Living Expat on the Arabian Peninsula

Risse,  M. “Living Expat.” Emanations: Chorus Pleiades. Carter Kaplan, ed. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2018: 308-318.


“I’ve never such a beautiful ocean” – tourist

“Holy sweet Jesus he’s got no clue” – local

            “Public Relations” lyrics from the musical Don’t Stop the Carnival

Tourists burble. Tourists gush. If I hear a woman is raving about how “the food is so natural and healthy!” you can be sure that she’s got a plane ticket back to the Land of Whole Foods and Mexican restaurants within a week or two. It’s amusing to watch a man coo about how relaxing life is here, all the while checking his Blackberry and reading e-mail on his laptop at one of the two cafes in town with wi-fi.

Expats don’t coo. Expats don’t prattle. The people who live here, we send SMSs: “Flaxseed oil in at the pharmacy,” “Sandstorm coming – batten down hatches,” “Did you hear X is in the hospital?” and “Do you know a good carpenter?”

I call an expat friend and ask, “What’s the name of the place you hang your clothes?”

He starts throwing off fancy French furniture terms: armoire…

“No, no,” I say, “What’s the simple word. I forgot it.”


“You mean ‘closet’?”

“Yes!” We say goodbye and hang up the phone.

A woman who came to town for an extended visit mentioned to me that she had a rental car. I told her to be careful; any problem that happened to the car while she had it was her responsibility.

She said, “I didn’t sign a contract.”

I said, “It doesn’t matter, the understanding here is, unless you go to Budget which is twice as expensive as normal rentals and has insurance, that any problem is your fault and you pay for the repair, as well as the regular daily charge.”

She said, “But I didn’t agree to that and I didn’t sign a contract.”

Expats do not say “I didn’t sign a contract.” They would laugh and tell you about the rental car in Uruguay, which would segue into a story about Nepal, and then into that fabulous B& B in Dorset. Expats know that this is not a theme park full of natural and healthy food, beautiful scenery and exotic folkways. It is a working community. You either stay cut-off by cycling between your job, the two expat grocery stores and the big hotels or you become part of it – whether you agree or not. Expats are normal people who have evolved and devolved into a new species.

Expat – Definition

The first part of my definition of living expat is that it’s voluntary: moving to another country by choice to study, work, retire, create art etc. I am talking about a narrow band of middle-class experiences – not forced immigration or those ‘on the wind’ fleeing war, disease and/ or poverty. I made the decision to live on the Arabian Peninsula.

The second part is that I live middle-class. I live alone (not in a camp or apartment with co-workers), I can move about when and how I choose (not being driven in a bus), I have two days off every week (not only an afternoon or no free-time at all). On the other hand, I know nothing of upper class life beyond what I read in Town and Country. My car is 8 years old and has over 300,000 km; I worry about retirement. I don’t think I am ever going to have a set of Ghurka luggage or diamond stud earrings, much less one of those really gorgeous Persian rugs.

My third point is that it’s living expat. I have traveled to 38 countries but have lived overseas only 4 times. “Living” I define as having an address where mail is delivered, having a bank account in a local bank, and having a set of places to go to – your café, your beach, your tailors, your schwarma stand.

The fourth part of “living expat” is what does “expat” convey? Mawuna Remarque Koutonin’s article [ discusses how “expat” is a racially charged term. I can’t speak for other areas of the world, but I’ve lived in the Middle East for 14 years and on the Arabian Peninsula, “expat” it is an indicator of economic status not country of origin. Here, “expat” means people who have a position which allows them to sponsor bringing over a spouse and/or kids and people who are free to move about as they please outside of work hours. To talk about one group, people put qualifiers in front, such as Arab expats, Indian expats, Western expats. “Expats” is used as opposed to “workers,” almost always men, who live in single-sex compounds whose movements are more closely controlled.

I have never heard of anyone referred to as a “guest” and “guest-worker” is not a configuration used here. I have only heard “foreigner” used by Gulf Arabs referring to non-Muslims. My personal pet peeve is people who call themselves “nomads;” just as bad are businesses which cater to this nonsense: “tools for nomads” with $600 backpacks. Do you carry all your worldly possessions yourself or with a pack animal? Are you without bank account and/ or property? Do you sleep in structures you erected yourself? Do you roam around a wide geographical area without changing continents? No? Then you aren’t a nomad.

