MANAMA, Bahrain - When your humble Cable guy finally arrived at the Kim Kardashian-endorsed Millions of Milkshakes franchise in Bahrain, we felt like our pilgrimage to the promised land of strawberries and whipped cream had been one of enlightenment and intrigue -- but certainly not in the way the sex-tape starlet or the government of Bahrain had hoped.
What a colleague and I never expected when planning the adventure was that our taxi driver would be a Shiite Bahraini who spoke fluent English -- and told us the story of how the Bahraini police tear gassed his village and shot his son for protesting peacefully.
I traveled to Bahrain Dec. 6 to attend the IISS Manama Security Dialogue, an annual meeting of princes and courtesans during which the serious strategic issues of the Gulf region are discussed over lobster tails and fresh-squeezed mango juice.
After three days of intellectual exchange and two nights of schmoozing, I was exhausted but determined to leave the confines of the hotel. So Dubai-based political analyst Taufiq Rahim and I sought out the brand-new Bahraini landmark where Kardashian had visited only two weeks earlier.
Kardashian's late-November visit to Bahrain to open the milkshake franchise was roundly criticized in the United States. Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch wrote that 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."
Fifty hardline Islamic protesters chanted "God is Great" outside the shop after Kardashian Tweeted that Bahrain is "the prettiest place on earth," which was re-Tweeted by Bahrain's foreign minister.
When we arrived at the Millions of Milkshakes franchise at The Walk plaza in the elite Manama enclave of Riffa on Dec. 9, the columns of purple balloons left over from Kardashian's visit were halfway deflated, hanging on the door frame like a fading memory.
But a 15-foot high image of Kardashian still towered over customers as high-definition TV screens played the news reel of Kim's visit in a never-ending loop.
The milkshakes were decent; I had the Kim Kardashian special, while Taufiq chose The Billionaire. The price was reasonable for pricy Bahrain, equal to about $8 dollars for the large. We scrambled to memorialize the moment, forcing the confused manager to snap smart-phone photos of us mimicking Kardashian's sultry and suggestive pose while our milkshakes were being prepared.
Our taxi driver on this journey, whom I'll call Salman, was in his early forties with a wife and a teenage son. We asked him about the sectarian tensions that have roiled Bahrain for almost two years.
"There is no problem between Shiites and Sunnis in Bahrain. My wife is Sunni; my sister married a Sunni. We can get along. The problem is with the government and Al Khalifa [the royal family], who want to make this about the Shiites," he said.
Salman complained that the prime minister had been in power for 42 years, alleged that the entire royal family was corrupt, and decried the slow pace of promised democratic reforms.
"My neighborhood was tear-gassed last Friday with over 1,000 canisters just because the police were looking for one man," he said, showing a harrowing YouTube video on his iPhone of the scene that night.
His son, a protester, had been shot with a special type of gun that disperses dozens of plastic barbs, he said, and Salman had the photos to prove it. Dozens of the barbs remained in his legs, buttocks, and back, he said, because going to a hospital would ensure certain arrest and indefinite detention.
Salman said that the police had tracked down his cab after he dropped his son off at a protest and that the authorities had confiscated the vehicle for four months, depriving him and his family of their sole source of income.
"People get killed and we want to know why? What's the point? Why does this need to happen?" he said.
U.S. policy toward Bahrain, a carefully crafted mix of gentle admonishment and arms sales, is not fooling anyone on the street, Salman said.
"Everyone here knows that the U.S. is not on the side of the people. You can have democracy, but why can't we have it? Because you are making deals with the royals, it's clear, everybody knows that," he said.
Salman said he did not know who Kim Kardashian was.