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 sad and she is happy. The first archaeological dig in Saar has come to an end. The Jordanian team of archaeologists has now gone home. Working on the dig for four months, Marge has developed muscles she didn’t know she had. She is toned and fit. She’s remembered what it feels like to be her again. Not just a mum or a wife (satisfying as these are). It’s been invigorating and a revelation. She has become courageous and independent.
She goes back to the museum to see the Man Who Is Never There. He sends her to the Man Who Organises Digs.
He is surprised Marge wants to do more. But is happy for her to join another one run by a team of Bahraini archaeologists. It’s in a small village called Shakhura. Marge must try and find it first. Bahrain has a few main roads, which she is now familiar with. And then there are villages off the main roads, which are along sandy tracks and are not that accessible. Shakhura is a village not accustomed to Western women, but the archaeologists are expecting her and Marge is welcomed warmly onto the dig.
There is a distinct difference between this dig and the last. The previous one, run by an overseas team had money injected into it. Decent tools. A large workforce. This one has the most basic tools and not enough, a much smaller team. The men working on this are older. Family men from the local village. Many are related to each other. The archaeologist in charge spends much of his time sat in the main tent or cooking an elaborate breakfast every day over a small fire. He leaves the physical work to the labourers. They urge Marge to learn more Arabic.
One day, windy and wet outside, Marge is sitting on the mat in the tent in a circle with the older men and some younger ones too. The older men have brought their shisha pipe in and some of the group who’ve just returned from their trip to Mecca have brought dates and sweets for everyone.
Marge is not complacent. She is aware of how privileged she is to have been accepted so kindly by the team. They are generous with their time, their food and their friendship. They practise their English with her and in turn they make her speak Arabic.
Marge learns that many of them are fathers with up to twenty children and often two wives. One of them – a young graduate – comes from such a family. He is twenty-three and has seven brothers and seven sisters. His youngest sibling is twelve, his oldest in his thirties. His mother has been giving birth for twenty-six years, including one set of twins.
“When will you have more children?” Marge is often asked. Three is enough for her, she says. Has she a medical condition that has stopped her having any more? She assures them she has not. That she has chosen to have only three. There is much confusion about this. Contraception seems an alien concept.
The graduate tells Marge how he will eventually meet his wife-to-be and the customs that will be involved. He explains that the girls and boys are segregated from the age of five. Marge tells him a little about life for a twenty-three year old in England.
He is the first in his family ever to have gone to university. His parents can’t read or write. He wants to be a social worker and is trying to find a job, but because he is a Shia cannot get one. The Ministry for Social Affairs would rather take a Sunni student out of secondary school and train them up, than employ a Shia graduate with the right qualifications.
Two of his brothers also work on this dig and one of his sisters works in a primary school. He brings in the infants’ workbooks for Marge to learn her Arabic from. His greatest wish is for a real democracy.
The discussion turns to homosexuality. “It’s a disease, a sickness. It can’t be cured,” the graduate says.
He hopes, one day, he’ll have the opportunity to travel to the UK.
“You might need to change your views if you want to do that,” Marge says.
When the weather clears, they head back out to the dig. Marge is not finding it quite as interesting as the previous one – the Dilmun burial site, dating back 5000 years, on which a wealth of treasures was discovered. This dig, an Islamic settlement – dating back 1500 years, has unearthed fragments of pots and jugs, coins, bracelets, beads, buttons and jewellery, but it’s the site itself which is of interest. Once it is fully excavated, the structure of the old town, houses and rooms will be revealed.
Marge is really keen to work on the Dilmun burial mounds in the village of A’Ali. Huge sand humps spread over acres of land, the site will require many workers and the museum isn’t prepared to fund that at this stage. However, Marge has been told, when that dig goes ahead she can work on it too.
The Simpsons are now more settled. Weekends are spent with friends – treks out to the desert, the beach, barbecues. And on special occasions – Friday Brunch. Nothing like the breakfast/lunch combo back home, brunch, Bahrain-style is a blow-out, all-you-can-stuff, lavish-beyond-any-reasonable-person’s-expectations set-price lunchtime banquet, every Friday in Bahrain’s luxury hotels.
