Life in the Gulf
Copyright 2018 by Val Vassay
I landed in Bahrain for
the first time in September 1978, one month before my
The minute the doors of the British Airways plane were opened the
heat and humidity surged in. I’d expected it to be hot but
nothing can prepare you for the fierce, bone-melting heat of the
After the seven-hour
flight through the night from Heathrow, it was a relief to get off
the plane and into the air-conditioned corridors of Bahrain airport.
After planning this move from the United Kingdom for months, I was
thrilled to have finally arrived on the tiny island that was to be
home to my husband Jim and me for the next two years. It was the
policy of his company that male employees come without their wives
initially so Jim had already been in Bahrain for two weeks. I’d
missed him, even though I’d spent those weeks in Scotland with
But as I strolled towards
the baggage pick-up area, a horrible thought struck me: what if Jim
wasn’t there to meet me? What would I do? I had no address for
him, no telephone number, didn’t know the name of his company,
knew no-one in Bahrain. I had ten pence in my purse and not a penny
more – one of our reasons for coming to Bahrain was to try and
make some money as we were always broke in UK. So, even if I’d
somehow managed to find out where Jim was I wouldn’t have been
able to get to him as I’d no money for a taxi, and I couldn’t
have paid by credit card as the only one I had was already up to the
I picked up my two
battered suitcases and shuffled towards the Arrivals Hall, the words
“What am I going to do?” going round and round in my
head. But, when the automatic doors leading to the outside world slid
apart, there he was, waving and beaming! I’ve never been so
pleased to see anyone in my life.
Next thing, we jumped into
the little open-topped car Jim had hired from a colleague until we
could buy a car of our own, and whizzed off into Manama, the capital.
I was thrilled to see what looked like an ancient town on one side of
the tarmac road we were tearing along and on the other, separated
only by a low wall, the calm, turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf,
sparkling in the sun that shone down from a cloudless, blue sky. I
felt as if I’d landed in Heaven.
For our first two months
in Bahrain, we lived in the heart of the souq – the bustling,
market area of every Arab town – in a tiny, one-bedroom flat
that Jim’s company had rented for us. I could have lived in the
souq forever! It was an enthralling place.
From about seven o’clock
in the morning until around noon, it was bustling: Bahraini ladies
wrapped in black abbayas buying lengths of colourful materials in the
cloth souk (to be made into the bright dresses they wore under the
abbayas); Bahraini men in their sparkling white thobes and gutras
strolling along – often hand-in-hand; businessmen of all
nationalities, many in suits and ties in spite of the ferocious heat,
rushing around; workmen trundling wheelbarrows or pushing wooden
carts piled high with merchandise from shop to shop.
I loved the spice souk.
Having just come from England where I’d buy tiny, over-priced
glass jars of spices from the supermarket, to walk along streets
lined with stalls piled high with every kind of spice imaginable,
some of which I’d never heard of, was amazing. After I’d
been in Bahrain a few days, I decided to try to cook something with
some of the unknown spices. I made my way to the spice souk, pointed
at one of the piles and was asked:
kilo or half, Madam?”
“One kilo or
just a little bit.”
and with that the shopkeeper proceeded to sling heaps of my chosen
spice into a brown paper bag until it was full. I stared open-mouthed
at this and wondered how much it would cost and if I would have
(it was becoming one of my favourite words).
I paid the 50 fils, trying
and failing to work out in my head how much 50 fils was in British
money. I asked my husband when I got home, clutching my bag of
It’s about 20 pence.”
be,” I said, holding up the brown bag for him to see. “I
got all this for 50 fils.”
probably right. Everyone says spices cost almost nothing here.”
My cooking livened up
tremendously after my discovery of the wonders, and wonderful prices,
of the spice souk.
But after two months, a
house became available for us in Awali, the oil village, and we moved
from our tiny apartment in the souk to a three-bedroom, two-bathroom
bungalow with a garden all round it. Well, I say garden but it was
more like our very own mini-desert – sand, sand, nothing but
sand. We couldn’t imagine that we’d ever succeed in
getting anything to grow in our desert, although when we looked at
neighbouring houses, we saw that some of them had lovely gardens. We
didn’t know then, of course, how much time, effort and water
was needed to make and maintain these small oases.
Life in Awali, surrounded
by other expatriates, most of whom worked for the same company as my
husband, was pleasant. We soon found our way around and got used to
how things worked in the village – any problems, pick up the
phone and call Awali Services who’d come round as soon as
possible and sort the problem out, free-of-charge. Wonderful!
I began working as
secretary to an Irish construction company from 7 am to 1 pm Saturday
to Thursday. At that time, Friday (and, for some lucky people,
Thursday, too) was the weekend in Bahrain. Jim had joined Bahrain
Rugby Club the day after he arrived on the island and we spent every
Friday there – except when the team was playing away at other
places around the Gulf. Boring for me, but bliss for Jim!
We still went to the souk
frequently and out for lunch and dinner at the few small restaurants
and one or two reasonable hotels that existed in Bahrain in those
days. By the time we left the island forever there were restaurants,
bars, coffee shops, hotels of whatever star you could afford,
everywhere. It was a totally different place from the one we first
set foot in. But we still loved it.
After about a year in
Bahrain I became pregnant and our son, Jamie, was born in May 1980 at
the small, private hospital five minutes from our house which was
owned by Jim’s company. Our lives changed massively then and we
spent more time in Awali and less in Manama and at the Rugby Club.
But Jim’s two-year
contract was coming to an end and we had to decide whether to stay in
this little bit of Heaven or go back to UK. Jim didn’t like his
“dead-end” job and wanted to go. I loved living in the
sunshine, having a houseboy to do the housework while I looked after
the baby, having a swimming pool five minutes’ walk from the
house and a beautiful beach five minutes’ drive away. I wanted
to stay. In the end, we decided Jim’s career must come first,
so we left. I was heartbroken.
We left Bahrain for the
last time on 8 December 2005, two months after my
I’d spent half my life in Bahrain. I still miss it.
It was a shock arriving
back in UK during the recession which was then in full-swing and, in
spite of registering with many recruitment agencies, Jim had no luck
finding a suitable job. After three months he was offered a temporary
post as accountant to a firm that made greetings cards. It was a
lucky break for us, as they paid well and their office was just up
the road from our house in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire.
Jim had been working there
for a few weeks when one of the recruitment agencies he’d
registered with rang him. They said they had a job that might suit
him but there were some drawbacks.
drawbacks?” Jim asked.
back in the area you’ve just come from.”
exactly?” Neither of us was prepared to go to Saudi Arabia.
Petroleum Company, and you’d be living in Awali, the village
you lived in before. Would you be interested in going for an
delighted to go for an interview.”
We knew the Bahrain
Petroleum Company (BAPCO) was the biggest company on the island and
that there’d be scope there for Jim to progress in his career.
In April 1981, after six months in the UK, we were happy to make our
way back to Bahrain and settled in again as if we’d never left.
It didn’t occur to
either Jim or myself that our two-year contract with BAPCO would last
over twenty years and would only end when Jim decided to retire to
Marbella, Spain, at the age of 58. But I’m so glad it did last
that long, and that both our sons were born in Bahrain and enjoyed a
long, sunny childhood there.
I was born
in Dunfermline, the ancient capital of Scotland, on 21 October 1951
and lived there until at the age of 19 I got a job as a secretary
with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, initially in London and
then in Bonn, Germany, followed by Gaborone, Botswana. I was lucky
enough to meet Jim, my husband in Gaborone and we were lucky enough
to spend a large part of our married life in Bahrain. It’s been
a good life so far!
of the message
won't know where to send it.)