‘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, right above the ‘NO MEN PERMITTED’ sign.
‘This….what?’ came a voice to my right.
I turned to see a sweaty looking man sitting on the school steps, a large, rusty toolbox by his side and a half-smoked cigarette in his hand. He was wearing the traditional Pakistani dress, a white Shalwar Kameez thobe, the trouser hems lined with a thick layer of brown dust. His neck twisted over his shoulder, starting up at the words with a quizzical expression.
‘It’s some kind of special day, I don’t really know.’
The man stared at me blankly.
“You…teacher?’ he asked.
I smiled. ‘Trying to be!’ I said. ‘To be honest, I’ve never even had a stab at it before but, well, I was offered this role and it seemed like a good opportunity and…it’s a long story really. My boyfriend…well, anyway I guess what I’m trying to say is that, yes, I am. I am a teacher now!’
The man nodded slowly, flashing a broad, toothy grin. I suddenly realised that this was the first time I had spoken to anyone in two full days. My original flight to Riyadh had been cancelled because of bad weather, so they’d put me up at a swanky hotel near Heathrow Airport. I’d flown in the following morning, but thanks to a mix up about arrival times, nobody had been there to meet me. I’d self-consciously sat there in my ill-fitting new abaya and awkwardly tied headscarf for a good few hours before a driver finally showed up. From there I was taken to the company compound and introduced to my scowling new flatmate, who’d had no idea she was to be sharing her living quarters. She’d looked at me the way my Scottish friend Maggie eyes up a rain cloud before a barbecue. I’d retreated quickly to my room. After a lonely couple of days, it was nice to speak to someone, albeit a total stranger. Heck, it was nice just to be heard!
‘No speak English’ said the man.
Before Hannah could register this, a voice barked out from within the school entrance, the door slightly ajar.
“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…