time read much about the country before I got there.) Considering that the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based out of Bahrain, I’m forced to question the motives of my embassy compatriots there. So once again American “interests” conflict with our supposed “values”…

And now I think back even more on the walking-on-eggshells quality of my visit there, right in the middle of Bahrain’s parliamentary election season. A very denuded Parliament, as it so happens. Which makes it even more strange that the State Dept. invited me there — as a “political cartoonist” — yet asked me to refrain from breaching certain sensitive topics. Many of which I was blissfully ignorant of. It makes my head spin.

Bahrain is a tiny country, pretty well off, highly educated. It’s littered with Western chain restaurants: McDonald’s, Seattle’s Best Coffee, Fuddruckers, the list goes on. I got no sense of it being a place on the verge of an explosion. And yet now we see the king cracking down hard on what appear to be very peaceful demonstrators. Seniors, women, children — all victims of repeated tear gas attacks, rubber bullets, shotguns, and beatings.

A young man I met at one of my workshops there has been corresponding with me on Facebook. He was in the Pearl Square roundabout until about 1 a.m. on Wednesday, leaving just a few hours before the riot police moved in, clearing the square (and killing at least five people). A friend of his, a 23-year-old engineering student, was among the dead. My Bahraini Facebook friend implored me, “Please help us.. we need world’s help..!!” Surreal.

A recent tweet by a Bahraini citizen with the handle RedhaHaji sums it up: “Hard to hold back tears. This is not real. Not happening. We hear things like this happen in other places not our home.”

6 thoughts on “Was I a State Dept. Stooge?

  1. Fuddruckers?!
    THanks for the interesting post, Josh, and for spreading the word about what’s happening on the ground in the middle east.
    Also: Fuddruckers???! I would demonstrate too.
    Also: The US has been in some unfortunate alliances for decades. That they didn’t mention the situation to you doesn’t really surprise me. The situation was probably seen as “not a problem” because things were so thoroughly clamped down (as opposed to Israel and other countries you mentioned).
    I’m curious as to which sensitive topics they asked you not to breach.

    1. Re: Fuddruckers?!
      Your title made me laugh. Fuddruckers is a pretty sad state of affairs.
      The things my American handlers asked me not to discuss in Bahrain were internal issues like the elections, which were going to take place the day after I left, and Bahrain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia (which is right over a causeway). During my visit, I was interviewed by a number of the larger papers in Bahrain, so that’s why they brought it up. Since I had no knowledge of the situation, or the relevant context, I thought that was good advice.
      But I still wish they had given me a little more insight into the Sunni-Shia situation, and the tensions simmering under the surface. Like I said, my “handlers” in Egypt, Algeria, and Israel/Palestine had no hesitations about discussing those matters with me. In fact, in Egypt I actually was asked to speak at an “underground” arts space where much of the audience was made up of pro-Democracy folks. And afterward my U.S. host took me to a well-known leftist bar frequented by old Nasserites.
      Everywhere I go, chaos follows: I also visited Madison, WI, last fall, and now the place is wracked with demonstrators! ;->

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