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.
Year 3 – Bahrain
JANUARY 2009 – APRIL 2009
“You are going back to school!” Marge informs her now-not-sickly children. Their appetites have returned, and they are squabbling again. A sure sign if ever there was one that that they are all much better. Besides, Marge has embarrassed herself enough for one week, ringing Absence Lines and not being able to remember what classes any of them are in.
Back at work, Marge spends the day writing about the importance of car seats for children. In itself a mundane subject. In Bahrain a revolutionary concept. For here, many like to travel with their babies on their laps. Whilst they are driving. Editor Patsy believes, mistakenly, that because Marge is a mum as well as a writer she must want to write about all things child-related. She thinks she is rewarding Marge by giving her the interview at the new neonatal wing at American Mission Hospital, and endless press releases on high-bling only-in-Bahrain accessories for infants. Patsy doesn’t seem to understand that Marge goes to work to escape the children. Not to write about them.
A spate of unhappy news has unsettled the expat community. In two months, four husbands have lost their lives in car crashes in Saudi. If driving in Bahrain is bad (one quickly learns to drive defensively to avoid near daily accidents), in Saudi the roads are death traps. To add to their distress, the bereaved wives in Bahrain, constrained by Saudi law, are restricted from visiting the Kingdom to retrieve their husband’s bodies, unless accompanied by a male relative. And in one case, the British wife of a Bahraini finds herself with no rights at all as her deceased husband’s family – seemingly open-minded and welcoming when he was alive – now close ranks and attempt to take custody of her children. With no other choice, she is forced to leave Bahrain – her home of many years – and return to the UK with her children.
Times like this, it becomes apparent how tenuous the Middle East expat existence can be.
After contemplating a move to Dubai, Marge and Homer decide that they will stay put in Bahrain for another three years. They are tied to specific time frames to fit in with Bart and Lisa’s exams, but with Dubai facing great debt and its job market no longer secure, it seems wiser to stay where they are. And while six years in Bahrain seems quite a long stretch, safe in the knowledge that it is now not a stepping-stone to somewhere new, Marge can enjoy strengthening her friendships.
The Simpsons watch Obama’s inaugural address live on the Internet – Marge and the children in Bahrain, Homer in Qatar, communicating by phone as they witness it simultaneously in separate countries.
Maggie asks why it is so important that he has become president.
“Your great, great, great grandparents were slaves,” Marge explains, “So it is a significant moment in history to have a black president of the United States.”
Not all Marge and Homer’s friends are in agreement on this, and a lesson learned is that it can be wise, in some circles, to avoid discussing politics.
Bahrain is having its cold spell. The day starts chilly. The house is icy. Marge, acclimatised to a desert climate, goes to work dressed for an Arctic trek. By lunchtime, now twenty-two degrees, thermal leggings and a thermal T-shirt seem ludicrous. Marge thinks she might pass out from the heat. Her new colleague, fresh from the UK, in summer dress and sandals, thinks Marge has lost the plot.
New features for the magazine include A New You: Total Makeover. One of Marge’s friends, game for a laugh, rises to the challenge. The editor wants to eventually include Botox in this series, but although she is familiar with it (and there was Marge thinking Patsy was ten years her junior) if they are going to try it out on members of the public, they must ensure (in a country that has no statutory quality standards), that they are liability-free. So, first month’s makeover focuses on hair and skin. Marge’s friend goes in with wavy blonde shoulder-length hair and emerges with a stiff paint-by-numbers red/copper/bronze striped bob. ‘Interesting’ and ‘80s’ both spring to Marge’s mind. Makeup, by a Chanel makeup artist who probably won’t be winning any awards at London Fashion Week, follows the ‘more is more’ tenet. Marge must leave for an appointment at Maggie’s school before their guinea pig tries on couture by Jaeger. Marge hopes the clothes will do her friend justice as she was really pretty ‘before’ and now looks somewhere between Willy Wonka and Mrs Beauregarde in Johnnie Depp’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Meanwhile, Maggie’s school will insist on parental engagement. Email after email. Maths/Art Week – an afternoon in the classroom to join in with ‘fun’ activities. Character Day – dress the children up as book characters. (Bit of a cop out for Marge after Maggie’s friend’s lovely mum makes the girls long wool plaits.) “Rapunzel!” Marge exclaims, tipping out the Dressing Up box and brandishing the Cinderella dress.
Sports Day – a very long morning watching the children rotate around a series of increasingly pointless non-competitive events (it’s the taking part that counts). Until the one running race at the end, where Someone Is Allowed To Win. And the Parents’ Race. Where they nearly kill each other to win. Apart from Marge. She refuses to take part, not having run on principle since an unfortunate game of softball-in-the-park in her twenties with work colleagues, when, so unfit, she could not walk afterwards for a week.
With Valentine’s Day imminent, the religious police are busy in Saudi enforcing the annual ban on red roses. Alarabiya News reports the country’s latest law allowing girls as young as ten to be married if their families desire it.
‘Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti okayed marriage for girls starting at age 10 and criticized those who want to raise the legal marriageable age, according to news reports.
‘Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh said a girl becomes ready for marriage at 10 or 12 according to Islam and stressed that Islamic law is not by any means oppressive to women, the London-based al-Hayat reported Wednesday.
‘”Those who call for raising the age of marriage to 25 are absolutely mistaken,” al Sheikh said in a lecture he gave at the faculty housing mosque of Imam Mohamed bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.
