The Many Afterlives of Lulu – The Story of Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout
The Story of Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout
Amal Khalaf – 28 February, 2013 – IBRAAZ
The pearl teeters; it rolls lazily to one side as the monument’s six concrete legs start to fall apart. [JUMP CUT – IMAGE MISSING] Between broken bones, the pieces of the pearl’s cracked skull lie in sand and rubble.
Squaring the circle is a problem handed down from the Ancient Greeks. It involves taking the curved line of a circle and attempting to draw a perfect square from it; a task that for centuries mathematicians were convinced they could figure out. In the nineteenth century, when the problem was proved unsolvable, the phrase to ‘square the circle’ came to signify an attempt at the impossible. But in 2011, within days of the most sustained and widely broadcasted protests in Bahrain’s recent history, a circle was named a square. The once unassuming Pearl Roundabout or Dowar al Lulu, famous in the international media as the site of the Gulf’s answer to the ‘Arab Spring’, became Bahrain’s ‘Pearl Square’ or Midan al Lulu.
A month of mass protests later and the roundabout was razed to the ground. In its death, the Pearl Roundabout took on a life of its own, becoming the symbol of a protest movement; the star of tribute videos and video games, the logo for Internet TV channels and the subject of contested claims, rebuttals and comments wars. These manifestations of the roundabout – multifaceted, changing and often contradictory – produce a haunting rhetorical effect, instigating debates fuelled by images of past and on-going violence in Bahrain’s history. In its afterlife, Lulu continues to act stubbornly in resistance to the state, despite the government’s attempts to shape the monument’s memory to serve its own interests, going so far as to tear the monument down and rename the ground on where it once stood. Today, Lulu is a powerful symbol for thousands of people recasting their ideals in the monument’s image: a ‘public space’, or midan – Arabic for civic square; one that no longer exists as a physical ‘thing’, but rather, lives on as an image-memory.
The Birth of Lulu
The Pearl Roundabout was a central roundabout in Bahrain’s capital Manama. At its centre stood a 300-foot tall monument, milky white and built in 1982 to commemorate the 3rd Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit, a meeting of Gulf States. The monument’s six white, curved ‘sails’ represented each GCC member state: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A large cement pearl sat atop these sails in homage to the region’s former pearl diving economy, which attracted the likes of Jacques Cartier to Bahrain’s soil. But with the pearling industry in decline and tanker traffic drilling and dredging the region’s sea beds, destroying them in the process; the GCC looked forward to a new era of economic development. The 1982 summit also launched the Gulf Investment Corporation, a $2.1 billion fund, and a military partnership between the GCC states: the creation of the Peninsula Shield Force or Dr’a Al Jazeera. This treaty codified what is now the pillar of the GCC’s military doctrine: that the security of all the members of the council relied on the notion of the GCC operating as an ‘indivisible whole’.
To celebrate the end of the momentous summit, a cavalcade of cars took officials to the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the construction of the 25 km causeway linking Bahrain to the mainland Arabian Peninsula. King Fahd bin ‘Abd Al ‘Aziz of Saudi Arabia and Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, Emir of Bahrain, stepped forward to release the black drapes. Bahrain, at least in theory, was no longer an island. After its construction, Lulu became the chosen pearl in Bahrain’s crown: the star of souvenir shops. It was, for a while at least, a symbol of Bahrain, sanctioned by the government, photographed by tourists and its image presented on neon shop signs.
Drive around Bahrain in January 2013 and there are symbols everywhere. As the 21st Gulf Cup (a biannual football tournament) was held at Bahrain’s newly revamped Shaikh Isa Sports City, the highways and streets are lined with flags and symbols of the Gulf Cooperation Council, marking a summit meeting held in Bahrain in December 2012. Yet, all over the island, behind trees covered in red and white fairy-lights, royal crests, billboards of smiling leaders and flags of GCC countries, we see walls. And on these walls are many images and symbols that counter the state sponsored GCC branding campaigns, especially in villages and smaller side streets in Manama. You will see graffiti scrawled in Arabic and in English, some of which you can read if you happen to pass by before they have been painted over. Through layers of paint, these walls bear the traces of a conversation, an argument. Images and names of political prisoners, cries for help, or calls to fight. The most popular word you see written on the walls is ‘Sumood’ – perseverance – stencilled or scrawled alongside hastily drawn pictures of the former Pearl Roundabout. …more