Ten years ago, when I moved to Korea, my friends and family said it was famous for cherry blossom trees, spicy soups and barbecue. When I thought about moving to Spain, they talked of beaches and Sangria, Paella and parties, and when I was leaving for Brazil, they told me to enjoy the carnival but watch out for pickpockets.
When I said that I was moving to Saudi Arabia, it was as if I’d said I wanted to sell off some minor organs on Amazon.
“You’ll die! You can’t risk it!”
“Um…nobody does that.”
“Is that even a thing?”
When I explained that there were actually many expats there, working for good money and living a pretty decent life, they quietly listened to my arguments and adjusted their responses to provide some more thoughtful and considered feedback.
“I heard about some Saudi woman who forgot to put the lid back on the toothpaste. Her husband tried to have her stoned! Just saying…”
“You’ll never get a tan if you’re all covered up.”
“Have you thought about being a dog food tester? My friend makes a shit ton of money with that and he doesn’t have to relocate.”
But not everyone was against it. My aunt, for example, had a slightly different reaction.
“Oh it’s such a lovely wee place. Did you know that in Ramabam…” (Yes, you read that right) “…Muslims don’t eat or drink for a month! A month! Talk about good genetics – we’d never survive!”
The truth was, despite my reassurances that I knew exactly what I was doing and that I’d be totally fine, I felt exactly the opposite both on the day that I landed in Riyadh, and on that first day in class. In front of me were twenty young women, some smiling, some bored, some looking like they’d walked into the wrong room, and one with resting bitch face. It flustered me.
“It’s nice to meet you ladies. I’m Hannah, and it’s my first day teaching here at the academy.”
“Welcome,” said a few of the girls. At this point most of them were smiling, which helped calm my nerves. Except resting bitch face. She just wasn’t coming round.
I opened my PowerPoint presentation for the first activity. Something I liked to do in all new classes was to put up a few pictures of things that are part of my life, and ask the students to talk about them. I showed them the first slide and pointed to a picture of a globe and a suitcase, meant to show a love of traveling; a nice, easy introductory task.
“So what can you tell me about this picture? How do you think it relates to me?”
“Teacher, are you Muslim?” asked a student in the center of the room, completely ignoring the picture. Her name was Abeer.
When I first mentioned the name ‘Abeer’ to my sister over the phone, she laughed. She’d had a wild theory that it must have originated from some unfortunate miscommunication at the hospital – some exhausted father’s impulsive response to the nurse asking ‘what would you like’ while filling in the birth certificate.
“Ha!” she laughed, “he just wanted to grab a cold one from the fridge and now it’s one of the most popular names in a teetotal country!”
She didn’t stop there. When I told her that I was going to a party at a place called Al Yamamah Compound on my second weekend, I’d had to listen to “Yo mama!” being bellowed over the phone in between bursts of laughter. But this was nothing. My best friend had once endearingly asked me to explain more of the back story on Osaka Bin Laden and the Talisman after Osama had been killed by the Obama Administration. Gotta love my friends and family.
But back to Abeer. Originally from Jeddah, Abeer had moved to Riyadh for her father’s job, and was markedly less conservative than some of the other girls. I hesitated at her question and she asked me again.
“Are you Muslim teacher?”
“Er…no,” I replied. I wasn’t sure what the protocol was here.
“Do you have a husband?” she continued. Her questions were straight to the point, but she was smiling and I found that I liked her.
“Nope. Just me,” I said.
“Boyfriend?” she asked, grinning wider now.
At this point, even resting bitch face started to smirk a little, more from watching me squirm.
“No, no boyfriend.” Wasn’t that on the list of forbidden items? Shit, five minutes in and I was already breaking the rules!
“Well, listen to me teacher. I will tell you something. Don’t marry an Arab man – they’re not that good!” she said. Immediately some of the girls started objecting in Arabic while others were laughing. There seemed to be some disagreement among the class and resting bitch face spoke up. I should tell you at this point that her name was Ghada, but we’ll continue calling her resting bitch face (or bitch face for ease of reference since it wasn’t just when she was resting) – I never did come to like her. Yes, it’s a terrible thing for a teacher to say of one of her students, but it’s true. That girl was trouble.
“What she said is not true! Saudi men are good men,” she said. “My fiance saved the Quran.”
“Saved the Quran?” I asked.
“Saved the Quran, Alhamdulilah (praise be to God),” she repeated. There were soft whispers around the room of the word Mashallah (what God wanted has happened). This is always uttered when someone speaks of something good happening, like having had children or getting married, getting good grades, or even complimenting somebody for looking nice. It is generally used a lot, and it’s normal to me now, but on that day, I hadn’t a clue what was going on. It sounded profound.
“Saved the Quran…from what?” I asked.
Just like the smile in the Mona Lisa, where it looks like she’s either just been told a really good inside joke, or that she’s about to kill you in your sleep (at least, that’s how I always interpreted that particular painting), I couldn’t read this girl’s expression.
“He saved it!” she said, rolling her eyes at me and letting out a deep, impatient sigh.
Sudden images ran through my mind of a man hurling himself through burning fire-balls to rescue the holy book, but instead of probing further I decided to wait for more clarification.
“Saved,” she repeated. “When you are on a computer and you want the computer to remember your work and you ask the computer to save. He did like this with the Quran, but the computer was his head.”
“Oh, you mean he memorized it,” I corrected her. “Okay I understand.”
“That’s what I said. He memorized. I said that.”
