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.
It’s May Day and half term and the Simpsons visit Dubai. They are staying in a shopping mall, which in any other country would be cause for despair, but in Dubai is a reason to rejoice. Madly glamorous, a hedonist’s delight, it’s Friday night and it’s Oxford-Street-during-the-sales-on-acid. Marge ogles the clothes shops, drools at the bookshops, never wants to leave. But having walked through the wardrobe and entered Narnia, Homer has other ideas. It may be forty degrees outside, they may be in an air-conditioned shopping mall, but who can resist the lure of thermals and a snowsuit, a fake mountain and 6000 tons of snow?
Homer, Lisa and Bart ski. Marge and Maggie toboggan. They drink hot chocolate in a café with overhead heaters to keep them warm, and Christmas theme prevailing, hole themselves up in their hotel room to gorge on films and complimentary cakes and drinks.
Tiring eventually of playing at winter, they go back through the wardrobe to heat and light. Arabia. Dubai. They visit the Science Museum and Children’s City, eat lots more and go home.
The family has enjoyed the opportunity to regroup, for Homer has been notching up the air miles as if his life depended on it. Dubai, London, Bahrain, Saudi, London, Bahrain, India… no, not India – couldn’t get a visa in time. Apart from his Tales From Saudi – the Death By PowerPoint Conference, women being confined to a screened area for the duration of the event, and Homer’s inclination to stir things up with discussions on religion and abayas – Marge had lost track of her husband’s whereabouts.
Busy with the art gallery, ‘Moroccan Cultural Week’ sees a Grand Opening, a dinner, a fashion show and a concert. Marge works days and evenings fantasising relentlessly on a satisfying comeuppance for Boss Lady whose spite and anger know no bounds. But moving immediately onto the next exhibition ‘Calligraphy: Words and Alphabets Used In Art’ (a title so long and clunky it makes a mockery of calligraphy as art) Marge has no time to iron out the finer details.
Then, Marge’s Nice Colleague collapses from exhaustion. Sobbing and emotional, she begs Marge not to share her phone number with Boss Lady as Marge bundles her into a taxi and sends her home.
BL rants and rages. ‘How dare Nice Colleague be ill! How dare she not wish to talk to BL. How dare Marge not give BL her phone number.’
No one can sustain eighteen-hour days, seven days a week, states Marge. BL refuses to talk to Marge any more. When she wishes to communicate, she calls her out of office and screams some more.
Marge has had enough.
Homer has had enough of Marge having enough.
“Please leave,” he urges.
Marge waits until the customers have left, then enters BL’s office.
“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to work in your gallery…” she says.
Anticipating flattery, Boss Lady allows herself the flicker of a smile.
“… But I am leaving today.”
The smile dies.
“Your behaviour is execrable,” Marge continues bravely, “And I can’t work with someone who lacks basic business manners.”
BL jumps up. “There have been complaints about your behaviour,” she screeches.
Marge stands her ground. “You are a bully. You abuse your staff. Goodbye.”
All well and good. But now Marge has no job. She needs a plan. She’ll get a treadmill. She’ll walk fast each day. She Will Get Fit. But with Homer somewhere in the world that is not Bahrain, she can’t get the treadmill immediately – he wants to try before they buy. She finds Exercise Classes.
The first she samples, in a light, airy hall, has drums and windpipes. “Feel the music with your body.Let your energy flow. Express yourself with sound.”
Women grunt and sigh, float and jerk. They are Barbra Streisand in Meet the Fockers. Toddlers being aeroplanes. Fans of natural childbirth. Lovers of tantric everything.
Marge signs up for Pilates and Power-Stretching with Ana instead. A professional dancer from Brazil, now a fitness trainer because Samba’s Too Sexy For Bahrain, Ana is glorious. Lithe and muscular, fizzy and vibrant, she speaks no English but her classes are inspiring.
Which is more than can be said for Bart’s geography lessons. Exams imminent, Marge has taken time to help Bart with some revision. She wishes she hadn’t.