‘”Our mothers and grandmothers got married when they were barely 12. Good upbringing makes a girl ready to perform all marital duties at that age.”
‘Al-Sheikh’s statements came in response to a question from a female attendee about marrying minor girls without their consent.’
A lot of red roses to miss out on, muses Marge.
Bart and his friends are busy rehearsing with their band – The Frets. Marge interviews them for the youth magazine and Homer, photographer extraordinaire, who may, in a past life, have made ripples on the music scene, has them on the roof of the house, striking album-cover poses for the magazine piece.
Editor Patsy decides she’d like to meet them. And returns to the office buzzing.
“They’re gorgeous,” she purrs.
“They’re fifteen,” Marge mumbles, unsure whether she should care that someone her age was flirting with her son and his friends.
Marge attends her book group. A great mix of friends. Their first book is The Shack. Marge is ambivalent about book groups. She likes being made to read books she might not usually read, but always feels a little intimidated about offering her two cents’ worth. She makes some intelligent sounding notes and plucks up courage to state a few opinions, but as the only person there who does not, it materialises, believe in God, she is slightly hesitant about being too vocal. In the event, that is not a worry. A few talk enough for everybody.
Close friends from the UK fly out to stay with the Simpsons. Marge is delighted to see them and loves playing at tourists again. She makes a comprehensive itinerary. The souk. The gold souk. The spice souk. The fabric souk. The old jewellery souk. They will buy a musical camel, pashmina shawls and Bedouin jewellery. A visit to the A’ali potteries. A trip out to the desert for a walk along the ridges of the sand peaks (but not on the weekend when young Bahrainis and Saudis screech up and down the dunes in their buggies). They’ll go to Janabiya camel farm and for a walk around the natural leafy oasis and farms off the Budaiya Highway. And will celebrate their reunion with a brunch and beach day. At work, an artist Marge has recently interviewed invites her to the opening of his exhibition. And there’s another outing for the visitors!
Having guests allows Marge to appreciate expat life in all its splendour.
A second set of houseguests follows. Marge rehashes the last lot’s itinerary. Breezes through hostess duties. Is slightly less enthusiastic than before. Having people to stay becomes second nature and as long as guests are happy to muck in, be a little independent and help clear a table, Marge is happy. But secretly she thinks a perfect stay would last twenty-four hours, tops.
When she needs a break, she escapes to work. Attending a press conference for the opening of the Royal College of Irish Surgeons, she learns that this sparkling new facility will be just for private patients. And only Bahraini nationals. She wonders how a similar concept might go down in the UK. A private hospital in London, say, purely for English patients. The event is redeemed (but only just) by the goodie bag – a nice pen and a folder for her notepad.
Back in the office, Marge scrolls through her emails. Only to discover that one is a fierce argument between Editor Patsy and husband The Publisher. It’s been sent to Marge in error, is long and ranting, and makes a surprisingly good read. Whilst not one for gossip (much), Marge thinks it would be wrong not to show it to her nice colleague on the neighbouring desk before deleting it. After all, as well as needing someone to gasp about it with, she feels a second opinion about what to do next might come in useful – should she say something or pretend she’s never seen it?
Unfortunately, it’s very clear that Patsy knows Marge has seen it, because apart from the fact that sending an emailed marital argument to one of your staff is such an unusual slip of the hand, that unless you were blind drunk or in a coma you’d be hard pressed not to know you’d added a random colleague to the ‘To’ section, she blanks Marge for a week.
Then, everything returns to normal. And it’s calm again. For a bit.
But Bahrain at large is less harmonious. One Friday, a peaceful Shia protest against police brutality ends in shooting from the armed forces, resulting in many injuries. A couple of weeks later, during a similar march, some children are caught in the crossfire. Feelings run high. People are angry. Homer must collect Bart and his friends from the Rugby Club after tear gas is let off in the neighbourhood.
Meanwhile, in Dubai, property prices fall by forty one per cent, job opportunities around the region are diminishing and Homer and Marge have an about turn regarding their future plans. For the sake of the family and their relationship they agree they should all be in the same place as Homer’s work. Many husbands in Bahrain work in Saudi, or another Gulf country, or travel relentlessly around the region. It is commonplace for husbands to live elsewhere during the week and fly home for weekends. Wives support each other and this is fine. But Marge is not sure it is something she wishes to continue for too long. More than anything else, it’s lonely.
With rents in Dubai at an all time low, the summer holidays would be the right time to make the move. All the children have now been offered school places. Bart will do his A Levels there, Lisa her GCSEs. Marge is excited about the prospect of living somewhere new, but won’t dwell just yet on the reality of organising a transfer in twelve weeks time or of leaving the lovely friends she has made. The Simpsons hold off telling people straight away. It’s easier to enjoy their time remaining if they are not in ‘moving on’ mode. And they wish to avoid, for a little while longer, the inevitable emotional detachment from those who are staying – a form of self-preservation to reduce the sadness that occurs when the expat community shape-shifts as it frequently does.
Marge feels confident she will be able to find work on another magazine. Dubai has all the international glossies and Marge now has a portfolio. How hard can it be?
The children have mixed emotions. Lisa can’t wait to move. Bart is equable. He’ll miss his friends, but many are also moving on for A Levels, so they’re all in the same boat. But Maggie is sad. Extremely settled, her friends across the street are her world. Her happy Bahrain existence is all she is has known. For the first time, Marge is considering the adoption of a puppy when they move countries to help with the transition. It’s taken three years to feel like they belong. She will not think about the imminent goodbyes.
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 22