I was beginning to get a little bored of my job in Saudi Arabia. There are only so many times you can repeat ‘the cat sat on the mat’ before you start wondering what went so very wrong in your life as to have you end up there.
I decided one morning that instead of just being an English teacher, I’d have a go at being an ‘educator of life’. It sounded more, I don’t know, Buddhist or something. Fuck cats on mats!
This was the very opposite of what I was supposed to do in this country. My job was to teach what the textbook told me to teach, collect my salary, and then at the end of my time to get the hell out of Saudi Arabia. But I figured I could subtly add some extra world knowledge here and there, and stop my brain from turning into a completely vegetative state in the process.
I had a solid plan for this.
I’d go over what to say at the doctors, provide some extra vocabulary like Ibuprofen or Aspirin…and then casually throw in the entire history of the Colombian cocaine industry and the Mexican drug cartels. Weather topics like rainy and sunny days would become tsunamis and earthquakes – and the stupidity of climate change deniers in the Republican Party. And while on the topic of ‘deniers’…why not throw in the holocaust for good measure?
I’d talk about jobs and occupations like nurses, doctors, plumbers…and the lives of the interpreters working at the United Nations in Somalia during Black Hawk Down, and how that event essentially changed US policy in Africa. When a student would ask to go and get a coffee from the canteen, I’d say something like, ‘you’ll need money for that coffee…and while we’re on the subject of money…let’s talk about the 2008 financial crisis shall we?”
I had an upper intermediate class that day, the kind that understands you and engages you in conversation – perfect for my new project. Five out of six of these girls were curious and intelligent young women, eager to learn about the world and talk about almost anything, even if their views weren’t quite the same as mine. I once asked this class to create interesting characters for a book, without holding too many expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised. I got a cigar-addicted belly dancer who wore a nicotine patch, a bedouin who had an over-zealous obsession with his camels (much to the detriment of his marriage), and a member of the religious police who had woken one day after smoking some shisha and forgotten all the verses of the Quran. It happens.
Then there was the sixth student, Fatma. Fatma was about as interesting as concrete. Or Wales. Or a dead cat.
Her book character was a Saudi woman named…wait for it…Fatma. Her character had no husband, no children, no job, and no hobbies. She sat in her house every day on the sofa and played on her phone, much like the real Fatma. Then she went to bed and did it all over again the next day. She wasn’t depressed or anything, she simply ‘existed’. I tried to reach into her soul and find the passionate spirit within, or some such shit like that…
“You can’t name your character Fatma, because that’s your own name. Try to think of a different name. There are so many out there…”
“I like my name.”
“Okay, well can you think of something a little more interesting for her than just sitting on the sofa playing with her phone?”
“Sometimes…she gets up and goes to the kitchen…”
“…gets the food.”
“Right. But I mean, imagine something like….crazy or cool!”
“Sometimes, Fatma sleeps in the day. Not at night. People are supposed to sleep at night.”
“Meaning of wild teacher…”
Other than Fatma, I had a good feeling about the rest of the class. Our lesson that day was on countries and nationalities, which inevitably led me to Germany-German…and you can see where this is going right?
We started class that day at 9 and by 9:15 I was already starting to talk about Mein Kampf and the Nazis. If at first some students were bewildered by the sudden jump in subject area, they soon got on board, but I was somewhat surprised by their lack of knowledge on anything outside of the Kingdom.
‘So,’ I began, ‘Hitler is what we’d call infamous, which means being well-known for bad reasons.’
‘What is the opposite of that teacher?’ asked Hiba, one of my most likeable students who wrote down absolutely everything in a little notebook. Literally everything.
I once walked past her in the hallway and jokingly asked ‘How’s it hanging Hiba?’
She froze, took out her notebook, wrote down the phrase, checked something quickly on her phone, looked up and said, ‘It is just hanging so wonderful and well right now to be exact.’ Sure, she came across as mildly autistic in her English language, but she was trying and that was the main thing. She was like a sponge, who soaked up everything I told her.
‘The opposite of infamous is famous, which means to be known for good qualities, and for doing great things,’ I answered.
‘Like Jennifer Aniston, she did great things in her life before she died.’ said Hiba, her eyes lighting up in adoration the way my grandmother’s did when she talked about Cliff Richard or the 9:08am bus driver.
‘She didn’t die,’ I said.
‘Sadam Hussein?’ asked Fatma. ‘He was, yanni, a good man.’
‘Well, he was responsible for the death of over 50,000 people so, not exactly an ideal example…’
‘Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him,’ said Shuaa, a quiet but sweet girl.
‘Yes, okay good.’
‘Miley Cyrus!’ shouted Hiba, getting fully involved now. ‘She doesn’t care what anyone thinks and she just lives her life any way she wants! And she is alive by the way.’