“Well ‘save’ is used a bit differently. What you’re describing is to memorize something,” I said.
“No, my mother told me that save is the correct word. That is what I will use.”
“Well, your mother isn’t quite right but that’s okay, it doesn’t really matter. I understand what you’re saying.”
She fixed me with an icy stare but thankfully said nothing. Note to self, don’t insult the students’ mothers on the first day of class.
I wasn’t in the habit of arguing with students in situations like this because usually it was just the result of embarrassment on their part. Besides, it was my first day and I wanted them to like me. I decided to continue with the PowerPoint activity, pointing to a few pictures about Britain to show where I was from. I’d chosen an iconic shot of Princess Diana next to the Taj Mahal, a picture of a cup of tea and a Union Jack flag.
“India!” someone shouted, like it was the right answer in a tough TV game show.
“Oh Princess Diana!” exclaimed Nora, sitting next to Abeer. “I am love her!”
Nora was a sweet young girl who begged the school to let her into the same class as her best friend, Abeer, although she really should have been placed a few levels lower in beginner English. Most of the time she mixed up her words and understood very little of what was going on, and that was only in Arabic! But she always smiled and laughed as if everything was as clear as day, and took constructive criticism on the chin. It was always the students who had an ability to laugh at themselves who really held my affection, and I had a particular soft spot for Nora who was often teased for her lack of common sense. She once decided to go on a carb-free diet and gave up her ultimate favourite food – cheese. It wasn’t until six months of this sacrifice had passed that Abeer informed her cheese wasn’t in fact a carb and that she needn’t have given it up. Nora was in tears most of that day, and Abeer ordered her a Quesadilla to cheer her up.
“Teacher,” Abeer interjected, “did you know that Princess Diana had an appointment to become Muslim the day after she died? That is why the Queen killed her.”
Before I could start to debunk this piece of information, Nora gasped and covered her mouth with a look of horror.
“Oh my God!” she exclaimed.
“No Nora, I really don’t think it was the Queen who killed her…” I started.
“It was,” said Abeer.
Nora looked around the classroom at her peers and then back to Abeer.
“Diana died?!” she asked, quietly.
The class erupted in laughter and Abeer rolled her eyes but then looked over affectionately at her friend.
“Yes, Nora. Everybody knows this in the whole world! The WHOLE world! The Queen killed her, but she had to do this because Diana broke the rule of England. She cannot be Muslim if she is an English princess.”
Some of the girls nodded in solemn agreement, as if reluctantly accepting that this was standard practice for any British princess considering Islamic conversion.
“Teacher,” asked another student. “Why did Charles marry this ugly woman Camilla after that? She is not beautiful.”
“Okay firstly,” I began, trying to get back to the original point, “I really don’t think you should believe everything you hear. The Queen probably didn’t murder Diana. I think it was just an accident. The paparazzi was chasing her and…”
“Paparazzi! You like Lady Gaga, teacher? She make this song,” said Nora, with a massive grin. She’d quickly gotten over the death of Diana.
I used this as an opportunity to change the subject of discussion back to the topic of the lesson.
“I do like Lady Gaga,” I replied, “and do you know what else I like?”
The girls waited for me to finish.
“If you look at the pictures on the board, you can try to guess!”
Thankfully, the girls started discussing the pictures and the rest of the class ran relatively smoothly.
After the lesson, I went to join the other teachers in the staff room. Cassie was slumped over a table in the corner, lazily reaching into a cereal box and grabbing handfuls of dried cornflakes while her eyes were half-closed. Jack Bower was beside her reading her new book Seduction and Subterfuge, and a few of the other teachers were napping on couches and armchairs. Nobody was working, which was unsurprising in the heat of August in this country. The air was stifling. Suddenly the director, Ms Amal, walked briskly into the room with a clipboard and pen and looked around at the sleeping teachers. I expected a flurry of movement but instead, it seemed like there was a concentrated effort on behalf of everybody to pretend they were out cold; sudden loud snores and eyes being squeezed tighter. Even Jack Bower was in on it.
“Right…er…who is available now to cover a class for a teacher who is absent today please?” asked Ms Amal, without much authority.
The room was suddenly silent, apart from the awkward fake snoring. Apparently Ms Amal was once overheard saying to a colleague that the one thing she’d never do is wake someone up from a deep sleep. She thought it was rude, and as an acute Insomniac herself, couldn’t bring herself to do it. The staff instantly capitalized on it. I hadn’t known that at the time.
As it was my first week on the job, I hesitated. I didn’t want to cover a class I hadn’t prepared for, but I didn’t want to create a bad first impression either.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
“Right, excellent Hannah, thank you. It’s a private student who has asked for extra tuition as she has exams coming up. Nice and easy,” she said.
“No problem,” I replied. I followed Ms Amal back down the hall into a small classroom at the back of the school, and immediately regretted my decision. Sitting there, smirking in Mona Lisa fashion, was resting and active bitch face from my previous class. I endured two painful hours that I will never get back.
After that first day of teaching, I learned the tricks of the trade…
Upon hearing your boss’s footsteps approaching the staff room, play dead.
Despite there being a lengthy list of forbidden topics in Saudi Arabia, students will push for you to break those rules.
Always say Mashallah after complimenting someone in the Middle East.
Cornflakes don’t actually require milk. Cassie proved that.
Don’t assume that everyone in the world has been told about Princess Diana’s death.
* * *
Despite my fears about moving to Saudi Arabia, I was beginning to find it more enjoyable by the day.