Why John Legend Should Perform In Bahrain


John Legend performing at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania on December 5, 2008. The US performer is scheduled to perform in Bahrain on March 2. Photo by Judy Glova (CC BY 2.0)

John Legend performing at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania on December 5, 2008. The US performer is scheduled to perform in Bahrain on March 2. Photo by Judy Glova (CC BY 2.0)

I tried to avoid writing about this issue, as I see no use in highlighting individual events and would prefer to focus more on the social and cultural aspects of my struggle in my country. But moved as I was by the speech made on February 21 by Common and John Legend as they accepted their Academy Award for “Glory” as Best Original Song, I would love if this open letter gets to them somehow.

This it too personal to be just another post citing experts and opinions regarding your planned concert in Bahrain, which many of my friends would love to see cancelled. I, however, would like to see you go to Bahrain, as that would permit at least one of us to witness the beauty of my country as I spend my days in exile thousands of miles away.

My name is part of the problem, or rather the preconceived notions that are be linked to it. Like many things over which I had no control, my name, my birthplace, my ethnicity, all of which were decided when I was born have largely determined the course of my life. In Bahrain these things determine where you can live, what jobs are available to you. Since I was a kid I have feared men in uniform. Until the day I left Bahrain I lived in fear of running into a police checkpoint where I could be “hunted like a rat“, a situation I think you might find familiar.

In the last month six American anthropology students were detained because they were living in Duraz, the village my mother comes from. They were given the choice to relocate to a less “problematic” area as the state media described, or to leave the country. What happens in places like Duraz, where there is a majority Baharna population (Baharna is the name used to describe native or indigenous people like me), has become a secret the government is trying its best to hide. Protests erupt on daily basis in some of them. Journalists are usually denied access to this country and people trying to cover events on ground, like I did, risk arrest and torture. This is how people like me are considered, a problem that should be hidden from the rest of the world, a problem that just cannot be solved. 

Recently I did something that I think would make my mother scream, were she  ever to read these lines: I got a tattoo. This matters to me because of the story behind it.

Last year, while I was imprisoned for blogging and had little to no hope of getting out, I was taken to the office of the public prosecutor, who told me that I was now accused of establishing a terrorist group. Of course I wanted to laugh, but feared the repercussions. I went back to my cell and sat quietly. A man my father’s age came to me and asked me why I was looking so sad. I told him what had happened and that I couldn’t see a way out of the situation. He said to me: “This time next year you will be out and you will owe me dinner.” He then wrote on a paper a verse of Quran that says “Patience will be rewarded”.

I was eventually released on bail and fled the country, while the elderly man was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. It was the third time he had been arrested. The first time was 25 years ago. Since then I have kept repeating that phrase every time I run into trouble: Patience will be rewarded, patience will be rewarded.

I was walking in Camden Town here in London, where I currently live, when I came across a tattoo shop. It looked a bit scary, but I needed something that would link me to that moment, the moment when I was given a lifeline, when I had hope, so I drew that phrase on a sheet of paper and had it tattooed.

My compatriots in Bahrain have been patient, to say the least. Our struggle for equality and justice has been ongoing for over 90 years. Sometimes I feel like it's a curse that is inherited by one generation after another, a curse I don't want my children to carry. I dream of a country where my children will never feel that my bloodline is a reason for their misfortune, where last names, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or social status don't decide the course of your life.

I hope that you enjoy your time in Bahrain, but I hope that when you go there that you will visit my birthplace, the highly “problematic” area of Sitra. And just as you performed in Selma, Alabama, I wish you could have the chance to inspire the people of my island to be patient for their dreams to come true.

I doubt this message will reach you, and even if it does, I doubt you will visit Sitra. But I promise you that one day you will hear about the thousands of imprisoned Bahrainis who fought for justice, and achieved glory.

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