As the wave of unrest roils through the Middle East, news organizations like the New York Times have been scrambling to get information out of places where reporters are scarce. For news from Bahrain, the paper of record has frequently relied on Maryam Alkhawaja, a 23-year-old human rights activist who is one of the main organizers behind the democratic protest movement in that country.
We reached Alkhawaja on her cell phone around midnight last night. She was in Pearl Square, in Bahrain’s capital of Manama, and had been protesting for fourteen days straight (and tweeting the whole thing, in real time).
What do things look like in Manama today?
Today’s been pretty calm. In the morning, there was a protest at the Parliament. And the protest made a human chain and prevented the council members from going inside. So their meeting session had to be delayed until mid-day. There were protests at the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Information. And on Wednesday, they will be going to march to the prison of Bahrain, and they are going to demand the release of all political prisoners.
How many people were there?
Today there were hundreds. But I couldn’t see everyone because I was off to the side.
What’s your daily schedule?
I come and go. I am here all day. I leave at three or four in the morning. I go home, sleep for like two hours, and then I wake up and come back here.
Are your protests being covered by local media?
The one newspaper that does cover the protests is the Al Wasat newspaper. It’s the only moderate newspaper in the country. All the media in the country practices in self-censorship.
Do you feel in danger right now?
I only feel in danger when I’m alone. You never know when we’re going to get attacked. After the Thursday attack, it made it difficult to feel safe. Five minutes before the attack, my sister called me and said, “There was news that riot police were coming your way.” I just brushed it off. after that attack, we know that we cannot feel safe.
What was it like to have the riot police attack you?
Really scary. I was sitting with a friend, and we were talking. We were talking about how, if it had been 100 years ago, and it had been tribal times, they would be waiting to until we fell asleep to come attack us. Then someone called and said there were about 200 riot police coming our way. A young boy came to warn us. Many people were asleep.
As soon as they got there, they started shooting from the bridge. Rubber bullets, tear gas, bird shotguns. People started chanting, “Peaceful, Peaceful.” The police came to the roundabout when people starting panicking and running. Women were carrying their little babies. Some women weren’t coming out of their tents fast enough, because they were trying to put on their head scarves since you can’t go out in public without a headscarf. There was so much tear gas, you couldn’t see in front of you. And one group of men that was running away heard there were women and children stuck in the square, so they turned back.
Were people killed?
Four people were killed that day. Including Ali Almoaman, who was one of the guys that turned back. Around 200 to 300 were wounded. And I have a feeling people are going to get hit again, because the king came out yesterday in his military suit to visit the army and he thanked them for a mission well done. He also said by the time this is over everyone is going to get his due.
How many people have been killed so far?
Do you think they’ll be able to overthrow the government? What do you think it will take?
Persistence, perseverance, and escalation as well. Until the government doesn’t have enough time to back down. On Friday, they will march to the Ministry of Information, because you know if you’re going to take over a country you’re going to have to take over the means of information.
You’re only 23. How do you know what to do in this situation?
My father is a human rights activist. I was born in Syria, cause my father had to leave Bahrain because he was wanted by the government. Then we got political asylum in Denmark, when I was two years old. I lived there until I was 14. We weren’t allowed to visit Bahrain or even come anywhere near it. We moved back to Bahrain in 2001, after certain reforms. But then, last September after I came back from Brown, they started another crackdown against activists. I left the country, and I came back five days after the revolution started.
When did the protests begin?
We began protesting on February 14. On that day in 2002, the emir of Bahrain made himself into a king and placed himself above the constitution.
At what point did you decide, OK, February 14, it’s going to happen?
Nobody thought a revolution was going to happen. After Tunisia, somebody set up a Facebook page for reforms. They didn’t want the fall of the regime. They wanted freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, a new constitution, you know, normal stuff that people in other countries see as being normal. And then when people did come out, the riot police used excessive force against them. Despite that, the people kept chanting “peaceful, peaceful.” Then, a protester died. They shot him at close range with a bird shot gun, which releases shrapnel from the bullet. I was at the hospital to see the shrapnel wounds that were in his back. When the doctor came out and said he had died, the chants went from “we want a constitution” to “we want the fall of the regime.” There were hundreds of people standing in front of the hospital.
How are you handling your emotions?
I’m not really dealing with emotions right now. I’m pretty good at blocking stuff out.
So last year, you were a Fulbright scholar at Brown University. Today you are starting a revolution in Bahrain. Isn’t that a little strange?
It feels weird. It feels very surreal. I mean, sometimes I’m driving around in my car, and I’m, thinking maybe, it’s not real. Maybe it didn’t actually happen. And then I get to the square and there it is.
At Brown, you held a bake sale in support of the Palestinian cause.
Yes, I joined Brown students for Justice in Palestine.
What was your impression of Brown?
I just think, if every student at Brown decided to write a letter to their congressman, it would make a difference for us here in Bahrain. But in Brown, despite their high level of intelligence and being well-educated, they would prefer to sit in a classroom and talk it out. I think that’s kind of sad.
Are you getting news from other Arab countries?
Mostly from Twitter. I am on Twitter all the time, and I get most of my news from Twitter. And I’ve been getting a lot of hate tweets too. People from the Ministry of the Interior, they set up fake accounts. So a lot of tweets have been saying that I work for Iran and I am going for a pro-Iran agenda in Bahrain. It’s ridiculous.