“’Things’ and ‘bits’ tell me nothing about arêtes and glacier formation,” she weeps. But Bart is distracted. His band has made it into the Rock and Pop Concert at the Crowne Plaza! That’s what counts! That’s what’s important.
Marge watches him perform.
Can that confident lead singer of a rock band really be her child with the messy bedroom? Awe-struck, she is filled with unexpected pride and pleasure at the discovery that her son has hidden talents.
Lisa finishes her exams (at least she did some work), while Bart (who’s not even started) is lying on the sofa, clutching his leg in pain. He’s injured it at rugby; he can’t do any more revision.
“Any would be nice,” sniffs Marge.
“What’s the problem?” he asks. “I’m set for straight As. Simple as that.”
Marge prays to the God Of Exams And Wishful Thinking that his results are on a par with his self-belief.
Maggie meanwhile is very pleased with herself. Best Friend has taught her something new.
“Guess!” she urges, all excited. “Go on, guess-guess-guess what it is.”
Marge does try, but comes nowhere close. Which is not surprising. For Best Friend, a little older, a little wiser, has been creative. With Ken and Barbie as her models she has spent the afternoon teaching Maggie about the birds and the bees.
Lovely, thinks Marge. One less task for me.
In the news, a Bangladeshi man, working as a mechanic in a garage, repairs a Bahraini customer’s car and presents him with the bill. The customer refuses to pay and punches the mechanic. The mechanic picks up a metal wrench.
And kills him.
The Bahraini government decides to stop the entry of Bangladeshis into Bahrain and ceases the renewal of existing visas.
Within days there is a surge of attacks on innocent Bangladeshis. The Bahrain government instigates an online poll. Are Bangladeshis a danger to Bahrainis? 90% of respondents feel that they are and should be made to leave the country. As much of Bahrain’s labour-force is Bangladeshi, it will be interesting to see how this develops. As will the place Bahrain has recently won on the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Meanwhile, amongst the media there is great excitement. Bahrain is to ban the imprisonment of journalists for reporting ‘freely’. Ranked 118th out of 169 countries (in Reporters Without Borders’ Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2007), out of the Gulf States only Saudi Arabia (148) is ranked lower.
Human rights and freedom of the press (or lack of both) interest Marge, particularly since working at the Gallery. Her work there has also allowed her to establish strong links with Bahrain’s media, and in the process she has learnt to write press releases, artists’ bios and organise exhibitions. With her new set of skills she helps the British Ambassador’s wife arrange an evening of artists at the Embassy.
Homer returns home after three long weeks away, surprised to find the house harmonious, Marge cheerful, and the children calm. He anticipates that this might not last, but Marge, for now, has become a woman with purpose. A social butterfly, she’s gone mad with the supper dates: meals out; her birthday; a barbecue with friends; and, icing on the gâteau – a ‘proper’ dinner at their house for Embassy people, and, a couple known only to Homer. Marge will like them, he assures her. He just needs to remember their names.
As the Ambassador drives into their street with an armed detail, it occurs to Marge that her social life is a little bit extra.
Then they are invited to a Carnivale-themed Leaving/40th Birthday bash with Radio Bahrain’s DJ Krazy Kevin on the decks, a circus marquee, fancy dress, photographers from Bahrain’s answer to Vanity Fair – Bahrain Confidential Magazine – and a triple page spread across its Society Pages.
Marge’s social life extra? It might still have a way to go.
A tornado is happening somewhere and Bahrain receives the tail end. Lightning, fierce winds, a yellow-cellophane veil of sand and dust.
Summer is dragging its feet. Marge, another year on, teases herself with a little game she likes to play: One Day
One Day (in her dreams) she will live in a house of glass and wood on a natural coastline in a climate that is balmy and lovely. A stone’s throw away there’ll be a beach and pine forests and a river. She will laugh. All the time. And have a job that is stimulating but not stressful. Even better, she and Homer will work together (though she has yet to convince him of the sagacity of that idea). She will discover the perfect balance to Having It All. And like all the protagonists in the books she insists on reading, she will, after outlandish yet impressive challenges, find contentment and her best self.
