Day 29 of Homeschooling in the Middle East – Why are we living in the Middle East? Is it really possible to unschool in the Middle East? Is it fair on the kids to even try?

For those of you who are reading my blog for the first time ever and are starting with today’s post as your first, I apologize, because today’s post isn’t all about homeschooling.  For new readers, could I just advise that to get the most out of this blog, it’s probably preferable to start reading it from ‘Day 1’ and read whatever interests you sequentially in order to make the most sense of why we decided to home educate, but of course it’s not crucial. It’s just that, I know this decision is one many people are thinking about, whether seriously or just in the back of their minds (which is where ours started from about a year ago) and I know this is why a lot of people come to this blog in the first place; to read about my personal reasons and see if they have resonance with you. I hope they do. I think it likely. We decided to home educate for many of the ‘usual’ reasons.

But today’s post isn’t much about homeschooling because I had a great comment today from a reader, Sabrina, who I think may live in Canada or the US, who’s interested in my take on homeschooling but wonders how we ended up in the Middle East or more specifically in the Gulf region, in the tiny, troubled island nation of the Kingdom of Bahrain. Funnily enough, I don’t think I have mentioned this at all, even in passing, about how we ended up living here.

Our decision to live here started, for me, with a tiny germ of an idea (a bit like how we came to our homeschooling decision). The Middle East feels like it’s in my blood. Some of the happiest years of my father’s life were spent in Jordan with the Arab Legion. I was deeply impressed by the few precious pictures of him in gutra and keffiyeh in the desert. He looked so handsome and happy. I always thought it sounded a fascinating part of the world. After I left Cambridge, I became more interested in a charity my mother Chaired called the Women’s Council which, at that time, raised money to bring women from disadvantaged countries to the UK to learn about childcare e.g. with children with physical or intellectual disabilities.

Just a side note, she changed the direction of the charity altogether, against much resistance, so that instead of the women coming to the UK to be trained, the money raised was used to train the women in the nearest centre of excellence to them – so for Indian ladies they might travel to a big city like Mumbai to be trained. One of the reasons for this was because you could train so many more women for the price of training even just one woman in the UK (because the charity paid for everything when the lady was there). The other reason was a sad one. The cost was such that, I think, only one or two women won the opportunity to come to the UK per year. So a lot was invested in these women. The ‘motto’ of the Women’s Council was something like ‘Train one, train a hundred’. The thinking was that these women would take their expertise back to their countries and pass on their knowledge to other women who’d been unable to have the same opportunity. However, quite a few women married in the UK and so never returned to their home countries and possibly never again used the skills they’d learned. But the saddest reason, a heartbreaking reason, was because of what happened with one woman in Lebanon. When she returned home from London, desperate to work and apply the skills she’d learned, her family told her she’d become ‘too westernized’ and that she was never to work again, that from now on she had to wear full hijab and to marry. My mother met her in Beirut and said she actually saw the tears falling from under the hijab that fully covered her face and that my mother, because they met in a public place, was not even allowed to see her lovely face anymore. What a waste not only of the charity’s money but that young woman’s life. They were both devastated. Another advantage to the funds being spent on local courses may also have been that they could be run in their native language, which may have given more women the opportunity to be well trained.

After I’d become more interested in the charity, a fact-finding trip was organized for a few charity members to go to Lebanon. They wanted to see if the training was being passed on and well implemented. Unfortunately not with at least one woman, as I’ve just written. We went to various orphanages and children’s centres and on the whole saw them to be well-run but with too many children desperate for cuddles than arms available. Heartbreaking. Whilst we were in the region, I wanted to go to Jordan, to see Petra, which I’d always heard was one of the world’s great wonders. So after we’d finished having our hearts wrung out in Lebanon, my mother and I went on to Jordan as tourists. I thought Petra was absolutely amazing, you may not be surprised to hear, given that our daughter is named after the world-famous rose-red city! The trip made such an impression on me that when I returned to my life in London, I couldn’t settle. Unfortunately, it didn’t make me change career to train in childcare instead it gave me very itchy feet and I wanted to move abroad, to meet different people, eat different food, feel the sun on my face.  I thought about moving to Jordan. However, I soon heard that the Jordanians are well-educated and there are too few employment opportunities for them as it is. Who would hire me, as woman who didn’t speak Arabic and wasn’t a linguist? So, I cast my eye further afield.

