In conversation with Birgit Kurz and Abdelrahman Ammar, Bahraini writer poet and writer Ali al-Jallawi criticizes his country's government, which he blames for stoking inter-confessional conflict and suppressing the democracy movement
What went through your mind when the Arab Spring in Bahrain was scotched with Saudi Arabian help?
Ali al-Jallawi: The Saudi intervention did not come as a surprise, the Bahraini government had repeatedly threatened such action, after all, it is only too aware of the fact that although the entire population wants democracy, Saudi Arabia does not. Any democratization of its small neighbour would also have far-reaching consequences for the Gulf's big brother.
But the problem not only lies with the Saudi armed forces, who entered Bahrain as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council's rapid reaction force and went on a killing spree, but also with the West, in particular as far as the weapons that come from Germany and Europe as a whole are concerned, weapons that are being used against the demonstrators and activists involved in the Arab Spring movement.
While the western media call for democracy, these are the very countries enthusiastically selling weapons abroad. Not so long ago the Germans supplied tanks to the Saudis, the same tanks that then entered Bahrain, and the Bahraini Crown Prince and Education Minister visited Germany only recently.
It's important to be aware of the fact that both these government representatives had appointed a committee to investigate events in Bahrain, which eventually found them to have played a key role in the killings, displacements, torture and other human rights violations.
The situation in Bahrain is particularly complex. On the one hand there is the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as the geopolitical and strategic interests of those in power, and on the other hand Bahrainis want political participation. What's the solution here?
Al-Jallawi: The only solution would be a democracy in which every citizen has a voice. Bahrain would have to become a modern institutional state with the ability to overcome ethnic divisions and where the law stands above all else. Everyone knows how traffic lights work, regardless of religion, ethnicity and language.
In addition, all power must emanate from the people. This is what we want for Bahrain, and this is the only way to resolve the conflicts. Sometimes the state stokes inter-confessional conflicts in order to then assert itself according to the 'divide et impera' principle, dividing society as a way to justify its hegemony.
In recent times there appears to be increasing confidence that the Crown Prince can deliver in any democratisation process. Can he actually fulfil these expectations?
Al-Jallawi: Many people are saying that the Crown Prince can democratise the nation, but many are counting on the Prime Minister and no small number are placing their hopes in the King himself. For almost a year now, the wave of killings, arrests and legal proceedings has continued without respite and no one is changing anything. The Crown Prince is doing nothing. Sure, he set up an initiative to foster national dialogue between the various political forces and opposition groups, but the Saudi and Bahraini military intervention put an end to that.
I spent three years in prison myself and I was set free at a time when there were signs that the state was about to carry out reforms. But although the calls for reform are nothing new, nothing happened. We are mindful of all people and harbour no animosity towards anyone, but we oppose dictatorial structures.
In Bahrain people continue to take to the streets to demand change. How do you think things will develop further?
Al-Jallawi: People in Bahrain didn't just take to the streets when the Arab Spring began, but the movement has bolstered their efforts. There has been a protest movement here since the 1920s. And the state's only response has been to deploy security forces or beat about the bush setting up committees.
Bahrain has no future under this government. We need new faces, a new generation at the helm of the nation. The people continue to demonstrate, which is only natural, because their demands are quite legitimate, while the current government continues to react with the same logic.
When you were 17 years old you were arrested and imprisoned for three years in 1995. Why does the regime view you as a threat?
Al-Jallawi: Let me give you a bit of background information on the regime in Bahrain to help you understand this mindset. Since independence in 1971 we've had the same Prime Minister and a cabinet of 24 ministers, 12 of whom are members of the royal family.
The security forces and the general staff are recruited entirely from the royal family, 80 percent of Bahrain's coastline is privately owned by the royal family, the Prime Minister recently acquired a former soccer pitch for three dollars. Do you think any critical debate on these matters is allowed?
You've been living in Weimar since July. How have you fared so far in Germany?
Al-Jallawi: I came to Germany after being expelled from Britain. Now I live in the city of Goethe and Schiller, the city of poets and thinkers. I've realised that writing is one thing and life another, that writing about democracy and freedom is one thing, and taking concrete action in support of these rights something else.
I have had to learn that regardless of whether it is in Bahrain or anywhere else, there is a great deal of hypocrisy even in human rights organisations worldwide, because they are not actually doing anything tangible for democracy and human rights, but content themselves with explanations and condemnations. I've brought my homeland and my memories to the West, all my dreams have followed me into exile here in this city.
What projects do you plan to pursue in Germany?
Al-Jallawi: I have two projects at the moment: Firstly to learn German, and secondly to complete my third novel "Yadallah's Shoe". I'd like to see my novels translated into German. My latest work is about a shoemaker called Yadallah, a man I met when I was child, and who changed the world by changing people's shoes.
Interview: Birgit Kurz and Abdelrahman Ammar
© Qantara.de 2011
Ali al-Jallawi (born in 1975) is a Bahraini poet and writer. He has been imprisoned several times since the age of 17. Works by the intellectual and defender of democracy, who has always been a thorn in the side of the authorities, include the poetry volumes "Dilmuniyat" and "Isyan" (Disobedience).
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de