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.
One week wielding a pickaxe, the next sourcing perfume bottles and brass coffee sets in the museum archives for an exhibition on Bahrain in New Zealand. Marge’s days are slightly surreal.
The weather has turned hot and the digs are over now, so Marge has returned to the museum to find more work. She wanders the corridors and introduces herself to anyone who’ll chat. Here she meets Bea – a consultant for UNESCO, currently on secondment to Bahrain. “Can you speak French, write documents and organise a conference?” Bea asks hopefully. She has to organise an event for 600 delegates – archaeologists from around the world – in Paris, in October, she could do with some help.
As luck would have it, Marge can do all those things, though not necessarily at the same time. Of more interest to Marge is the news that an eminent Danish archaeologist will be leading the next dig in Bahrain at the site she desperately wants to work on – the burial mounds in A’Ali. In his beige safari suit he reminded Marge of Indiana Jones when she met him a few months earlier.
If all goes to plan she can work on the Paris conference till the autumn and then infiltrate the Danish camp at the end of the year. This dig will be The Dig of Digs. The Danes have a history of exploration and excavation in Bahrain and there will be a big budget. This means that unlike the last dig, there will be on-site toilets and equipment that works. Drawings won’t be hand-drawn, buckets won’t be broken and handles will stay on brushes and trowels. There’ll be a surveyor and digital equipment and the Danes will speak English and Marge will understand what she is doing… In her head, Marge is already there.
Meanwhile, until she has her own desk, she will perch at the end of Bea’s. Marge can see that this is not ideal. Bea is slightly economical with charm. She is here to work and she has an important job. She wants Marge to help her but she does not want Marge’s input. It is evident that sharing an office might quickly become irritating for them both.
When Bea goes away for three weeks, Marge, not one to miss an opportunity, suggests to the Director of the Museum that it might be fairer on Bea if Marge has her own desk and Internet connection.
Marge also thinks it cannot hurt to slip her CV to the Sheikha’s PA. (The Sheikha – Minister for Culture and Heritage – has her office in the museum too). The more inroads she makes, the better.
Her tenacity pays off. On the one day Marge dresses down in jeans and a jumper (the A/C is fierce in the museum) the Sheikha agrees to a meeting to discuss Marge’s many ideas for the Paris conference and the possibility of a work contract. Marge is a little nervous, for she has suggested that no pictures of the king of Bahrain should be put up at the Paris reception. And she is not smartly dressed. This meeting could go one of two ways.
But to Marge’s relief, the Sheikha likes Marge’s proposals and will consider Marge part of the permanent staff. She wants her to work on marketing plans for the museum and with one swift phone call, organises Marge an office and a desk.
Marge knows really that the chances of actually receiving a contract are negligible, and that she will probably never see the Sheikha again. But for the moment she feels victorious and capable of anything.
When she’s not reorganising the museum, and dreaming of the Danish dig, Marge is cultivating a social life. She’s negotiated the minefield of special expats who fall between being Club Med Lifers and Butlins Inmates, and is slowly making some nice friends. There are exceptions.
– The person who can talk without drawing breath – that is a long afternoon. But at least at the end of it, Marge has learnt, amongst many things, that a good maid must know not only how to clean the grout between the floor tiles but how to smile at the same time.
– And the minor celebrity from Bahrain TV. At the school gates she’s fade-into-the-background normal. But give her a social event and she’s Jessica Rabbit. The wives are being Corporate at their Husbands’ Business Dinner in a Smart Hotel. A masterful black and chrome motorbike dominates the foyer. The media star, dressed for a different evening entirely – cleavage-popping, floor-skimming, black and sparkly, strapless bandage (nearly topless), thigh-high slits, sky-high sandals, blood-red nails, Big Brush blow-dry – is here to Va Va VOOOOOM.
“Lucky sod!” think the other husbands of the celeb’s husband.
(“Why don’t you dress like her?” Homer asks Marge. Just the once.)
Elegantly she glides across the marble floor and clambers, not so elegantly, to straddle the huge machine.