Whilst I was having these thoughts and feelings, I happened to meet up with an old University friend who I hadn’t seen since we’d left Cambridge. Her mother had just moved to the UAE (United Arab Emirates) to teach. Hala also had itchy feet! Both of us had very promising careers in London, in competitive fields, that we’d spent years trying to succeed in and here we were, prepared to throw it all in to chase a dream of ‘doing something different, something a bit more interesting’ with our lives. We were sick of sitting on underground trains in London, working long hours in grey weather and having no energy left to enjoy all that London had to offer. We wanted out! And the fact of finding each other meant that it was possible, we would be a team. Serendipity. To our respective parents’ horror, we ditched our promising careers and took off for the UAE to see what we would find. After 3 nail-biting months of unemployment, we each found satisfactory jobs. I spent nearly 4 wonderful years there, Hala never left, although travels extensively! We both met our husbands there.

When my husband and I left, we never planned to go back. We’d had fun in the Gulf but we felt that life was too ‘unreal’ there, too easy, too materialistic and that it was certainly not a place to bring up children. But after I’d tried Canada and he’d tried the UK, we changed our minds and ended up in Bahrain with two small children nearly 4 years ago! The job opportunity was just too good, partly because I think my husband was the only Arab in the world with a good Environment and Business Management degree and so was a great find for the company he works for, which was brave enough to try and start up a Climate Change and Environmental Sustainability business in the region! And we felt comfortable as a mixed couple living in the region, with one foot in the Arabic culture and the other in the Western. I love the Middle East. Bahrain is an especially fascinating society, particularly at the moment. For us, it gives the children a great opportunity to meet and play with children from all over the world. Most expats live on compounds and we always joke that they are like little United Nations with neighbours from India, Pakistan, other Arabic countries, other European countries and often from many other parts of the world too. The kids of one of our neighbour’s is half-Filipino. I love being invited over there to eat ;)! But there are lots of disadvantages too and that includes as a region to home educate in. It’s not at all popular or well understood here. People are pretty conventional. However, there is one big advantage – the governments of the region have so far left expats alone with regards to the legality of homeschooling. It’s apparently illegal in Bahrain (for Bahrainis), and probably the rest of the Middle East, to homeschool. But we’re ignored. Yeah! We’ve never been so happy to be overlooked!

The expat community is pretty social, there are lots of ‘after-school’ clubs, it’s a tiny island so it doesn’t take too long to go where you need to, we’ve made friends over the last few years who we hope to continue seeing, so we don’t feel Edward is missing out socially by leaving school. If we move to another country in the Gulf, it might be harder to meet people than if the kids were in school, but I think much the same applies in terms of friendliness and clubs/activities. We’re an outgoing, warm and social family so hopefully that will help us make friends from all countries, cultures and backgrounds, all over again in a new Gulf country.

But with regards to what’s on offer in Bahrain, or the rest of the Gulf for that matter, in terms of natural beauty and wildlife, the opportunities are pretty much zero. And this is terrible in terms of our homeschooling philosophy, and almost every homeschooler’s philosophy, which is that there is so much to learn from nature and that kids miss out on this so much by being in school. Well, in our case, our kids also miss out on all nature has to offer because we live in the Gulf and I feel so badly about that. But at this point, we don’t think it’s feasible to leave. So when my commenter, Sabrina, talks about her local trails and ski racing, I am envious and feel bad that my kids are missing out on this. Cami’s comment at the bottom of the page of this post makes me feel even more inadequate as a homeschooling Mum!

