Valentine's Day

Love and Terror in Bahrain

During the Arab Spring, a Canadian man falls for a revolutionary. The ensuing crackdown puts their future in jeopardy.

by Elizabeth Hames

Photos: Roger Aziz

Naser Al Raas lay disoriented on the cell floor. He felt a tingling in his hands; his 
left foot twitched. Hours earlier, guards had burst in, forced a bag over his head, tied a cable around his wrists and dragged him into a dank room. There, hoisted by his arms and hung like a butcher’s pig, he heard the crackle of electricity. A current shot up his leg, grabbing hold of every muscle in his body and twisting them. He uttered a scream so deep he didn’t recognize his own voice, and he passed out.

Now awake, he squinted up at the bright light bulb dangling from the ceiling. It had been days since he’d seen the sun. There was a burst of angry voices and hurried footsteps outside his cell—the guards, once again, had left his door open. “They did it after each interrogation,” he says, “so I could listen to the other detainees cry out.”
Every day, men and women were hauled down the hallway into the torture room, where they were kicked, punched, whipped, electrocuted—or worse. Al Raas didn’t know how much longer he could take it. “I wished I would die,” he says, “so my suffering would end.”

Six weeks earlier, Al Raas, a 30-year-old IT specialist from Ottawa, had been working in Kuwait, where he began following the news coming out of nearby Bahrain. From the moment the Al Khalifa royal family, who are Sunni Muslims, assumed control of the former British protectorate in 1971, the island kingdom’s Shia majority has complained of widespread discrimination. Shia citizens cannot purchase property in some areas, are excluded from certain jobs and have watched their underfunded neighbourhoods deteriorate. Four decades of discontent exploded on February 14, 2011: inspired by the Arab Spring, tens of thousands of Bahrainis stormed the capital, demanding democracy and greater political rights.

Al Raas’s sister and nieces lived just outside of the capital, Manama, in one of the country’s most troubled neighbourhoods. The intensity of clashes, with reports of injuries and fatalities, worried Al Raas, so he decided to check in. On March 6, he flew to Bahrain on a two-week tourist visa.

His family had barricaded themselves in their tiny flat. Every morning, they woke to the news of burned-out cars, destroyed generators and vandalized schools. His sister described the police raids—how officers would fire tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protesters who had occupied Pearl Square at the city’s centre. She urged her brotherto stay away, but Al Raas had never witnessed a revolution up close. He wanted to see it for himself.


Next:  Al Rass' curiosity reveals more than he ever bargained for.


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