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.
Bahrain – Year 3
With Easter fast approaching, Homer and Marge, as is their custom, flying by the seat of their pants, plan, last minute, a trip to Oman. Before they go, their social calendar is go, go, go. A friend’s birthday dinner, themed – Pie and Ale (as themes go – an excellent one). Drinks with Homer’s colleagues. Dinner with friends to cheer on Bart’s band playing its first gig. A long set – an hour – twelve songs – half their own, half covers. Marge is impressed.
A new gallery has opened and its inaugural exhibition showcases the work of sixteen photographers. Marge’s brief is to write about three of them. She interviews a Fine Arts student from one of the local universities for the youth magazine, and does some research for an article about Yves Saint Laurent.
It pleases her that she is now being given the art features – it gives her the opportunity to meet local artists and attend all the exhibitions. In between her own articles she is sub editing other people’s work and proof reading everything before it goes to print. Having a background in languages is more useful than she could have imagined, for sometimes she must translate from English As A Foreign Language to English As It Is Spoke. She appreciates how lucky she has been to have had the opportunity to break her journalistic teeth on these magazines and will miss her colleagues very much when she moves on. She also knows that she would have never have had this chance in the UK. She hopes it is something she will be able to continue to do when they move to Dubai.
Coldplay comes to Abu Dhabi and Marge is offered complimentary tickets. For a crazy second, in her parallel fantasy life – the one where she is young, free and single – she feels a glimmer of excitement. Not because she’s hugely desperate to see Coldplay. Though she does like Viva la Vida (although she doesn’t even know that’s what it’s called), but because it’s so rare that she’s given complimentary tickets for anything. And then she remembers. The three children. The husband in another country. A weeknight. She cannot believe that she’s actually going to do this, but she holds them up in the office and asks who’d like them. A young(er) child-free colleague, for whom ‘commitment’ and ‘compromise’ belong in a game of Scruples or a far off future where dreams go to die, relieves Marge of them faster than she can say ‘my life’s so blessed’.
Easter comes and the trip to Oman. Until now, vacations have centred round the annual summer Duty Tour back to the UK. This is the Simpsons’ first family trip east. And has been organised by Homer. An Adventure Holiday that will take them off the beaten track and will remind Marge of backpacking days gone by
The most beautiful country Marge has ever seen, she is moved to extreme lyrical waxing. Mountains of ash-grey lava rise dramatically as if a giant has taken a jug and drizzled random heaps across the landscape. Colossal boulders piled precariously resemble gravity-defying rock-balancing sculptures. Petrol-blue wadis are fed by crystal-clear waterfalls, and apricot-coloured deserts of the finest, softest sand stretch as far as the eye can see.
One night they camp in bamboo huts in the silent star-lit desert. So peaceful, so calm, Marge sleeps more soundly than can ever remember. Another, they wake early to watch turtles lay their eggs on the beach before the sun comes up. They go dune bashing down slopes so vertical, so vertiginous, they fear their 4×4 might tip and tumble. They drive up Oman’s highest mountain, along a spiralling road, so narrow, so terrifying, they can only exhale when they are on the flat again.
They swim in natural lakes, picnic in a cave during a downpour, explore a deserted fort, see dhows made in the traditional way, and share dates and coffee with a Bedouin family in the desert.
The children, philistines, can’t wait to return to friends and a social life, but Oman is so stunning, its people so warm, the holiday so magnificent, Marge and Homer are reluctant to leave.
Back in Bahrain, they receive an invitation to the Queen’s Birthday Party at the British Embassy.
“Do we have to go Homer?” Marge asks.
“It’s only drinks, Marge,” he soothes. “We won’t stay long.”
“Oh. Kay.” She huffs.
The devil! He’s tricked her! ‘Only drinks’ is a soirée of the most formal kind, for the Simpsons and four hundred of the Ambassador’s closest friends. Dignitaries, other ambassadors, Navy types and every other Brit in Bahrain. There’s the requisite regimental band, the national anthem, the lowering of the flag at sunset, a giant birthday cake, canapés (so many canapés), and small talk for hours and hours.
Marge proposes one of her favourite books to the Book Group. So far they’ve had two fairly virtuous godly novels; time to shake it up a bit. The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold. The protagonist, after killing her mother in the first chapter and chopping off dead mum’s hated long grey plait, then has sex with her best friend’s son. To Marge’s relief, seven out of the ten love it.
A friend of Marge’s is concerned about the welfare of her neighbour’s maid. The maid has sent a written message to Marge’s friend via her own maid asking for help. She is being kept prisoner. Her ‘madam’ took the maid’s passport at the start of her employment – and will not give it back. Marge’s friend is in contact with the maid’s embassy and is looking to help her escape. Marge cannot understand how the madam – an American woman – a black American woman whose own ancestors would have been slaves not so long ago, can now repeat such abuse. But maybe not for much longer.
For Bahrain has just announced that it is going to scrap its sponsorship system for foreign workers.
Currently all foreigners in Bahrain must have a sponsor before they can work and live in the country. For people such as Homer and his peers – employed at senior management level – they have, within reason, rights and freedom. Migrant workers who make up the labour force – the builders, maids, drivers, cooks etc. are not so lucky. When they come into Bahrain, their Bahraini employers take their passports for the duration of their contract. They cannot quit their jobs or terminate their contract at will. They are not allowed to leave the country without their employer’s permission. Often, employers will extort a large fee before the workers can return to their home countries. Such workers, on a cripplingly low wage – ninety per cent of which they send home to their families, the majority of whom live in single-sex labour camps in dire conditions, are therefore further penalised. For if they stay, when they wish to leave, they are abused and punished, and if they wish to leave, they must pay, face prison if they go into debt, or leave poorer than when they arrived.