I am sooooo jealous of what she’s been able to offer her kids whilst unschooling, “Our traveling lifestyle led to a really personalized interaction with the world of the natural sciences, history and geography – hands- and feet-on with lizards, tidepools, volcanic rubble, medicinal wild plants, redwoods, oaky plantations, swamps, otters, Pacific fishing communities, trains, subways, museums, aquariums, the cycle of the moon, crabbing nets, scorpions, tarantulas, cooking with our solar oven, eating minerals from the desert floor…. There were certainly many, many weeks we didn’t do anything traditionally recognized as ‘school’ beyond reading to the kids.” Sometimes I feel unschooling is educational neglect, in our case, because there’s so little to offer the kids in terms of what unschooling is meant to offer – the chance to learn from people in the community and the chance to spend time in nature. I feel pressured a bit, within myself, to educate with text books (ideally, at least, designed for homeschoolers) because what else can I offer – other than stimulating conversation, quality family life, some good books bought from the Net (except that Edward isn’t too interested in books other than the stories that I read)? My quandary at the moment is whether I can really unschool in the Middle East? Can I offer a rich enough learning environment, especially given that Edward isn’t interested in learning much from books? Any and all ideas very, very welcome!

By living in the Gulf, Edward is also missing out on the chance to explore two of his main passions – fencing and acting. There aren’t any fencing lessons and the one acting group I found is for older kids. But there is something that we can offer that is core to our unschooling philosophy, travel. And it is to Sabrina’s too, although she laments being unable to do it in the way I lament being unable to offer the experience of nature. We aren’t planning to live on the road, as Cami did, as extremely appealing as that is. And we aren’t able to travel extensively unfortunately, because of cost of course. But we look forward to a month in Europe in the summer, a holiday that will be approached differently this time given that I now have more of an eye for ‘enrichment’ than ‘school recovery’! I don’t want us to be lazing on a beach (I was never much good at that anyway!) but instead have access to good museums and the culture of the places we visit – Paris and Amsterdam, probably. I hope a month overseas will open other avenues for exploration when we come home. I hope that travel might spark my son’s interest to such an extent that he might even want to read some books to further his knowledge! I would do anything I could to further any interests sparked by the holiday. I would cook differently, let them dress in different ways, I would purchase any destination DVDs, I would try and make a return trip sooner rather than later if the interest turned into a passion! Here’s hoping anyway!

Don’t feel shy! Please always feel free to post comments on any of the days you read, however old they are. Your views are valuable and it’s always good to have debate. If you’re too busy to comment that day, but enjoyed what you read, please do press the ‘Like’ button at the end of the post. If you would like to make life easier (who doesn’t?!) scroll down the right hand side of the page and click the ‘Follow’ button. Posts will be delivered to your email inbox until such time you may not want them anymore. Commenting, ‘Liking’, Following is much appreciated as it helps encourage more people to read homeschoolinginthemiddleeast! And commenting helps others who may well like to have more ideas or suggestions about the topic concerned. Any comments about Maths teaching is still especially appreciated and suggestions about resources warmly welcome, as per the plea in my post Take care. Have a great day and thank you for visiting.


About homeschoolingpenny

Hi and welcome! My name is Penny and I used to live in Bahrain but In November 2012 moved to Dubai and now we live in Granada, Spain! If you want to contact me my email is I recommend you start my blog on 'Day 1' but please enjoy whatever you dip into. 23 February 2012 marked the first day of no more school FOREVER for my two kids. Edward, who is nearly 10 had attended a variety of schools since he was very little. Petra, who is now 6, has never gone to school. On this date we decided Edward was never going back to school and Petra never would go to school. We hope to successfully homeschool from this day forward, although we would consider an alternative school as an option- if there was some amazing Sudbury or other really alternative school. Actually, I prefer the term 'home learning' than 'homeschool' because I don't like to think of school coming into our home. In fact, I hope to go further and guide/learn alongside, rather than teach, my kids using the 'unschooling' philosophy to instill a lifelong love of learning in them. We lived in the Middle East and now Spain all of which are very challenging places to home educate. This is an exciting journey that I used to blog about regularly, at first it was on an almost daily basis. Please join me on our travels and I hope we might be able to help each other out along the way. I certainly hope I can be a source of support and comfort and, in time, knowledge to all potential/presently participating homeschoolers/home educators/unschoolers. Good luck to us all! If you want to read about why I started home educating, why I pulled my son out of a 'very good' private school mid-term, how I felt at the very start and how my philosophy has evolved, please start from 'Day 1' of the blog. Please do post comments at the end of any days that you read. Your opinion is valuable and it's great to start up debate amongst other people commenting too, however old the post. Thank you for visiting homeschoolingmiddleeast.
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