Desolation Row: was Fadhila Mubarak listening to Bob Dylan?

Earlier this week a woman activist in Bahrain, Fadhila Mubarak, had an 18-month prison sentence against her upheld. It was for protesting against the Bahraini government and - wait for it - for listening to "revolutionary" music.

Last March, travelling in a car with her eight-year-old son and two other children, she was stopped at a police checkpoint near a place called Rifaa, south-west of Manama. The police officer said she’d been stopped for playing music calling for the overthrow of the regime, and was asked to turn it down. She refused and asked the police officer for identification. She was taken out of the car, beaten about the head, arrested and taken to two police stations, reportedly being beaten at both. Some witnesses have told Amnesty that Fadhila was even beaten on the bus that took her for trial before a military court (without a lawyer) two months later. On 17 May she was sentenced to four years (later reduced to 18 months on appeal). 

For all the fanfare around last year’s Bahrain Commission of Inquiry, and how it was a supposed sign that the Bahraini authorities were serious about tackling the human rights abuses triggered off by the clampdown on Bahrain’s protests, the fact is that people like Fadhila are still on the receiving end of this clampdown.

Protests tend to make authority figures in countries like Bahrain incredibly jumpy. It’s why you get police officers making ridiculous claims about “revolutionary” music. I don’t know what she was actually listening to, but even if it were Bahrain’s equivalent of Crass or The Dead Kennedys (look ‘em up if you’re not following me here …) that’s no reason to arrest her. Maybe it was Bob Dylan. I’m (half) joking. He’s the sort of “counter-cultural” figure that a Bahraini policeman might take against.

Chimes of Freedom cover artI mention Dylan partly because there’s a new 4-CD collection* of musicians doing covers of his songs out next week. Dylan’s early work is famously associated with the US civil rights movement - Greenwich Village beatniks, students who campaigned in the South for black voter registration, protest marches in Washington. (Personally, what I especially like about his stuff is the surrealism and the humour - and that odd, raspy voice. Plus the blues, folk, country and rock sounds, dashes of the Velvet Underground and lots of Woody Guthrie.)

Somehow though, Dylan’s cussed personality is itself a sort of protest against conformity (think of those notorious interviews with increasingly desperate interviewers who couldn’t get him to play the showbiz game). It kind of - kind of! - fits with the dogged protest-driven behaviour of human rights campaigners. It’s not surprising that one of the artists on the Dylan collection is the 92-year-old Pete Seeger, someone who was - incredibly - doing rousing shows for striking farmers in upstate New York in 1938. (That’s 1938).

The Dylan compilation is dedicated to “the thousands of people worldwide who are imprisoned or threatened for the peaceful expression of their beliefs”. Fadhila Mubarak is one of those people.

*It’s called Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International - and comprises 72 covers plus one by Mr Zimmerman himself, Chimes Of Freedom. It’s a vast compilation - I’m working my way through it as I write this post (favoured tunes so far: Raphael Saadiq’s Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, Brett Dennen’s You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, Steve Earle & Lucia Micarelli’s One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below), Elvis Costello’s License To Kill (some nice dubby vocals on this), and K’Naan’s pretty interesting rap-style reinterpretation of With God On Our Side).

Buy Chimes to Freedom from the Amnesty Shop

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