Manama: When Fareed Ahmad Hassan first heard about sectarianism as a phenomenon ominously destroying Bahrain's social harmony, the newspaper editor sneered at the idea that Bahrainis who have lived with one another peacefully and graciously for generations could drift apart on the basis of sects.
But after speaking with relatives and friends, the Shiite man married for decades with a Sunni woman was convinced the society faced a dilemma.
"I was shocked to see that people dealt with one another on the basis on their sects. Gone are years of friendships and matrimonial unions. Many people over the weeks made decisions to continue or end their friendships or even marriages on the merit of the sect," he said, sipping a hot tea in downtown Manama.
"Sushi" marriages - the union between Sunnis and Shiites - have always formed an integral part of the Bahraini cultural, social and religious landscape. For thousands of Bahrainis, such marriages had a special charm that did not exist in other matrimonial unions and helped give a truly substantial meaning to personal gratification, compassionate tolerance and mutual acceptance.
"Unfortunately, this wonderful aspect of our society is now under an ominous threat as many families frown upon them. In a similar dangerous escalation, we saw that people started last March to boycott goods sold in shops whose owners were from the other sect. Lists of shops and restaurants that should be boycotted have been widely circulated to ensure they reached the largest number of supporters. Calls by economists and politicians to end the boycott have been largely ignored. No amount of talk about the higher interests of the nation could make people bent on promoting their sect and defeating the other one change their minds. This is unprecedented in our history and we do not like it at all," he said.
Fareed said that he thought his life over several countries and across a myriad of civilisations had enabled him to see so much that he does not get amazed or shocked easily.
"I was wrong. I thought that life had shown me almost everything, but little did I fathom the social tragedy in Bahrain. I find totally unacceptable that people base their feelings for one another on sects, but it is a fact now. The events in Bahrain have unfortunately affected families of couples from mixed sects. Many of them spoke about problems that they did not expect or ever thought would impact them. We have heard of cases of divorce because differences could not be reconciled and this is very bad," he said.
The schism within the Bahraini society seemingly started when political differences over how to bring changes in the country became too obvious to be ignored.
In the beginning of the protests, the two main sects largely had a common ground in calling for positive changes, although they had differences over their right pace. However, fear and concerns inexorably replaced dreams and ambitions by the first week of March.
Suddenly, the Shiites had a strong feeling that they did not really recognize their country and that they were excluded from it. The Sunnis feared that if political Shiism had its way, they would be ignored or, worse, excluded. Mistrust was fuelled by radicals and by the media.
"I reached the point where I deleted all my Shiite friends from my Blackberry," Ebrahim said. "I have known some of them for years, but I somewhat felt it was wrong to continue relationships with people who did not like my sect. I thought that our friendship would lead to nowhere so I dropped their names. Of course, I regret it now, but at the time it was the right thing to do. At least, so I thought," he said as he exhaled smoke and looking at his shisha.
Dressed in an impeccable green shirt and matching skirt, Shereen was sitting in a beautiful restaurant in Muharraq. She liked the food they served there and never missed an occasion to invite friends over.
However, this time, she is with two relatives. Her friends would have never accepted to go to the restaurant where they shared hearty laughs and great anecdotes. It was on their sacred restaurants-to-boycott list and going there would be an unforgivable sacrilege.
"The idea of boycotting businesses owned by the other sect started off small, but through social media networks gained gigantic dimensions and has now become a mandatory way of life," she said as she helped herself to the sizzling grouper on her plate. Around their table, there was an eerie silence. It was Saturday noon, normally a time when she would have to wait stoically until a waiter called her to a prized table.
But now, there was nobody on the ground floor. And the waiters were just standing nearby, totally idle.
"This is not how we grew up, so it does hurt. I try to find answers to what happened to us, away from politics and ideologies. Before March, I did not give a thought to the sect of the man I wanted to marry, but now, there is no way that as a Shiite I will marry a Sunni. There would be too many layers, and I am not ready or willing to handle them. It is the sad truth and I utterly dislike admitting it, but it is the truth," she said.
Over green tea at a traditional café in the Manama Suq, Fareed said that he had anticipated the problems in which Ebrahim and Shereen were helplessly trapped.
"I am happy that we have had a different experience. I am a Shiite married with a Sunni. My wife and I agreed since the beginning to raise our children in an environment that does not tolerate any form of sectarianism," he said. "We agreed that we will help them grow up mainly within a Sunni environment and to allow them to make their choice when they can do it independently without influence from anyone. Many other factors helped us make this decision."
Fareed said that he was convinced at an early age, when he was in middle school, that sectarianism was a colonialist ploy to weaken people and facilitate their domination.
"I performed my prayers in Sunni and Shiite mosques and felt good about it. Another factor was the fact that my father, a religious figure who traded in perfumes, and my mother, a housewife, were liberals and highly practical. I recall when I told my father that I wanted to get married and that I had found the right young woman, he asked me about her. I answered that she was a Sunni. He got really upset and told me that I failed to provide the answer he wanted to hear. ‘I wanted you to tell me about her family and how educated she and they were,' my father said. My mother immediately blessed our union, saying that there were no differences between the sects and that she looked forward to a happy marriage," Fareed recalled.
Such conditions helped Fareed, his wife and their four daughters and one son to adapt easily to the co-existence of several sects in Bahrain. "To us, the richness and diversity were assets, not liabilities."
"So when the dramatic events in Bahrain unfolded and a terrible fissure appeared in the seams of the society, we did not panic and in fact we felt immune to threats. We were a mixed sect family, but our levels of tolerance and acceptance were so high that we knew that we would not be affected, even though many families around us started to crumble," he said.
Nevertheless, and due to the sensitivity of the conditions in the country, Fareed gathered the family around him and his wife to stress that sectarianism was the disease that should not afflict them under any name or form.
"My wife and I stressed that despite the ominous conditions around us, we all should uphold our values and keep our friendships with all open and tolerant. I am glad that our family not only survived the acid test, but also became closer and stronger," he said.
"One of our daughters who was Sunni and was in love with a young Shiite man went ahead with her plans to marry him and we all supported her in her decision. We did not allow politics to pollute our views and we did not permit extremism to hijack our feelings."
For Fareed, the landmark of the family success is that they did not lose any of their numerous "lovely friends or compassionate relatives."