“World Human Rights Tolerance and Acceptance Day – a day when all of society are welcome to join us!”
The banner hung prominently above the main doors to the English school, ironically right above the ‘NO MEN PERMITTED’ sign.
“This….what?” came a voice to my right. I turned to see a sweaty looking man, his shalwar kameez thobe, the traditional dress worn by Pakistani men, half covered in brown dust. He was looking up at the banner, a quizzical expression on an exhausted face.
“It’s…um….hang on,” I said, having to look up again. “It’s…World Human Rights Tolerance and Acceptance Day.”
The man stared at me blankly.
“It’s a special day,” I continued, “where everybody is included.”
The man said nothing.
“Hannah!” came a voice from just inside the doors, as half a face and an eye peaked out from within. “Welcome to the academy – come inside please. Ignore that man. He’s a worker.”
“Oh, okay. He was just asking me about the acceptance sign.”
“He can’t read, he’s from Pakistan. Don’t answer him. Come inside and let’s get you introduced to your new students.”
Attempting to ignore the irony in what had just taken place, I followed her inside and watched as a sea of black fabric moved as one up a flight of stairs. It was my first glimpse of the women of Saudi Arabia, dropping headscarves into Massimo Dutti handbags while juggling smartphones and iced lattes.
“My name is Noor, and I am the asssistant director here at the academy. Here, please enjoy some Arabic coffee,” she said, handing me what looked a bit like a tiny Japanese tea cup containing orange-coloured, cardamom-scented coffee. I took a sip and instantly loved it.
“We are celebrating World Human Rights Day today, which is our own famous day here at the school that we created – that the marketing team created actually.”
“Right,” I responded, “so it’s not really a world thing, it’s an academy thing?”
“You are smart.”
I couldn’t tell if that was sarcasm or whether she genuinely thought this was a shining example of deductive reasoning.
“So, what will the school be doing to celebrate it?” I asked.
“We hung up a banner, of course. And later on we will have presentations by our blackest students.”
I almost spat out my coffee.
“Right,” I said, nodding along as if this were the most normal thing in the world.
“First you will do some training on cultural sensitivity with Ms Amal, our director. She will tell you what you cannot say in the classroom. Then we will give teaching observation and then you start. Okay?”
“Yes,” I answered, “No problem.”
Noor handed me a set of papers and asked me to look over them before my cultural sensitivity training was to begin. My eyes were drawn straight to a long list of items.
- Adopted children and children conceived out of wedlock.
- Dancing and dancers
- Alcoholic and intoxicating drinks
- Drugs and drug abuse – unless from a medical point of view for example taking aspirin for girls periods.
- Films and film-making
- HIV, AIDS, gays and homosexuals
- Magic, magicians
- Love: being in love, falling in love, being in love, love at first sight, soulmates…etc
- Any mixed gender situations
- Women moving out of home when single
- Mental diseases
- Unmarried couples
- People not dressed properly (skirts, shorts, the area between the naval and the knee for men)
- Plastic surgery
- Physical appearance changes like plucking of eyebrows
- Playing cards
- Politics, elections
- Psychologists or psychiatrists
- Religion and religious events including Christmas and Easter (only Islamic content to be discussed)
- Sculptures focusing on human faces such as the Sphinx.
- Smoking and tobacco
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Social networking
- Spirits and witchcraft
- Superpowers and superheroes
- Superstitions (beliefs not based on fact or scientific evidence, connected with ideas about magic. Examples include crossing fingers for luck, the number 13, luck, walking beneath a ladder, etc)
- TV shows that discuss inappropriate themes (like music, dancing and sexual intercourse between characters.)
- Uncovered women
- Women driving
“Just make sure NOT to plan your lessons around these things and you will be fine,” said Noor, and with that she walked quickly down the hallway to her office.
So began my first week in Saudi Arabia…