The author is a travel and feature writer. This is an account of her expat years. Names have been fiddled with to avoid offence but most of what you’ll read here is true. She loves the UK, but hopes to live abroad again before she’s of pensionable age.
In 2006, a family of Simpsons from the East of England moved to the Middle East. For the purposes of this story-in-parts, and to allow a little distance from Mr, Mrs and the three mini Simpsons (boy, girl, girl), they will now be referred to as Marge, Homer, Bart, Lisa and Maggie – their Springfield counterparts. When they moved across the world, this Marge and Homer were in their forties, Bart was 13, Lisa was 10 and Maggie was four.
January – February 2007
Marge is a little anxious. It is the festival of Ashura. Bahrain is unique as it’s the only Arab country in the Gulf to allow Shia Muslims to practice the mourning of Muharram openly. The country anticipates an influx of Gulf nationals during the month to take part in almost daily processions through villages and towns. Streets will be closed off and filled with hundreds of thousands of people dressed in black, many of whom will participate in the violent ritual of self-flagellating their foreheads and their chests with chains, rocks, swords and knives until blood is drawn. The women may watch from segregated viewing areas.
The text from the Embassy advises westerners to stay away from towns and villages during this period. In fact better still; do not go out at all.
If she is honest, Marge found her first Ramadan a little nerve-racking and that is tame by comparison. Then, the expat rules were an extension of the general every day expat rules – dress appropriately, no public displays of affection, no swearing – but with extras: no eating, drinking, chewing, smoking or playing music in public between sunrise and sunset, and more modest dress (longer, higher, depending on which end). None of that was particularly alarming, it was just the punishment of jail if caught breaking the rules that made it scary. So the boundaries for Ashura feel like another level of caution entirely.
Marge has noticed that many of the young men on her dig have round scars on their foreheads. Now she understands why.
As a western woman, Marge is always slightly on her guard. For the most part she is left alone and treated courteously. But there is always a certain tension when she is out and about. Even on her digs – even though everyone is respectful, there are strict boundaries to be maintained. She knows that if she crossed them, behaviour would change at once.
Homer is surprised when she mentions this to him. It is not something he has considered before. Marge envies him his freedom.
February arrives, and Marge’s thoughts turn to romance. Posters promote Valentines Day dinners at all the hotels. Homer, clever man, reserves a table. Mondo at the Diplomat has gone all out. Red heart-shaped balloons, red roses on every table, red candles, pianist, warbling singer, low lights… Marge does love a bit of cheese.
Even more romantic, the restaurant has packed them in. Twice the usual number of tables, laid out like an exam hall, with six inches between each one – this is about as intimate as a Moonies’ mass wedding.
But Marge cannot complain.
In Saudi, love is off the menu entirely.
“Gulf Daily News, 11 February 2007: Clamp on Red Roses
“RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s religious police have banned red roses ahead of Valentines Day. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has ordered florist and gift shop owners in Riyadh to remove any items coloured scarlet, which is widely seen as symbolising love.”
But in Saar, love is in the air. The stray cat in the garden has had kittens, and whilst she is the hissing claw-drawn wild cat from hell, her babies are tiny and hungry and Marge’s heart is not completely made of stone. Despite her reluctance to have pets, she is persuaded to put a bowl of milk out each day. The kittens become tame. And then they reward her by leaving.
But she is not bereft for long. Because the rats arrive. Across the garden wall. Marge does not leave milk out for the rats. She calls the rat catcher. He sets glue traps all around the property. Marge, whilst not an expert on rodent control or a lover of rats, thinks there must be more humane ways to resolve the problem. She envisages a row of glued rat finials adorning her boundary walls, bringing a stately home revival to the suburbs of Bahrain. The rat catcher promises he’ll return to remove them, but in the event, and to Marge’s relief, they follow the cats and disappear.
Homer decides one evening to go to the barber. ‘I won’t be long,’ he says. ‘There’s one in the village.’ Three hours later he’s still not back. And he’s not answering his phone. Marge is worried.
Finally he returns. Groomed and coiffed and with a tale. He went to a barber’s near Pearl Roundabout. Inside there were stickers on the wall of British, American and Israeli flags with crosses scrawled through them. The barber, with his cut-throat razor asks Homer if he is American. Homer replies that he is Jamaican. The atmosphere in the shop lightens immediately. Everyone laughs. They tell Homer that there will be riots later and that he should be careful.
