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Love and Terror in Bahrain

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

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Love and Terror in Bahrain

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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Photos: Roger Aziz

In Pearl Square, he found a bustling tent city, with clusters of colourful canopies, awnings and gazebos. Hundreds of people thronged the roundabout, spilling into the street and slowing traffic. Al Raas was struck by the festive mood: elderly women in floor-length dresses waving tiny flags; young men in flip-flops and T-shirts sipping tea; toddlers riding on their parents’ shoulders; opposition leaders shaking hands; wafts of grilled meat and hookah smoke. In the middle of the site stood six converging curved pillars crowned by a white “pearl,” like hands cupping a small stone. The massive sculpture, erected in 1982 to mark the third Gulf Cooperation Council summit, had now become a symbol of antigovernment defiance. 

As Al Raas made his way through the crowd, a young woman in the media tent caught his attention. Her hair was tucked under a scarf, which framed her pale face and hands. Speaking animatedly to an Irish journalist, she was explaining how Tunisia’s pro-democracy protest inspired her to join Bahrain’s uprising.”I’m here to ask for our rights,” she said, in near-flawless English.

The journalist pointed to the crowd and asked her about the different-coloured flags the students were waving. “The symbols represent different Arab families,” she answered.

“Tribes,” Al Raas interjected, correcting her. “Sorry?” she asked. She looked up to see a tall, heavy-set man in baggy shorts and a polo top. His dark hair curled around his neck. “You mean to say tribes, not families,” he repeated. She couldn’t believe it. She was a superior English student and a talented interpreter. Who is this guy? she thought. She nodded, unimpressed, and turned back to the reporter.

Al Raas waited until she was finished, then went over and requested her number. She gave it to him, along with her name-Zainab Ahmed-which he put directly into his cellphone. Working in the camp’s media tent, she was used to handing out her contact information. “Let’s stay in touch,” Al Raas said, and walked away.

Next: Love blossoms in the Arab Spring.

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Photos: Roger Aziz

Every afternoon, Al Raas returned to Pearl Square. He always stopped to watch Ahmed work, and was increasingly impressed. Ah-med spoke with confidence, gesturing sharply with every word. “The way she embraced her role,” he says, “she was a natural leader.”

Fearing gossip, Ahmed avoided returning Al Raas’s glances at first-she was more interested in her duties than starting a romance. But Al Raas didn’t take the hint. His brief stopovers became daylong stays. While Ahmed answered emails or updated her Twitter feed, Al Raas hung out in the tent. Ahmed soon liked how attentive he was. At lunchtime, he would fetch spiced rice, sometimes bringing an orange for them to share.

When they weren’t in the tent, they’d stroll around Pearl Square and discuss their families. They sometimes visited Ahmed’s twin sister, Khadija, who volunteered at the medical tent. Al Raas told Ahmed about growing up in Canada with his 10 brothers and sisters. He also told her of his weak heart: how he had suffered health problems as a child but the worst had come after his 20th birthday, when he had coughed up so much blood he’d lost consciousness. Diagnosed with pulmonary embolism, he’d undergone two open-heart surgeries. His condition, he said, was a reminder of the brevity of life. Al Raas hoped it had made him braver.

Ahmed had been courted before, but no man had ever been so honest. “He opened his life to me,” she says. “And I loved him for it.”

One afternoon, they took a break to grab some food. While they waited at the checkout, Al Raas turned to Ahmed. “Do you understand why I’ve been pursuing you?” She did but stayed quiet. “If some Canadian wanted to take you back to his country to live with him forever,” Al Raas prodded, “would you go?”

It was a scary thought, leaving Bahrain for good, but Ahmed didn’t want to lose him. “Yeah,” she said, “that would be okay with me.”
On March 16, 2011, after more than a month of rallies and marches, the government sent 2,000 troops into Pearl Square. Ahmed was in the media tent when she heard commotion and screaming. As she panicked, Al Raas appeared beside her. “It’s okay,” he said. They ran for cover.

Next: Lovers in a dangerous time.

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Photos: Roger Aziz

On March 16, 2011, after more than a month of rallies and marches, the government sent 2,000 troops into Pearl Square. Ahmed was in the media tent when she heard commotion and screaming. As she panicked, Al Raas appeared beside her. “It’s okay,” he said. They ran for cover.

Troops stormed the roundabout, bombarding the area with tear-gas canisters. By nightfall, the encampment was bulldozed and set ablaze. Two days later, the Pearl Square monument was toppled in a heap of rubble and steel.

Every Shia who could leave Bahrain did. Ahmed joined her sister and mother in Cairo, where they had flown two days earlier. As the sole administrator of the Facebook page forFeb14Media, an activist group that documented the pro-democracy demonstrations, Ahmed knew her arrest was imminent if she stayed in Bahrain. Al Raas, however, wasn’t scheduled to leave for another two days.

