March 8, 2022

by Raven Burrell – Source

Reem Al Mealla is the first woman field marine biologist in the Kingdom of Bahrain, and one of the first Bahrainis regardless of gender to train as a marine biologist and receive both her Bachelor’s and PhD in marine science. She is the creator of Bnature, Bahrain’s first environmental online platform, and has previously served as the National Project Manager for the revision of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) project. Some of her work has been geared towards establishing the preliminary foundation for the implementation of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety at a national level. In efforts to bring together human rights and environmental rights, she embraced the ecosystem based approach throughout the work she does some of which includes leading the first socio-economic study of its kind in the country on the Northern Hayrat in Bahrain which was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. She also created the first national biodiversity database in Bahrain and is the co-founder of the Arab Youth Climate Movement, the first platform of its kind in the MENA region for Arab youth to come together to address climate issues. Most importantly, Reem considers herself a “builder” and “initiator,” as she is inclined to create paths and resources for future generations that did not previously exist.

As I was reflecting on my conversation with Reem and searching for a starting point to begin this article, a poem came to mind. It was a poem by Rebecca Elson that had recently crept into my life unexpectedly and swallowed me whole. Elson’s words matched the mystery, courage, and devotion that I had perceived in my first encounter with Reem. Interestingly enough, the two of them have a few things in common. Before becoming a marine biologist, Reem was entranced by the enigmatic presence of the night sky and her young curiosity was ignited by astrology. Because of this, she thought of becoming an astronaut from an early age. Rebecca Elson was, in fact, an astronaut. Like Reem, she dedicated her life to the rigor of science. But she also was a poet; and this too seemed to capture a similarity in Reem’s spiritual understanding of herself and her life’s work.

In our conversation we quickly dove into the depth of meaning that unites Reem’s budding childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut with her chosen career as a marine biologist. She marveled, “it’s amazing for me, because the sky is blue, and the ocean is blue and there is a horizon where they connect.” We discussed this horizon, and its metaphorical implications for her life. To Reem, the ocean is part of outer space. She spoke about how the reflection of the sky often dissolves into the sea at a blurred horizon, something that makes them seem inseparable. She then took me to the boundless mystery that these two scapes share: “under the sea you don’t know what you are looking at most of the time, there is no sense of direction, it is just this huge open space.” Remarkably, she taught me that we know more about the moon than we know about life in the ocean. This was another factor that pushed her to dive down rather than travel up. She wondered, if we don’t know what we have here on this planet, then how are we going to know how to take care of it? Her love for all living creatures has been a driving force in her life’s trajectory. She reflected on a teaching in her Muslim community about the day of judgement that had a significant impact on her as a child. She explained that on the day of judgement, it was said that God would not be the only one concerned about whether or not you had sinned. Instead, no matter what you had done in your life, every creature on the planet, big and small, would have a say on your final judgement. For Reem, the fact that this teaching included every creature made its mark. She laughed, thinking about herself as a child returning every little fish she found back to the sea and saying, “Be free little fishy! I’ll see you on the day of judgement!” It gave her comfort to know that there were a lot of creatures that knew her well and cared about her liberation.

