The Pearl Statue that sat at the center of the Arab Spring protests in Bahrain was a classic piece of meaningless, made-to-order modernism, drab but sleek in a style beloved by high-end hotels and authoritarian governments. As long-standing sectarian tensions between the country’s politically dispossessed Shiite majority and its Sunni ruling class erupted in mid-February, the Pearl Statue became the unlikely symbol of a vigorous democratic movement.
But like the opposition, it has been broken: On March 18, three days after foreign troops from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states arrived to enforce a brutal crackdown on protesters, the government toppled the statue.
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.
But there was something more vindictive at work in Bahrain: It was a desecration of an object that had quickly, and surprisingly, become widely meaningful for the majority of the population, and at a deeper level, an attempt to assert power by demonstrating control over the physical landscape.
Younger, cosmopolitan Bahrainis were both bemused and horrified by the statue’s removal. One woman compared it to the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, not because the Pearl Statue was of commensurate artistic or historic importance, but because the act of destroying it seemed so petty, anachronistic and foolish.
There was also genuine regret for the loss.
“It was very sudden, and it did make a difference,” said another young man, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Not because of how it looked, but because it had taken on significance in our lives. It was always there.” That “always” reveals how young Bahrain society is.
The gulf region is filled with art and architecture that is meant to look pretty and mean nothing. No place on Earth has been more successful at co-opting modernism to suggest progress while denaturing it of anything relating to conflict, reform or liberal openness.
For decades the Pearl Statue had functioned just as it was meant to: a sleek white presence that vaguely suggested a common past and a hopeful future. When it was built nearly three decades ago, it towered over everything around it. But then Bahrain, like its gulf neighbors, started building bigger, pushing its bland glass towers ever higher. The Pearl began to seem almost quaint.
It took on layers of meaning that no one ever intended. Vast tracts of the country’s main island are held by the royal Khalifa family, which has made other parts of the country overcrowded and land hungry. Developers now routinely push the island’s borders out into the sea, reclaiming land from the gulf for new housing and development. But that’s come at a cost. Coastal villages now sit high and dry, inland, with no relationship to the water.
A deep nostalgia prevails, especially among Shiites, for the old days, when boys would swim in search of freshwater springs just offshore. Those springs have mostly dried up, an ominous environmental change that has shaken the country’s sense of itself as a green oasis in an otherwise torrid landscape. Even memories of the country’s pearl-diving past, which was lucrative for traders but brutal to the divers, are growing hazy and remote.
Among other meanings, the Pearl Statue represented the social costs of becoming prosperous and globalized, a consumer culture of shopping malls and beautiful highways, leading to a spiritual nowhere. But it was the act of ordinary citizens laying claim to its meaning that made it intolerable to the government. In April, as the ruling family pursued a brutal crackdown against the opposition including (according to human rights activists) several deaths by torture, the government announced a new statue was rising, at another faceless intersection.
This time, it was a map of the country, which looked weirdly like a heart ripped from the chest of some sacrificial victim. It was made of aluminum, plastic and fiberglass — easier to demolish than the concrete and metal structure of the old Pearl, and a smart move in case it too began to take on unwanted meaning.
Most people here who were willing to talk about the statue saw its destruction as yet more blind and self-destructive rage from the government. One Shiite village had already created a mini-Pearl statue, a kind of martyr image of the icon. And the Pearl was not budging from the Web, where much of the political hostility was still playing out — Sunnis were actively poring over Facebook images to denounce Shiites who had gone to the Pearl Roundabout — long after the physical protests had been squashed.
The physical destruction of the statue seemed at first wildly old-fashioned. But that may be the point. It was the physicality of the statue that mattered. In a virtual age, the real has become newly precious, and by embracing the Pearl Statue, the democracy movement gave genuine substance to something that was never meant to be anything more than a hollow placeholder for meaning. Activists can use the Internet as a tool to build communities and plan protests. But it is the physical “being there” — in large numbers, unafraid of bullets and tear gas — that makes governments change their ways.
The Bahraini government can never obliterate the memory of the Pearl Statue, but it can remove the statue itself, just as it can change the physical shape of the island that is home to this country’s fractious society. Real power, it turns out, is very old fashioned. Movements may gestate in cyberspace, but it is Revolution 1.0 that will change the world.
The statue itself, it seems, has been given a burial at sea. Several locals report that its remains were removed, to become landfill for yet more coastal reclamation. It was impossible to confirm this, however, because no one who knows for sure is talking about the Pearl.