The protests in Bahrain will outlast the Grand Prix

No, this certainly isn’t live.

Earlier today, as I flipped through the channels on my TV in my hotel room in Amman, I came across Bahrain TV. The show was on antique sports cars. Old Chevys, Pontiacs and Fords were cruising down the streets of Bahrain under cloudless skies. Amidst the violence taking place in the streets at that moment, it could not have been a sadder contrast to the events of the past few days. My Twitter feed painted a more accurate picture of the reality in the tiny island nation: thousands of people taking to the streets in protest, one man killed, and police throwing teas gas and firing bird shot into crowds. 

The protests have swelled in magnitude over the past few days, a result of the staggeringly insensitive and ignorant decision on behalf of Formula One (and the government of Bahrain) to plough ahead with the Bahrain Grand Prix. F1’s boss Mr. Ecclestone repeatedly said that sports has no place in politics. He is wrong, and the events of the past few days have conclusively shown this. As Robert Fisk rightly points out, “The days have gone when sportsmen and sportswomen can dissociate themselves from the moral values in which we claim to believe in the 21st century.” Those values – which unquestioningly deserve to be universal ones – are at a minimum a respect for human dignity, the respect for life, the obligation to prevent suffering and the renunciation of all forms of violence. All of these are being compromised as the race goes on.

I don’t hate Formula 1 racing. I haven’t really thought about it much in the past several years, but I used to be an avid enthusiast of the sport when I was younger. In fact, back in 1990, I was a security guard at the finish line during the Montreal Grand Prix. When Ayrton Senna zoomed to victory, the crowd went mad and started to pour onto the tracks. I was so excited it took me a moment to remember I had to prevent the crowds from doing that.

It looks like the race will take place as planned April 22. Despite this, the global outrage at F1’s choice will likely last well beyond the end of the race. As Kevin Eason of the Times tweeted, “Whatever happens in  this weekend, F1 has underlined its unenviable image as amoral and greedy.” Maybe that will mean something in the future. I hope.

The race is a temporary focal point that is bringing global attention to a government that has systematically shrugged off its commitment to reform, despite assurances to the contrary after an independent commission reached its conclusions last fall (the full report is here). The death of protester Salah Habib Abbas last night is being treated as a homicide and is under investigation, but if it’s shown that he died at the hands of police, it will be another painful reminder that the crackdown against protesters will continue, regardless of the national and international criticisms levelled at the government.

The crowds taking to the streets will not dissipate, even after the F1 drivers and tourists leave Bahrain. The situation with the jailed hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja will reach a boiling point soon. He’s refused water and intravenous fluids, and after 73 days, he will either die soon or be released. With the appeal of his life sentence set for the day after the race, it seems unlikely that freedom will be granted so easily to a man who has suffered so much. But knowing him the way I do, he won’t back down: it will be either freedom or death. Either way, the people on the streets protesting will only come out in greater numbers and will only speak out more loudly with each passing day. 

The crowds are growing both physically and virtually. Earlier this morning I took a closer look at the people who have followed me on Twitter in the past month. Almost all are likely from Bahrain, their usernames a candid reflection of their aspirations: FreeAlKhawaja, Feb14, Bahraini protest, freedom4bahrain, oppressed_bh; the list goes on. They are most likely the same people who have taken to the streets and are finally saying “enough” and looking to spaces like Twitter for solidarity and the hope that someone is listening to them; they want to know that other people care. I wrote a short message to Nabeel Rajab, a tireless human rights leader in Bahrain. In it, I expressed my solidarity, and did not expect him to reply – he’s got more pressing issues to deal with. He wrote back, “Thanks brother and hope to meet some time soon.” I hope so too.

A Letter to My Sons: On Love and Hate

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

This is my first Valentine’s Day away from you. The second away from Mommy – the first time was way back in 1998. I was living in Ghana at the time, and your mother sent me a Valentine’s Day package from home. The package wasn’t delivered to my apartment, so I had to pick it up at the central post office. People receiving packages had to open them for inspection in front of a postal worker. There was a lineup of people behind me, peeking over my shoulder to see what I got. I opened the box and showed the postal worker a CD, a letter, and a pair of red boxer shorts with little red and white hearts on it.

However embarrassing that situation was at the time (but everyone smiled), I knew I was a lucky man, and I am even luckier today. Prior to meeting your Mommy, Valentine’s Day, to put it simply, sucked. I never had a girlfriend on that day (reassuringly, most of my guy friends didn’t either), and any potential for having a girlfriend on or around that day was always promptly extinguished. I can freely provide you details in about 5 years.
All you need.
I am lucky because I have love from the two of you and Mommy that defines me, that strengthens me, supports me, gets me out of bed and brings me comfort even though I’m 9511 km away from you (more or less). It makes Valentine’s Day just another day as I sit here alone in my hotel room, happy.

There’s a saying that goes, “So much of what we know of love we learn at home.” I learned a lot from your grandmother and, in a very different way, from your Uncle John, and continue to learn from the two of you and Mommy. As I left you on Saturday, your emotions were bare, your silence painful, and your tears seared right through my heart. My trips away from you are much shorter than they were ten years ago, but somehow the goodbyes are sadder. I can only attribute that to a growing love.

