Exiled Bahraini Writer Ali al-Jallawi: “In prison your speech and movements are prevented… In exile you can demand freedom, democracy and justice.”
“I know what awaited me in the event that I wasn’t killed—the same thing that happened to publisher Karim Fakhrawi and blogger Zakariya Al-Asheeri, who were in custody for a matter of days before their families were given their corpses along with pieces of paper from the government stating nonsensical reasons for their deaths.” That’s how Bahraini writer Ali al-Jallawi explains why he feels lucky to end up living in exile and not in prison after leaving his native Bahrain in April, 2011.
In February of this year, pro-democracy protests began in Bahrain. Before he was forced to flee the country Ali al-Jallawi participated in the demonstrations and sit-ins . He recited poems at the Pearl Roundabout and helped local media and the international press understand the events by giving interviews at the sit-in –which, he says, was dispersed when demonstrators were fired upon by security forces.
Bahraini journalists, academics, novelists, poets, and bloggers have been targets of a state-mandated repression that has increased since the latter half of 2010. Al-Jallawi, author of 6 books, is no exception.
Answering Sampsonia Way’s questions via email from Germany, Ali al-Jallawi explains his history of arrests, the struggles of being in exile, and the changes he would like to see in his country.
Since the nationwide protests began in February, what violence have you witnessed?
People have been killed; people have been kidnapped from the street, from checkpoints, from their places of work or from their homes. People who belong to political groups have been arrested, as well as people who have no political affiliation.
There have been arbitrary trials, that do not follow humanitarian standards. Thousands have been fired from their jobs simply for their political views. Personal property, houses, and cars have been damaged, and sometimes confiscated. Shiite places of worship have been demolished. The editors of a newspaper, Al Wasat, were removed and changed.
People have been defamed by government media (TV, radio, and newspapers). There have been cases of rape, torture, and death both inside and outside prisons. All this and more happened in a period of no more than a month after the announcement of a State of National Security in Bahrain. I was not the only witness; the media has reported far more than I have mentioned here.
Why were you arrested in the nineties?
In 1993 I was arrested when I was 17 years old for reading a poem. I spent six months in prison. I was arrested a second time in 1995, and spent three years in prison. I wrote about this period in my memoir, God After Ten O’Clock, which was published recently.
And what happened this year? Why does the government see you as an enemy ?
This year I participated in the demonstrations and sit-ins for democracy, justice, and freedom. This time I was not arrested, but I was at risk because I was one of many people demanding freedom and dignity. I said that we wanted to elect our Prime Minister, that we should not have the same unelected Prime Minister in Bahrain for nearly 40 years, and that people who have stolen from the Bahraini people should pay for that. There is an entire island called Jidda which was a prison before; nowadays it is the property of the Prime Minister. The whole of the Financial Harbour development – an area of four football pitches – is the property of the Prime Minister. He paid the equivalent of $3 for it.
I’m neither a hero nor a fighter, I’m just a person with an opinion, and what the government in Bahrain is doing is state terrorism. I just participated in the sit-ins and demonstrations condemning injustice and demanding freedom. I recited poems at the Pearl Roundabout and helped the media and the international press understand what was happening by giving interviews at the sit-in (which was dispersed when demonstrators were fired upon, killing some). In the end, even if I knew what the result would be – I knew that violence was the only language the regime used – I was still ready to express my opinion and condemn oppression and demand freedom.
So after being in jail twice you opted for exile…
In prison you are contained, your speech and your movements are prevented, you are kept under the whips of torture and robbed of your human rights. In prison you have to get permission to go to the bathroom, to see a doctor, or to see your son. I
In exile you can still express your opinion and demand freedom, democracy, and justice. You can put pressure on the repressive state as part of the opposition, and expose those of its apparatuses which have committed genocidal crimes and crimes against humanity. In exile you have the freedom to write, the freedom to move, the freedom of knowledge. You can be a human being without asking for the state’s permission.
Therefore exile is better than prison in Bahrain, as far as I am concerned. I was imprisoned twice in Bahrain and I know what awaited me in the event that I wasn’t killed—the same thing that happened to publisher Karim Fakhrawi and blogger Zakariya Al-Asheeri, who were in custody for a matter of days before their families were given their corpses along with pieces of paper from the government stating nonsensical reasons for their deaths.
What troubles have you encountered while in exile?
I feel as though I fled Bahrain because I was wanted, only to find I felt wanted in other states. I fled from the possibility of prison in Bahrain, to a prison in Britain, then a camp for asylum seekers in Germany. Exile means going into the unknown; you don’t know where you will live, what you will do, how you will live your life, or who your neighbors will be. Exile is the slow murder of your memories. On the other hand it is a door opening onto something new. The only problem is that your country of exile becomes your homeland because you no longer have a country that you belong to. Instead you have your bag, and train stations or airports are your home. Every state you enter considers you somehow guilty because you were in prison before, because you are Arab, because you have dark skin, because you are a second-class human— perhaps because your passport is not European.
Ideally, what changes would you like to see in Bahrain?
It should not be the case that 12 out of 14 government ministers are from the Al Khalifa family, and that the Prime Minister is in the same position for forty years without being elected. People should not be killed in the street and in prison because of their political opinions and for asking for their human rights. The Shiites of Bahrain should not be discriminated against or prevented from working in many government jobs. Newspapers should not be closed, and journalists and writers should not be killed simply for mentioning facts about what is happening on the ground. It should not be the case that virtually the entire coastline of Bahrain is private property, or that most of the country’s land be forcibly registered in the name of members of the ruling family. We should have a parliament with full powers. We should not go to bed at night worrying whether security forces will come to arrest us. There should be a separation between religion and state, and a separation between the judiciary and other branches of government. This can be summarized by saying we need a civil state based on law, equality, and justice, nothing more or less. These are simply demands by which you feel you are a human being whose humanity has not been taken away.