I live in Dubai because Mr S’s job brought us here. And before that it was Bahrain. I am what might be called a reluctant expat. Not reluctant to live abroad – I’ve done it before, I love it more than anything. But, I was clear, in my head at least, in that slightly idealistic way of the inverted snob who has backpacked to India at 18, about what I would and wouldn’t do in my new life. For a start, I’d not mix with Brits, I’d integrate and learn Arabic, I’d embrace the culture and I’d have lots of Bahraini friends. Slowly I learnt that the people we make friends with are those who have similar values to us. Culture and nationality do not necessarily define these, but there is no getting away from the fact that we do gravitate towards those with whom we have things in common and similar life experiences. Oh, and a shared sense of humour. And as for speaking Arabic, well when 99% of people speak to you in English, you have to be a little foolhardy to attempt to speak to them in pidgin Arabic.
My priority was to find work. So I got in my car in the early days and toured the island to see what my prospects were. Bahrain is 55 km long and 18 km wide. It didn’t take long. I visited the tourist sites and pestered and persisted until I was offered work in the National Museum of Bahrain. It started with a stint in the Conservation Laboratories. Lubna, who’d worked there for 20 years took me under her wing. A woman of few words, she was nevertheless kind and patient. And when she saw I wanted to learn and wasn’t going to steal the artefacts, taught me the history of Bahrain, tolerated my endless questions and trusted me with a complicated restoration project. After a few weeks she suggested I might like to go out on the archaeological dig, currently in progress on an old burial site near the village where I lived.
I was excited about this. I liked Lubna, she was lovely, but she didn’t talk very much over five hour stretches. She told me to go the following Sunday to the archaeological dig and to ask for Mohammed. He’d be expecting me. I knew, just looking at her directions, that finding my way onto the site was going to take me far out of my comfort zone. Some might argue that I’m directionally challenged, but I’m not sure that’s fair. I could see the site from the highway. It was huge, on the side of a hill. You couldn’t miss it. But 8 lanes separated us. 8 lanes and no apparent crossing point, overpass, underpass or bridge. 5km down the road in one direction – was the bridge to Saudi Arabia – I didn’t want to go that way. The other took me to the south of the island with more and more roads going off to the right. It took some time. When I say some time, I mean an hour before I found, not the entrance to the site – chance would have been a fine thing – but a place where I could turn the car round, so that I could be on the same side of the road as the dig.
I did it. I found my way back. It was going so well. The site was on my right. I was so close, I was driving past it – there was no entrance. No entrance. And there was the Saudi bridge looming up ahead. Again. I drove up and down the highway looking for a way onto that site. The 6th time I found myself on the right side of the road, I threw caution to the wind, squealed off the hard shoulder of the highway and drove up the sandy bank straight onto the edge of the dig. The wind was howling, it was January and as I got out my car, 30 young men stopped what they were doing, put down their tools and watched me in fascination as I clambered up the rocks.
Feeling a little hot under the collar, I asked where I might find Mohammed. There was a confused silence and everyone looked at each other. Apparently lots of them were called Mohammed. Eventually I was directed to a large tent where several older men were sitting round a table. I explained who I was, to be greeted with a burst of laughter. ‘Daniel! You are Daniel? We were expecting a man. The museum told us Daniel.’ There was some muttering and conferring and they looked at me some more, then invited me to sit with them.
‘So you have come to join the dig? You are from the museum?’
‘And you want to work on the dig.’
‘You want to take photographs?’
‘No, I’d like to learn how to dig, excavate.’
‘It is not a woman’s work; there are no women on the dig. Just men. Young men. They are not used to women. You are very young.’
‘Not that young, I’ll be fine’
‘The work is physical.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘You speak Arabic?’
‘No. Not yet. I hope to learn.’
‘You are an archaeologist?’
None of them were unkind, just very curious as to why I wanted to do this. One of the group looked like he was trying not to laugh. He was one of the Jordanian team of archaeologists running this dig. He took responsibility for me. He became my friend. He told the young men on the site that they had to behave correctly around me. He taught me how to excavate and how to speak Arabic. The young men on the dig were lads from the neighbouring villages. In their teens and twenties, I was a puzzle to them: in a culture where, certainly in the villages, boys and girls don’t mix after the age of 5, it was extraordinary for them to meet a western woman who was not ‘provocative’ in her behaviour, was prepared to work as hard as they did and was happy to get her hands dirty.
I earned their respect fast. They made me speak Arabic, and over time I was invited to their villages, I met their families, and was asked to attend someone’s sister’s wedding. I was brought beautiful offerings for my birthday, had breakfast cooked for me over a fire everyday, was invited on fishing trips and was always treated with the utmost respect in a country where repression of the sexes was the norm.
I wrote a magazine feature about my experience, The Day I Found A Seal, attached below, and my enduring memory is of how incredibly privileged I was to have crossed cultural barriers and to have met some truly wonderful people. I worked on the digs for a year before returning to writing. Not a typical expat experience by any means but one that has been a highlight of my time in the Middle East.