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.
Marge is waiting for a job to fall into place. She now has a hotline to the National Museum of Bahrain to a man she is not sure exists for a meeting she is not sure will take place. In principal the museum is amenable to training Marge to become a curator. That’s all good. The problem is, this elusive man must approve the details. And he is never there.
A day arrives when she is to meet with him.
“But he’s not here,” Marge is told. “He’s out the country. Ring again next Sunday to rearrange the meeting.”
Marge does what she’s told.
“He’s not back until next Sunday. Please call back then…”
Stifling a scream, Marge goes off to explore.
She’s run out of books, and visits The Bookcase close to where she lives. There is a strong focus on Georgette Heyer – one whole wall devoted entirely to her works. Marge hasn’t seen a Georgette Heyer novel since she was a teenager and she wasn’t a fan then… Panic rising, she scours the shelves for something, anything else. To her relief, where Georgette ends, chick lit begins. Hot Navy Seals and feisty girls with attitude will keep Marge happy for several months.
The Rugby Club holds an Opera in the Park night. Marge likes a bit of culture.
“Let’s go,” she says. “It’ll be fun!”
People settle with picnics across the rugby pitch. Warm lager flows. The atmosphere is PAR-TAY! The soprano struggles with her high notes. The tenor loses his voice by the interval. It’s not a park. And everyone chats through the performance.
The Simpsons have the best time.
The family are invited to a Thanksgiving Dinner. Living abroad, they can celebrate everything. Then Marge hosts her first supper party. She tries to keep it low key, but there are standards to be upheld. She’s finally mastered The Oven That Burns Everything and succeeds in creating a pretty good chocolate espresso cake (if she says so herself.) The cheese is infallible. The fruit salad’s – well – a fruit salad. Which is a relief, because the main course – fish to satisfy the non-meat-eater – is decidedly iffy.
She starts Arabic lessons with another new friend. And with much free time on her hands, makes herself observe the scenery on the school run. She drives through villages lined with roadside stalls of fruit and pottery, and rows of small dingy open-fronted garages housing carpenters’ studios, bakeries, car repair workshops, furniture stores, plant shops, decorating supplies… She drives across sections of desert where oil pipelines criss-cross the terrain. She passes a camel farm and a couple of sheikh’s palaces. She drives along sections of motorway that are sometimes three lanes and then abruptly two – still in the process of being built, causing frequent bottlenecks. Road signs, in English and Arabic, are completely ignored. Thursdays and Fridays in particular test the nerve with the influx from Saudi across the Causeway. Marge gets used to driving defensively with one eye on the rear view. If someone is on her bumper, tooting and flashing to get past, she flicks on her hazard lights to nudge them off her tail and then when safe, swerves into another lane.
One day, returning home from the school run, the highway is at a standstill. The driver in the next lane catches Marge’s eye. Hoots her. Waggles his tongue suggestively. Marge inches forward trying to ignore him, his relentless hooting, the vulgar noises he is making at her through his open window. He eases his car forward alongside hers, his eyes on Marge not on the road. Marge’s lane starts to move. She puts her foot down. His lane clears a little too. Now he’s whooping and making lewd hand gestures. She starts to speed up. He does too. Marge sees his lane slow down, but he’s looking right. And BANG! He smashes at speed into the car in front of him. His passengers shoot forward shouting out in shock. Never has Marge felt such satisfaction. Catching his eye, knowing that he must now wait for the police and ensuring that she has a clear passage, although it is illegal, she flips him the bird and drives away.
Maggie’s school is located in Awali – one immense compound built for BAPCO (The Bahrain Petroleum Company) in the thirties. Passing through the security gates, the neat, manicured gardens, the silent, symmetrical streets, all remind Marge of a TruPleasantManVille-type Show. It would not surprise her if at 8.15am precisely all the front doors opened simultaneously, suited fathers got in their cars and the children ran out to bounce their balls.
The school resembles a 1950s village school with one-storey buildings in a square round a grassy courtyard. Soon the Infants will be relocating to a shiny new-build attached to the Juniors, much closer to home. This morning, tanks with soldiers armed with machine guns guard the gates. They wave Marge and Homer through. Glancing at each other, Marge and Homer say nothing in front of Maggie. But once she’s out the car, and once they’ve driven off (leaving their child in a compound guarded by tanks and machine guns) they stop and ask each other if they’ve gone completely mad.
Marge calls the school.
Should she be worried?
Tanks? Machine guns?
Oh that! There’s a little unrest today, but this is the safest place on the island…
On the days when Marge is not making notes on her surroundings or fretting about security issues, she meets with friends. There are cafés everywhere – the chains like Costa and Starbucks; the independents offering good coffee, pastries and snacks; the juice bars. With restrictions on alcohol (although expats may buy alcohol from designated stores near the port or in licensed restaurants and hotels), fresh juice bars, on every corner, are ahead of their time.
