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.
Autumn is imminent, the mercury has dropped to 32 degrees on cooler days, the dates are ripening, ready to harvest, and weekends now see the Simpsons in the villages of Bahrain from 8.30am every Saturday. For Homer has masterminded a football competition – Shootha Sa7 – where more than 1300 of Bahrain’s young soccer players will come together over the month for eight qualifying events at various football clubs around the island to showcase their skills and compete to become the Shootha Club Champions of the Kingdom.
Each Saturday that month, the nondescript dusty village football pitches around Bahrain bring together the never-before-seen mix of bright young employees from western companies and teams of Bahraini youths from the villages. Trailers distribute Coca Cola and McDonalds, for these are the sponsors of the competition. And Marge and the children (somewhat less enthusiastic than their parents), and male members of the players’ families are all there to lend their support.
This is Homer’s swansong. For he is off to work in pastures new. After an intriguing couple of years (the first – a year of commuting monthly to Bahrain whilst he was still living in the UK, the second – Marge’s first – in Bahrain with all the family) he is ready to change direction.
A new job.
In a different country.
The family will not move with him as Bart is halfway through his GCSEs.
Marge is not sure how she feels about this. When will she now get to wear all the new dresses she has brought back from England for all the lavish events she has become accustomed to attending? And, she can’t be sure, but does it seem – just a bit – like she might have pulled the short straw?
Homer must spend two weeks in London for training and induction. Two weeks of single parenting for Marge. Two hours of school run in the morning. Two in the afternoon. Three hours with the silent woman in the conservation laboratory in the museum. Then Mummy Duties until bedtime. She feels exhausted just thinking about it.
There is no question that Marge is happy for Homer. This is a nice job that does not include 15 crises a day or the behavioural foibles that only the very over-privileged may assume. He has pleasant new colleagues and feels stimulated and valued.
She is very pleased about all of that.
It’s the other details she is less benevolent about. The ones that were mentioned in a rather mumbled, hurried way. The ones she has only just assimilated. He will be working in Dubai – a city with pavements – three days a week, living in a 5* hotel, while she has been left to run the show in Bahrain. Marge feels sour for a while. The time it takes Homer, back on the weekends, to remember that home is not a 5* hotel and Everyone Must Muck In.
With next to nothing to do in the museum, the woman with whom she restores pots now on leave due to deaths in her family, Marge has taken to roaming the exhibition halls. The museum is a beautiful building, but visitors are few and far between. On one of her explorations she is thrilled to discover a really interesting book (title notwithstanding) – Investigations in a Shi’a Village in Bahrain – chained to a table in the centre of the Discovering Dilmun display. Indifferent to museum protocol, Marge makes herself comfortable on the floor under the table – the chain is just long enough – and reads the book – written in the sixties by an adventurous Danish artist called Henny Harald Hansen – cover to cover.
She does not know it then, but six years later, when she has to return to the UK, the Danish archaeological team, with whom she will work in the coming months, enjoy this anecdote so much that they remove this chain-pierced edition of the book from the exhibition stand and send it to Marge as a gift, a note attached saying (amongst other things) – “as a small token of our gratitude and thanks to the modern strong woman of Saar”. This will be one of the loveliest presents Marge has ever received.
With more free time on her hands, Marge has time to reflect that in her first year abroad, working on the basis that she had good friends in the UK, she neglected to cultivate much of a friendship group in Bahrain. But friends 4000 miles away are not much use here. And with Homer in Dubai during the week, she needs to get out more if she is to have some fun.
Meanwhile a work opportunity has tenuously presented itself. A friend – a newsreader on Bahrain TV and Radio – has asked Marge if she might be interested in training to become a newsreader too. What has Marge to lose? She sends off her CV and is asked to come and take a written test and a voice test. For this she will need to know the names of the king (Hamad), the Crown Prince (Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa) and the Premier – Shaikh bin Salman al Khalifa. And all the countries in the Gulf. And the state of play in current affairs.
History, geography (and science) were never Marge’s strong subjects and retaining any facts about them were near impossible. Added to which she would be the first to admit that her knowledge of current affairs in the Middle East is zero to none. In the privacy of her kitchen, she takes to scouring the newspapers, practising her pronunciation of important names and pretending to read the news without swallowing mid-sentence.
In the event, the test has to be postponed. The woman who holds the key to the cupboard that houses the written test is away. And no one knows when she will be back. Marge thinks this would be hilarious were it not her reality.
Homer regales Marge with a tale about the black tie dinner and auction he had to attend in Dubai for a sports charity. The first lot (of 25) – a nondescript polo shirt worn by one of the sheikhs for a horse-riding event – is sold, after twenty minutes of bidding, for the equivalent of 2.5 million pounds. Homer, stunned by the scale of spending, and the time it takes to spend such quantities, leaves before the end. Marge meanwhile is cultivating a social life of her own. There’s a housewarming gathering, a party at a new friend’s, a girls’ night out, and a Bahraini friend’s birthday celebration in an Iftar tent at a local restaurant.
Marge, unsure what she should wear to the birthday do (will everyone be in abayas?) thinks she can’t go wrong with smart-casual. A fan of men’s jeans – the lower the crotch, the more comfortable the fit – she decides, just for once, to wear the new skin-tight-leg-lengthening-Homer-approved ones bought for Special Occasions: no sitting, no eating, no longer than an hour. Marge and her friend arrive at the restaurant at 8.30. The birthday girl and her friends (not one in an abaya) arrive at 9.30. They eat at midnight and get home after 2am.
