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A Bittersweet Return to an Unfamiliar Homeland

After 25 years of yearning in exile, a Bahraini fears he won't find peace on the island. But his daughter is determined to make the nation her own.

February 19, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

MANAMA, Bahrain — The father and daughter get lost a lot. He can't remember the sleepy streets of this tiny island nation in the Persian Gulf, not after so many years. As for her, she never knew them.

They sit side by side in the darkness of their little Honda, the brake lights of passing cars washing their faces in red. Their eyes quiver over gates and signposts. They are looking for a landmark.

"Isn't it back the other way?" Hussain Ali asks his daughter. "I think ... " begins 23-year-old Batoul, then falls silent. It's yet another moment of disorientation for a family that has lived through a quarter of a century in political exile.

In the long years since Hussain Ali was arrested, beaten and told to leave Bahrain for criticizing the rulers, he has drifted from one foreign land to the next; pushed a fake passport over immigration counters; killed cockroaches in cheap apartments. He raised his children on dreams of a lost homeland, a place where they would be drenched in sunshine and cherished by a family they hadn't met.

Between this father and daughter lives the hope and yearning of exile, and the struggle of generations of Middle Easterners to change -- or just make peace with -- their homelands. Hussain is afraid that Bahrain will break his daughter's heart, but he's willing to watch her take the risk.

A new king, Sheik Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa, came to power in 1999. He offered amnesty to political exiles. With talk of elections and a new constitution, the king held out the promise of reform -- that sweet and elusive notion that taunts this region like a mirage.

So the Alis came home. Or so they thought. For Hussain, 52, homecoming has brought heartbreak. He is haunted by memories of lost days, angered by a sense that he's been defrauded.

Now he wonders whether he should stay, or give up on Bahrain. His wife couldn't take it here; she has already returned to Canada. But the father and daughter are sticking it out, sharing a room in a relative's house and soaking in the politics of the place.

Earlier this evening, they attended a raucous seminar on corruption and government confiscation of land. The angry crowd cursed the ruling family, "Khalifa, go from here!" Batoul sat pertly, and took careful notes. Her father brooded.

"I'm not convinced this is enough. Seminars, sitting and talking," he says in the car on the way home. "This government has to go to hell."

All her life, Batoul has been told she belongs here, and it seems impossible to disappoint her. She finds beauty everywhere -- in the drabbest streets, the dirtiest cats, the flattest light of a desert noon.

"I don't stay because I like it," Batoul says. "I stay because I have to. It's my country, bitter or sweet."

Her father just keeps driving through the darkness.

The Alis are Ajam, literally non-Arabs or foreigners, a word used to describe Bahraini Shiite Muslims whose bloodlines stretch back to Iran. Although Ajam families have lived in Bahrain for generations and Shiites are a majority in the country, they have had to fight for passports, housing and job opportunities. Even today, discrimination lingers.

Hussain was 26 when he ran afoul of the ruling Sunni Arabs. He wrote a newspaper article criticizing discrimination against the Ajam. After that, he says, he was promptly arrested, interrogated and badly beaten. His wounds festered and left him hard of hearing.

After weeks in prison, he was given a temporary travel document -- like many Ajam, he had no passport -- and warned to flee. He stole away when the house was empty; he wanted his family to be able to say, honestly, that they didn't know where he'd gone.

"When the plane takes off, you give that last look to your country," he says. "I thought maybe it would be four or five years."

He falls quiet, and looks at the floor. When he speaks again his voice is husky.

"There were demonstrations then," he says. "Everybody had hope that things would change ... " He trails off, clears his throat and blinks.

He landed in India, found work showing Arab tourists around and bought a forged Saudi passport. He was lonesome, so he called a girl he'd known in Bahrain and asked her to marry him. She was 16 years old. He told her the truth: He didn't love her yet, but he would.

She agreed and flew to India, where the couple signed a wedding contract. There was nobody to celebrate with them, and no money for a honeymoon. They went out to breakfast and began their life together.

Batoul was their firstborn. Their second daughter was scalded in a running bath one dreary afternoon. She suffered third-degree burns all over her body and died in her father's arms. They buried her in India, heavy with a grief as solitary as their joy.

"The important thing about weddings and funerals are the people who come to be with you, in happiness and sadness," Hussain says. "Nobody came to us."

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