A sand bank in flames

17 02 2011

The Arabic Revolution has crept eastward, to Bahrain. The tiny island in the Persian Gulf is now also caught up in the wave of anger sweeping across Northern Africa and the Middle East. And here the fight for democracy and social justice has only just begun.

The night before. (Bahrain, February 16, 2011 - KEYSTONE/AP)

Bahrain holds a special place in my heart even though there is really not much there. Not even oil. My first visit in 1997 was for fun and for fun only….to visit Ironic Mom long before she became a mom. Fortunately no digital photographic evidence exists. (Hmm…. come to think of it…. where are those negatives?)

The second time I went to Bahrain it was as a working journalist, to wait for a war.

Between October 2001 and April 2003 I spent almost six months on the island on four different occasions. After a while, the tiny, friendly monarchy earned itself the sub-title: “Your favorite sand bank in the Persian Gulf”.

My Bahrain adventures started four weeks after 9/11. While Marines stormed the Hindukush about a thousand miles to our east, we already suspected the Bush administration was desperately trying to find an excuse to go after an old nemesis just north of us, Saddam Hussein. By September 2002, there was no doubt the powder keg would soon explode and the question was no longer if, but when. And because Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet, it was the logical place for journalists to congregate. And wait.

I will admit, the life of a waiting journalist in the field is a rather comfortable one, with editors safely in bureaus a couple of time zones away. Our days in lovely, warm Bahrain usually started with a breakfast buffet in the Diplomat Hotel, followed by a quick call to London to let them know the coast was still clear. Afternoons at poolside included  hummus and iced tea, served at my lounge chair. And for dinner it was either “Fiddler’s Green” Irish Pub, a fabulous Asian restaurant called “Monsoon”, and on really special occasions we went all the way to the Ritz Carlton to feast at Trader Vic’s.

This was, after all, a time when we all still had corporate credit cards and generous expense accounts.

The international appetite for news from Bahrain was rather limited and any remotely exciting event drew a disproportionately large western media crowd. An anti-U.S. march here, a Chess tournament between a human and a computer there, and – our biggest story while on the island – the first fair and free national election in which women had the right to vote and stand as candidates.

I still bathe in the glory of that day in October 2002, when we got the Emir’s only quote to a western media outlet. (But please don’t ask me what it was.) For my efforts in that scrum, a resentful Arabic television journalist speared me in the ribs with his microphone pole.

That's us on the left: Western, blond and female. Eye candy for the Emir and his entourage.

Fun and games aside, the pictures coming out of the Gulf state in the last couple of days – of demonstrations and protesters camped out under the Pearl Monument in the center of Manama – I guess surprised me more than they should have. I remember Bahrain as an exceptionally peaceful place (except for that MBC cameraman), with an autocratic but mostly harmless, benevolent ruling family and a couple of drunk obnoxious Saudis on the weekends.

What disturbed and shocked me to the core was the news this morning that the government broke its promise and used violence – teargas, rubber bullets and buckshot – to attack sleeping men, women and children in the middle of the night on Pearl Square. Six Bahrainis died and hundrends were injured.

But the voice of the people is getting louder even in Bahrain. And the royal family would probably be wise to listen up. Inshallah.

The morning after. (Bahrain, February 17, 2011 - KEYSTONE/AP)


Here is a New York Times opinion piece – worth reading – about the protests in Bahrain.

My best friend: My gun

12 01 2011

The tragic weekend shootings in Tucson have given me a good lead-in to today’s blog topic: Guns. There are lots of them, and they are everywhere. Legal and illegal, they rest in the hands of competitive sportsmen and -women, the military, the police and gun freaks of all colors. Gangsters have them in their toolbox, and regular folks have them in their desk drawers. And hell, what’s the harm in shooting off a couple of rounds after a miserable day, right?

Of course in the U.S. we are used to the right-wing wackos from the NRA and the Tea Party claiming their Second Amendment rights as if their lives depended on it. And last weekend we saw what happens when one of those wackos, likely influenced by an Alaskan pitbull in lipstick, short circuits. (And believe it or not, since the shooting, Arizona sales of Glocks have exploded…)

Here in Switzerland, 3,500 miles away and living among peaceful-looking alpine meadows with happy cows, an overly-efficient train network and mostly mild-mannered mountain folk, I only found out quite recently that this country has one of the highest militia gun ownership rates in the world.

The Swiss military’s standard-issue automatic weapons are very present in everyday public life, on public transport and in the public consciousness. In Zurich, men carry around their army rifles like women carry around their Louis Vuitton handbags. Last Sunday’s newspaper even featured photographs of prominent Swiss politicians sitting on their sofas – in stinky socks, no less – and cradling their firearms.

Criticize him for the weapon around his neck or just his God-awful taste in living room furniture?

On February 13th the Swiss voters – who are, as we know, professionals at direct democracy – will decide on an initiative that would ban all military weapons from private homes and require them to be stored in a local armory.

At the moment, more than 420,000 of these automatic weapons (NOT counting firearms that have been privately purchased, you know, for fun) populate closets and attics, sheds and garages across this seemingly gentle, neutral country. Why? Because two generations ago, while Adolf Hitler steamrolled across Europe, the Swiss thought it prudent that its citizen-soldiers keep their guns at home so that in case of an invasion, they could engage in urban warfare and shoot their way to their military unit.

Today, 80 years later, this law is still on the books and the majority of these lethal toys still live in private homes. Behind winter coats, under the bed, in on the ski rack – free for any child to pick up and play with, for any adult to threaten (and kill) his spouse with, for any individual to end their own life with.

What seemed thoroughly logical and sensible in the 1930’s is equally ludicrous and superfluous today. Especially considering Switzerland has Europe’s highest rate of suicides by firearms, and an alarming number of homicides are committed with army weapons, too. On average, they are responsible for one death every single day.

The perfect Swiss family

The public debate ahead of the referendum is emotional as it is gruesome. While the supporters of the ban are appealing to simple common sense, the ultra-right wing Swiss nutcases (though they lack a Second Amendment to ride around on) have proven so far they don’t have any. Their irksome habit of fanning the fires of collective panic, claiming law-abiding citizens will be “castrated of their rights” should the initiative pass is getting really old, but may just prove effective in the end.

And once again, any virtues of direct democracy aside, I come to the conclusion that sometimes governments have a moral obligation to protect citizens from their own stupidity.