Tear gas is an occasional nuisance to Sheri Clark and her neighbors. Military helicopters fly by constantly, disrupting sleep. The automatic weapons fire sounds a lot closer than it is, though once Clark accidentally drove into a protest march, she said.
A Lincoln native and the wife of a U.S. Navy chief petty officer, Clark lives in Manama, the capital city of Bahrain, in a housing compound a half-mile from Pearl Square, a prime site for Shiite protests of economic and political discrimination at the hands of the ruling Sunni minority since the demonstrations began about two weeks ago in the Persian Gulf kingdom.
Clark worries about the safety of her family, especially her children, 14-year-old Gabriella and 7-year-old Pacey, but said she feels safe in Manama, by far the Middle East’s most Westernized major city. She is confident that the Navy would safeguard her family and other Americans in Bahrain, which hosts the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, should things worsen.
“We have driven past the protests, and people wave. We are not threatened by them at all,” Clark said during a telephone interview on Wednesday. “I was a little frightened when police were involved [in the protests] and things got a little crazy, but this is their fight, and it’s not a holy war. It’s more like a class war.”
Protests have occurred every day since Valentine’s Day. They seem to get violent only when government forces intervene, and the violence ceases when King Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa withdraws his troops, Clark said.
Clark visited Pearl Square on Valentine’s Day and several days later inadvertently drove into a protest, a funeral procession for a man who apparently had been shot by police, while driving her children to school, she said. Both protests were peaceful.
“I was just in the middle of it,” Clark said. “It was a little frightening.”
Her neighbors also have had their eyes stung by tear gas clouds that drifted into their neighborhood, Clark said.
The recent uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain give Clark hope that the democratization of the Middle East envisioned by President George W. Bush when he launched the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is starting to occur.
“That’s a good possibility. These people [Shiites] are rising up from the dirt. They have been scared to speak for years, but it starts with one, and the ball keeps rolling,” Clark said. “Now these people are rising up against [Libyan ruler Moammar] Gadhafi. They have been under him for years, and now they are speaking out.”
Yet the uprisings also appear to have more localized roots, Clark said.
“Egypt started it, and when they were able to accomplish what they wanted, the Bahrainis started because they said, ‘If they [Egyptian protesters] can get what they want, so can we,’ because the Shia here are 70 percent of the population.”
Having a sister in the midst of a national upheaval is unsettling, said 42-year-old Melissa Quintela, Lincoln’s deputy treasurer and, like Clark and their three brothers, a Navy veteran.
“She was in the Navy for over 20 years, so she is equipped to deal with this, I am sure, and her husband is, I am sure, but it’s the kids you think about more than anything,” Quintela said Tuesday.
Their mother has spoken to Clark several times since the protests began, and the family follows Clark’s Facebook page for updates on their situation, said Quintela, who also served in Bahrain.
The economic and political repression of the Shiites is the most unsettling aspect of life in Bahrain, Clark said.
Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods are easily discernible. Shiite housing is often poor — shacks with dirt floors — while the Sunnis’ are much more modern. Sunni children often get chauffeured to school. The best jobs are usually taken by Sunnis, who import cheap labor from India, thereby keeping the Shiites underemployed or underpaid, Clark said.
“It’s a lot like Texas and Southern California, where if you can bring in illegals and pay them less, then the people in the U.S. are not going to be getting jobs, whether they want them or not,” Clark said.
The Sunni monarchy is not constitutional, so the government’s top positions are dominated by the minority appointed by the king. His uncle, the prime minister, has been in office for 41 years. With their majority, Shiites win most elections but only to the lower positions within the parliamentary government, Clark said.
Clark and Quintela say that their service in Bahrain makes them grateful for the peace and stability of American life but also illustrates how little most Americans understand the Muslim world.
“A lot of people think it’s just a rough place and people there are terrorists,” Quintela said, “but when you are over there, they are nice people, and like my sister has said over and over again, she respects those people.”
“They are not zealots or terrorists and they don’t appreciate terrorists, either,” Clark said of the Bahrainis. “These are just everyday people who do the things we do.”
Clark and her family plan to ride out the protests and return to Lincoln next year, when Stacy Clark — Clark’s husband and a Yakima, Wash., native — finishes his career, she said.