A protester stands up to armed resistance in Bahrain during one of the many Arab Spring citizen uprisings against repressive governments across the Middle East that have taken place this year.

A protester stands up to armed resistance in Bahrain during one of the many Arab Spring citizen uprisings against repressive governments across the Middle East that have taken place this year.

Apathy toward international affairs evident in the Okanagan

Bahrain is a speck on the globe. It is a small part of the Middle East, which is a small part of the international community. But it’s a speck that got magnified significantly by international media from February to April.

The sound of helicopter blades joins forces with the hum of an air conditioner to feed my substantial headache that has amplified over the past month.

I stare out my living room window into the night sky over Al Adliyah Avenue. The warm breeze on my face is something I’ve gotten used to over the past six months.

The smell of sheesha from Isis Cafe next door is much weaker than usual and I notice this as I stare at palm fronds moving slowly in the light wind.

It’s my second to last night in the Middle East, but I’m not aware of that at this point.

The street is empty, which is, typically, uncharacteristic. But the last 30-some days have been anything but typical.

It all progressed very fast; it was unnerving.

A Skype conversation on Feb. 13. “Hi Mom and Dad, just so you don’t get too worried, there are supposed to be a few protests here over the next few days. I’m sure it will all blow over pretty fast.”

A Valentine’s Day dinner that made my girlfriend nervous and which I shrugged off, naively, as nothing to worry about.

The same night, a gathering of thousands, recently inspired by the successful protests of Tunisians and Egyptians, met with waves of tear gas and rubber bullets from security forces.

A persistence not quelled by the security forces, leading to a rally around the symbolic Pearl Roundabout: Bahrain’s own Tahrir Square.

Then the events seemed to progress faster and seemed more surreal.

An early morning ambush on camped out protesters, killing several, injuring many.

A sea of Saudi military tanks, taking back the Pearl Roundabout. An overtaking of Salmaniya Hospital. An order given that doctors not treat protesters suffering from injuries.

A rumour that over 50 bodies were taken across the bridge to Saudi Arabia in three refrigeration trucks.

An email warning in my inbox to not go to work and stay indoors.

A steady stream of propaganda from Bahrain TV. A label of sectarianism. A switch from rubber bullets to live ammunition. A higher death toll.

Then, after a couple of weeks, as quickly as the madness occurred, the madness seemed to go away.

Saudi tanks retreated, protesters reclaimed the Pearl Roundabout and meaningful dialogue was promised.

I took advantage of the opportunity to slow my heartbeat during the false sense of calmness, which was really the eye of a storm.

I retreated to The British Club, a recreational paradise for expats living on the Persian Gulf island.

“I don’t see why everyone is making such a big deal out of all this,” is what I translate from a man with a thick accent. I’m sipping a pint of Heineken and nodding politely at the intoxicated bloke from northern England, who I completely disagree with.

“This really isn’t a big deal,” he says.

I return to work—teaching English—and struggle to use textbook material when it’s clear everyone’s mind is somewhere else.

Many of my students have been at the protests on a nightly basis. Some have seen their friends hurt by security forces. I can’t help but think this is a big deal.

Then, about a week later, the wave picks up again.

A warning of planned protests. A severe response to those protests. A few nights spent in a classroom, waiting for students who would never show up.

A message from the American embassy saying that expats without a pressing need to stay in Bahrain, should leave. A longer list of casualties. Another ambush on the Pearl Roundabout. A cutting off of Internet.

A handful of nervous Skype conversations with my worried family after the Internet is restored: They beg me to leave.

A decision to stick it out, until the Canadian Embassy suggests otherwise. A rollercoaster of emotions, followed by guilt after a realization that I am far from the victim.

An early morning wake-up by my girlfriend telling me the embassy called and asked her if she wanted an emergency flight out of the country.

And then, on March 17, the message from the Canadian Embassy I had been hoping I would never receive, urging Canadians to depart the Persian Gulf island.

In two hours I packed my life into a 20 kg suitcase and, later that day, I was on board an Etihad Airways flight to Manchester. I returned to Canada in May.

***

Bahrain is a speck on the globe. It is a small part of the Middle East, which is a small part of the international community.

But it’s a speck that got magnified significantly by international media from February to April.

Perhaps that’s why, selfishly, I assumed I would have one hell of a story to tell when I got back to the Okanagan.

