Resistance Is My Mother Tongue – Reflections

Today is International Mother Language Day and as part of the festivities planned in Manchester, I co-produced, with Nasima Begum and Young Identity, Resistance Is My Mother Tongue, a multi-lingual poetry event.

You can rewatch the event here:

Major thanks to Nasima, Shirley May, all the participating poets, Young Identity and Manchester City of Literature.

The event came out of conversations I had with Nasima and other poets (particular mention goes to Jova Bagioli Reyes and Amina Atiq) about our relationships to our mother languages starting in the summer of 2020.

Often, those of us from migrant, diaspora communities feel divorced from our mother tongues. This affects our confidence: we struggle to be accepted by the ‘host’ culture, and cannot fully fit in with our ‘home’ culture. So Resistance Is My Mother Tongue was very much about accepting the middle ground, the liminal space, we inhabit. Owning it. Positioning ourselves as powerful in relation to both home and host cultures.

Before the event, we held one workshop discussing our relationships to our mother tongues. As I said regarding my own relationship to language, there is pain as an Arab divorced from Arabic – unable to engage with the depth of its poetry to the extent I want to. My great-great-grandfather, Mulla Attiya Al-Jamri, is one of Bahrain’s most influential poets of the 20th century, and his religious poetry is still popularly recited today. I struggle, with my damaged Arabic, to fully engage with it, and I know I cannot write Arabic at his level. I can’t write poetry like he can.

But, I came to realise, were he alive today, he would not be able to write poetry like I can. That realisation gave me a confidence. I’m not claiming superiority to my ancestor, rather, acceptance that we are poets of different qualities, and that is not a bad thing.

There was another part to Resistance Is My Mother Tongue, which was to ask: what if we have a multilingual poetry that makes no apologies, that does not try to translate or cater to an English-only audience?

From this position of confidence, the project fell into place.

My poem In The House of Colonialism kicks off the event. The poem, which begins “severed” in London, surrounded by Jinn – Aladdin, Tony Blair, Harry Potter, Francis Fukuyama – rejects the overwhelming pressure of Western culture and chases after the shadow of Enkidu from the Gilgamesh epic. It ends in Bahrain’s Salmaniya Hospital (“Where the walls remember the blood”) with an excerpt of a Bahrani folk song. (Publishing rules mean I can’t put the text in this post if I hope to publish it in an outlet in the future)

I’m proud of this dense poem. In conversation with my co-host Nasima, we focused on the poem’s attack on Disney’s Aladdin. I suspect that my British community will connect more deeply to the first half of that poem, while my Bahraini community will connect more with the second half. The poem makes no apologies for that and I don’t want it to.

The rest of the event was a pleasure. P.A. Bitez took us in a suitcase to Jamaica; Esther Koch took us to an Irish céilí for song and dance. From one céilí to another, Kayleigh Jayshree gave us an insight into her relationship with Gujarati (“We tick ‘other’ on most forms / visit Google Translate more than Twitter”). Ella Otomewo read a sonnet about her relationship to her two mother languages, Urhobo and Okpe. Meduulla gave a passionate address to Zimbabwe (“Being with you was like loving someone who only kissed me in public / but behind closed colonial doors, we were strangers”). Amina Atiq gave a heart-rending poem about the meaning of “بلادي” – “my nation”, culminating with that dreaded question, “Where do you come from?” Jova Bagioli Reyes gave us an epic poem in both English and Spanish (making no apologies for their Chilean accent), with too many brilliant moments to choose from (“I remember Henry Kissinger … acting as if Pinochet were a bad hook-up from his college years”). Shirley May, Young Identity’s CEO, rounded the night off with a poem from her collection “She Wrote Her Own Eulogy” (“Still I hear my mother’s voice in my head / ‘harsh words stir up strife, while soft words turn away wrath, he that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life'”).

The night was brilliantly hosted by Nasima Bee whose energy brought the entire event together. We worked hard to make the event run so smooth – the little touch that I think brought it to life was our decision to have poets and Nasima “face each other” during the conversation segments – a small touch that I think broke us away from the usual fare of Zoom events, where you the viewer hold unbroken eye contact with whoever is on screen over the course of an hour.