Sitting here in my hotel room in Amman, it’s hard for me not to think of this day without remembering the struggles that so many people here in the Middle East and North Africa have faced over the past year. You know of the sweeping changes that took pace in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Libya. But one year ago today, February 14, protests began in the streets of Bahrain, where my friend Abdulhadi was jailed and sentenced to life in prison. He recently wrote a letter from jail talking about his situation. He is a strong man, someone who fights hard for the rights of others and has paid a high price for this. But he is loved, and that love manifests itself in the support that thousands of people from around the world have shown in pushing for his release, and the release of other prisoners.

Bahrain is not the only place where innocent people are being hurt because they are standing up for their rights. The situation in Syria is getting worse every day, with the president unwilling to give up power as his forces kill dozens of civilians every day. Tonight I spoke to my friend Amouri who lives in Syria and he says that all six of the UN schools that operate in the city of Homs have been closed now for three weeks because of the violence in the streets. It’s one thing for you to have a snow day and not go to school. Can you imagine not attending school because people are being killed in the streets?

If you think this makes no sense, you are right. I want you to always keep in mind that this is not right. Hatred will never be right. You might be confused right now about this kind of stupid behaviour, and as you get older, I’m sorry to say you might find out even stupider and more hurtful things that people do. If you’re like me, this will anger you. What I’ve learned over time is that anger is often unavoidable, but needs to be transformed. Without changing that anger, you won’t change anything. Your anger at other people’s stupidity needs to be channeled into passion and love that is tempered by reason, into a fierce enthusiasm to stop those who do wrong to others. Be a Superman, be a Batman – even SpongeBob stands up for what’s right. I want you to be yourself and to share, as much as you possibly can, what you know of love and learned from home. The world needs it.

Je t’aime Sam, je t’aime Alexandre.


Dear Santa, here’s my human rights Xmas wish list

Dear Santa,
I know you’re busy this time of year. I’ll spare you the usual “peace around the world” stuff I used to wish for as a kid before reality set in. Let me be brief. Here’s what I’d like from you this Christmas:

  1. Now that Harper has a majority, I realize that completely removing the Conservatives from Ottawa is an unreasonable wish. Instead, could you at least make them smarter? Let them rethink adoption of the new crime bill, scrapping the gun registry, abandoning Kyoto, and please, pretty please with sugar on top, let them respect, protect, and fulfill all human rights of the First Nation people of this land.
  2. You might as well give the opposition NDP members of parliament a little more teeth since you’ll be in the neighbourhood. Kinda went downhill after Jack left us.
  3. Do me a big favour and get rid of president Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Government forces have killed about 5000 demonstrators this year alone, and it doesn’t look as though he will have a change of heart anytime soon.
  4. While you’re in the region, could you make sure the Kingdom of Bahrain has elections for a new Prime Minister? He’s been kicking around the kingdom since 1971. It seems rather excessive. I left my job after nearly ten years – you know, I liked my job, but it felt good to move on. See if he can too.
  5. Since you’ll be in Bahrain, why not release all those prisoners who have been detained since the uprisings in February? My friend Abdulhadi Alkhawaja was sentenced to life in prison – could you spring him out of jail? 
  6. I’ve noticed on YouTube that police officers in Egypt are getting quite good at beating the crap out of unarmed protestors. Why not give them all a training course in maintaining order without all the violence? Everyone can play nice if they try hard enough.
  7. The Occupy movement has fizzled over the past few weeks. I’m not sure it’ll go very far over the winter months, at least in places where it can get pretty cold (I know, I know: not as cold as your place). Nonetheless, could you find us (as in we the 99%) a suitably inspiring figure who will reinvigorate us and decisively and confidently lead us to action that will bring about real change? That elf of yours who wanted to be a dentist had a lot of gumption, is he free?
  8. It’s easy to forget about Mugabe down in Zimbabwe, but let’s face it: he’s way past his expiry date. Go ahead and cast a magic spell on him or something so he decides to fess up to the violence he caused over all these years and step down. Let democratically-elected leaders get on with the business of rebuilding that beautiful country.
  9. Getting rid of Mugabe would also give an opportunity to bring in an era where gay rights are fully recognized as human rights. You may only be able to do so much in Zimbabwe, so if you had to focus your attention somewhere, may I suggest you go to Cameroon and Uganda for a start and have those in power change legislation criminalizing homosexuality with harsh sentences.
  10. Now that I think of it, Yemen doesn’t get as much airtime as other hotspots in the Middle East, but listen: I’ve got some friends there, they do good stuff to help promote girls’ rights. The current climate there is not favourable to their work. President Saleh promised he’d step down. He’s apparently taken leave now, so can you make sure there is a transition to a better system of governance? Maybe give all prospective leaders an Xbox or something to make them happy; it’s a price worth paying.
  11. President Obama has been a bit of a letdown lately. I don’t expect him to live up to all the things he said he’d do upon entering office, but let him at least close Guantanamo Bay and give the “enemy combatants” fair trials.
  12. There’s still no snow in Montreal. It’d be nice to have a white Christmas for the kids.
Thanks Santa. Keep up the good work.