As a Persian native who considers his homeland to be Bahrain, it’s disheartening to see the current emergence of sectarian-driven suspicion my ethnicity has become subject to. It’s apparent beyond infantile minds, the result of murky politics of the Gulf monarchs trying to divide and conquer by inducing false suasion.
Bahrain is diverse with backgrounds as variant as Iran, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi, Jordan, Syria, Yemen of the predominant ones. And like archetypal diversity yields; the minorities and their communities face subtle and sometimes apparent antagonism from the rather accepted mainstream because of the subtle or apparent dissimilarities.
Arabic is the official first language and English is the second. I speak 3jmi at home (an Arabized version of Farsi) and my Arabic, before my Saudi uncle married into our family and our long Ramadhan discussions, sounded like a train-wreck about to capsize over the Niagra falls into the abyss of molten lava.
A popular joke around the Gulf is to claim bad-grammer short-circuited the fuse of electrical devices and the lights are about to go off. Farsi does not assign gender to inanimate objects so when I’m on a roll during conversation and have to be conscious of this, I might say my hand hurts but accidentally assigned the male gender to it when describing the verb. So what? I mean it is my hand.
I’m not writing to evoke empathy; I have always felt at home especially in Manama city. There are so many Persians and just mine is prodigious. I grew-up sheltered and the school I went to was an Indian administered one- mark of proletariat Persian families (now MKS is in competition). Citizenry and patriotism never came into question.
I remember one incident in Summer of 1998. I’d joined a sports club and we were about to play football when one of the kids in the group, overhearing me and a Persian buddy converse in 3jmi,blurted, “You are Persian, you don’t have passport.”
It was so random and unprompted that I drew blanks. I couldn’t interpret the intention of that remark or his smirk because I never experienced this before. What was he saying? That I was from a different ethnicity and therefore not eligible for the Bahraini passport? Should I worry? I was only 12 and I did have one. And back then, I couldn’t care less as long as I got to travel. There were a few hiddenPersians in our group whom I wasn’t aware of and as it dawned on them that this prick was a racist piece of dung, they ganged up on him and we settled on verbally patronizing him. But I was lost, it didn’t occur to me that I was different from him (or that he thought I was) till he mentioned it. I just wanted that smirk off his face.
The first generation immigrants of any ethnicity in any country usually suffer and the forbearers can either do considerably well by witnessing these struggles or develop inferiority complexes and atrophy. And there are quite a few delinquents in the Persian community in Bahrain. Sometimes, I get the impression that we reflect underground mobs in that we are very successful in attaining economic resources without concern for the politics. Not that we don’t want to be involved, our roots are viewed as the ultimate sin to the Arab monarchs.
Another vivid experience as a child was when a group of other Persian kids in the Mushberneighbourhood began picking on the three of us; my schoolfriend, cousin and myself. Things escalated and the leader challenged me to a fight. I chickened out of it and tried to set it up against my older cousin but to no avail. The leader was set on me. We tried to settle it the less violent way by attempting to talk but it heated up anyway when he began taunting me by removing my glasses. This made me react with a bit of anger as I edged emotional control and at the sign of it, and somewhere between us negotiating, they decided they had teased us enough. Things transformed into friendly relations (the norm during preadolescent interactions) and we were going to leave. Just then, a car passed whirring with commotion and at that moment, the gang leader whispered these words in my ear, “I want to f**k you”.
We were like 13, he was my age and somehow, my incognizant mind translated that into a taunt against the passing car so I echoed it with a,” Yeah, f**k you [Car]”.
I didn’t realize this until after we said our goodbyes and walked a few distance. The leader hollered my name again in an awkward attempt to call me back. This, my cousin somehow immediately understood, was a sign of homosexual invite. I didn’t ask for an explanation and I rationalized that he knew better because he was in a government school.
A popular stigma attached to young Persian males is that they’re jailbait especially in peer conglomerations like public high-schools because they’re good-looking. I don’t know if this is valid today because with the easy virtual access that the youth have to each other, boys are no longer sexually confined to the savanna of their institutes. Girls are at arms-length and have become, thanks to mainstream influence, a cherry pick. But during those times, there was an undeniable awareness of being prey, a feeling that partly fueled my excessive workouts and which I retrieve when considering why women’s rights are still lacking in our society.
Another reason I got obsessed with working out was/is because when one chooses to live life based on principles, one will inevitably invite antipathy or run across an ape who’s world is limited to spots and stripes and cannot comprehend why you can’t be lenient to their simplistic POV and then mentally tug at you in an effort to prove you wrong for being righteous. Women negotiate power by showing solidarity through dialogue and eventually discuss their POV. As a man amongst men, that doesn’t manifest well in underdeveloped societies unless you have big biceps so it seems you’re doing them the favor of concession.
Then, of course, we have the excellent Manama basketball club. Those guys are the local heroes. You mention Shahram or Noo7 Najaf and the likes of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant pale in comparison. Quite a few Persian slangs have entered the Bahraini colloquial, none so famous as Manama, Chitori?. Others are the profanities like Meerah, Show Beyow and Mal Mufti, Cheh Gofti? (the latter not a profanity per say but a crude gesture to wolf free-food). We’re ever so proud of the dumbing down of the Arabic language because to us, it’s a contribution, never mind the newspeak. We want to be integrated but we sense a tinge (or a cornucopia) of resentment towards our ethnicity and our race. In this sense, I have Pakistani friends who are more Bahraini than the typical Bahraini because they live and have become dependent on the public amenities that are provided to them- signature stultification of the typical Bahraini.
And then there are the monopolists who own everything from consulting agencies to exclusive car dealership because they bought government support- partly monetary and partly by abandoning their roots and Arabizing themselves to ease the latent hostility. The Howalas (Arabized Persians or Sunni Persians mostly from Basatak and Ahwaz in Iran, speak a different dialect from Tehran) are usually the head-in-ground ostriches. My mother is Holia and they tend to keep a low profile, speaking better Arabic than the Arabs themselves sometimes to chameleonate their ethnicity.
Some Persians believe Bahrain was a part of Iran and should still be. They are the Persians in Iran. The Bahraini Persians are today a new race. They have intermingled genes and when in Iran, feel home sick not because they miss the desert, but because of the symbol of unity and sovereignty that we’ve become accustomed to, notwithstanding the ruling monarchy.
One of the most exciting experiences that I have is walking down Manama street. Today, it’s exactly how I envision Tamil Nadu to be. But beneath this flood lies the ancient architecture of our grandfathers, the alleys and backstreets where our fathers spent endless nights dallying next to the mosques and Ma’tams. The mothers gathered around hubble-bubbles in Hussainiyas crying over the chronicles of the Imam’s sacrifices and celebrating the folklore. During memorial days like Ashura’, it comes back- the chatters of retrospective stories and political discourse, the laughters and sometimes the profanities.
I remind myself of Richard Rodriguez as a 21st century human being saying, “I avoid falling into the black-and-white dialectic in which most of America still seems trapped. I have always recognized that as an American, I am in relationship with other parts of the world; that I have to measure myself against the Pacific, against Asia. Having to think of myself in relationship to that horizon has liberated me from the black-and-white checkerboard.”
This is how we feel; we’re not ostracized, we’re pressed to adopt a broader skyline.