We have plans for a lot more. Nasima’s hinted at performing her own poem at a future follow-up event – so there’s one thing. Throughout, we worked with the value of bringing different diasporas together to celebrate the shared, complicated experience of our conflicted tongues.

Watch this space — and until next time, happy International Mother Language Day!

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Between Two Islands: Poetry Writing Workshops for Bahrainis in Britain

ما بين جزيرتين – ورش عمل حول كتابة الشعر للبحرينيين المقيمين في بريطانيا

I am excited to announce a new series of poetry workshops for the Bahraini community in the UK!

Click here to register for the events

(اضغط هنا للاعلان وربط التسجيل باللغة العربية)

What does it mean to be Bahraini in the UK? How does it effect our relationship to our homeland? What are the things we crave, the truths we have discovered, the things we have had to create for ourselves? Some of us see our time in the UK as temporary; some of us are as British as we are Bahraini. But for all of us, the British isles are our home today.

This project, funded by Arts Council England, is a first of its kind: a creative writing space for Bahrainis living in Britain.

Through poetry, we will unlock our creative voices. Each week, we will explore a different aspect of poetry, from form and function to editing and performance.

Beginners are welcome and encouraged to join – no experience necessary!

The workshops are FREE for attendees and will run over six weeks in January/February 2021. They are for you if you are:

  • aged between 18 and 81
  • a Bahraini who immigrated to the UK for work or study, was born to immigrant parents, or came to the UK as a refugee
  • an English or Arabic speaker
  • interested in writing and creative arts

They will be led by Ali Al-Jamri and Amina Atiq.

Ali Al-Jamri is a Bahraini and British poet and writer. He was a semi-finalist in BBC Words First 2020, and his translation of “The Desire of Life” by Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi was published by Modern Poetry in Translation. He was a notable contender in the Bristol Short Fiction Prize.

Amina Atiq is a poet, performance artist and activist from Liverpool’s Yemeni community, one of the oldest Arab communities in the UK. A BBC Words First 2019 Finalist and Young Associate for Curious Minds, she is currently a Poet in Residence for Queensland Poetry Festival 2020-21 and working on a new online project, Yemeni Women on the Frontline.

To join, complete our registration form by Thursday 31 December.

Further information:

  • The workshops are 2 hours each and will be conducted over 6 weekends in January and February 2021.
  • We ask that participants commit to the full six-week programme.
  • Workshops will be conducted via Zoom due to pandemic measures. This may be reviewed.
  • To be inclusive, we offer participants compensation and travel cost reimbursement. We value your time and want to make this event accessible, particularly if you have childcare, study and work responsibilities to juggle.

We would like to thank the Arts Council England for funding our project as well as partner organisations, mentors and supporters at the Arab British Centre, Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, Young Identity Manchester and Commonword and the community centre Dar Alhekma for making this work possible.

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The Desire of Life – Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi (A New Translation)

My English translation was published in Modern Poetry in Translation, 3/2020

In November, Modern Poetry in Translation published my English version of The Desire of Life by Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi. Please do check out the magazine and buy a copy – it’s a fantastic edition and I’m honoured to have been featured alongside such great lists and translators!

Here’s the introduction I wrote for MPT:

Speak to me, you, the darkness that consumes us,
can life return when the springtime of youth withers?

The question captures the personal and political anguish troubling Abulqassim Al-Shaabi when he penned The Desire of Life in 1933. Personal, because Al-Shaabi was just 24 and dying of a heart ailment. Political, because he was expressing the bottled rage and resentment of Tunisians under imperial French rule. This is the heartbreak of a young, ambitious artist, bitter in the knowledge of his own mortality and his country’s exploitation, channelled into his finest poem.

Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi (1909-1934) is the national poet of Tunisia

I translated The Desire of Life with the aim of celebrating its thrilling, lyrical energy. The poem’s opening lines compel the reader to action and echoes in the slogan of the 2010-11 Tunisian Revolution – al-sha’ab yurid isqat al-nidham – The People Desire the Regime’s Downfall. This slogan was on the lips of millions of protesters, first in Tunisia then in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya, and has been heard chanted again in the streets of Beirut this summer. The Desire of Life heralded a decade of protest bookended by the Arab Uprisings and Black Lives Matter.

