There is a certain kind of British woman in the Middle East. She is ‘wife of,’ ‘mother of,’ indomitable, an ‘old hand’ at packing and unpacking, finding the good places to shop and staying positive. She says, “nevermind” and “have tea.” She creates sewing circles and irons the pillow cases. She has enough gold to be welcome at the Met Gala and several excellent carpets.
Not the kind with spa appointments and an expensive car, not what was once called a Jumeirah Jane, not the general’s wife but a master sergeant who everyone instinctively asks for advice.
The type who is kind to everyone, the favorite of the gardener and the street cleaner and every person in a non-executive position. To people in power she smiles, but with a glint in her eye which means, “do not try your bullshit on me.”
There are few of them and now there is one less. My friend April passed away this week. And I can hear her chortling in heaven, “I came in April, was named April, of course I had to leave in April.”
Her husband worked at the same firm as me more than 20 years ago. It was their third Middle Eastern country, my first. They took me under their wing and showed me how to do ‘this’- this living in a foreign country without growing brutal, dismissive, in-bred or alcoholic.
One of the many traits I loved about her was that her condescensions were universal, as was her forgiveness. She could not understand why people didn’t iron their towels or wear properly hemmed trousers, but she forgave such cardinal sins. So many expats come with or quickly learn all types of bigotries, but I never heard her say a prejudiced word.
That first year that branch of the firm was just getting started so we all lived in a hotel while the employee housing was begin built. Four times we were told to pack up our belongings and we would move that day, only to be told in late afternoon that we were, in fact, not moving. She was not taken in and didn’t pack. “The hotel staff will tell you,” she informed me. And of course they would tell her as she was quite the favorite of all the waitstaff with her cheery “good morning” and quickly learning all their names.
So I quickly learned to follow her lead. She taught me how to settle down, how to make my quite-unlovable apartment a home, how to bargain nicely with shop keepers and to just go ahead and buy that lovely, decorative, useless Syrian lace tablecloth and that good, wool Afghani rug. “If you can’t have what you really want, nevermind, take what’s on offer,” was her opinion. She taught me what to do on frustrating days (don’t drink), how to make do and mend.
She came from a little village in a picturesque part of the UK. She moved to another small village with her husband who commuted to his job. She had a huge old house, drafty in winter with an immense garden. She grew vegetables and did all the daily housework. She also carded, dyed and spun wool. She had a loom the size of a grand piano and made gorgeous rugs and wall hangings. She sewed and quilted. She lived as much in the 1800s as it was possible to in the mid-1980s. And one day her husband came home and announced that he had accepted a job in the Middle East.
He had a falling out with his boss and was looking for something new; a company was hiring overseas with huge salaries and he accepted. She left it all behind – her children in college, the garden, the house, the crafts, her friends, her whole community and moved to a small apartment in a small, hot, dry, dusty city.
And she made it her home. Of course her story is so much less than the refugees from war but to be so displaced and not turn bitter is not a small accomplishment. And to help others escape bitterness is also worthy of praise.
I visited them in the UK a few times – we visited National Trust properties, ate at gastro-pubs, watched BBC dramas of 1800s novels and drank a lot of tea. She had a garden again and another sewing circle. She picked up the pieces she had left behind. 26 years of hot desert sands and she was finally back to gentle rain, Christmas decorations, grocery stores full of food she wanted to eat, quilting friends and close to family. She had missed so many things, and missed them so much, but no use complaining.
“Nevermind,” she always said when things were rough. “Nevermind”- but I mind very much that she is gone.