Historically, my favorite holiday has been Thanksgiving for all of the reasons most guys favor this sacred day. Aside from the festivities, football and family, it is a day that I typically indulge myself in an array of dishes from some of my favorite chefs--namely my mother. This year, however, I knew Valentine’s Day would hold a special place in my heart as it would mark the one year anniversary of the uprising that took place in Bahrain.
Unable to escape the Arab Spring in the Middle East, in February of 2011 a revolt was ignited in Bahrain and continues to be an issue as the Shi’ite population claims unfair and unjust treatment by the government. Bahrain’s Sunni monarch, the al Khalifa family, has governed the country since 1783 and has brought prosperity to the oil rich Persian Gulf monarchy. Yet, the Shi’ite majority argues that their opportunities are limited and the country’s neighbor Iran whose population is majority Shi’ite, has been widely viewed as the aggressors that are fueling the protests in Bahrain.
As a public diplomacy student in both Maxwell and Newhouse, I was able to visit Bahrain through a cultural exchange program. Although this 10-day excursion extended beyond my winter break, for such a great opportunity, I was hardly going to complain about missing a few classes. The trip was designed to teach us the intricacies of Bahraini culture, help us build relationships and provide some fun along the way.
The hospitality and generosity of everyone I encountered in Bahrain was incredible. They showered us with gift bags that included fancy USB drives and will literally give you the clothes off of their backs. As a custom in Bahrain, if you mention to someone that you like something he or she owns, they will offer it to you immediately or buy you the replica. After the first two days, I had to make a conscious effort not to compliment people because they were giving me all of their things.
The Good Word Society, an NGO in Bahrain, hosted 25 visitors from around the world on a journey to “Discover Bahrain." We learned a lot about the country, like how students at the University of Bahrain only pay 6 percent of their tuition while Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa sponsors the rest. The main island of Manama (33 islands comprise the archipelago of Bahrain) is paradise and the country is far more liberal than I had imagined it would be. Many women are entrepreneurs that run successful businesses. Night clubs aren’t hard to find and my hotel had two bars that served alcohol.
It’s important to realize you can’t paint the Middle East with one broad stroke. Bahrain is as unique in the Middle East as New York City is in the United States.
Furthermore, people have more commonalities than they have differences and ultimately aspire for the same things. I hope to see Bahrain settle their differences and find a peaceful middle ground for the protesters and the monarchy. I believe they have a great chance at doing so because from what I gathered, Bahrainis want to live well, enjoy their families and friends and have fun.
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