Keeping the “R” end-rhyme which runs through the original text was an exciting challenge. Desire trills through the verse, opening one line to the next, so that the entire poem itself is like the soft beat of a wing / its lift-off in reach.

Towards the end of the poem, the above question to the darkness is answered by the arrival of Spring, who kisses the lips of departed youth / with a passion that restores their colour. Today’s protests echoing Al-Shaabi’s poetry are like Spring’s kiss, restoring his memory to life, time and time again.

***

The Desire of Life – Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi
translated by Ali Al-Jamri

One day, when the People act on Life’s desire,
they’ll force the hand of a higher power,
Night shall flee at the sound of Dawn’s choir
and the chain, the chain shall finally shatter.

For if the People do not thirst for life,
why, they’ll shrivel and expire —
those who scorn the struggle for life,
Death shall punch with the force of a boxer.

So said Earth through her creations
when our sorry state roused the forces of nature.
From mountains, through valleys,
beneath my trembling feet, the Wind blasted his anger:

When destiny calls, I seize the day,
warn me of danger and I’ll shriek with laughter —
I’ll always take the path less travelled
I’ll always run through the blazing fire —
if the view from the peak makes you tremble with fear,
then crawl in a grave and await your maker.

If all youth are like me, then their blood’s run cold
and their heart’s drummed to the beat of despair.
I slipped in the slop and the mud, assailed by rains,
attacked by winds, condemned by thunder.

Earth, you hold us in such contempt,
how dare you call yourself a mother?

I bless of your lot the children of ambition
who chase and snap at the heels of danger,
but I curse the louts who waste this gift,
who aspire to live the life of a boulder.
The Universe is alive! He loves the living, He scorns the dead.

Does the bee kiss the dead flower?
Does the horizon embrace the dead bird?
Does the maggot distinguish the great from the lesser?
Were it my way, my dear, I’d not allow for burials,
but my tender heart breaks for the weeping mourner.

Spread my warning to those who accept a life in fetters:
When their story ends, Death alone emerges the victor.

On an overcast night one autumn,
as I watched Earth’s displeased clouds gather,
I raised my cup to see off the stars
and sang ’til Sorrow joined my stupor.

Speak to me, you, the darkness that consumes us,
can life return when the springtime of youth withers?

But the Dark’s lips did not part,
nor did Dawn voice her bewitching murmurs.
It was the Forest who spoke, like a lilting harp,
so delicate, so loving, so tender:

Here comes Winter, the winter of fog
the winter of ice, the winter of downpours
to snuff the magic, the magic of branches,
the magic of flowers, the magic of nectar.
The beloved blossoms of youth and yearning
are thrust unceremoniously in the air,
whipped this way and that by the hostile Storm,
drowned by the Flood, they are torn asunder.
Like a dream illuminated by the soul
then blotted out, all, all expire.

But in the earth remains the Seed,
springtime’s forgotten, hidden treasure.
Memories of seasons, visions of life,
ghosts of a world, its base and its tenor —
the Seed embraces them all, beneath dead earth
and thick fog, a shield against Winter’s icy spectre.
It grips Life in all its thrumming joy
and bears the promise of Spring’s green wonders.
It dreams of birdsong in flight,
the juice of a fruit, the scent of a flower.

Time marches on, with it an oppressor,
and when this one falls, there shall come another.
Dreams rouse from troubled sleep
in a twilight that will not disappear.
They ask:

Where is the morning mist?
The evening’s spell? The moonlight’s shimmer?
Where is the singing bee and the passing cloud?
Where does the elegant butterfly flutter?
Where are all the Earth’s creatures?
Where is the light and the life I yearn for?
I thirst for the sunshine dappled through the leaves,
I thirst for the shade of a tall tree’s shelter!
I thirst for the brook between meadows
that tinkles and dances with the flowers!
I thirst for the bird’s croon, the breeze’s murmur,
and rain’s gentle patter patter.
I thirst for the Universe! And yet, the world
I wish to witness, I must yet wait for.
For He, the Universe, is dormant, His grand awakening
on the horizon. Is it on me to make Him stir?

