Monday, March 25, 2013

Zainab Al-Khawaja:Letter From A Bahraini Prison

[Zainab Al-Khawaja. Image from author's family archive]
[Zainab Al-Khawaja. Image from author's family archive]

Great leaders are immortal, their words and deeds echo through the years, decades, and centuries. They echo across oceans and borders and become an inspiration that touches the lives of many who are willing to learn. One such leader is the remarkable Martin Luther King Jr. As I read his words, I imagine him reading out to us from another land, another time, to teach us some very important lessons. Above all, he tells us, we should never become bitter or sink to the level of our oppressors; that we should be willing to make great sacrifices for freedom.

As seeds of hope and resistance to oppression started flowering across the Arab world, the people of Bahrain saw the first signs of a new dawn. One that promised an end to a long night of dictatorship and oppression, a long winter of silence and fear, and to spread the light and warmth of a new age of freedom and democracy.

With that hope and determination, the people of Bahrain took to the streets on 14 February 2011 to peacefully demand their rights. Their songs, poetry, paintings and chants for freedom were met with bullets, tanks, toxic tear gas, and birdshot guns. The brutal Al Khalifa regime was determined to end the creative, peaceful revolution, by resorting to violence and spreading fear.

Faced with the regime’s brutality, Bahrainis showed great restraint. Day after long day, protesters held up flowers to soldiers and mercenaries who would shoot at them. Protesters stood with bare chests and arms raised shouting, "peaceful, peaceful" [silmiyya, silmiyya] before they fell onto the ground, covered with blood. Thousands of Bahrainis have since been detained and tortured for so-called crimes such as “illegal gathering” and “inciting hatred against the regime.”

Two years later, the Bahraini regime's atrocities continue. Bahrainis are still being killed, detained, injured, and tortured for demanding democracy. When I look into the eyes of Bahraini protesters today, too many times I see that bitterness has overtaken hope. The same bitterness Martin Luther King Jr. saw in the eyes of rioters in the slums of Chicago in 1966. He saw that the same people who had been leading non-violent protests, who had risked life and limb without the desire to strike back, were later convinced that violence is the only language the world understood.

I, like King, find myself saddened to find some of the same protesters who faced Bahrain’s tanks and guns with bare chests and flowers, today asking, "What's the use of non-violence? What’s the point of moral superiority, if no one is even listening?" Martin Luther King Jr. explains that this despair is only natural when people who sacrifice so much see no change in sight and feel their suffering has been worthless.

Ironically, change towards democracy has been so slow in Bahrain largely due to the support that the world’s most powerful democratic nations continue to give to the dictators here. Through selling them arms and providing economic and political support, the United States and other western governments have proven to the people of Bahrain that they stand with the Al Khalifa monarchy against the democratic movement.

As I was reading through Martin Luther King's words I found myself wishing he were alive. I found myself wondering what he would have to say about the US administration's support of Bahraini dictators. What he would say about turning a blind eye to the blood and tears being spilt in the quest for freedom. All I had to do was turn a page, and this time Martin Luther King spoke not to me, but to you, to Americans:
John F. Kennedy said 'those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.' Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken—the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. (..) a true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and new systems of justice and equality, are being born… We in the west must support these revolutions.
It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency… and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the western nations that irritated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace… and justice throughout the world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

The echo of Martin Luther King's words has travelled across oceans, through the walls and metal bars of a Bahraini prison, and into the overcrowded and filthy cell I live in. I hear the words of this great American leader, whose unbending dedication to morality and justice made him the great leader he was. As I marvel at his wisdom from my tiny cell, I wonder if the people of the United States are also listening.

Being a political prisoner in Bahrain, I try to find a way to fight from within the fortress of the enemy, as Mandela describes it. Not long after I was placed in a cell with fourteen people—two of whom are convicted murderers—I was handed the orange prison uniform. I knew I could not wear the uniform without having to swallow a little of my dignity. Refusing to wear the convicts' clothes because I have not committed a crime, that was my small version of civil disobedience. Denying my visitation rights, and not letting me see my family and my three-year-old daughter, that has been their punishment.

That is why I am on hunger strike.

Prison administrators ask me why I am on hunger strike. I reply, “Because I want to see my baby.” They respond, nonchalantly, “Obey and you will see her.” But if I obey, my little Jude will not in fact be seeing her mother, but rather a broken version of her. I wrote to the prison administration that I refuse to wear the convicts’ uniform because "no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice." (Thoreau).

What makes jail difficult is that you are living with your enemy, even in the most basic ways. If you want to eat, you stand in front of him with your plastic tray. And every day, one faces the possibility of being ridiculed, shouted at, or humiliated for any reason. Or for no reason. But I have let the words of great men and women help me through these times. When the “specialist” threatened to beat me for telling an inmate that she has a right to call her lawyer, I did not shout back. I repeated King's words in my head: "No matter how emotional your opponents are, you must be calm.”

Until one day, I had had enough of people telling me that I am getting all my rights and refusing to face that I have responsibilities. After hearing that sentence over and over, I finally got angry. And what is worse, I felt so frustrated that I shouted back.

But then hadn't a great man once said that in the struggle for justice we, “must not become bitter” and that we should "never to sink to the lever of our oppressors”?

A doctor came to see me and said “you might fall into a coma, your vital organs might stop working, your blood sugar levels are so low, and all this for what… A uniform!”

I replied: “I am glad you weren't with Rosa Parks on that bus, to tell the woman who sparked the civil rights movement, “that it was all for nothing but a chair.” When the doctor started asking about the African American movement, I offered my Martin Luther King book. If you know me you would know that I very rarely offer to give away my books.

Sometimes, through his words, Martin Luther King has been a companion, a cellmate more than a teacher. He says, “No one can understand my conflict who hasn't looked into the eyes of those he loves, knowing that he has no alternative but to take a stand that leaves them tormented.” I do understand. He wrote as though he sits beside me. “The jail experience… is a life without the singing of a bird, without the sight of the sun, moon, and stars, without the felt presence of fresh air. In short, it is life without the beauties of life, it is bare existence—cold, cruel, degenerating".

My father, my hero and my friend, sentenced to life in prison for his human rights work has also refused to wear the grey prison uniform. As usual, the government tries to “put us in our places” by taking away what means most to us. They will not allow my father his family visit. And to further taunt him, they, for the first time, said he would be able to visit me in prison if he wore the uniform. Cruelty is the Al Khalifa regime's trademark, but unwavering courage and patience is my dad's. No emotional pressure will break him.

The family visit is the one thing one looks forward to in prison. My father and I will not be seeing our family or each other, but the struggle for our rights will continue. Until we see our family next, we hold them in our hearts.

Yesterday I fell asleep while looking at my prison cell door with its iron bars, and I had a dream. But this time it was a small and simple dream, not of democracy and freedom. I just saw my smiling mother, holding my daughter's hand, standing at the door of my prison cell. I saw them walk through the metal. My mother sat on my prison bed as my daughter and I lay side by side, our heads in her lap. I tickle Jude and she laughs, and my heart fills with joy. Suddenly I feel we are in a cool and protective shadow, I look up and see my father standing by the bed, looking at the three of us and smiling. I dream of those I love, it is their love that gives me the strength to fight for the dreams of our country.

Zainab Alkhawaja
Isa Town Women Prison

You can read more about ZainabAl-Khawaja here

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