Like a fat turkey over-trussed with elastic cord, Marge has never been so uncomfortable in her life.
Ramadan comes to an end, Homer is home for Eid, the children are on half term and the Simpsons visit the new Lost Paradise of Dilmun Waterpark. One wonders briefly if this is the best use of water in a desert, in a country where showing flesh in public is a no-no. But it is a new tourist destination. These are few and far between. And EVERYONE is going. There is the small matter of several hundred sex-starved labourers stood, as a man, on the upper platforms of the construction site of the neighbouring Banyan Tree Resort directly overlooking the waterpark, drooling at their wet dream vision of the entire population of oiled-up expat women wearing scraps of bikinis. But that’s a small price to pay for a day of happy children.
A dolphin safari is relegated to ‘boat trip’ when the dolphins don’t show. And Marge, remembering it is conker season back home, reminisces briefly on autumn leaves and Guy Fawkes night. But invitations to a barbecue, an open-house Eid party and a surge of cultural events – The Italian Week of Culture, with a beautiful exhibition of glass and silver at the art gallery adjacent to the museum; a week-long World Music Festival, numerous art exhibitions; and the V8 Australian motor team at the F1 track for a weekend of races, entertainment and music – occurring throughout the island all at the same time provide a welcome distraction.
National Costume Day, very Groundhog Day, comes round again, and Marge, now a dab hand at the costume lark whips up funky-punky Jamaican/English outfits for Lisa and Maggie. Maggie meanwhile, doing her bit to advance Marge’s social standing, is invited to a friend’s house after school. Within walking distance of the Simpsons’, they live in Turk Gardens. Marge has not appreciated that the child’s family is the ‘Turk’ in Turk Gardens. They own the compound. Their house is the palace. They have an army of staff. The child’s mum tells Marge that Maggie must come and play whenever she fancies – Marge must just give her a call and she’ll send round one of the nannies to chaperone Maggie home.
The weather changes further bringing cool breezes and pleasant temperatures: ideal for the new archaeological dig. Run by a team from Denmark, Marge is made welcome from the start. Centred around a couple of burial mounds dating back 5000 years, this dig, Marge discovers, is her most physically demanding one yet. The burial mounds are dense hillocks of rock, sand, soil and stone, surrounded by rock ring-walls concealing burial chambers. Two weeks in they are still clearing top layers. She relishes the five-hour workout with a pickaxe each day and with English as the official language, can finally communicate and understand what she is doing.
At the end of the dig, Marge is invited to assist one of the team with drawing and cataloguing artefacts. She is installed in a small conservation lab at the museum. It is gratifying to have her own office again. And once the old human bones are removed, the fusty smell fades fast.
Flowerbeds all over the island are filled with petunias, the dates on the trees are being harvested, the days grow dark at 5.30 now and Bart will soon turn fifteen.
The only present he can even consider is a moped.
Marge explains nicely that even if she thought a moped was a good idea, which she doesn’t, she wasn’t planning on spending £500 on his fifteenth birthday present. Bart finds this desperately unfair. His friends think it’s normal to call up a private driver for a 500-metre trip. And Lisa snaps at Marge that they are no longer living in England, so there is no point translating the cost of things to pounds anymore as they don’t need to know how much things really cost. Marge, tackling single-married parenthood ineffectually, turns into Meanest Mother In The World. Sensing a complete mutiny on her hands, she draws up a menu of chores and sticks copies on every available vertical surface. Each child will now need to complete these every day before they can have their weekly allowance.
Bart at the end of the first week, now several dinars down, flexes his illogical teenage muscles and pushes for more freedom. Cross when he is grounded for telling his mother to piss off, he cannot understand why Marge does not back down after his version of an apology.
“Mum, please, I’ve said I’m sorry – and I hate you because you won’t let me go out, but please let me go out tonight, I’ve learnt my lesson… it’s not fair… I hate you.”
Marge cannot wait for Homer to get home.
One weekend they are spoilt for choice with concerts. Two on one night. One, an evening at a hotel – French songs From Brel to Piaf with dinner thrown in. The other – Broadway comes to Bahrain, songs from the musicals performed by an actress fresh from London’s West End stage, also in a hotel, also with dinner thrown in. Homer, happy to humour Marge, agrees to the Broadway Musicals. They arrive informal, dressed in jeans (Marge in her comfy ones) to find that everyone else is dressed for dinner on a cruise ship. The concert starts at 10pm and the performers – four of them – Kate Someone And Friends appear on stage, on a set that looks like it might have been designed by someone’s gran for the village hall.
On examining the programme, Marge learns that three of the singers are currently understudies in the West End, and Kate, star of the show –is performing in the Sound of Music at The London Palladium. As a nun. Two of the singers can sing. The other two are still learning.
On Marge and Homer’s right sits a group of young Bahraini girls who talk through the entire performance and keep standing up to take photos of each other. A few rows in front, a group of gay Brits smoke throughout the show, yell when their pints are empty, sing along to all the songs, cuddle, smooch, heckle through Tarzan, and Beauty and the Beast, and get up to high kick their way through the Chicago medley. By the time Kate and her cohorts perform the Aspects of Love finale at 1 in the morning, Marge and Homer, weak with laughter, agree this is one of the best nights so far, since they moved to Bahrain.
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 16