This longing is like the soft beat of a wing,
its lift-off in reach. As it grows stronger,
the Seed breaks the earth and, peaking out,
beholds the world. No view delights it more.
Thus dawns Spring, the Melodious,
the Fragrant, the Inspirer of Dreamers,
He kisses the lips of departed youth
with a passion that restores their colour
and says to them:

You have been granted life,
and the Seed has been your protector.
Bask in the Light that guides you, the restless youth
of this fertile land, to bloom together.
Whoever worships the Light in their dreams,
the Light shall bless them wherever it appears—
For you is this space, so radiant, so pure,
for you is this chance to truly prosper,
for you is all this resilient world’s beauty,
so firm, so flourishing, so clear,
so spread as you wish across the fields
by your supple blossoms and sweet nectar.

And thus survives the breeze, survive the clouds
survives the moon, survive the stars,
thus survives this exalted existence and its allures
thus survives Life and its desires.

The Dark slips to reveal a deep beauty
which electrifies and inspires.
Across the Universe a strange magic spreads
willed by the wand of a master spell caster.
Incandescent stars radiate across the sky
and there spreads the scent of a fragrant flower.
A soul, strangely beautiful, flutters
on wings formed of the moonlight’s shimmer,
and the holy hymn of life resounds
in a temple, bewitching every dreamer.

Across the Universe it is declared:
Ambition is the soul’s triumph and Life’s blazing fire,
When the People speak their spirit’s ambition,
Destiny must bow to their desire!

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On Instagram

Just a note, in case people still regularly come across my writings here, that my most up to date place for my work is Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/alialjamri_scribbles/

This blog will continue to be a home for longer pieces, but if you want to find my latest musings on poetry and history, you’ll usually find it there.

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After the Last Edition

The ink stains on the rollers, like so much
coughed up blood, are dry to the touch.
Halls echo desertion, and dust mates
with dust.

None knock.
None knock but the bulldozer.
None knock but the man in the ghutra.

The stories, the photos,
the rusted presses.
They cannot speak.

The bulldozer rumbles a Bedouin language,
deep, guttural, pre-historic,
one extended moan.

Yet even as snapping metal shrieks
beneath collapsing walls,
a loose sheaf flutters free.
It carries an ink-lined olive branch.

Note
It’s now been two and a half years since the closure of Al-Wasat newspaper. The government of Bahraini indefinitely suspended the only independent paper in the country from publication in June 2017, forcing its closure. The paper was founded in 2002 in that distant moment of optimism Bahrain witnessed at the turn of the century. It was the most forward-thinking newspaper in the Gulf and now it is gone. In June 2019, Al-Wasat’s printing presses were demolished, and the paper’s era brought to a final close.

This poem is written in its memory. It was published in November 2019 in the book Peterloo Poems by Manchester People by Seven Arches Publishing.

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200 Years of British-Bahraini Relations? Pirates, Rogue Diplomats, and a Missing Treaty

2016 is apparently the 200th anniversary of British-Bahraini relations. The story goes that, in 1816, Britain and Bahrain signed a Treaty of Friendship which has endured the centuries, that these allies have grown to be amongst the closest and warmest friends, and that we now enter the third century of relations. So reported both Bahrain and the UK in January, when the anniversary year was launched. The Foreign Office gaily announced: “When the Kingdom of Bahrain and United Kingdom signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1816, few will have predicted the diplomatic, political, military and economic ties between the two kingdoms would endure for two centuries.”

But go back to the records and you’ll find no treaty was signed. Formal diplomatic relations can barely be said to have occurred prior to 1820 – so are we actually on the 196th anniversary of British-Bahraini relations? Perhaps it was felt that something should be celebrated this year, but 196 does not make for an attractive anniversary year.

What did happen in 1816? What happened in 1820? Was there a Treaty of Friendship? What form of relationship have the UK and Bahrain had for the last 200 years? The answers lie in the India Office Records, and the answer to the first question draws a picture fundamentally different to the that which the FCO is regrettably painting.

Continue reading

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Will You Catch My Good Side?

The following piece was first published on 4 April 2015 on The Bahrain Debate, which I encourage you to check out.

