A Bittersweet Return to an Unfamiliar Homeland
After 25 years of yearning in exile, a Bahraini fears he won't find peace on the island. But his daughter is determined to make the nation her own.By Megan K. Stack, Times Staff Writer
MANAMA, Bahrain — The father and daughter get lost a lot. He can't remember the sleepy streets of this tiny island nation in the Persian Gulf, not after so many years. As for her, she never knew them.They sit side by side in the darkness of their little Honda, the brake lights of passing cars washing their faces in red. Their eyes quiver over gates and signposts. They are looking for a landmark.
"Isn't it back the other way?" Hussain Ali asks his daughter. "I think … " begins 23-year-old Batoul, then falls silent. It's yet another moment of disorientation for a family that has lived through a quarter of a century in political exile.In the long years since Hussain Ali was arrested, beaten and told to leave Bahrain for criticizing the rulers, he has drifted from one foreign land to the next; pushed a fake passport over immigration counters; killed cockroaches in cheap apartments. He raised his children on dreams of a lost homeland, a place where they would be drenched in sunshine and cherished by a family they hadn't met.Between this father and daughter lives the hope and yearning of exile, and the struggle of generations of Middle Easterners to change — or just make peace with — their homelands. Hussain is afraid that Bahrain will break his daughter's heart, but he's willing to watch her take the risk.
A new king, Sheik Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa, came to power in 1999. He offered amnesty to political exiles. With talk of elections and a new constitution, the king held out the promise of reform — that sweet and elusive notion that taunts this region like a mirage. So the Alis came home. Or so they thought. For Hussain, 52, homecoming has brought heartbreak. He is haunted by memories of lost days, angered by a sense that he's been defrauded.Now he wonders whether he should stay, or give up on Bahrain. His wife couldn't take it here; she has already returned to Canada. But the father and daughter are sticking it out, sharing a room in a relative's house and soaking in the politics of the place.
Earlier this evening, they attended a raucous seminar on corruption and government confiscation of land. The angry crowd cursed the ruling family, "Khalifa, go from here!" Batoul sat pertly, and took careful notes. Her father brooded."I'm not convinced this is enough. Seminars, sitting and talking," he says in the car on the way home. "This government has to go to hell."
All her life, Batoul has been told she belongs here, and it seems impossible to disappoint her. She finds beauty everywhere — in the drabbest streets, the dirtiest cats, the flattest light of a desert noon. "I don't stay because I like it," Batoul says. "I stay because I have to. It's my country, bitter or sweet."Her father just keeps driving through the darkness.
The Alis are Ajam, literally non-Arabs or foreigners, a word used to describe Bahraini Shiite Muslims whose bloodlines stretch back to Iran. Although Ajam families have lived in Bahrain for generations and Shiites are a majority in the country, they have had to fight for passports, housing and job opportunities. Even today, discrimination lingers. Hussain was 26 when he ran afoul of the ruling Sunni Arabs. He wrote a newspaper article criticizing discrimination against the Ajam. After that, he says, he was promptly arrested, interrogated and badly beaten. His wounds festered and left him hard of hearing. After weeks in prison, he was given a temporary travel document — like many Ajam, he had no passport — and warned to flee. He stole away when the house was empty; he wanted his family to be able to say, honestly, that they didn't know where he'd gone."When the plane takes off, you give that last look to your country," he says. "I thought maybe it would be four or five years."He falls quiet, and looks at the floor. When he speaks again his voice is husky."
There were demonstrations then," he says. "Everybody had hope that things would change … " He trails off, clears his throat and blinks. He landed in India, found work showing Arab tourists around and bought a forged Saudi passport. He was lonesome, so he called a girl he'd known in Bahrain and asked her to marry him. She was 16 years old. He told her the truth: He didn't love her yet, but he would. She agreed and flew to India, where the couple signed a wedding contract. There was nobody to celebrate with them, and no money for a honeymoon. They went out to breakfast and began their life together.
Batoul was their firstborn. Their second daughter was scalded in a running bath one dreary afternoon. She suffered third-degree burns all over her body and died in her father's arms. They buried her in India, heavy with a grief as solitary as their joy."
The important thing about weddings and funerals are the people who come to be with you, in happiness and sadness," Hussain says. "Nobody came to us." Every six months or so, his mother would call from a series of pay phones. She'd talk for a few minutes, then hang up and move to another telephone, terrified of catching the attention of security agents. She was always circumspect, always said the same thing: "No news." "You couldn't even talk to her, she just cried," Hussain says. "Sometimes I'd send a message and say, 'Don't do these things anymore. Better I don't hear from you.' "
When the family flew to Montreal in 1985, they had nothing but a $100 bill. Hussain applied for asylum, and they lived on welfare. For years, they scraped for food while Hussain studied telecommunications at night school. When their apartment building burned down on Batoul's seventh birthday, Hussain held his daughter and told her it was an enormous candle lighted just for her.
"My dad says, 'I feel guilty that I did this to you,' " she says, remembering the years of hardship. "But I say, 'No. You made me a fighter.' " At 9, Batoul began to wear a head scarf, encouraged by her mother. The hijab isolated her from her classmates. She was beaten up, kicked in the back, taunted by older boys.When she bared her head for gym class, the barrier melted away. She'd shoot baskets and joke with the other girls, but the camaraderie was short-lived. "As soon as I put the scarf back on," she says, "nobody would talk to me." One day, her math teacher blocked her in the classroom doorway. "You're not coming to class until you take that garbage off your head," he told her. She lost her temper, and heaved her textbook at him. She still refers to high school as a "catastrophe."
Meanwhile, Hussain finished his degree, landed a white-collar job and moved the family to a big house in Ottawa. College was better than high school, but Batoul still felt at sea. She got married, then divorced. She dropped out of college, Bahrain glittering in her imagination."I wasn't satisfied with my life there at all," she says now. "Nothing worked out the way I wanted. I wanted to go home."
The Alis finally made it back to Bahrain in 2003. When they landed, so many people had crammed into the airport that it looked as though somebody famous had arrived. Family members pressed them with flowers, chocolates and money folded into tiny flowers and butterflies. "
You're hugging, you're crying, and you don't even know why," Batoul says. "You feel you're bonded by blood."Hussain was being reintroduced to his brothers, his sisters, the neighbors. "My brother was 5; now he's 32," he says. "I was thinking, 'Who's that guy touching my sister?' and he said, 'I'm her husband.' Things like that."
He found his childhood home destroyed, his bank accounts vanished. His father had publicly disowned him to ease pressure from the government. His wife and son grew disillusioned and flew back to Canada. Batoul went too, but came back this year. "My parents had a certain idea and memory about things," she says. "As wise as you are about life, when it comes to personal things, you can be a child."
Unemployment is rife, but Hussain has found work as a supervisor at a shipyard."What I'm making here, my son can make in a part-time job," Hussain says. "My lawyer came to visit and said, 'Hussain, what are you doing here?' "But there's Batoul. He believes she'll stay."She tells me, 'You grew up in a family. When they tell you "uncle," you know who it is. You played barefoot with your cousins.' She's missing it all the time, like a hug."But she chafes a bit against her conservative family. She misses wearing pants. When she tried to go to the skating rink, her relatives wrung their hands. "It's only for Russians," they told her.
She has found a job as a secretary in an insurance firm. She hasn't made many friends, but she insists that's all right. When she has a quiet minute, she drives to the shore. There, on the outer margins of the land she has claimed from her parents' memory, she looks at the water and tells herself she is home.