With vast displays of the finest food money can buy – lobster, caviar, foie gras, champagne; Michelin-quality food from around the world; sushi, sashimi, unimaginable quantities of seafood; Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Mediterranean, Arabic, British, Aussie, South American, gourmet cheeses and chocolate everything, lavish desserts, fabulous cocktails, unlimited champagne and Willy Wonka-style food fantasies for the children, live cooking stations, music and entertainment, a Friday Brunch is an expression of expat life that is at once obscene and very enjoyable.
Whilst work is going well for Homer in Bahrain, one of the English shareholders in the company he is employed by wants profit without investment. In real terms this means Homer does not receive a regular salary for several months.
Expat life from a distance is glossy and lovely. Big this, excessive that, permanent sunshine, an escape from the mundane… but when there’s a glitch, there is no safety net; one sails uncomfortably close to the wind.
Finally, however, Homer’s company is bought out by a reliable organisation in the UK. Marge can do her food-shop at the end of each month again.
To everyone’s relief, Bart has a social life again. Each weekend, in a flurry of calls, plans are made and he disappears Friday lunchtime only returning for dinner on Saturday evening. It’s good that he’s regained his independence. Having embarked upon a proper social life back home, the move to Bahrain saw a regression to the pre-teenage years.
“Charge your phone!” becomes the relentless cry. (Little do Marge and Homer know that ten years on they’ll still be muttering this.) But if this irks, budgeting a monthly allowance is more painful still. Discovering that if he uses it all up within the first three days he’ll be skint the remaining twenty-seven has come as something of a shock to Bart. Many of his peers have unlimited funds. Bart is convinced that his parents are quite possibly the meanest people he’s ever known.
Lisa has also made some friends now. It’s hard breaking into established girl groups at the best of times, but joining a new school in Year 6 ramped up the challenge-factor a hundred-fold. Lisa, however, with great resilience has finally, to Marge’s relief, found her crowd.
For Maggie, life is Swallows and Amazons. She taught herself to swim in the first few weeks of moving to Bahrain – (all those years of lessons for the other two, and give a child a swimming pool and it learns autonomously, underwater, in a few days) and all the children in her street are her age. So from the moment she gets up, to the time she goes to bed (excluding school and meals) she’s outside on an adventure.
Marge and Homer, for some misguided reason, have decided not to subscribe to a television network. They love TV. The kids love TV. But new home, new life, Marge has decided that this will be the perfect chance for the family to unplug themselves and enjoy more wholesome pursuits. No one else is convinced of the excellence of this idea. The cinema within walking distance of their house might well show all the latest films, but it’s not Showtime and it doesn’t have football. (Years later, back in the UK, when they re-watch some of the movies they saw in the Middle East, they discover why most of them made no sense – the censor had removed great chunks.)
But whilst censorship is strict, piracy is not. Each week a squad of Filipina ladies visits the expat compounds weighed down with messenger bags crammed with pirate copies of every movie title under the sun. The quality on some might be a little iffy – when the film has been recorded on a phone in the cinema and the picture is only visible in a small circle in the centre of the screen – but by and large, the range of titles at throwaway prices more than makes up for the occasional dud.
Forced to practise what she preaches, Marge’s love of wholesome pursuits is tested to the limit when it comes to school projects. Marge, never a great fan of model making and getting all arty-farty with her children at the best of times, resents school projects with a passion.
Marge is cooking dinner and cobbling together three packed lunches when Maggie runs in from playing with her friends.
“MUM! I need an Easter bonnet for the Easter Bonnet Parade.”
“Fine,” says Marge. “I’ll do it on the weekend.”
“I need it tomorrow Mum.”
“Tomorrow, Maggie? Why didn’t you tell me before now?”
“I have the letter in my school bag.”
“Mum!” Now Lisa joins her sister. “I need a costume for Reading Week. I want to be the Snow Queen from Narnia.”
“I hope that’s not for tomorrow, Lisa,” Marge says as calmly as she can.