Instead, I experienced an unusual dose of culture shock and noticed traces of apathy when I returned.

A conversation with an old friend quickly confirmed this.

“What have you been up to?”

“I just got back from Bahrain.”

“Where?”

More and more similar conversations took place. But it wasn’t just Bahrain that drew blank stares.

Talk of Libyan rebel advancements, European debt, the Somalia famine, tension between north and south Sudan and, even, Wikileaks caused confusion.

And it wasn’t just the 20-somethings who appeared uncultured; some individuals twice—even three or four times—my age lacked much understanding on happenings outside of beautiful British Columbia.

I understand that, due to my personal experiences, I had a vested interest in global news.

But my observations led me to look a bit deeper into the issue (and, for that matter, whether or not I should even call it an issue).

“We are very insular,” admits Joyce Brinkerhoff, co-president of the Intercultural Society of the Central Okanagan.

She says that she has run into a few complaints that the Kelowna area focuses too closely on itself.

“There was one fellow who went back to Saudi Arabia on (Sept. 25). He was saying, ‘I’ve got to go back because I don’t hear anything (about) what’s going on.’ He was frustrated here.”

Brinkerhoff says that residents of the Okanagan are often bombarded with so much local information that it’s hard to focus on what’s occurring outside their borders.

She uses a recent Kelowna cold-case trial, which received nearly a month of nonstop media coverage, as an example.

“The whole Snelson murder case: Get over it already. There are thousands of people dying in Somalia right now.”

According to Brinkerhoff, both individuals and the local media should be responsible for ensuring that international information is being understood by residents in our area.

“That’s a responsibility of the local media: To bring international affairs right here; to find the local flavour to a national or international event.”

Similar sentiments are shared by Latif Kachuri, an employment counsellor with Kelowna Community Resources.

Kachuri takes a long breath through the phone line as he shifts into first-person to recall his own story.

“I didn’t want to leave my country. I came from Kosovo in 1999. I had to leave because our houses were burnt and we were not safe to live there,” says Latif.

“I went to a refugee camp for 17 days in Macedonia. The Canadian government took about 8,000 people from Kosovo. I lived, for about six weeks, in a Fredericton air base called Gagetown. From Fredericton we moved to Kelowna.”

Local media jumped on the story upon Latif’s arrival. He recalls that various newspapers offered front page real estate to tell his family’s story.

A decade has passed since then and Latif isn’t confident that his story would receive the same play in 2011.

He says that there are others with stories similar to his who haven’t received an outlet to share their experiences.

“For a long time I haven’t seen international news about newcomers in Kelowna.”

I walk downtown on a Friday morning for my next interview at Starbucks on Bernard. As I stroll past the Astral Media headquarters, speakers blare Phil Johnson’s voice contemplating the state of the Okanagan wine industry.

I meet up with Peter Urmetzer, program head of international relations at UBCO. He tells me that he’s noticed an interesting trend in the Okanagan.

“I taught in Vancouver and I would lecture about Aboriginal issues, Quebec and regionalism. Students would be (uninterested). As soon as I started talking about international issues, you could hear a pin drop. Students were so interested in that,” says Peter.

“Then, when I came here, they just weren’t interested in that stuff. I used to say, ‘Think outside the valley.’ I found people really unaware of that kind of thing.”

Mohini Singh is a former CHBC reporter, community activist and a Kelowna city council candidate in the upcoming municipal election. She received the Order of B.C. in 2008.

She says that keeping an eye on international news is important.

“People should know what’s happening in the world around us. What happens somewhere else can, and does, resonate where we live. We’re a global family now,” says Singh.

She goes on to say that, although important, it isn’t always easy to do that.

“All of us are running 600 miles per hour, trying to keep food on the table; it’s hard to spend time finding out what’s happening everywhere.”

Hard, yes. But also, important.

***

Bahrain has resurfaced on the international news cycle over the past month and a half.

Reports tell the stories of more deaths, sentences and persecution for activists. Some live with a sense fear; all experience feelings of uncertainty.

And that’s just the speck that is home to less than 1.5 million people. Billions are living in a different situation, a different story.

As I sit at my desk in the Capital News office, I hear the sound of helicopter blades.

For most, the noise might indicate the prevention of a local fire, the search for a local criminal or a boost to the local economy. But my mind wanders elsewhere.

 

wpaterson@kelownacapnews. com


 


 

 

Kelowna Capital News