Expat Talking

There are many positives of living expat. When British Airways lost my luggage, I had to make a list of the items lost: handmade slippers from Muscat; shoes from Edinburgh; shoes from Leiden; dress from Victoria, BC; skirt from my tailors; shirts from Boston and San Francisco; jean jacket from Denver; Swiss cosmetics; earrings from Maine. Reassembling that small suitcase would take thousands of dollars’ worth of airplane tickets as I pick up clothes as I travel to see family and friends and for conferences.

This is normal for people who live middle-class expat but can be really annoying for those who don’t. We are used to have objects and experiences from a myriad of places and with other expats, ordinary conversations can quickly turn insufferable for normal people: the waterfalls in Vancouver airport vs. the mini-tropical forest in Bali’s airport, Taba in Egypt vs. Aqaba in Jordan, foot massages in Phuket vs. head massages in Delhi, Rhodes vs. Crete, water-taxis from the airport in the Maldives vs. water-taxis in Dubai, island hopping in the Seychelles vs. island-hopping in the Caribbean, Malta vs. Corsica, the Khan el Khalili in Cairo vs. the Blue Souq in Sharjah, Stockholm vs. Amsterdam, Doha airport vs. Chicago airport, throwbacks to crossing into Turkish Cyprus vs. crossing into East Germany. As I said, it gets old fast for people who have built their lives in one or only a few communities.

Every expat has had the experience of being asked “What’s it like” as if one can sum up living in a country for a year in two sentences. And then there are people at home who never even ask that, who avoid any mention of the life overseas.

Expats learn to keep quiet about their lives and open up only with other expats with whom they can trade experiences and opinions freely: making fun of Jumeirah Janes, debating the best college to stay at during the summer in Cambridge, complaining about being woken up by the sound of kookaburras in Brisbane and loons on a Wisconsin lake, comparing Swiss Christmas markets vs. southern German Christmas markets. Expats who have lived in the toughest conditions are usually the nicest. People who lived in Cairo and Dubai are never as friendly or helpful as those who lived in Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea where cooperation meant survival.

Expat Travel

Baltimore, Lisbon, Mousehole, Heidelberg, Petra, Charlotte Amalie, Santa Fe, Al Mukulla: expats get to used to the chance for travel during vacations and the perks of travel seem so obvious, it’s useless to complain about the times I have walked off a plane after a 10+ hour flight trying to remember what country I was in, looking at the signs at passport control trying to remember which line to stand in, all the methods of coping with jet-lags, the stupid mistakes done under the blight of jet lag, and most importantly, the sense that you can never have all the things you like together.

It is useless to grumble but inside most expats’ hearts there is a wish for impossible meals and events: Dutch pancakes with American coffee, an English pub lunch with waiters who come to the table, Bangkok with the air quality of Edinburgh, Winnipeg’s summers with Puerto Rico’s winters, Dubai shopping but with taxi drivers who speak English; bookstores in Oxford that stay open later than 6pm; Tartine pastries at the Hong Kong airport.

An expat’s life is always a mosaic, never a unified whole. My favorite way to travel is the 8-seater plane from Logan to visit my mom, the train from Sydney to Melbourne, a sailboat in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the DC metro. My favorite stores are Ragamuffin on the Isle of Sky, the main Jim Thompson store in Bangkok, gold stores on the Ponte Vecchio, and M & S. My favorite hotels are the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, MA and the Peninsula in Bangkok but my favorite places to eat are the Palm Court at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, the Windmill café in Kingston, Ontario, pretty much any restaurant in Rome and the Lime Tree Café in Jumeriah. I want to walk off my favorite beach in the BVI, have a ‘rice table’ in the Netherlands for dinner then fall asleep to the blinking of Grand Forks, ND fireflies.    

Expat Decor

I always think that a person’s home should be like a 3D collection of Girl Scout badges; it should reflect who you are and where you have been. Living middle-class expat means that it’s easy to collect pieces from all over. In my living room I have a sofa I bought in Bali, a chair from India that I got in the Emirates, and an Egyptian rosewood chest. The three pieces are nice, but don’t really coordinate with each other or my dark wood IKEA desk or my dark wood book cabinet which had a glass front section resting on top of a (non-coordinating) set of cupboards. That’s one of drawbacks: you pick up pieces as you go along, and you simply have to tell your furniture to get along with each other because it’s almost impossible to get things to match.