Marge wonders if it is healthy to harbour such fantasies. She is not unhappy, she is having an adventure, and although she misses Homer, she is not too lonely. She has even been invited to the Queen’s Birthday Party.
The night is steaming and Marge and Homer and a thousand other Brits sweat it out in the Embassy gardens. A band plays rousing British tunes and as she small-talks with diplomats and Navy types, Marge, a little peckish, gratefully accepts a canapé. She bites off the sort of mouthful that would allow her to chew and talk simultaneously without ejecting spitty-bits, but the canapé has other ideas. Gristly and fibrous, it’s all or nothing. It all goes in.
And that’s when Marge discovers that this innocuous-looking roll of pink rare beef is so much more than it seemed.
For as she tries to chew (there’s little room for manoeuvre) a slyly concealed block of liver reveals itself as if by magic. So bitter, so tough, she needs to gag. Eyes watering, cheeks bulging, it occurs to Marge that she’s never had such an unpleasant organ in her mouth in all her life. Jaw straining, hysteria rising, she has to admit defeat. Two fingers up to the Diplomatic Protocol and Etiquette Rule Book, Marge grasps an ashtray, retreats behind a tree and disgorges the meat-fest out of her mouth.
Later that week, an advertisement in Bahrain Confidential catches her eye. The magazine requires a Proof Reader.
“I like the advertisement,” Marge tells the Editor at the interview. “It’s really clever.”
The Editor looks bemused. “Clever? How?”
“All the typos,” Marge says.
“I’m dyslexic,” the Editor says. “That’s why I need a proof reader.”
To her delight, Marge gets the job. Working on the editorial team, she will write features and interview people as well as proof reading. She can’t believe her luck. What an amazing opportunity. She would never have had this chance back home. Particularly after a having-children career break.
Marge goes on fashion shoots, and transforms press releases on beauty products into advertorials. Weekly, the magazine receives a plethora of glossy promo bumph and testers for each new perfume, makeup item, miracle beauty product, cellulite-buster, lip-plumping lipstick on the market. Weekly, the Editor fills a goody box full of samples and shares them with the team.
In her first issue, Marge writes about plastic bags and pollution; a new hospital; oils and candles. She tackles summer promotions and holiday camps and ‘What’s On in Bahrain in the Summer’ (quite a short piece). She proofreads page after page until she’s seeing double, and as Queen of Beauty Trivia, she masters a glamorous new vocabulary: revolutionary and invigorating, top notes and original, refreshing, revitalising, mouth-watering, captivating, seductive, serene, poetic. Life-enhancing.
Her mind on holidays, Marge shops for the summer trip to Cyprus. Unaccustomed to revealing flesh, it feels risqué to be buying strappy tops and little shorts, sundresses and mini skirts. This catches her by surprise. Has she been here too long?
And then something happens to reinforce that thought. A weekend, and a neighbour must work. She leaves her children, let’s call them Jack and Jill, with their maid Gita. Maggie and the other children are all playing in the street, when Jack runs out his house crying, “I’ve escaped from Gita; she was keeping us prisoner. Jill can’t come and play.”
Maggie tells Marge. Marge knocks at Jack and Jill’s front door.
“Can Jill come out and play with the other children?” she asks Gita.
Gita mumbles something about lunch.
“Have they eaten their lunch?” Marge asks.
“Yes,” Gita replies, “but Jill can’t come out and play, she is busy.”
“Where is Jill? Marge asks.
“Let’s ask her if she’d like to come out and play,” suggests Marge.
Gita shuts the door. And locks it.
Marge tells Homer. Homer knocks on Jack and Jill’s front door. Orders Gita to open up. Asks where Jill is.
Lunch. Busy. Upstairs.
“JILL!” he shouts, “Do you want to come and play?”
“YES!” shouts Jill. She tears down the stairs, squeezes past Gita and out into the street
Marge rings Jack and Jill’s mother, relays the incident. And that Gita has started referring to Jack as her son. The mother asks Marge to keep the children with her until she gets home.
This should ring alarm bells for Marge. But it no longer does.
Yes, she has been in Bahrain too long.
Definitely time for a break.
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 20