The monument stood 300 feet tall, and was built in 1982 to commemorate a meeting in Bahrain of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of six Gulf Arab states. The design resembled a cheap perfume bottle, an all-too-transparent effort to create an instant icon. With a bulbous white sphere supported by six upward-thrusting legs, it recalled both Bahrain’s past as a center of the pearl trade, and its future integration into a regional economic juggernaut, fueled by oil, trade and speculation.
There is an innate incompetence to many authoritarian regimes, and when the government of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa explained the statue’s destruction, it spoke with contradiction and confusion. Officially, it was part of a traffic realignment and redevelopment of the Pearl Roundabout, where protesters had gathered in the tens of thousands before government troops used live ammunition to disperse them. But the country’s foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, spoke what everyone assumed was the real truth: “We did it to remove a bad memory.”
Unfortunately, there was yet more incompetence evident in the statue’s physical removal when a worker was killed by falling debris. Videos of the destruction, on YouTube, show only the beginning and the end of the demolition, editing out the death.
The government went even further. The Pearl Statue was part of the regime’s standard branding, a tourist’s reference point and a ubiquitous presence in the country’s catalogue of iconography. The 500-fils coin — worth about $1.33 — which showed the statue on one side, has mostly disappeared from circulation. So, too, has the trade in Pearl Statue memorabilia, key chains, keepsakes and other tchotchkes, which flourished after democracy protesters adopted the Pearl Statue as an icon of the movement.
“Any reference to the Pearl can get you into trouble today,” said a young artist who feared arrest if he spoke openly. “It’s like it never happened. Except it’s everywhere on Facebook and the Internet.”
Expunging a symbol is never an easy process. By their very nature, symbols are more than physical objects, and they circulate in complex ways. The foreign minister’s explanation of the statue’s destruction — to remove a bad memory — sounds a bit like the common habit of hiding photographs of faithless lovers or abusive relatives.