The Bahrain airport still has a metal detector once you pass through immigration. It is only there to find out whether or not you are carrying alcohol in your carry on luggage. Most people don’t know this, so they meticulously remove belts and shoes and computers thinking it all matters when it doesn’t. Having passed through this arch more times than I can count, I bypass them all and walk through. Even if I beep, a woman isn’t there to search me, and in the Middle East no man would dare search a woman.
I did not expect to come back to this desert island, a land of craggy sand and camels and Shia and Sunni. When my husband and I arrived in 2006 we were here to work. When I left in 2009 it was meant to be for good. Living in the Middle East had been an incredible experience, a complicated one too. I had no regrets, I’m forever grateful I went. But it wasn’t in my future to return.
Or, so I thought.
When you live in a place long enough, it marks you in ways you don’t expect. It can change the way you talk to people, the way you think about people and community. It becomes part of who you are, not only what you know. Living in Bahrain made me tougher, made me more cynical, made me harder. It made me understand that my world view was not the only one, nor the only right one, and in so doing, it changed my view of the world.
So many people think that living in the Middle East was hard because I’m a woman, because of the religion; everyone thinks you’re living in Saudi Arabia. But the truth is far more complicated than that. Yes, being a woman, a non-white woman, has its issues, but they are subtler than you think. Yes, you have to contend with a society that factors in religion, but in Bahrain that wasn’t an issue at all. Living in Bahrain was not all that different to living in an American suburb with cars and shopping malls and Applebees. The island’s secrets were much more deeply embedded than in the obvious, and it took time to discover them. More importantly, it took time to reconcile and navigate them. It’s one thing to live in an exotic place and think of it as a great adventure, as an exciting traveling risk. But it gets tiring all that Indiana Jonesing day after day. After a while no matter how daring or adventurous or open minded you are, there are times when all you want is to feel at home.
But the point of this post is not to talk about my life in Bahrain before. Enough to tell you I was working, I had a career, and I was strange for that very reason, that I was not a woman with a baby, a lady who lunched, a colonial style expat blonde going to the gym leisurely every day. But now that I’ve returned, it’s under very different circumstances. I am a mother. I know it may seem counter intuitive to be in the Middle East with a babe, but if you think that it’s because you haven’t been here. And ironically, the things that used to irritate me about Bahrain, the fact that it was provincial and small and boring at times, are now the very things that explain why I’ve returned.
I’m back because I can hire someone to clean my home for a song. Because I can put the baby in the car and drive to a shopping mall that has nursing rooms in every bathroom, where there are booster seats at every restaurant, where all the baby stores are in one convenient location, where I can take my kid into pretty much any establishment without fear of reprisal. I am back because when you have a baby, suburban life has its advantages. Because I keep bumping into other women who have given up a lot to have babies. Because I can hire a sitter without having to consider child care costs. Because I can order take away and delivery. Because I still know enough people here that if I need something, they will help me find it. Because no matter how small or provincial this world is here, right now as a new struggling mother, my world is still infinitely smaller.
In contrast, Belgium, a country that I’ve called home for many years despite not always living in it, a country which I love for its bakeries, its history, and its total European-ness has now proved difficult for me. Yes, the cafes are fabulous, but it’s hard to change a diaper squished into an old 19th century vestibule that smells faintly of sour urine. Yes, the social services are fantastic but there are no mommy-groups, and I don’t have enough of a social network to come to my rescue. Yes, the public transport is great and I can get almost anything I need by bicycle. Except that now I can’t ride my bike with a 4 month year old perched on the handle bars, and I don’t drive a stick shift, and even if I did, the traffic is complicated. Yes, the food is wonderful and fresh, but no, they don’t deliver, and yes everything closes at 7pm, and it’s not that easy to wheel a buggy in a market, carry your cute wicker basket and get home before your kid needs breastfeeding. All by yourself. Never mind finding time to cook all that fresh food. And all those lovely little specialty shops and boutiques are not that helpful when you need a bunch of things very very quickly. Yes, my house is mine and amazing, but it’s big and must be cleaned, and the fact is when you are running on 3-4 hours of sleep a night, and your child has you full time, and private child care is not really an option, you decide to let the dust bunnies whirl around you until they become the size of tumbleweeds.
I’m back because somehow, unforeseen, unexpected (naive perhaps), this once dual career power couple has now become a very traditional set up of man makes dough and woman stays home with baby. And the man is working (a lot), and what that means for the woman is she must manage on her own much of the time. And she must be practical, not romantic. Resourceful, not wistful.
So here I am, home strange home, back on my desert island, the very person I used to roll my eyes at several years ago. Serves me right, I think sometimes. Not that it matters, all that self judgment. Thankfully, there really isn’t time for any of that these days. And if there was, it would read something like:
To all those moms I might have rolled my eyes at: I’m sorry!!! I didn’t know how servicing your life to another can be so utterly time consuming and mind numbing and at times rewarding! And to all those career gals: I’m sorry!! I know how I must seem to you now, and wow, wouldn’t I love to talk politics or philosophy with you, and one day I hope to again soon.
Those of you following know that I’ve written about the trouvail of being busy, and the need for selfishness. Join me as I pinch myself now that I live on a whole new level of busy (What! Another diaper change!!), and selfish selflessness (I have not had more than a 2.5 hour chunk of sleep since December. I hate licorice but I drink aniseed for my baby. I have to forgo ice cream for the baby. I can’t finish my book because of the baby… blah blah blah).
I don’t know how long we’ll be here in Bahrain. Like everything these days, I tell myself nothing is forever. But while I’m here I’ll try to appreciate its conveniences, to respect it in a new light, to see it with new eyes, and to let go of some of that hardened cynicism, that crusty judgment that was bred in me so many years ago. What Bahrain is now is not what it was, even if only in my perception.
Just as the woman who passed through that metal detector in 2006 is not the same one who passes through it now.