11 May 2015

Bahrain: Access Denied

Frustration, disappointment, fear, and anger at the militarisation of borders seem like a pretty familiar scene. Though at the same time, I have never myself been denied entry at a country's border nor been deported—until now. Our most immediate knowledge of these feelings and practices comes from the millions of people around the world trying to flee horrendous conditions and the thousands of them who are dying on the doorsteps of rich countries. It also comes from the accounts we've all heard and read from various people refused entry into Palestine when seeking to visit, work, or be in solidarity with Palestinians. Some of these individuals were sent back by Israeli border officers after long hours of security screenings, physical searches, interrogating questions, and a range of other humiliating acts.

These accounts repeat a similar warning for those seeking entry into Palestine: one should not mention the name of their Palestinian friends; one should pretend they're solely interested in tourism, whether religious or secular; and one should perform being uncritical of the Israeli state. Yet despite such tactics, the Israeli officers would google you, look into your phone and laptop, and even ask for your Internet passwords. You would consequently be confronted with the evidence of your irreversible crime: you are indeed critical of Israel policies.

I have been contemplating such scenes ever since I obtained British citizenship a few years back. For me, such “privilege” meant that I am more likely to be able to enter Palestine one day. In my mind, I have been rehearsing trying to look complacent with the occupation, or performing the role of a good Christian woman going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I sometimes fantasise about an uncritical Internet existence.

Yet imagination turned reality, if at the hand of Arab border officers. I arrived at the Bahrain airport on the evening of Wednesday 6 May 2015. I smiled, evidenced that I'm an artist and PhD student visiting for only four days researching art in the Arab world and planning to see the national museum. I did not mention the name of my journalist friend who was imprisoned and tortured in Bahrain during the 2011 uprising against the authoritarian rule of the Al Khalifa regime. I did not confess to knowing that four years later, the specter of revolt still haunts the regime and the reality of resistance is lived everyday among many of its citizens. I calmly presented my British passport that officially allows its bearers a three-month stay in Bahrain. In return, I was presented with a simple response: no. A rejection with no reasons given, despite being made to wait for 2 hours while they did their “security check.” I later discovered that this check basically consisted of running an Internet search on the names of those trying to enter. I saw the look on their faces when they understood me as undesirable. They said I needed to leave on the next plane to Beirut, which was in 14 hours. Until then, they added, I should remain in the airport.

The experience of course pales in comparison to the millions seeking to cross international borders out of necessity and without the protection of a British passport. It also pales in comparison to those that live the realities of authoritarian rule in Bahrain. Yet it highlights how paranoid and unstable Al Khalifa’s rule is. While the power to deny me entry and deport me is rooted in nationalist and authoritarian principles, its deployment is premised on the reality of an uprising that brought the regime to the brink of collapse. It was this uprising that I sought to learn about in my visit to Bahrain. It was the reality of its persistence that was the basis of my refused entry.

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