Tyres are being burned on the highway and it is closed. So Homer takes the back route through the villages. But the streets are blocked. Cars are jammed. Young men wearing balaclavas and scarves wrapped round their heads are checking all the vehicles. When they get to Homer’s car, they also ask him if he is American. He says no. He says if he was American he’d be more pissed off than they are. He asks them if they’ve heard of Muhammad Ali or Malcolm X. He says, if anyone has a problem with the American establishment, after two hundred years of slavery, it would be him and to get out his face. Immediately they are conciliatory. They invite him to come and drink tea with them. He tells them no. He is trying to get home. They laugh. He’s not going anywhere, not for a couple of hours at least. There is rioting this evening, after the arrest of a Shiite human rights activist.
Homer parks his car and goes to a café with the young men. They buy him tea and smoke shisha with him and discuss politics, music and football. Then he comes home.
Marge is aware of the tension on a much smaller scale. When she started working on the digs, one of the first things the men wanted to talk to her about was the fact that they did not dislike British, American or Jewish people. It is the governments they have a problem with. This has come up quite a few times. People are passionate and articulate, desperate to reassure her that they like her but that they are angry. Marge listens but is less bold than Homer. She does not offer opinions.
She has seen the contrast between the haves and have-nots. A couple of times she has given three of the boys on her dig a lift down the highway to Hamad Town where they live, en route to Maggie’s school. She never gets out the car, just drops them at the entrance to the town. This is an area of social housing for those with little money. These boys are brothers and cousins. They are in their late teens. They live ten or fifteen to a house. Families are huge. The houses are dilapidated. Cars without wheels rest on blocks. The town is set back from the road in the shadow of the Dilmun Burial Mounds. This is a part of Bahrain that expats do not see.
They want to show her where they live. They give her their identity cards to reassure her they are nice. She believes them and thanks them – but declines.
At school, Marge makes a quick visit to the Ladies. She always arrives early because, coated in dust from the digs, she likes to clean up a bit. She learns from a friend that her nickname now is ‘The Gravedigger’.
Marge and Maggie have been invited to one of Maggie’s friends for tea. Marge has met some lovely mums at Maggie’s school gates and is feeling more at home. Before they go though they must collect Lisa from her school. Marge is always a little tired after excavating for four hours. She’d quite like to listen to music as she drives. But if she thinks she can switch off during the hour’s school run, she can think again. Maggie likes a story. A story twice a day the entire duration of each journey. Ten stories a week. Invented by Marge. Marge for some unknown reason has created a world where Maggie is the heroine with superpowers. She can fly and speak several languages. She’s very, very popular. Her best friends are SpongeBob SquarePants and Peter Pan. In these stories – and each one HAS to vary from the last – Maggie always saves the day.
On the return journeys – when the car is child-free, Marge listens to Krazy Kevin on Radio Bahrain. Krazy Kevin is a DJ. He is also a dad at the school gates. But in a country where the back pages of Bahrain Confidential make Vanity Fair’s celebrity pages look pedestrian He Is A Star.
And in the same way that ‘I Want To Break Free’ immediately whisks Marge back to her waitressing years (brown headscarf, brown trousers, nylon everything) at Pizza Hut – June 1984, so she will never again be able to hear Shakira’s ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ or Mika’s ‘Grace Kelly’ without instantly being transported back to her car (winter 2007) in the wind and the dust driving onto her first archaeological dig.
Marge’s new friends help put things in perspective. Because the news recently has been unsettling. The story about a man who raped his wife has brought a few hard done by men out of the woodwork on the letters page:
“Referring to the news ‘Man raped wife,’ first of all she failed in her primary duties as a wife in this case.
“Denying sex to the partner stands valid for a divorce.
“Secondly, he has not gone to anybody else but approached his wife that is his right as a husband.
“Thirdly, God has created women in a way to satisfy the average man so that he need not bother to look at any other woman with the wrong attention provided the so-called wife takes care of him.
“Naturally men are more aggressive in terms of sex compared to women, whilst the latter will find ample reasons for postponing it.
“Finally I would like to say that this case should be treated as ‘Wife refused to have sex with her husband. A desperate husband”
And back in Saudi, they are telling it how it is on the marital harmony front.
“RIYADH: A Saudi judge has told a seminar on domestic violence that it is okay for a man to slap his wife for lavish spending. Jeddah Judge Hamad Al Razine gave the example of overspending to buy a high-end abaya as justifying a smack for one’s wife, Arab News said. “If a person gives 1,200 riyals to his wife and she spends 900 riyals to purchase an abaya from a brand shop and if her husband slaps her on the face as a reaction to her action, she deserves that punishment,” he said.”
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 12