Another characteristic of expat living is that pieces usually develop narratives. I have a dish a friend brought me from her trip to Iran; one rug is from the store run by two Iranian brothers at Mutrah souq. There are very few things that I have bought anonymously, so to speak, at a store which I can’t remember. When I go to a friend’s house and admire something its: “I picked that up in a little village in Cambodia when I worked there” or “Got that in Siberia.”

Every piece has a story. The rug I bargained for with a friend standing by amazed at my ability to spin tales about the poverty of teachers to lower the price. The coffee table was bought at X store on Y street with my friend Pat pretending to be my husband and saying I was spending too much money in an effort to get the price down (that trick worked). Even my computer has a story of the how I got it and what happened when it broke down (four hours of sitting in the store reading a novel because I was not leaving until it worked).

Even as a single woman, there’s not much shopping I do on my own – there is often an Omani or western friend to give advice, and I willingly go on shopping expeditions in turn. When I walk thought my apartment I see the pieces connected to my friends Marlene, Tom, Rosemary, Samantha, Barbara, Sophie, Margie, Sanda, and Helen, all of whom have since left town but whose memories remain.

Another effect of living expat is that decorating is usually very personal – you often incorporate other people’s lives and they incorporate yours. In my sitting room, my sofas are from a dear friend who was selling them when she left Salalah. Given how much turnover there is, if you see something you like that a friend has, if they leave you have a chance to get it in a way that would seem predatory in the States. Several times I have had the unsettling experience of walking through a good friend’s house and deciding which of their pieces to buy.

On the other hand, when I want to get rid of something, it doesn’t go out anonymously on the street to be picked up or to someplace like Salvation Army. I give it to the woman who cleans my house. In the Middle East, almost all middle-class households have maids, who either live-in or have keys and come to clean a few times a week. Mine has worked for me for almost ten years and, like most expats, I give her her salary, bonus twice a year and whatever I no longer need.

My old sofa, coffee table, pillows, even shoes and purses are set in a pile for her and she takes everything. I wonder if they are all in her house or if they are handed on to her friends. That angst of “I can’t get rid of it because it still has some use in it” doesn’t exist here – if I don’t need something, don’t like it anymore or have bought a replacement, I can pass it on knowing it will be used. I see it as a ladder: an Omani friend gave me a gorgeous wooden bookshelf; I give the woman who cleans for me my old fridge.

Expat Fitting In

As you live expat, and start to understand the culture, the prevailing wisdom is that you should try to fit in. I agree with this most of the time, but there are also times when I think deliberate dissonance is helpful. Sometimes speaking, dressing and acting in ways that mark you as a foreigner can create a more positive interaction, especially in dealing with Arabian cultures in which people usually dislike being surprised.

I learned this point when I went to two social events with a non-Omani Muslim woman (I’ll call her Muna). We were both wearing the right kind of clothes for the event but Muna greeted each Omani guest in the correct way but I said, “salam aleikum” – the wrong thing to say. This greeting should be said by a person who comes into the room, but I was sitting down. It is such a blatant mistake, each woman who was greeting me paused for a moment, looked at me carefully, then carried on with greeting the other attendees, often gesturing towards me and asking other women, “Who is she?”

My incorrect greeting immediately signaled that I was foreign and the women could immediately adjust their expectations and assumptions about me. Older women did not wonder why I don’t stand up and kiss them on the head, etc. There was a momentary flutter, but I was quickly forgotten.

On the other hand, several women tried to speak to Muna after she gave the correct greeting. Then Muna would explain she didn’t understand Arabic, which would cause surprise and begin a several minutes conversation about how the woman THOUGHT Muna was Arabic-speaking, but she wasn’t and where was Muna from and why was she at the event and wasn’t it a surprise! Several Omani would say they thought Muna was from X country, Muna would explain she was from Y country, the women would say “Oh you look like you are from X,” Muna would affirm that she was from Y, the women would ask “Is your mother from X?” Muna would answer no; her mother was also from Y. This happened several times and after her country of origin was cleared up, there was no more conversation.