‘Okay, everyone has different ideas on what are, and are not, good qualities and that’s good. It’s great to have different opinions.’ I said, hoping to move on.
‘Yes, good to have all different opinions and respect,’ said Fatma, ‘like Sadam Hussein say.’
Right, definitely time to move on.
‘Okay so after the war was over, the United Nations was basically formed in order to avoid any further conflict,’ I continued. ‘Does anybody know what the UN is?’
My students stared back at me blankly, and so I put up the logo on the projector. Still nothing.
‘Okay, maybe if I show you this famous face you will know,’ I said, displaying a picture of Kofi Annan.
‘Yes, yes,’ said Fatma, nodding knowingly and smiling like they had once been old friends and simply hadn’t written in a while. Now that would have been an interesting idea for her book character, but I digress.
‘What can you tell us Fatma?’
‘His name comes from the colour of his skin.’
‘Coffee Annan. This why everyone know him. His face colour of coffee and maybe this why his mother call him like this.’
‘Interesting,’ said Hiba.
‘No, this racist,’ said Shuaa.
‘His name is Kofi, not coffee girls,’ I said. ‘He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights efforts.’
‘I would like that prize,’ said Hiba. ‘But not right now, maybe in the future.’
‘It’s kind of a big one, not something that everyone can get.’
‘Reach for the stars teacher, that’s what my cat always tells me.’
If I hadn’t by then become so mentally exhausted, I would have been curious to learn about Hiba’s Cat’s speaking abilities, but I chose to ignore it and move on as the lesson was soon coming to an end.
Schuaa started to speak.
‘I think human rights are important teacher. In this country, we don’t really have them.’
This was tricky ground for me. Of course I agreed but there was a limit as to how much I could really say in the classroom. I always thought that my careful and diplomatic answers sounded like I was a psychologist chatting with someone on a couch.
‘Interesting. And why do you have those feelings Schuaa?’
‘Because, as women we cannot do many things. We cannot drive, or travel, or work, if we do not ask for permission first. Some families are changing and they are open-minded, but many families are still closed. The decision is with the father usually.’
‘But it’s not that bad,’ said Badriah, a professor at one of Riyadh’s universities. ‘Look at other countries like Afghanistan and Iran and we are very lucky. We have to make some changes but this takes time, and our country cannot have American-style freedom because then we would be led to dark paths like American women. I am not saying that American women are bad – they are very good teacher. And British women very, very good. But, yanni, some are…’
Hiba took a moment to search through her notebook before providing an answer for her.
‘Be slutty,’ she said, smiling proudly. I wondered if this was a word she’d written down while watching a Netflix movie, which is how she spent most of her time. I hoped it wasn’t part of a to-do list.
‘I don’t know this word, but I mean, they have boyfriends or sometimes maybe have baby but not husband,’ said Badriah.
‘My friend told me that sometimes men and women live together before getting married,’ said Shuaa, giggling.
The rest of the class laughed and shook their heads, like we were talking about the strange customs of an African tribe.
I noticed that my students, whenever they needed to mildly criticize the west, would always focus on America. However, when they changed teachers and got Lucy, from Wisconsin, their target would switch to the UK.
Alaa, a student who rarely spoke much but had firmly held views on a number of controversial topics due to her devout nature, decided to speak up.
‘Saudi Arabia is not the worst country when it comes to human rights. That is for Norway and Sweden.’
‘Norway and Sweden?’ I asked, incredulously.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘they do not punish people for criticizing religion there. Here, we will put those bad people in prison and give, give, oh what is the word…’
‘Lashes?’ I asked.
‘Yes. But where is the punishment there? People are upset and hurt when bad things are said about religion.’
I was straying into controversial ground and my psychologist answers came back again. Or maybe it was more like we were in a meeting for Alcoholics Anonymous.
‘Interesting thoughts there Alaa, and thank you for sharing with us today.’
I was starting to think that perhaps this whole life education thing had more difficulties than anything else, and how long it would be before someone found out about these topics and I was deported. If KSA could deport me for eating a banana in public during Ramadan, they could certainly do it for this.
‘So girls, um…what have we learned today then?’ I asked, hoping to quickly wrap up before we inevitably got on to beheadings.
‘That some people are famous, and other people are infamous,’ said Hiba.
‘That the United Nations man won a prize and that his name isn’t coffee because his skin colour not important,’ said Shuaa, smiling sweetly, ‘because for me I am not a racist.’
‘That’s good to know,’ I said.
‘If Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, were here then Hitler would not have been so unhappy I think,’ said Fatma.
‘Sure, okay let’s wrap this up. Tomorrow we’re doing adjectives and adverbs.’
The girls smiled and quietly left the room. I had no idea if they wanted to go back to basic grammar or continue having more discussions, but Fatma seemed happy to get back to the old routine.
And what had I learned from today? That it was maybe time to start looking for a more challenging job…or at least to start writing all these experiences down.