Certain memories take on larger-than-life proportions, others fade away and strange little channels meander away like a wayward dream. Through it all, though, certain ubiquitous markers float along amidst everything. These markers don’t always bind our memories, they may even just be an incoherent part of the landscape. But they are there. Always there.
Pearl Roundabout dominates large swathes of my memories as a kid in Bahrain. Or at least some form of it does: in my mind, it was a monument on the scale of the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, towering up in the sky. In a Bahrain devoid of tall building, Pearl Roundabout was huge; in many ways, that Pearl Roundabout was quite different from the Pearl Roundabout I saw upon returning to Bahrain in 2004.The Pearl Roundabout on my return was dwarfed by a flyover running right by it, relegated to the status of regulating traffic off the highway into the city. I hated merging across lanes at the Pearl and often did my best to avoid going through it.
But the old Pearl Roundabout bestrode Bahrain like a colossus, dominating everything, synecdochically standing in for all my memories of the place. An effective marker. And that is the Pearl Roundabout I choose to remember, that I am forced to remember. Distance does not always bring perspective and with the Pearl, distance saw me lose perspective- it is that loss that I shall now cherish.
The irony, of course, is that the monument was originally constructed to celebrate the very Gulf Cooperation Council summit which, in 1982, laid the groundwork for the GCC military partnership that has, in 2011, enabled Saudi and UAE tanks and security forces to come to Bahrain and put down the protesters sheltering underneath it.
In 1982, the recently formed GCC met in Manama with the threat of two revolutions hanging over them. One was successful, the Iranian revolution which helped motivate the formation of the GCC itself: since Tehran was attempting to export its revolution throughout the region, the United Arab Emirates, the State of Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Sultanate of Oman, the State of Qatar, and the State of Kuwait signed a charter not only to form a common market but also to cooperate in combating Iranian influence in the region. The 1982 summit, however, was specifically convened in the wake of an unsuccessful extension of the Iranian revolution to Bahrain, a failed coup attempt by the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (a group which was linked to Iran). And the monument to the military partnership that was established at that meeting was to be a pearl hoisted into the sky by six sails representing the six GCC partners. Until, of course, it became something else. It was originally, and officially, called the GCC Roundabout, and that name has now been officially reinstated, to take the place of the name given to it by people that lived there, Lulu.
There will be, according to government statements, a traffic light, to make it an easier space to move through. After all, who wants to actually go there?
Tali Hatuka, an architect and head of Tel Aviv University’s Laboratory of Contemporary Urban Design, argues that urban planners can help promote democracy by creating formal areas for protests, such as squares or plazas such as Tahrir Square — where Egyptians gathered to protest — and informal areas like parks.
“Civic squares are formal places designed to project the regime’s power and monumentality,” she said. “Because of the vast scale of these places, protests in these spaces contribute to transforming the individual into an integral part of a unified imagined community who in its presence challenges the hierarchal relationship between the citizen and the authority.”
At a press conference last Friday, Ethan Bronner asked Khalid Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, if the destruction of the monument was to send a message to the protesters:
No, it’s not a message to the people who have been there for the past month. It’s actually, let me put it simply: it’s the removal of a bad memory. Simple as that. It’s not the monument itself, it’s the whole place, that’s caused this society, our country, to be polarized, in a very heavy way. So we’d rather not see a bad memory, for a lot of people, of Bahrain, we’d rather look forward and not keep looking at this monument as a reminder.