Three Days at the Pearl Roundabout

On Wednesday evening, some Bahraini friends of mine decided to go to the Pearl Roundabout in the center of the capital to clean up antigovernment graffiti sprayed by youngsters there. It wasn’t that they disagreed with the protesters; indeed, they supported the calls for reform. But they felt that removing the spray paint was a way to help ensure that demands for change were taken seriously and that protesters weren’t dismissed as just a bunch of vandals.

I was curious about the camp that had been established on the Pearl Roundabout the day before, so I decided to go along. As a Briton who has lived here on and off for 10 years, I have always felt welcomed and part of Bahraini society. But other friends — not Bahrainis — were worried about how I would be perceived by the protesters; one person, probably assuming it was a conservative or religious environment, even asked if I was wearing an abaya, the black cloak that covers everything but the head. But I wasn’t and knew I didn’t need to. I was sure that being a foreigner would not present any problems; in my experience, Bahrainis are either welcoming or unconcerned when an outsider comes along to big events like this, never hostile.

Still, I normally avoid the Pearl Roundabout. It’s a busy traffic circle where it’s difficult to predict what road other drivers are going to exit on, which makes for some hair-raising moments. But that night, I was drawn there, along with thousands of others, those who were joining the protests and people, like me, who were simply interested in seeing what was going on.

The Pearl Roundabout was unrecognizable. Now it was full of people and full of positive energy — yes, to resort to a cliché, there was a carnival atmosphere. To me it felt as though there had been a great release, and that people were expressing themselves in a way that they had never been able to before. There were tents and large mats on the ground, men sprawled smoking water pipes, children being held on laps, people holding signs in Arabic and English, youngsters chanting slogans.

Everything seemed fairly coordinated, which was not a surprise; in Bahrain, community groups organize a lot of events, especially for religious occasions, so people are experienced at stepping in. Men were guiding traffic in the area and by the roundabout itself (somehow cars were still able to creep along a road that intersected on one side). There were electric generators, stalls with food and tea (“freedom tea,” read one sign), an area to find lost children, a “media center,” where journalists could get information, and projections of TV feeds onto screens and even onto the Pearl Monument. The central island of the roundabout, where most people were, had been roughly divided so that women who chose could sit in a women’s area; but there were women in all the other areas as well.

I watched as the small group sprayed over the graffiti with an undercoat, then covered that with white paint. One of the young men involved in this told us how he’d been approached by a bunch of angry youngsters who assumed he was against the protests. They spent 10 minutes shouting at him but finally gave him a chance to explain his point of view. Once they heard it, some volunteered to help with the painting.

That night I couldn’t sleep; I was still too caught up in the emotions of the past two days. I got out of bed at about 2 a.m. to check the news on Twitter (just about everyone in Bahrain seems to have signed up for a Twitter account this week) and, about an hour later, I saw a message that riot police were approaching the camp, and at the same moment, I heard explosions and yells. My apartment is not close to the roundabout, but the sounds were remarkably clear. The shouts and the bangs — apparently, from percussion bombs, tear gas canisters and gun shots — lasted for about half an hour. As I listened to the clamor, and to the noise of sirens and helicopters that soon accompanied it, I shook.

I finally went to bed at 6 a.m. and slept for a couple of hours. I had to teach an English class to a group of adults in the morning, though I guessed it would be canceled, or that no one would turn up. I was wrong; nearly all my students came, some having spent an hour in traffic, including one man whose cousin was in the hospital after being wounded during the night. All of them, Sunni and Shiite, were in shock; they couldn’t understand how things had reached this point.

After class I dropped by a supermarket to pick up a few things, and was surprised to find it packed with people panic-buying as if they were going to be holed up in their homes for a long time. Indeed, a state of emergency was imposed later in the day, so Bahrain is now effectively under martial law. No curfew has been imposed and, to my knowledge, it is still possible to get around most areas, but I’ve been in my apartment since Thursday, as have all my friends I’ve spoken to.

On Friday, government forces again fired upon protesters; the crown prince, Sheik Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, however, has been given the task of starting a national dialogue that may help defuse this tense, uncertain situation. Everyone I know is in a state of disbelief that this has happened in Bahrain.

By Ayesha Saldanha. She writes the blog Bint Battuta in Bahrain and contributes to Global Voices Online.

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