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.
December – January 2007
Marge has never been happier to see the back of Christmas. Her job in the museum has finally taken off. Lubna, who has worked in the conservation laboratories for twenty years, always on her own, is understandably a little wary of Marge and all her questions. But when it becomes clear that Marge is not there to steal the artefacts, Lubna happily teaches her about the history of Bahrain. Finally, when real trust has been gained, she gives Marge a complicated restoration project: to remove impacted sand from a 5000 year old pot.
Marge is of course thrilled to be working, and she understands that with zero experience in antique conservation, she has to start somewhere. But if she’s really honest, this is not as interesting as she had anticipated. And the image in her mind of this precious, ancient urn rolling off the table and smashing into many pieces on the floor makes her a little tense.
It also becomes apparent that Lubna prefers silence for five hour stretches at a time. This is quite a challenge for Marge. But having Marge in her space might also be a challenge for Lubna, for a few weeks later, she tells Marge that it has been decided that Marge might like to work on the archaeological dig that is taking place near Saar. This will give her a sense of where the treasures originate from.
“Go next Sunday and ask for Mohammed,” Lubna says, “He is expecting you.”
Just looking at the directions that Lubna has given her, Marge knows that finding her way to the site is going to take her far out of her comfort zone. She can see the site from the highway – it is huge on the side of a hill. The trouble is that eight lanes separate Marge from the dig, with no apparent crossing point anywhere close by. In one direction is the bridge to Saudi – definitely a no-go. The other way heads directly to the south of the island. It takes Marge over an hour to work out how to get onto the right side, and in the end, throwing caution to the wind, she squeals onto the hard shoulder and roars straight up the sandy bank directly onto the dig.
The wind is howling, sand is flying, and as she gets out of her car, thirty young men down their tools and watch Marge in fascination as she clambers up the rocks and onto the dig.
“Can you please tell me where I might find Mohammed?” she asks as casually as she can after her inelegant entrance. From their stunned faces, her appearance seems to be on a par to ET disembarking from a UFO. They stare some more, mutter amongst themselves, then half the young men put up their hands and say “iinaa Mohammed” (I am Mohammed).
Eventually she finds a large tent where several older men sit round a table. They are also silenced by Marge’s appearance and when she explains who she is and why she’s there they fall about laughing.
“Daniel*! You are Daniel? We were expecting a man. The museum told us Daniel.” (*Marge’s real name when she’s not hiding behind a cartoon character is not dissimilar to this). There is some whispering and conferring and then they invite Marge 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?”
They are not unkind, just curious. Marge learns that they are a team of archaeologists from Jordan. The young men she met earlier are labourers in their teens and early twenties from the surrounding villages, employed to help with the excavating.
The archaeologists take Marge down onto the site. Introduce her to the lads and tell them sternly that they are to behave correctly and with respect. Over the coming weeks she is taught how to excavate and how to speak Arabic. To the young men who are segregated from girls from the age of five, Marge – a western woman who is not ‘provocative’, is prepared to work as hard as they do and get her hands dirty – is a puzzle.
But in her first week she makes the most significant find of the dig – a Dilmun Seal, and in that instant earns the respect of the entire team. They make her speak Arabic and over time she is invited to their villages, to meet their families, to go on a fishing trip, and to attend a sister’s wedding. Each day they bring her breakfast and in her entire time on the digs she is treated with nothing but kindness. Marge’s experience on the digs inspires her first published article The Day I Found A Seal
Unfortunately in the excitement of it all, Marge overlooks the glut of emails that are piling up in her inbox. One morning, in a shallow grave, Marge receives a phone call from the school.
“Mrs Simpson, you have not returned Bart’s GCSE options. The deadline was yesterday. Can you come into school this morning and complete the forms?”
Marge, mortified, walks into reception covered in dust, to be greeted by a very underwhelmed receptionist. (What sort of mother forgets their child’s GCSE options?) Marge stares at the subjects and realises she hasn’t a clue whether Bart wishes to study Spanish or French. French being her thing, she ticks that box.
“I hate French,” Bart explodes, when he gets home. “I wanted to do Spanish.” Marge must eat humble pie for quite a time.
Homer meanwhile, all work and no play, is missing his Sunday morning game of football. So could not be more delighted when the Sheikh invites him to join the Sheikh And His Mates’ Wednesday evening game.
