Life in the Gulf

Val Vassay

© Copyright 2018 by Val Vassay

Spice seller in the Bahrain souk.

I landed in Bahrain for the first time in September 1978, one month before my 27th birthday. 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 Persian Gulf.
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 my family.
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 limit. Panic!
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:
You want one kilo or half, Madam?”
One kilo or half, Madam?”
Em, well, just a little bit.”
OK, half,” 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 enough money.
50 fils, Madam.”
What?” (it was becoming one of my favourite words).
50 fils, Madam.”
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 exotic-smelling goodies.
50 fils? It’s about 20 pence.”
No, it can’t be,” I said, holding up the brown bag for him to see. “I got all this for 50 fils.”
Yeah, that’s 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.
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.
What are the drawbacks?” Jim asked.
Well, it’s back in the area you’ve just come from.”
Where exactly?” Neither of us was prepared to go to Saudi Arabia.
Oh, Bahrain. Which company?”
The Bahrain Petroleum Company, and you’d be living in Awali, the village you lived in before. Would you be interested in going for an interview?”
I’d be 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.  

We left Bahrain for the last time on 8 December 2005, two months after my 54th birthday: I’d spent half my life in Bahrain. I still miss it.

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!

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