On The King’s Threshold — Ali Mushaima’s Fast Shames Bahrain’s Ruling Family

Ali Mushaima outside the Bahrain embassy in London today.

In Seventh Century Ireland, commoners would hunger strike at the door of nobility who had wronged them, shaming them into justice. Nobel literature laureate William Butler Yeats wrote a play about the tradition, The King’s Threshold, first performed by the Irish National Theatre Society in 1903, recounting the story of a man who hunger strikes against the king.

Ali Mushaima has been hunger striking on the threshold of the Bahrain embassy in London for 24 days because his 70 year-old father Hassan, one of the kingdom’s most prominent political prisoners, is being denied a cancer scan.

The king of Bahrain heads the kingdom’s ruling family and has overseen years of violent attacks against peaceful dissidents. Ali’s father Hassan Mushaima was arrested in 2011 with hundreds of others for peacefully protesting against the ruling family’s repression. He was tortured and sentenced to life in prison after a sham trial.

Now Ali is protesting outside the building that represents the king of Bahrain, laying the issue on the threshold, day and night. Ali Mushaima is 35. Three weeks ago he weighed 79 kilos; today it’s 68.

Ali says his father is being denied the cancer scans he needs, family visits and even books. The last family visit was in February 2017. Ali’s hunger strike is attracting international media attention, embarrassing the Bahraini authorities and reminding a worldwide audience of the continuing abuses in the kingdom.

“I’m tired a lot of the time now but my eerngy isn’t from my body, it’s from within,” says Ali.

Ali has written to Queen Elizabeth, a personal friend of Bahrain’s king, asking her to intervene to save his father.

Ali’s embassy protest has also brought more focus on British government support for the Bahrain regime, with the U.K. sinking £5 million into cosmetic reform, including training on how Bahrain should treat its prisoners.

In recent years Bahrain’s human rights record has worsened. Opposition groups have been shut down, executions have returned and torture in custody is once again routine. The British governement has done little to stop this alarming spiral, and is investing £40 million in a new naval base in Bahrain, officially opned by Prince Andrew in April this year. Ali has written to Queen Elizabeth, a personal friend of Bahrain’s king, asking her to intervene to save his father.

Ali’s protest, displaying his injustice on the doorstep of the regime, is a major PR disaster for the Bahrain regime. It could have avoided the intense negative publicity by allowing the jailed political leader some books, a family visit, and a cancer scan three weeks ago.

Bahrain’s political system is really about suffocating all peaceful dissent to keep a corrupt ruling family in power.

Instead it continues to respond myopically, guaranteeing more adverse media coverage and scrutiny of its shocking record on human rights.

Bahrain is due to hold parliamentary elections later this year, an exercise in showcasing its facade of democracy. But the elections promise to be anything but free and fair, and the king’s uncle will remain as unelected prime minister, a position he has held for nearly 50 years.

This latest focus on the treatment of jailed opposition leader Hassan Mushaima exposes what Bahrain’s political system is really about — suffocating all peaceful dissent to keep a corrupt ruling family in power. Bahrain’s monarch sounds like Yeat’s ancient king in The King’s Threshold, who claims “I said that I was King/And made and unmade rights at my own pleasure.”

Ali is noticeably more gaunt than when I spent the night outside on the embassy pavement with him 10 days ago. But his spirit is just as steely. He has a constant stream of well-wishers visiting him, acts of solidarity which he says give him strength. Today I gave him my copy of One Day in My Life, a short book written by Irish Republican Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in 1981 in protest at the treatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland.

Ali and I spoke about the experience and power of hunger strikes, and 13 centuries of Irish political fasting.

“I decided to go on hunger strike because of my father’s health,” said Ali. “I wanted to do something that wasn’t the normal sort of protest, to remind people of his suffering. It’s hard for me but I feel strong.”

In The King’s Threshold, Yeats explains the custom where

… if a man
Be wronged, or think that he is wronged, and starve
Upon another’s threshold till he die,
The common people, for all time to come,
Will raise a heavy cry against the threshold,
Even though it be the King’s.