In January 2015, a strange story broke about a group of American students found living in Duraz village in Bahrain. The undergrads (according to the Gulf Daily News they were between 18 and 20 years old) had come to learn Arabic and study the culture and history of Bahrain. The police questioned them over their peculiar choice of housing, and according to some they were later released and prodded to relocate to Riffa, to study the people there.

Anthropologist Henny Harald Hensen ran into few issues when she visited Bahrain in 1960 and  lived in Saar for three weeks, where she studied the people there. Saar was then a small village of about 450 inhabitants, and geographically smaller than the more cosmopolitan Saar of today. It is one of the oldest inhabited locations of the island located in the west. Now inland, it was probably once on Bahrain’s sea-front, and a Dilmun-era temple is located on its outskirts. Continue reading

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Saudi’s husseiniya massacre: sectarianism coming home to roost

On Monday 3 November, tragedy struck in the Saudi Arabian town of Dalwa when three unidentified gunmen opened fire on a ‘group of citizens’, killing five and injuring nine. The next day, two Saudi security officers were killed in a shoot-out with a group of suspects, and two of the assailants were killed. Since then, at least fifteen people have been arrested in connection to the crime. This is an ominous development, not just in Saudi but for the whole Middle East. Only Saudi Arabia can challenge the causes.

The Saudi Press Agency reported it in this very short statement:

Ahsa, Muharram 11, 1436, November 04, 2014, SPA — Police Information Spokesman in Eastern Region stated that at 11:30 p.m., on Monday evening, 10/01/1436 AH, and during the exit of a group of citizens from one of the sites in the village of Aldaloh in Ahsa Governorate, three masked men opened fire at them from machine guns and personal pistols after getting out of a car parked near the site, resulting in the death of 5 people and injuring 9 others, who were transported to the hospital to receive the necessary medical treatment. Ahsa police started the procedures of criminal investigation, and the incident is still under security follow-up.

The curious thing about this press release is that the Agency fails to mention who the victims are, and where exactly the attack occurred. The massacred individuals were Shi’a men, killed outside of a husseiniya, a Shi’a mourning house where every year, in the first ten days of Muharram, the Shi’a remember and mourn the martyrdom of Hussein — grandson of the Prophet Muhammad killed by the tyrant Caliph Yazid. As the Islamic lunar calendar is shorter than the Christian solar calendar, the dates shift through the seasons. This year, Ashura (the tenth day of Muharram), fell on Tuesday, November 4. For Shi’a, the story of Hussein’s martyrdom is at the core of their philosophy.

Read the full article on OpenDemocracy

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Tamorrod: A New Era in Bahrain?

The streets of Bahrain swelled with protesters, so numerous that the security forces could not contain them with their firearms and tear gas. They poured in from every town and village and marched to the capital, Manama, where they defiantly chanted “Tamorrod!” It seemed that all of Bahrain was there. Their united voice could not be suppressed, and the government was forced to stare the reform movement in the eye.

That at least was the vision of the leadership of the Tamorrod – Rebellion – movement . At a Beirut press conference on 7 August, spokesperson Hussain Yousif called on the people to “break the prestige of the tyrannical and tribal state and their repressive tools. It will be of the people for the people: such will be Tamorrod Bahrain.” Inspired by Egypt’s movement by the same name which played a part in the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi, Tamorrod was called for 14 August, the day on which Bahrain secured its independence from the UK.

The protests were meticulously planned. On 12 August, there was a marked decrease in the incidence of small-scale protests, in line with a direct request from the Tamarrod leaders to suspend protests in the days leading up to August 14. The police set up new checkpoints at roads leading into Manama. One Bahraini described the atmosphere as the “calm before the storm”.

But the storm never materialised.  The people did not come out in the numbers Tamorrod had hoped for, and even had they the razor wire barricades that stood at the mouth of every village would have had to be overcome. There were some small scale protests, the police threw tear gas and shot at some protesters, and in Shia villages, shops stayed shut. It was not a normal day by any means, but nor was it particularly memorable.

However, despite Tamarrod’s failure to muster the street on its side, 14 August is still a watershed moment in Bahrain’s unravelling political drama. The opposition failed to mobilise, but the threat of Tamorrod – which, had it lived up to its own expectations, would have been the biggest protest march this year – gave the Bahraini government the justification it needed to further empower its security apparatus and grant it sweeping powers not seen since the National Safety Law of 2011, an emergency law in everything but name.

