Friday, 20 July 2007
Keeping Up Appearances
Alex Horne – 20th July 2007
Ohood is Arabic for ‘promises’. It’s a fine name inferring trust and potential. Not just one promise either, promises. And the Ohood I met has already lived up to the challenge of her moniker.
We hooked up for a coffee by Chancery Lane (she’d found us, of course, I merely answered her email and set up a meeting) and I quickly discovered that this was a girl going places. Maybe it was partly because I’d met her in the same location, but she reminded me a lot of Violeta, the impressive young lady from The Democratic Republic of Congo. On both occasions I came away thinking both that London was lucky to have them and I to meet them.
Ohood arrived in the UK from Bahrain in the year 2000 when she was just sixteen years old. Her parents are Muslim but wanted a secular British education for their daughter so sent her to a tiny Vatican run Catholic school called Sacred Hearts in Hamad, a ‘government city’ built outside the capital Manama. There she excelled, winning a scholarship that took her from this tiny, intimate seat of learning to Cheltenham College, a large and alarming British boarding school. ‘It was very different and so was I’, recalled Ohood. ‘I spoke American English and my accent was much worse then! Did I enjoy it? It was an experience...’
Ohood represented half of all the Muslims at Cheltenham and was the only Arab in her year, but once again, she thrived. The scholarship she’d modestly mentioned was actually the Royal Crown Prince Scholarship, one of just six handed out each year in Bahrain. ‘I’m meant to represent Bahrain over here’, she admitted shyly, ‘like an ambassador’. After leaving school with an impressive set of A-levels she completed a BA at LSE then an MSC at SOAS – and when you’ve got that many initials on your CV I think it’s fair to say you’re representing your country pretty well.
‘My masters is in development studies’, she told me, ‘but since August I’ve also been working for a company called Ralph Appelbaum that’s building museums in Dubai and, yes, Bahrain’. This is a pretty cool job for someone so fresh out of college. She’s effectively freelancing for a globally respected company, dishing out advice on her country’s new national museum. ‘It’s already been built’, she explained, ‘now they’re doing the exhibits and it’s up to me to sort out what information goes with the interactive bits. It was meant to open in September but it’s all running a tiny bit late so it’ll probably be more like February’. ‘Sounds familiar’, I said. ‘Wembley!’ she nodded. ‘Yes’, I smiled. I was bantering with an ambassador.
Ohood is 23 years old now (well, 24 and a half if you’re using the Islamic system of counting the moon’s cycles rather than the sun’s). I told her, as politely as possible, that she seems a lot older than that. Perhaps it’s this youth that makes her so ambitious. ‘This job is just to keep me going’, she told me as we neared the bottom of our coffee cups. ‘I want to go into banking and the emerging markets next. But I would love to stay in London. I feel more at home here than in Bahrain – it’s wierd – I did my growing up here. This is where my social network is. I guess I found myself here’.
Like I said at the beginning, that’s good news for us and good news for London. I told her I thought she was an excellent ambassador for Bahrain. Ohood, however, was worried she wasn’t pleasing everyone. ‘My mum is waiting for me to get married to a Bahrainian’, she said with a slightly nervous smile. ‘Most girls marry between the ages of 21 and 25’. I didn’t ask which way her mother counted but tried to reassure her that she needn’t worry too much. Reading between the lines I can’t help thinking her parents (and namers) are justly proud of their daughter. They grew up in a council flat in Manama before moving to Hamad, her dad working as an engineer, her mum as a headmistress, and even with their combined income, Ohood told me it would have been impossible for her to study in England. For a girl brought up on Mallory Towers and Keeping Up Appearances (yes! in Bahrain! Is no-one safe?) to now be doing what she’s doing where’s she’s doing it in the manner she’s doing it is no mean feat. In her own words, ‘this really is a dream come true’.