After reciting her poetry at Lulu Square where Bahrain’s protests were centered in February and March 2011, twenty-year-old poet Ayat al- Qormezi disappeared. Although al-Qormezi has been reported dead, her death has also been reported to be a rumor. Traces of the square that galvanized demonstrators in Manama became subject to disappearance as well, when Bahraini authorities tried to halt protests by razing the Lulu monument to the ground and destroying the rest of the square.
Before Lulu was destroyed, videos showed al- Qormezi on February 23 performing her poems before crowds of protestors applauding her critical verse, sometimes joining in and interrupting her performance. She intoned with restrained anger: “We are a people who kill degradation and misery. We are a people who destroy the foundation of oppression.” Another poem imagines a dialogue with the Devil and King Hamad Bin Khalifa, wherein even the Devil, Hamad’s best and “most courageous pupil,” tells him: “Hamad, your people have shaken me. Don’t you hear their cries?” At the end of the video, Lulu protestors yell: “Down with Hamad!”Although her verses were no different than what was heard in other recent pro-democracy rallies, the poems easily made her a target for the Bahraini regime. In mid-April, her family received an anonymous call informing them that she was in the hospital, where doctors claimed that she had been tortured. At first, unconfirmed reports of her death spread, but local sources contend that her death cannot be confirmed; she simply remains “disappeared.”
The clandestine nature of al-Qormezi’s “disappearance”— her detention, whereabouts and condition — has been set by the Bahraini government in a totalizing motion as if to reverse the collaborative protest scene of open-air visibility, open-mike collaboration, what had been high-spirited gathering that shared in the performance of one of Bahrain’s most valued cultural productions — Arabic poetry. On the other hand, protestors have been quite transparent about their aims and demands throughout the few months they congregated in Lulu Square.
The 2011 protests were, and are, not new. Since the establishment of the modern Bahraini state, the government has relied on its police force to control the disenfranchised majority Shī’a population. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and especially before February’s pro-democracy rallies, the police routinely rounded up members of the primarily Shī’a political opposition and subjected them torture and detainemnet without trial. As such, the country has been described as “a divided nation,” and the police “a repressive and largely foreign-staffed security apparatus.” Bahrain’s totalizing mythos has been maintained by the suppression of dissent in order to sustain a façade of stability as a business-friendly tourist hub.
This totalizing mythos that erases traces of dissent and opposition in order to maintain a façade of stability is what gives rise to what Bahraini Shī’a citizens refer to as a “hidden history.” When kidnapping, disappearances, murder and concealment give weight to the state’s drive to authoritarian power, popular memory becomes the only trace that remains. It is this “hidden history” which al- Qormezi poetically spoke of, retrieved in the face of national secrecy and aired under one Bahraini night sky, in the now-destroyed square.
Making visible what has been erased—through a continuing national “hidden history” —remains a struggle even after the traction the “Arab Spring” gained in regional and international media coverage. After a state of emergency that brought in Saudi troops was declared, the authorities’ brutal extermination of any semblance of resistance refocused itself inward in totalizing fashion on the everyday, the mundane, the quotidian, including the demolition of ordinary, familiar sites. It began with Lulu Square and its iconic monument. The monument, six dhow sails topped with a pearl, was built in 1982 as a tribute to the Sunni-ruled kingdom’s history as a pearl-diving center. The square became the center of the uprising where protestors set up encampments that security forces raided, resulting in arrests, injuries and deaths. When the government demolished the Pearl Monument on March 18, Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, claimed: “It was a bad memory.” Meanwhile, other unexceptional sites for religious gatherings from Shī’a mosques to cemeteries and mu’atams (funeral sites), apparently proved similarly to have become “bad memories,” since the government destroyed them too.
Al-Khalifa unwittingly honed in on the irrevocable momentum of memorable events, the “bad memory” that sustains the visibility of the country’s disenfranchised, and which the destruction of everyday gathering sites attempts to control and revoke. The colonization of expressions of everyday, ordinary life manifested in the outlawing of public gatherings, the demolition of public spaces and raids on homes, is testimony to the fear of memory. When memory becomes the only trace that remains, the evidence of the forgotten in sites of gathering becomes paramount, as does its erasure, long after the state of emergency lifts.