“Next week, Mum. Can I get it made at a tailor’s?”
Marge counts to ten. Silently screams. She can sew. She will make it herself.
But she has archaeological sites to excavate, and Maggie’s birthday party to organise, a cake to bake, a flower costume for Lisa’s school play. Now an Easter bonnet for Maggie…
“Fine!” she mutters, slightly ashamed at how easily she has succumbed, but also a little relieved that a tailor-made costume for Reading Week is totally the expat norm. Maybe she’ll get a baker to make the birthday cake too…
There is no escape from the Easter Bonnet though. Like a manic Blue Peter presenter she gathers plastic decorated eggs acquired by Maggie at a recent party, two deep plastic plates, sticky tape, a stapler and lots of pink and shredded blue tissue paper. (How hard can this possibly be?) She stirs a saucepan, cling-films the packed lunches, glues the plastic plates together bottom to bottom – one side will sit on Maggie’s head. The sauce is spitting, the cling film snags. She covers the gluey plates with pink tissue paper, stuffs the top with shredded blue tissue, nags the children to lay the table, rams in the eggs, throws the damp PE kits on the airer, attaches ribbon bows to the creation, drains the pasta and takes the chicken legs out of the oven. She plates up the dinner. staples long ribbon-ties to the sides and Bob’s your uncle, Marge’s your Mum of the Year, the children are eating and she has created, if she says so herself, the finest Birds Nest Bonnet Bahrain has ever seen.
Maggie is delighted, the children are fed, and Marge settles down to read the email about Lisa’s imminent gymnastics competition in Qatar. Parents, it states, must accompany their offspring.
“Just you, Mum,” Lisa says. “Not Dad.”
Marge, if she is honest, can’t think of anything she’d enjoy less than spending an entire weekend holed up in a gym in Qatar watching ten year olds doing gym routines. The gym club is run by a woman who, many years before, nearly made the Olympics. Her mission, ever since, has been to form a Bahraini Olympic gymnastics team. Most of the children in the squad only wanted to do gymnastics as a hobby, but have found themselves entrapped, along with their mothers, in this woman’s broken dreams.
“It’ll be fun,” says Homer, already planning which matches he’s going to watch at the Rugby Club. “You’ll have the chance to explore another country.”
The flight is short and a bus takes the team, the parents and the teachers to a part of town not commonly frequented by expats. Already Marge can see that her first experience of Qatar is going to be limited – a godforsaken hostel with stained sheets (budgets are tight), and the punishing benches of a school gymnasium. After half an hour’s stop to deposit their luggage, they’re back in the coach to the gym where the competition will take place to give the children a chance to practise and warm up. Parents fall into two camps. Those who Take it Very Seriously. And those who are Doing Their Duty. Marge learns the hard way that it’s vital to identify who belongs in which before making light-hearted comments about anything at all.
The gym smells of feet and pubescent bodies, but Marge knows it would be considered very bad form to take her eyes off her child for even a moment to wander outside for a gasp of fresh air. Finally, however, they return to the hostel where they are given an hour off for good behaviour before dinner. Marge and Lisa go off to explore but find only dingy shops and curious men. Everyone reconvenes for dinner in a dining room that reeks of institutional food. The children sit at one long table. That’s fine – they know each other. The parents, resembling the least popular guests at a wedding, sit at round tables with people they’ve only just met, forced to make small talk without the assistance of alcohol.
The day of the competition sees an early start. The girls must have their hair styled, their makeup done, everyone must be prepped. By quarter to nine, they are all at the gymnasium, with numerous teams from around the Gulf. There they will stay until evening before taking the bus back to the airport and returning home.
Lisa wins a medal and Marge is very proud – she loved her own child’s gymnastic display, her skill and her agility. It was just during the ten hours of several hundred other children’s routines that she lost the will to live. But now it is over, and whilst Marge would never discourage Lisa from doing something she loves, she is hard pressed to rein in her joy when Lisa says she’s not enjoying it and can she stop doing four classes a week. They have done their bit for the failed Olympian. They say goodbye to the gym club.
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 13