It all started on Valentine’s Day in Bahrain…

Valentine’s Day is an overly commercialized holiday like many other Hallmark holidays.  However, like many women, I secretly like it.  I don’t make a big fuss over it; I don’t demand gifts, flowers or expensive dinners, but I am always delighted when a partner does something sweet for me.  I have to admit, I like to be reminded that I am loved.  Today, I still secretly like Valentine’s Day, but since 2011, Valentine’s Day has never been the same.

The aroma of lamb and herbs was intoxicating as G pulled 4 pieces of perfectly seasoned lamb chops out of the oven in our new flat in Bahrain.

It was Valentine’s Day 2011, our second one together.  The first year we we were in Dubai and he had organized a treasure hunt.  He had written little notes and rolled them up around single stems of roses and I had to look for roses throughout the flat in order to find the clues that will lead to my gift.  I was happy to find  a homemade, heart-shaped blueberry pie at this end of this game.  This year, he made a lovely dinner.  As he was carefully placing the lamb chops next to the steamed vegetables that he had prepared earlier, he looked pleased with himself.  I dimmed the lights and took a flame to the  the  multi-coloured, multi-faceted Turkish mosaic candle holders.  There were four of them, each with its own unique patterns and colours.  When they were all lit, the light illuminated the dinner table in a warm, welcoming glow.  As G put the food down on the table, it looked as palatable as something from a fancy French restaurant.

We had been in Bahrain for about four months.  We spent the first month in a sterile serviced apartment, and  the following three trying to get settled.  When G found us a suitable two-bedroom flat in Adilya, a trendy neighbourhood in Manama, we moved in, and slowly started to carve a home out of the space.  We felt like we were just about getting our bearings on this Valentine’s Day.  We opened a bottle of red wine, and toasted to our new life in Bahrain.  I cut into the lamb chop and put a succulent piece of meat into my mouth.

“Wow.  This is amazing.” I said with my mouth half full, while my hands were busy cutting another piece of meat.

A loud vibration and buzzing brazenly interrupted our romantic dinner.  I reached for my phone to prevent it from sliding off the dinner table.  “Sorry.”  I grabbed it and glanced at the glowing screen.

“I got a text from the boss. ” I was working as a librarian at a university at the time.  I tapped on my phone and read the message out loud.  “‘Happy Valentine’s Day.  Make sure you stay inside tonight and be safe.  They are protesting out there.'”

I had barely finished reading the text message before I was gripped by excitement. “A protest?” I exclaimed, my eyes blazing.  In my mind, I was thinking about all the wonderful “protests”, or rather, “community gatherings” from my former life in Vancouver, British Columbia.  These were events that brought forth an issue, but mostly, they were excuses for people to gather in a public space, such as in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, to become extremely intoxicated while they commiserated about the unfairness/inequality of  [insert first world problem here].   These were almost borderline community events, usually not family friendly, and the police and their German Shepherds usually had a presence.  They hung around their parked cruisers on the side of the road, watching the crowd and looking a little bored.  “I think we should totally go out after dinner to check out the protest!”

After we ate our dinner and put away our dishes, we walked out into the cool night in Adilya, hand in hand.  We walked on the main road littered with shawarma stands and carpet shops.  People were going about their business.   A car with Saudi plates hooted its horn in front of the convenience shop.   A  South Asian man came running out to assist the fat, entitled Arab sitting in his massive SUV with tinted windows.  Nothing seemed to be amiss.  I didn’t know where the protest was taking place.  “Maybe we should walk by the palace to see if there’s anything going on there.  If they were going to protest, they would be going to the King’s house, right?”

We walked by the palace, and everything was quiet.  “Nothing to see here.”  Disappointed, we walked home.

The following day, I went to work, and told my boss that I went out but saw nothing.  She said that I would have had to go to another part of town.  The day was uneventful.  There was very little talk about the protest, until a couple of weeks later, when I started to hear that the police were shooting at the protesters using bird pellets and ‘rubber bullets’.  Then people started to die from their wounds.   A month later, there was a security lock down, the Saudis came with their tanks crossing the causeway, and there were helicopters looming over our heads day and night.  The whole city was shut down for about two weeks.  G and I went to the grocery store the day everybody was sent home.  The place was mayhem, people were panicking and buying everything in sight.  The shelves were emptying as we walked the aisles.  There was uncertainty and fear in the air.  People were acting as if a disaster was about to strike, frantically stocking up on water, canned food and other food supplies.  G and I managed to snatch the last package of chicken, some other food items and a couple of large bottles of water.   We basically camped out inside our flat for a few days without taking a step out of the building.   Two weeks later, I returned to work.   The students weren’t allowed to return to campus for several weeks after.  When they finally returned, there was a witch hunt.  They were looking for students who were politically active, who were at the protest, those who blogged, those who dared to speak up.  One day the security forces came and hauled a dozen students away.  Many students were arrested, many more were suspended or expelled from the university.

Valentine’s Day 2011 was the beginning of all of this nightmare.   It is a Valentine’s Day I will never forget.  Each year on this day, I think of Bahrain, and hope that one day, there will be peace in the country.