The holy month of Ramadan fell in July and early August this year. Usually a passive month where few possess the energy required for any concerted effort, this year the police kept themselves busy: at least 200 arbitrary arrests occurred according to Bahraini monitors. Amongst those arrested was Mohammed Hassan, a citizen journalist, and his lawyer, who was detained after tweeting that his defendant had been tortured.

In late July, an emergency meeting of Parliament was convened where 22 recommendations for new laws were made to the King. Since the King does not need Parliamentary approval or consultation to pass decree laws it is difficult to see the event as anything other than an attempt to paint a democratic veneer over a decision taken by executive fiat.

Amongst the recommendations were bans on demonstrations in Manama and the revocation of citizenship for anyone convicted of terrorism offences – many activists and opponents of the state are being charged with these offences, even though in many cases their offence related to their exercising their right to free speech or assembly. The King duly accepted these recommendations and passed them back to the government for implementation as decree laws.

Most of the recommendations are either being codified into law or are in the process of implementation. Amongst them is the blanket ban of demonstrations in the capital and a newly legalised form of collective punishment: the father of an under-16 protester can now be fined, jailed or both for the actions of his son.

Will the extension of repressive powers end there? Jordanian and Pakistani police detachments have been brought into Bahrain to help quell the Tamorrod protests. With hindsight, their deployment was probably overkill, but it is not yet clear whether they constitute a temporary or permanent increase in security personnel. Similarly unclear is the permanence of new blockades: cement blocks and barbed wire now close many entrances in and out of Shi’a villages, giving the police control over the movements of activists and general Bahrainis alike. Increasing usage of police cameras at these checkpoints also serve to increase state monitoring of potential trouble makers. The message is clear: opposition to the state, no matter how great or small, is a crime.

And opposition will in all likelihood be small from now. Manama is currently a demonstration-free zone, and if protesters cannot march on government buildings, they can be more easily ignored. The individual villages are contained too, so that protest marches cannot generate momentum. Will Bahrain ever again see tens of thousands marching in unison for reform, such as it saw in 2011? That’s what Tamorrod was meant to be, after all. But not only did it fail to muster the streets, to shout and be heard by the Government and its international allies, it also served as just the opportunity the Bahraini state needed to make sure that no large-scale protest movement could be organised again.

Things have not been plain sailing for the government though: shops closed in all the Shi’a villages and the Manama shopping centres were quiet that day, despite the Prime Minister’s visits to some of them in the morning to promote the narrative of business as usual. If effective suppression comes at the cost of commercial paralysis, prolonged civil conflict hurts all of Bahrain’s people in the long run. Such a burden may only be overcome with political settlement.

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The Hakim of Bahrain

From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the records, documents, correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.

This week, a smaller piece on the 1920s, with more to follow as a I read through the period. This has been written to be a standalone piece, but for broader context, check out Old Greybeard of Bahrain and A Chasm without Karama.

***

Some three hundred people came to the Majlis that overthrew Sheikh Isa bin Ali as ruler of Bahrain. On 26 May 1923, in the overwhelming heat of early summer, they crowded into the Political Agency: merchants, townsmen, tribesmen, Sunnis, Shia, Sheikhs of the Al Khalifa and even a group of Persian merchants and British expatriates came to witness the spectacle. Colonel Knox, the Political Resident and highest British authority in the Gulf, sat in the centre of the room, surrounded by his allies: Between him were Major Daly, the British Agent in Bahrain, and Sheikh Hamad, the Heir Apparent and his father’s newly and fully empowered regent. His father, Sheikh Isa, while still holding the title of Hakim – Ruler – was rendered completely powerless.

Knox had been squarely for the status quo and initially unwilling to take to the task of reform to any degree. Let life in Bahrain take its natural course, he argued, and if changes must be made, can it not wait until the old man breathed his last and Sheikh Hamad succeeded to the Sheikhdom in a more natural way? But the British government had come back to him and ordered that it happen; thus he became the brazen voice of reform.  Continue reading

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