Under the proposed new legislation, workers will be directly sponsored by the Labour Authority not their employers. They will be allowed to change jobs, and terminate their contracts by simply giving notice. Changes will allegedly take place in August. Too late for Marge’s friend’s maid. And the maid Marge knows whose (British) employers only return her passport once a year so that she may travel to her home country to see her children. They buy her the air ticket, the ‘madam’ tells Marge. What has she got to complain about?
Nevertheless, the other maid escapes. Aided by Marge’s friend, the embassy and a human rights agency, she gets away and her passport is retrieved.
The Grand Prix hits Bahrain. A dearth of interesting events elevates this one to National Holiday status. Schools are closed so that families may attend. Bart and two of his friends have been offered VIP tickets by the father of one of them. Marge and Homer take Lisa and Maggie. En route there are the annual roadblocks and armed police out in force to protect the F1 drivers, their fans, and all those privileged enough to afford the non-profit-making circus from the disgruntled Shias who, grasping the fleeting attendance of the international media as a way to gain the world’s attention, take to the streets to protest against the human rights violations carried out by the Sunni rulers.
Forty degrees and deafeningly loud, if Marge is honest, watching a car whizz by once every ten minutes is – so what. But she understands that if she were a Jenson Button fan it would be absolutely bloody brilliant. And she can at least tick it off her list of Things to Do Before She Dies.
With the move to Dubai looming, Marge considers her work/life balance. She loves working at the magazine and is sad that she will soon be leaving. She hopes she will be able to find something similar in Dubai. But how to juggle everything? She currently works each day till school pick-up and then it’s the washing-cooking-chauffeuring-childcare rollercoaster until bedtime. Weekends, when Homer’s home, are for sleep-recovery and seeing friends. It’s fun, but she’s always knackered. If she could have the job, but also a bit more guilt-free ‘me’ time in the week that would be ideal. She needs to do more exercise – for her achey back and general wellbeing, have a job, and have a little space between those two goalposts, from kids and household chores. Is that even do-able or is she hoping for a miracle?
She will give in her notice at the end of April and stop work at the end of May. That way she will have a month to organise the move and catch up with friends – many of whom are also leaving. She is sad to be saying goodbye and will miss their friendship enormously. But she is ready to leave Bahrain. Living there has been a privilege – to lead this lifestyle, learn about the culture, meet the people she’s met, and start a career that she loves. But equally she has found small-island life stifling and a challenge. Never a particularly political person, she has missed freedom of speech, equality of the sexes and basic human rights. She is under no illusion that Dubai will be a whole lot better – it is after all the world centre of bling and excess, but it is larger – one emirate of several, is more cosmopolitan, and, if nothing else, it has pavements and beaches. As for Homer, he can’t wait to stop hopping on and off planes, living in a hotel room during the week, and be back together with the family again.
It’s Labour Day, a holiday, and dinner out with friends. To a new restaurant on the fifty-second floor of a new tower block in Bahrain. A Michelin-starred dinner, punctuated with amuse-bouches and palate cleansers, is only eclipsed by the stunning views.
Bart and his band perform in the school’s Rock and Pop concert They are good, but the highlight of the evening is their music teacher – a lovely lady, if slightly eccentric – dressed in a mini-mini denim skirt, an Oliver Twist cap, cowboy boots and a bandanna wrapped round one knee. As the music starts, the venue’s power gives out, but ever the consummate performer, she belts out ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’, completely flat, in the pitch black.
Marge’s workplace has started to resemble the TV series – The Office. The Editor and the Publisher, married to each other, are going through something of a marital hiccup. Whilst he has moved out of their home, they are still working together and the atmosphere is tense. Daily there are tantrums – from up high and then filtering down below – usually in the reception area. Everyone keeps their heads down to avoid the next bollocking. Homer is staggered by Marge’s Tales From The Editing Floor, but after some of the places she has worked in during the last three years, this one is, without a doubt, the best.
Her birthday imminent, Marge has organised lunch out with her girlfriends. It’s taken three years to find her group, and now she is leaving. Despite the fact that the expat lifestyle is a transitory one, the mechanics of friend-making cannot be rushed. An organic process, it takes time to establish good and real attachments. Unfortunately, the fleeting nature of the overseas posting is not conducive to long term relationships. But, thanks to social media, and the fact that the bond formed amongst expat friends is uniquely strong, Marge will discover that these friendships endure and she remains emotionally close to many of her expat mates for years to come.
She thinks however that when she moves to Dubai, she will try, if possible, to find her tribe a little quicker, so that she can spend more quality time with them.
Homer, in Dubai, has started searching for their new home. It transpires, however, that Marge’s requirements and Homer’s are slightly different. Marge would put a decent kitchen as a priority. Nice bathrooms. Lots of wardrobes. Near to the beach. Not completely open-plan. Homer, on the other hand, would like a games room, a swimming pool, a gym, and (in one particular case) a slide from one of the bedrooms to the pool in the garden.
“Do not sign anything until I arrive,” Marge says, panicking.
Her excitement has turned to anxiety. The logistics, the organisation, the finding a new home and becoming part of a community again. Hard work.
The mercury rises to forty-nine degrees and it’s Marge’s last week at work. She is reflective. Bahrain has been their home since 2006 and to be excited about the next stage feels like she’s writing off everything they’ve done in the last three years. She drives past Cappuccino Café and instantly remembers that that’s where Homer got a takeaway from on the first night in their new home. She must start taking photos of everything as a record of their time there. Moving somewhere new is exciting, but the reality of leaving lovely people is hard. She wonders how some of their embassy friends who have been moving every two or three years for ten/fifteen/twenty years do it? She guesses it’s about developing a thick skin.
To be continued…