About a month before Kim Kardashian flew to the Middle Eastern island nation of Bahrain this weekend, 28 of the country's medics and doctors were assembled before a courtroom. They had been charged after treating some of the protesters who have been rallying now for over a year, calling for democracy and for improved human rights. An ear, nose, and throat specialist named Nabeel Tammam, one of the defendants, raised his hand. The judge had just dismissed a defense attorney's claim that his clients had been tortured, and Tammam had something to say. "My name is Nabeel Tammam," he said when the judge acknowledged him, apparently mistaking him for a lawyer. "I am one of the medics, and I was tortured.” The judge closed the hearing.
That vision of Bahrain, relayed by Human Rights First President Elisa Massimino in a recent op-ed in The Post, is very different than the version Kardashian showed the world. Her trip to open and generate publicity for a Millions of Milkshakes chain, and her gushing tweets ("I'm in love with The Kingdom of Bahrain"), drew wide mockery and criticism for the celebrity's lack of awareness of or ambivalence toward Bahrain's crisis.
So how bad was the trip really? The case against it is straightforward. As Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch explains: Kardashian's visit "generates positive publicity for a Bahraini regime which carried out an unspeakably brutal crackdown last year, continues a fierce campaign of repression and has been utterly unrepentant." The monarchy has aggressively courted international approval and the appearance of normality, apparently as a means to downplay its crackdown, so Kardashian's visit would seem to be a significant victory. She released this video of her visit, laden with dance beats and screaming fans. "Everyone from the States has to come and visit," she urges:
Bahraini activists have not been as critical as have foreign Middle East-watchers and human rights advocates. Maryam Al-Khawaja, a prominent Bahraini activist sent into exile after her father was beaten and imprisoned, posted an open letter thanking Kardashian for her visit and encouraging her to meet with human rights leaders. "Given your fame, it is impossible for your trip to remain apolitical," she wrote.
It turns out that Al-Khawaja was right. During Kardashian's visit, about 50 protesters showed. They didn't appear related to the political strife that has killed dozens of protesters and sent a number of activists to jail – the AP described them as "hardline Islamic," and their only sign read "God is Great" – except that security forces, as has increasingly been their habit, dispersed them with teargas. What would have otherwise been a minor sideshow became a reminder of the teargas and protests that have marked Bahrain, if under very different circumstances.
Americans, for whom Kardashian probably carries greater name recognition than the Bahraini nation, which is a close U.S. ally, couldn't help but notice a quirky story about the scandal-prone reality TV star somehow involved in a Middle East teargassing. This ABC News report somewhat exacerbates the problem by treating the story as a silly celebrity gaffe rather than an issue of potentially abetting a regime that commits human rights abuses, but maybe the point here is that the words "Bahrain" and "teargas" made it into the news:
It would seem things have gotten so bad in Bahrain that even something as potentially regime-friendly as a big American celebrity's high-profile visit and glowing praise can't be covered without some mention, however passing, of the crisis. ABC News briefly flashes, without explanation, a tweet from Reza Aslan referencing the imprisonment and alleged torture of doctors who treat wounded protesters – doctors like Nabeel Tammam.
Maybe this incident suggests that Bahrain can only sweep its problems under the rug for so long. Lynch writes, "That protests and tear gas disrupted the international media coverage of [Kardashian's] visit as well is therefore in some ways a promising sign that the reality of Bahrain's ongoing repression and failure to deal honestly with its recent past has not yet been washed away."
Brian Dooley, a Human Rights First director who has spent much of the last two years focusing on Bahrain, told me he thought the country's public relations efforts might be starting to backfire. "I'm not sure the Kardashian visit really was a net gain for Bahrain's government," he said. "Much of the coverage simply refocused attention on the human rights crisis they're trying to deny."
Perhaps bringing a glimmer of international attention to Bahrain's crisis, however unintentionally, is the best that the country's besieged Shia majority could hope for. Wafa Alsayed, a Bahraini political analyst, joked on Twitter, "No offense, but asking Kim Kardashian 2 comment on the political situation in Bahrain is like asking a chipmunk 2 prepare a 3 course dinner." Maybe she didn't need to comment on the situation, or even be aware of it, after all.