“HERE!” she shouts at the press photographers (who turn up for the opening of an envelope). In the glare of the flashbulbs, the celebrity’s husband smiles a silent scream.
With Bahrain’s paparazzi snapping like they’ve just struck gold, the guests, united by the car-crash splendour of the incident agree unanimously that the evening is one of the best.
The Simpsons are invited to a fortieth birthday party. The theme is Bollywood Bling.
“I’m not dressing up,” says Homer. “What am I? Five?”
Marge isn’t a great fan of dressing-up parties either, unless it’s a decade as opposed to a theme. She feels however an obligation to do some elementary research. What is Bollywood Bling?
“We,” the hostess informs her “Are getting our outfits made by a tailor in Manama.”
“We,” everyone informs Marge “Are all getting our outfits made by their tailor in Manama.”
The Internet, to Marge’s delight, reveals that the great and the good of Bollywood wear sexy western Jessica Rabbit gear to parties and on the red carpet.
“I’m still not dressing up,” says Homer.
“Well I have to wear something,” says Marge. And scours her wardrobe for suitable attire.
As luck would have it, she does have a skirt with an Indian feel. Very Rajasthan. Very TK Maxx. It’s full and white with black swirly patterns and lots of sequins. It’s a midi – not the most flattering length on anyone under five foot five – but it’ll do.
Marge, her outfit sorted, doesn’t try it on in advance. There is no need.
A week to go, all guests receive a text inviting them to contribute a substantial sum (each, not per couple) to the birthday boy’s gift, a mountain bike. It’s not a wedding, thinks Marge. I’ll choose my own present.
The day of the party arrives.
“I’m not dressing up,” says Homer, pulling on his jeans, a T-shirt and a jacket.
The Simpsons can hear music and voices and activity floating up from the party house. People are starting to arrive. Marge tries on her skirt.
Utter. Crap. She looks like grandma going to a gypsy dance.
Now ten minutes late, she resorts to a slinky black pencil skirt, some high wedge sandals and a tight black top. She accessorises with lots of bangles and a necklace from India (she’s trying) and rather pleased with her appearance she goes downstairs.
Homer raises an eyebrow. Hello Jessica Rabbit! Marge grabs the present and off they go.
Their timing couldn’t be worse. As they arrive, the entire party walks out the front door for a photo op on the drive.
Every woman in a sari with jewellery draped self-consciously over her forehead. Every man in a brocaded Nehru jacket, or loose trousers and an ill-fitting tunic.
“Are you the photographer?” Homer I’m-not-dressing-up is asked as he’s handed the camera. All the women, to a woman, subject Marge to a slow once-over. Up, their eyes go flitting over her tight black top. And down they swoop to her high wedge sandals. Such a look from a man might possibly be misconstrued as you’re hotter than an expat woman in a sari. Thrown, as one, by the female faction, it’s clear that nothing could be further from their minds.
Back in the house, the neighbours’ maids and extra serving staff, all Indian, all in traditional dress, line the walls and observe the guests. ‘You wouldn’t get me cleaning in a sari like that,’ Marge hears one of the maids whisper, eyeing her ‘madam’ with a frown.
Feeling like a pariah, Marge takes a deep breath and brazens it out. She searches for the pile of presents to add her gift to but there is none. Every other person has contributed to the bike. Marge’s solitary parcel is thrown on a chair in the corner of the room.
Halfway through the evening, a bugle is blown. It’s time to present The Gift. One of the guests who resembles an adult, rides into the garden on the shiny new bike and cycles it straight into the swimming pool. He gets out, hooks out the bike, bows, and egged on by his mates does a tour of the garden and goes in again. And again. And again. And –
The five hundred pound bike is cycled into the pool five more times, to the bemusement of the party boy and whoops and cheers from the rest of the guests. Marge loves small island life. Whilst Homer may think he looks like a photographer, Marge knows for a fact that she looks like a lemon-sucker.
But just one week more, and the Simpsons’ first year in Bahrain will have come to an end.
To be continued…