They are all outnumbered by foreigners, who form 80% of the country’s work force. Here too, there is a strict hierarchy: Arabs from Gulf countries can be executives and consultants. Other Arabs and educated South Asians can be clerks. Maids are Filipina. Sex workers are Eastern European and Asian. Construction workers are Bangladeshi. It almost goes without saying that women have fewer rights than men.
As an American and a member of a high-level delegation, I moved easily across lines. I could speak up and be heard in meetings with men twice my age. I ate lunch with the three female Bahrain Defense Force medical officers who attended our meetings, which would have been inappropriate behavior for my male colleagues. I went shopping in the pearl and gold markets in the evening with the guys from the delegation, while black-veiled Bahraini women shopped in quiet malls during the day.
Foreign workers have no such flexibility. They are allowed into the country to perform a specific job and can be transferred or sent home without their consent. Despite recent reforms, many are still employed under a sponsorship system that allows employers to withhold their passports and wages and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds.
I became aware of this oppressive system in brief glimpses of Bangladeshi workers on scaffolds in the intense, humid heat and Pakistani restaurants crowded with men seeking a taste of home.
That’s when I realized that I was safe. I was a privileged, protected “other.” In spite of my fears, if I had revealed my Jewishness, I would probably have suffered nothing more than a moment of uncomfortable silence.
I left government service long ago and now I live in Israel. I assumed I would never go back to the Gulf, but with Bahrain and the UAE opening diplomatic relations with Israel, it just might be possible. This time, I would be coming not from Mt. Olympus, but from Mt. Moriah, the holy plateau in the heart of Jerusalem, which sits just across the valley from my home.
I would be going as a tourist — a different kind of protected “other.” When tourists come to Israel, I hope that they can see the country in all its complexity: the Tel Aviv beaches and Jerusalem alleys; the high-tech towers and neglected development towns; the euphoria of the Zionist dream and the disaster it wrought on Palestinians.
Israeli tourists to Bahrain should also go with open eyes. In the excitement of meeting Bahrainis, they should not overlook the “others” who are all around them, who cannot conceal their identities and who may be unsafe as a result. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.