The Bahraini regime’s drive to totality by permeating the everyday reverts back to its preferred method of alarmism during periods of political dissent: sectarianism. The protests were labeled as a Shī’a sectarian coup even though the movement demonstrated its diversity to which al- Qormezi speaks: “Sunni, Shī’a are brothers. There is no division among them.” As far back as colonial Bahrain, the instrumental use of the Sunni minority against the Shi’a majority has engendered a national space of suspicion and trepidation that turns one neighbor against another. Sectarianism is once again reanimated and reframed, sometimes in a “War of Terror” rhetoric, to quash political opposition and dissent movements. This unsubstantiated touchstone of alarmism, the cry of “sectarianism”—alternately reanimated into the more contemporary “terrorism”—has leveraged the state’s totalitarian drive most effectively by inviting suspicion and policing of citizens against one another, thereby atomizing ordinary Bahrainis in a panoptical state of emergency, terminating friendship and trust along with any trace of resistance.
Thus, the isolated citizen was then supposed to exit stranded and alone with her memories. On June 2, news of al-Qormezi surfaced. She was no longer one of the disappeared; she was due to go on trial in front of a military tribunal on June 12. Bahrain has been recognized as the first country during this Arab Spring in which women were used as instruments to push for a dead end in all dissent. One wonders if the Bahraini women who were detained, beaten, and sexually-abused will be left marooned in private, individual suffering or will be able, like al-Qormezi once did in her poetic representation of collective resistance, to bridge their individual memories to act collectively and write together a new counter-narrative?
[Ayat al-Qormezi was sentenced to one year in prison. Below are some of her poems, translated to English by Nahrain Al-Mousawi]
We neither want to live in a palace.
Nor do we love the leaders.
We are a people who kill degradation and misery.
We are a people who destroy the foundation of oppression.
We are a people who do not want the people to remain in this setback.
(A dialogue between Hamad bin Khalifa and Iblis, the Devil, takes place on a table set with the suffering of the people)
Devil: Hamad, have some fear of God, on their behalf.
My heart is in pieces over them.
I and I, Iblis, by God, now want to put my hands in theirs.
Turn against you, my tyrant.
Kneel this hour before their prophet,
And return to my Lord,
As I am distraught by the way they are chased.
Hamad: You have taught me, my supporter,
How to renounce them,
With humiliation and degradation and disasters
For which I blame them.
And the time has come, little brother Iblis,
When you act as their mediator.
Your identity appears to have been shaken
By their father, by their consciousness
Devil: Yes, Hamad, your people have shaken me.
Don’t you hear their cries?
Don’t you see the crowds?
Don’t you see their case?
Listen to their complaints,
To their attempt to plan their steps.
Listen to your people’s cries, which you have purchased,
Hamad: My stomach still has not had its fill of their blood,
Little brother Iblis.
I have yet to nationalize the rest of my family and their wives.
I have yet to decree the uncivilized become machines.
I have yet to leave every candle at the streetlight,
Imploring every passerby:
I have water, come, buy.
I have yet to torture every mu’amam in this land,
Every youth and child,
And push into my prisons the blossom of youth,
And open for degradation a thousand doors,
And force all the people to cry for their lamentations.
Still, little brother Iblis, the number of youth hasn’t risen,
Each one of them, a diploma on his chest.
No occupation and no pre-occupation left to them.
I still have not had every Indian on this land.
Hold in his hand our flag and cheer: “Long live, Abu Sleiman!”
I still have not sucked their blood.
From the scourge of rents and leases,
From apartment to apartment,
While the uncivilized have homes and lands,
But they still number 120.
I don’t think anyone hears their echoes.
How could the Hajji say the world?
If 120 and their echoes don’t reach?
Look, Abu Sleiman, my brave pupil,
Your treachery has surpassed your teacher’s.
Your people in revolt have aged me.
And their brothers have aged me.
Sunni, Shi’a are brothers.
There is no division among them.
But your heart is like stone.
Will you heed some advice from
Your supporter, oppressive one?
Pack up your regime’s encampment,
Until they are satisfied.
Because your people, my darling …
You are not at their level.