What happened with me was opposite. The women sitting near me would usually ignore me for an hour or so, then ask me a question or two (how long had I lived in town, was I married, did I have children, was I Muslim etc.) which would slowly grow into a longer conversation. After two or so hours, all the women around me would have talked to me. As I was sitting quietly, smiling at the children, accepting tea, looking as benign as possible, the women would socialize with each other, occasionally glancing at me, then slowly one or two would start the process of figuring out who I was and passing that information around.

I had given them space and time to adjust to me and I happily answered all their questions with answers that made sense: I am a teacher, I have learned Arabic from my students, I am a friend of the groom’s sister, etc. There was always a sense of wonder – this American Christian sitting amongst us! –  but I made no sudden moves, gave ready and plain answers, smiled at children and (with honesty) professed myself delighted with the house, food, tea, party and the company. Slow, easy and steady but always marked as different and foreign.

This insight was found by chance (the first time I did this, I really didn’t know the right thing to say) but I realized that, on the Arabian Peninsula, the more you speak and act correctly, the more it is believed you know all the culture’s rules. In my experience it is far better to start off with an obvious stumble and rehabilitate yourself later than to start strong only to fall off. Set the bar low, make it clear you don’t have all the necessary cultural knowledge and mistakes are forgiven or at least not coded as deliberate rudeness.

Expat Friends

Expats friends can sometimes turn to gold. When I met The Divine Ms. S., I felt like I was reunited with my birth sister. Just as my idea of ‘plot’ is add another shark attack, my idea of decorating is throw a few more rhinestones on. She had a living room with floor to ceiling red velvet curtains on all the walls and a four-foot mirrored snarling jaguar statue. Truly a woman after my own taste.

Living overseas in a small community everyone knows each other – most people live next to or near people they work with; you see all the same people at the same (few) restaurants and shops. You can’t move unobserved. You and your car are known entities and, maliciously or not, information is passed around. If you go to Lulu’s you either see someone you know or someone was driving by and saw your car, or someone saw you take the Lulu’s bags out of your car.

You learn not to lie, but to preserve some sense of privacy, to be circumspect. You seldom use names in conversation or discuss your specific plans. Everyone says, “Oh I am busy that night” or “Yes, I know that restaurant. I went there with a friend once.”

Once you become part of a circle, you have to take care of those people; you have to help. Like it or not you are in for giving rides to the airport, rides if their car went in for service, borrowing books, handing out whatever medicine you have, sharing the names of good dentists and plumbers. Unlike a small town in America, it is impossible to find basic information here. There is no Yellow Pages, much less store web-sites. The opening times change, stores close or move locations. You have to tell the newcomers the name of the good tailor and about the Japanese dollar store. The gardeners have to tell each other when a certain plant (mint, yellow hibiscus, almond trees, olive trees) is available at the nursery and when there is a delivery of clay pots. The person you told about the good new shawarma stand is the person who, tomorrow, will tell you about a good place to have curtains made. You have to walk people into stores and hand them over to your ‘cushion guy,’ your ‘frame guy,’ your ‘copy guy’ and your ‘coconut guy.’

You get to know what everyone in your groups likes to eat and drink. As I walk around the grocery store, I send off messages: “Hey, they have tortilla chips!” and “Hey, they have dried cherries.” I get calls now and then, “Hey, they have cranberry juice!” and “Candy canes are in.” When I leave town, I ask for requests. When my friends return from trips, I get goodies: Halloween candy, vitamins, clothes dye, doughnuts, curtain fabric.

Expats almost always develop a veneer; whoever you meet you can manage a pleasant conversation about something. You go to a party, end up sitting next to someone you didn’t know – you two look at each other and there is an almost palpable assessment, “Ok, let’s get on with it” and you make a go at figuring out something in common: How long have you been in town, where do you live, where do you work? You smile and wave when you see acquaintances, “How are you?!”

Nothing serious, no soul-baring, no sharing, no real talk, just simple chat, do you know where to get a good hair cut? Have you heard anything about the new Al Jazeera flights? A bit of complaining about the weather, a little discussion about what’s available at the grocery store, “Strawberries are in at Isteqrar!” and “I saw real Hershey’s chips at Al Haq.”

Expats know: you do what you can with what you have where you are.