It’s been a wild whirlwind through Bahrain, a country of 1.3 million, half of whom are guest workers and not really Bahraini at all. This is a country that is at its core a conservative, traditional Muslim country – at once eager and willing to accommodate its many resident aliens, who range from American and British expats to Filipino nannies and Indian laborers.
This is a place where you can buy awesome shawarma next door to Jollibee across the street from an Irish Pub, which serves alcohol legally (if expensively) in the middle of an otherwise dry (of both liquor and rain) region of the world.
Some Bahraini women dress in full burka, while others wear pants suits and flaunt their hair – this really seems to be an individual choice…. Or least, one made from family to family.
There are churches and synagogues in addition to the grand mosques, but this is still a country where the name of Israel is blacked out from foreign textbooks by order of the Ministry of Education. And yet teachers here are interested in hearing about my lessons on Mexico.
There are real issues here, as in every society. In Bahrain, the royal family is Sunni and allied with neighboring Saudi Arabia, while there is a majority Shia population with more religious allegiance to Iran – some of whom allege deliberately discriminatory policies toward the government. These complaints have occasionally spilt over into the streets, only to be suppressed with Saudi tanks and troops. Activists for democratic reforms have found themselves with extended jail sentences over Tweets.
And yet, there are many schools here serving the various foreign populations. Bahrain is considered to be one of the most stable, desirable posts for both expat teachers and members of the US Navy. We attended a mixer the other night for Bahraini alumni of US colleges – and it was packed. These alumni drank the free wine and many women wore tight, short dresses in a very public place, with no apparent inhibition.
Mohammed’s time in Medina, where he lived in exile with his small community of followers was said to be egalitarian in the extreme, with Jews and Christians living freely alongside the first Muslims. The island of Bahrain does not seem too far off from this level of tolerance, even if it is not strictly democratic.
But maybe the thing that to me says the most about the island were the moments I spent in classrooms with young students. At the Bahrain Bayan school, the students were engaged in a lesson on climate change, grappling with the notion that their nation’s single largest industry – petroleum – is the single largest cause of this calamity. When the students of this desert island, which has to desalinate all of its potable water from the Persian Gulf, found out that I was from Florida, they wanted to know about the rising sea levels – and what it was like to survive the flooded streets and hurricanes that are set to occur more and more frequently as temperatures rise.
In short, these are kids who are curious about the outside world, despite its many differences. And curiosity is the beginning of understanding – of empathy. If Arab kids can accept that their parents’ livelihood is poisoning our Earth – if those kids can care about what it is doing in my home, nearly on the opposite side of the planet, well…
I can find some hope for tomorrow.