Homer turns up in his Birmingham City top expecting a regular kick around. Football is football, and whilst it may well be a spiritual experience (as he made very clear to Marge on their first meeting during the 1990 World Cup) it is also a great leveller.
Granted that the immaculate floodlit, all-weather pitch is in the grounds of the Sheikh’s palace. And that all the Sheikh’s mates (apart from Homer) are other Sheikhs and members of the ruling family. And that the rest of the team are members of Bahrain’s National Football Team. And that all the cars in the car park (apart from Homer’s) are Maseratis and Ferraris. And that at half time black-suited butlers come onto the pitch bearing fresh juices and trays of Arabic pastries. All this aside, they are, Homer reasons, just a bunch of guys getting together on a Wednesday night for a game of football.
It does not escape his notice that a certain etiquette is at play – the Sheikh is being passed an awful lot of balls and scoring an awful lot of goals. But Homer does not give a rat’s arse. He’s playing with Bahrain’s National Team! He has a reputation to uphold. So when he’s passed the perfect ball, given the choice of turning it over to the Sheikh or taking it himself, Homer, for whom the term sycophancy is synonymous with ‘not a snowball’s chance in hell’ winks at one of the professionals and scores the final goal.
A few nights later, Marge and Homer have finished dinner – there was a lot, Homer might have had seconds, both feel extremely full. It’s ten o’clock, nearly bedtime and Homer’s phone rings.
“Good evening, Sheikh…yes Sheikh…what now Sheikh?…No that’s fine Sheikh.”
Sycophant thinks Marge, but from Homer’s expression it is evident that now is not the time to voice this.
For Homer has been invited to the Sheikh’s Majlis. And this is non-negotiable. Homer puts his suit back on and disappears into the night, snarling “Don’t wait up!”
But Marge is intrigued. And when Homer gets home at one in the morning, four hours before he must get up again, she is all ears. Homer, on the other hand, would quite like to go to the loo and then straight to sleep, but Marge won’t hear of it. She wants details and she wants them now.
The Sheikh’s Majlis in the grounds of his palace, is in Isa Town, surrounded by desert. It’s as big as a small hotel. The décor is opulent, gold and marble (for more is more).
The Sheikh and his entourage sit on cushions in a horseshoe shape, with the Sheikh at the centre of the curve. Homer, he insists, must sit on his right. Everyone has to budge up and Homer, slightly embarrassed, joins the fray.
Homer, who still has indigestion from his dinner, then wants to cry. For there is a banquet. And everyone must eat. An entire animal on a platter, mountains of rice, vegetables, tureens of meat… It is all delicious. But on this rarest of occasions, Homer has never felt less hungry.
Men sit with hooded falcons and conversation hovers between politics and football and sport (for this Sheikh is the Minister of Youth and Sports). And throughout the evening people approach him and ask for favours.
Homer does not for one minute underestimate how privileged he is, but for someone who thinks ten fifteen is a late night, this is a punishing experience.
The Sheikh and Homer have bonded over their passion for football, and he asks Homer to bring a major European football team to Bahrain to play against the National Team
Homer invites many teams and Inter Milan agrees to a pre-season friendly. Marge and Homer are invited to the Sheikh’s palace along with the team for the Welcome Dinner. Marge, although not quite sure who everyone is, is not unhappy to find herself seated with Adriano, Viera, Crespo, Ibrahimovic, Figo and several other handsome Italian footballers. Homer, on the other hand, because he is Very Important, must sit with all the Sheikhs.
The next day, Marge receives a personal phone call from the Sheikh’s wife. Will Marge please invite Mrs Moratti (owner of Inter Milan) and Mrs Figo on a shopping trip? And will Marge come too?
“Homer!” Marge says, “You need to ask the women if they will go on a shopping trip with the Sheikha.”
Marge on the other hand is so consumed with her archaeological dig – keeping it real (but in hindsight wonders what she was thinking) – that she turns the invitation down. More fool her. For later she learns that every time Mrs Moratti and Mrs Figo expressed interest in a little timepiece here and little diamond there the Sheikha bought it for them as a gift.
Homer is told by the Sheikh to ask the better known Inter Milan players to come for an informal kick around at his football pitch. Inter Milan decline – they are not insured and do not wish to risk injury before the game.
It may be that Homer is advised to tell Inter Milan not to win the match by more than six goals.
At full-time it’s Inter Milan 6 – Bahrain 1.
What a stroke of luck!
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 11