In the villages, thobed men gather outside traditional cafés, drinking little glasses of Qahwa (coffee). Westerners tend not to be found there; one treads carefully. It’s good to know where one’s welcome and where one’s not. Regular text messages from the Embassy offer advanced warnings of areas to avoid when things are kicking off. On the whole, though, wherever they go, the Simpsons meet with kindness and hospitality.
Marge is learning that the simplest of errands eat up time because nothing is in one place. Groceries and food are in Alosra supermarket down in Saar, makeup in Debenhams in Seef Mall or Lifestyle in City Centre Mall. Stationery and craft materials can be bought from an Aladdin’s Cave of a store in Budaiya, and to post letters she must visit one of the four post offices on the island as street mailboxes do not exist. But with time not currently an issue and keen to give purpose to her days, Marge embraces these time-consuming duties stoically.
Winter is coming. Overnight Mary-Poppins-style, the wind changes. Most days, the sun is shining, but it’s cooler in the mornings now. Marge is still not used to the equatorial twelve-hour days and twelve-hour nights, or the rapid twenty-minute sunset – as if controlled by dimmer switch – signalled by a filter of rose washing over everything before the plunge into sheer darkness.
Marge is following the news with interest; there’s a huge debate on what women can wear to be deemed respectable. Modesty is paramount. Concealing flesh – obligatory. Simultaneously, in the UK news, Jack Straw (a member of parliament) is stating that women should not be allowed to wear the veil. Bahrainis mainly wear traditional dress; white for men, black for women – heads covered, but not often faces. In the villages, younger men wear western clothes too. The women stay in black. It strikes Marge that they seem to have little say in what they wear on either side of the world; in Bahrain they must cover up. In the UK they must not.
Another piece of news that catches Marge’s eye is the establishment of a female forum in the Middle East – composed mainly of sheikhas – pushing for equality for women.
This piece is short and brief, and clearly not Important News. Unlike the front-page article in the Gulf Daily News:
‘Gays To Face New Clamp’
‘A nationwide crackdown on homosexuals could be launched in Bahrain, including tougher immigration checks to stop foreign gays entering the country.
‘It would include a study, backed by Parliament’s foreign affairs, defence and national security committee, to determine how widespread homosexuality is in Bahrain…in response to what MPs see as Bahrain’s growing gay problem. Foreigners found to be gay face deportation.
‘The study was being carried out despite the fact that the Education Ministry claims there are no homosexuals in schools. MPs had no suggestions on how such a study could be carried out, saying it would be up to the government to decide.
‘The Interior Ministry already bans suspected homosexuals as they try entering the country from Bahrain International Airport, however homosexuals pretend not to be gay by posing “manly” until they make it past immigration.
‘They look manly as they come to the airport, but when they get in they return back to their homosexual attitude. Homosexuals are found in huge numbers at hairdressing salons and beauty and massage spas, inspected regularly by the ministry.
‘Unfortunately many homosexuals are slipping through the net because the ministry is having problems determining if they are gay or not.
‘Gays are dangerous and a threat to our society and Islamic values…’
Marge visits the museum again, her expectations low, but incredibly, The Man Who Is Always Absent is finally there. They talk about what Marge is after. She mentions curating. He mentions conservation. Something gets lost in translation, but that’s fine. He arranges for her to work in the conservation laboratories. All the people who work in the labs are Bahraini and everyone speaks and writes in Arabic. Lubna, an earnest woman of indeterminate age who speaks a little English, will take Marge under her wing and teach her to restore and conserve the relics and treasures that come into the museum from the various archaeological digs taking place around the island.
Marge is ecstatic. Finally she has a job. The museum’s gain is however the school’s loss. Marge has not been the most diligent Class Parent. The one activity she was tasked to organise (apart from the coffee morning, hosted very kindly by another parent, which was more Afternoon Tea at the Ritz than Marge’s regular Catch Up in the Kitchen) – the Parents’ Dinner – now has to be cancelled due to a stomach bug sweeping through the class. Everyone is fine with the change of plans. Except for one.
“I’ve booked hair and nails,” she says. “I’ll have to cancel them now.”
There is silence.
“You are joking?” Marge asks nervously.
“Of course I’m not joking!”
Digging deep, Marge apologises profusely. Being Class Parent requires diplomacy and a level of commitment Marge seems to lack. Embarrassed to be letting everyone down, but knowing that her loyalties now lie with the museum, she emails the teacher and extricates herself awkwardly from the role.
She will work three days a week, can take off school holidays, will start properly in January and has an introductory day the following Sunday. Heady with the excitement of it all, Marge is shocked to discover that with no warning, Christmas is three weeks away.
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 9