Reem’s life story carries a dynamic tension between hard work and destiny. She admits, things were not always easy. From a young age, Reem received a great deal of push back when she would share her dreams with those around her. It was unheard of in her culture for a woman to become a marine biologist. Even the men in Bahrain did not go to study marine biology. Instead, they would enter the field through experience and receive training from expat groups that would come in for a brief time and then leave. Reem is not only the first woman marine biologist in Bahrain, but one of the first Bahraini field marine biologist to receive both her bachelor’s and PhD in this specialization. I wondered how she was able to even create a dream from something that did not yet exist. She narrated the inception of this dream with a sense of reverence for its happenstance. By the time she was 14, she had already given up on the possibility of becoming an astronaut. There were just no external mirrors to support her vision. She recalled watching the movie Free Willy in English class at the British Council. At the end of the movie, when they were just about to release the large killer whale into the boundless freedom of ocean waters, the young protagonist in the story turned to one of the lead actresses and asked, “what are you going to do next?” The woman responded, “I’m going to get a PhD in Marine Biology.” Reem’s visionary mind latched onto this idea, and she enthusiastically probed her English teacher about the subject after class. This tiny spark took Reem all the way to England for university; although, there were many obstacles she had to face on the way. She remembered a woman at an educational fair she attended in hopes of finding a foreign University that would accept her as a student for marine biology. This woman advised Reem not to apply directly to a university, because they were not likely to consider a Bahraini student. On this woman’s advice, Reem ended up in England for a foundation year of study that would then allow her to apply to the larger universities. During this year abroad, Reem worked three jobs and went to school full time. She recalled, “sometimes I don’t even know how I made it through. I worked at Subway, taught English, cleaned bathrooms, just to get through all of that. I completely surprised myself. How did I even manage to study, work, and sleep?” In the same breath, she reasoned, “but I guess when you really want something you just do it, and life somehow gives you the energy you need to get through.” Still in reflection, she dove down a layer deeper and said, “but another part of me feels like it was destined, because somehow I managed, considering that I came from a very small town with parents who had little to no educational background.”

We spoke further about the role of destiny in Reem’s life story. She recounted the moment of her first dive when she was still training for her Bachelor’s. She disclosed how she felt just before, “I was so scared of going too deep. I was very nervous. My trainer said, ‘you’re going to see the coral and you’re going to love it, calm down.’ So, we went down, and I saw the coral but I was still really nervous.” As she anxiously waded the deep waters, she described noticing a shadow that blocked the sunlight. When she looked up, she saw a dark, black figure that she couldn’t quite make out. She looked closer and realized that she was looking at a large eye. Soon, the mouth came into her vision and things started to take shape. What Reem was looking at up-close was a large humpback whale. She said that she no longer just felt butterflies, but completely burst open with happiness. The meaning that Reem gave this story was one of destiny, and there were many moments like this along the way that confirmed her path and purpose for her. The pronounced presence of destiny guiding the way in her life seemed to be in direct correlation to the considerable obstacles she had to overcome. “I wouldn’t say there wasn’t fear. I was afraid of failing. Even when I came back after school, I never had a stable job. I always had the question, ‘will I be able to continue next year?” She went on to depict what it was exactly that gave her the courage to face times of hardship. “At some point I learned that, because I was destined, I never had to worry. Life had already proven to me that every time I thought it was the end, there was something bigger.” She related this realization to moments when her integrity was challenged, and she had to make the choice to walk away from a project based on moral principles. Learning to stay true to her values has been an essential part of finding her way and, for better or worse, she is now known in Bahrain for her clear conviction, uncompromising attitude, and the integrity of her work. She identifies her moral choices as a clarifying agent in her life’s purpose. Staying true to her principles is the work that gives way to her destiny. However, this often requires her to stand alone or swim upstream. This work can be lonely and exhausting at times, which is why Reem has found such a home with likeminded people at GPIW. The spiritual nourishment that the GPIW community has offered Reem has been essential to her in times of exhaustion, isolation, or burnout.

Reem’s encounter with a large humpback whale on her first dive echoed the final scene in Free Willy that had initiated her professional development. Themes and metaphors were sprinkled throughout her life story, making it seem more like a work of art than a career path. The likeness of the sea world and outer space was another poetic tone in her journey, and the perfect way to begin and end our conversation. This theme reminded me of a question I would often ask myself and others as an exercise in existential pondering: “would you rather die stranded in the ocean or in outer space?” Not surprisingly, I have found some resistance from others to this seemingly morbid question. But Reem didn’t blink an eye before answering that they are the same to her and it would be a privilege to die in either. “The beauty of it,” she added,” is that our bodies are part of nature and all particles are part of life and with that kind of death you would really be able to spread and plant your seeds everywhere. Going out with such a sense of connectedness would help me to put something important out there, and that’s what I want for the world: to be able to spread my seeds and do the work I am meant to do. Hopefully, in the way that I am destined to do it.” If I were speaking this article out loud, I would pause at this point to let the silence soak in her words. Instead, I will share the poem by Rebecca Elson that reminded me of Reem and her rapturous love for the deep mystery of existence.

by Rebecca Elson

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

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