The streets of Manama were empty on March 20, the date Al Raas was booked to fly out. His cab passed without incident through four checkpoints, but just as he entered the airport and was about to present his passport to customs, four men ambushed him and rushed him into a small office. They immediately took turns punching and kicking him. “Traitor!” they yelled.

They stopped when a man in a white tunic walked in, wearing a badge that identified him as an army official. He held up a gun. “I will kill you,” he said as Al Raas stared down the barrel.

Al Raas’s flight to Kuwait would have taken one hour. But several hours later, Ahmed was still waiting for his call. She spent the night checking her cellphone and Facebook for messages. A few days after that, his mother called from Ottawa. No one knew where he was.

Next: Things go from bad to worse for Al Raas.

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Photos: Roger Aziz

Her fiancé had been taken, bound and blindfolded, to Al Qala, a detention centre on the edge of the city. For the first week, he was in solitary confinement. Then the interrogations began. Some days he was tied to a chair as guards pummelled him with their fists. Other days, they took turns lashing his back with hoses and sticks. “You think because you’re Canadian, you’re protected?” shouted one man.

Six times he was electrocuted, and four times he woke up in a military hospital. Denied anticlotting medication, his condition worsened: he had difficulty breathing and was coughing up blood. The pain in his chest was agonizing. But he was always taken back to the prison, where the interro-gations continued.
The question never changed: What did he know about Zainab Ahmed’s involvement in the revolution? “I told them she was only an interpreter,” he says.
The routine continued: blindfold, restraints, beating. Then, on April 20, something changed. When Al Raas’s blindfold was removed, he found himself in a luxurious office decked out with plush couches and red carpets. A group of masked guards lined the back of the room, but one man, young and clean-shaven, had no mask at all. He pointed to a teleprompter and politely asked Al Raas to look into the camera and read his confession. If he did, he would be let go. Al Raas agreed. “Try to look guilty,” said the man.

After Al Raas did as he was told, he was bundled into a car and dropped off in a market. After 31 days of torture, he was free.

Later that evening in Cairo, Ahmed received the text message she’d been praying for. But it would be six months before she would see Al Raas again. As a known revolutionary, Ahmed couldn’t return home, and stripped of his passport, Al Raas couldn’t leave.

In June, Al Raas was called back to the National Security Agency offices in Manama to retrieve his passport. When he got there, however, he was arrested and charged with kidnapping a police officer-a fabricated allegation common in Bahrain at the time.

Al Raas was acquitted of the kidnapping charge on October 4, but weeks later a civilian court sentenced him to five years in prison for violating Bahrain’s illegal-assembly laws and participating in antiregime demonstrations. After a local lawyer volunteered to work on his appeal, Al Raas went into hiding. He stayed with friends, hopping from house to house. Ahmed decided to risk returning to Manama so she could help fight the charges against Al Raas by his side. “Naser was waiting in a car in front of my parents’ house,” she says, describing her arrival from the airport. “I was crying so much I couldn’t say hello.”

Next: Ahmed takes action.

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Photos: Roger Aziz

Ahmed got to work right away. She contacted Amnesty International-who, in turn, reached out to Canada’s consul in Saudi Arabia. She also began emailing regular updates to every major daily in Canada, and soon articles started appearing in newspapers. Al Raas was interviewed from undisclosed locations by CBC reporters over Skype, and he began posting the details of his detention and torture to his Twitter account and blog. “Before I went to Bahrain, I had normal ambitions,” he says. “Then I saw the worst. Now I say to myself, ‘I can either lay down and take it, or I can resist.'” 

The campaign worked. In February 2012, the Canadian government got wind of the story. Minister of State of Foreign Affairs Diane Ablonczy demanded Al Raas’s acquittal. In a surprise about-face, a Bahraini court judge agreed to reconsider his five-year sentence. On February 16, he was cleared of all charges.

In May, after being sent a new passport by Canadian officials, Al Raas flew back to Canada. Ahmed had to wait behind for her visitor’s visa. In September, she joined him in Ottawa, where, more than a year and a half after he proposed at the fast-food restaurant, the couple signed their marriage licence at City Hall.

But it’s their traditional wedding in Bahrain, held eight months earlier, that they remember best. They said their vows one afternoon at Ahmed’s grandmother’s house in Manama. As guests snacked on vanilla cake and cheese sandwiches, they heard the clatter of tear-gas canisters outside the door. Riot police had followed a group of protesters into the area. Al Raas knew they would be there-he had helped organize the protest through Twitter.

He turned to Ahmed and said, “Once we’re finished, I have to join them.” She grabbed his hand. No, she said. It was their moment.