The first time I saw Badriyah, I took an instant dislike to her. I know – it’s very unprofessional of a teacher to say that about one of her students, but I did. I once heard a quote about my job that went: A good teacher takes a hand, opens a mind and touches a heart. This was from an American diplomat who hoped to get laid, but I don’t really put much stock into that because I later found out that he’d change it to whatever was presented at the time. A good Czech flight attendant takes a hand, opens a mind….
I’m told it worked for him sometimes.
Regardless, I’d like to alter that quote a little to reflect reality. A good teacher smiles through the bullshit and occasionally manages to get through to someone. At other times she’s a hater. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it’s real, and I’m sure it would even work well for that horny diplomat.
Back to Badriyah. I had asked her name a couple of times upon first meeting her because I didn’t initially pick it up, as is often the case with Arabic names. She’d given me attitude.
‘Baaaa….drrrrreeeeee……yaaaaaaah,’ she’d said, as if talking to a child and rolling her eyes.
Sometimes, when I forget how certain Arabic words should sound, I make up little stories to help myself out. For example, one of the main streets in Riyadh is called Takhassusi and each time I say it, I try to imagine a really angry, little Japanese chef with bad pronunciation, screaming at a customer to ‘take a sushi!!!’, while shoving a Maki roll under his nose. It’s a little elaborate maybe, but it gets the job done, and I always pronounce that name just right. There’s a compound in the south of Riyadh called Al Yamamah which, in my mind, is a rapper from Chicago confronting a rival gang member saying ‘Yo mama….’ and you can imagine the end of that sentence any way you see fit. A further example is the Arabic word for ‘always’ which is dayman pronounced ‘Die man!’ and you can also use the Chicago rapper for that one, although some say it’s not really politically correct. I mean, said rapper from Chicago could actually be a college graduate called Norman who wears glasses and a polo neck sweater to keep out the cold. Who am I to say that they’re all gangsters? But for the purposes of this exercise, Norman has to sound like a badass when he says ‘Yo mama!’ because otherwise you don’t get the right pronunciation.
For Badriyah, I came up with a pretty good story fairly quickly. A patient walks into a clinic complaining of stomach pains and too many trips to the toilet.
‘Ah,’ says the doctor, ‘clearly a bad case of diarrhea, which those of us in medical circles commonly refer to as… Badriyah.’ If you want to add a touch of drama to this, throw in a horrified nurse in the background who clasps her hand to her mouth and whispers, ‘Not Badriyah! We haven’t seen a case like this in years doctor!’
Anyway, Badriyah (the person, not the diarrhea) thought she was the shit.
Oh the irony..
She had an air of entitlement about her. On the first day of class, she looked around the room like it was the last place she’d like to be at that moment, turned up her nose, and sat down as far away from the other students as possible, unwittingly placing herself directly under the harsh blast of the air conditioning.
At this point in time I was working at Princess Noura University, which is known for being the world’s largest all-women campus – basically a big ‘fuck you’ from the Saudi government to those who say that the Kingdom’s women aren’t getting an education.
Let me give a little background on this gem of an institution. The university really is quite something. It has a spectacular, state of the art library that rivals any lavish Dubai hotel. Despite it not having had any books for the first couple of years because nobody thought to order any, the female guards would sometimes allow the teachers to ride up and down in the glass elevators on break times, so it can’t really be said that such an investment had gone to waste. These were the same guards that would value the teachers so much, that they would chase us if we attempted to leave campus early. With the speed of junkies who’d spotted a clean needle, we’d dart out the doors before they could grab us, shouting something about a doctor’s appointment. The added bonus of being in Saudi Arabia is that the guards couldn’t make an exit without their abayas because outside those doors lay something quite dangerous. Men. With eyes.
I usually made it successfully on to the metro in order to get a ride back to my campus apartment, but on one unlucky occasion I had to duck down fast on all fours when I spotted my supervisor through the window, at one of the stations. While this worked to hide from my prying manager’s eyes, it looked to the Saudi passengers as if I were attempting to pray. I was met initially with gazes of pleasant surprise and appreciation from the fellow passengers until I abruptly stood back up, having not worshiped any prophets, and sat back down like nothing had happened. You know that awkward feeling when you think someone has converted to Islam but they actually haven’t?
The campus is beautiful now, although it had been a bit of a rush job back when the king said ‘get a move on’. As a result, ceilings would often cave in, sinkholes would emerge, and you had to be a little brave when turning on any electrical switch. But if you simply walked as if you were in a minefield, with slow moves and careful placing of the feet, you were just fine! And what’s a little electric shock or bump on the head every now and then? I once asked my students to tell me what the meaning of ‘disaster’ was, and one clever girl said, ‘Princess Noura University’, with a beaming smile. So although there were minor issues, the state of the campus could be used as a learning opportunity in the classroom. I was particularly impressed with the talented student nurse we had. While other medical professionals would need to use expensive drugs and years of knowledge and training, our nurse would simply sprinkle holy water over the girls and hope for the best. This was not only more economical but during exam times when we had an unusually high amount of fainting women – it seemed to be enough to bring them round. At other times, paramedics would be called and after waiting for about half an hour for a few thousand students to cover themselves up, and provided the patient was still hanging on while all this happened, the men would then be allowed to enter the campus and save the women. Just like a beautiful Saudi fairy tale. And how can I not mention the fantastic human resources department, who focused more on the resources part rather than the humans, getting right back to basics. Sometimes, we even got paid. It was a great place to work. Really.
Badriyah was not only one of my students, she was also one of the professors at this fine academic institution, teaching French. She took a couple of hours off her schedule each week to come and improve her English.
Instead of listening to my instructions, she would impatiently wait for me to finish speaking and then say to the girl closest, in Arabic, ‘what does she want?’, or ‘what is she saying now?’
Sometimes she wouldn’t bother to wait until I’d finish, instead interrupting and causing me to stop midway. At first I’d smile at her with my most passive aggressive ‘shut the fuck up’ smile, but it didn’t work on her like it did with my ex-boyfriends, so I soon gave up.
One week though, something happened which started to change my opinion of her.
The subject of discussion, as per the Middle Eastern edition of the world’s most boring English language textbook, was transportation. In a country where women cannot drive and the only means of transport are Ubers, taxis and private cars, this always falls flat. We decided to change it to love and romance.
Badriyah was one of the married women in the class, and so Munirah, who sat closest to her, asked her about her relationship with her husband.
“He is a fine man, who just last week was featured on MBC television for a special report on Princess Noura University,” Badriyah replied, smiling proudly. It was the first time she’d smiled, but it seemed a little off, like she wasn’t telling us the whole story.
‘Mashallah,’ said Munirah, ‘what was he talking about on television?’
‘I will just show you the clip,’ she said, and sighed as if this were a great favour to the other girls. She reached into her handbag to retrieve her phone. and out came a brand new Iphone 7 with a flashy, crystal-encrusted cover.
‘Cartier,’ she said, holding up the cover even though nobody had actually asked about it. ‘It’s very expensive.’
I didn’t say anything, although I’d seen the exact same excessively garish design at the local souq for less than twenty dollars. It didn’t seem like the type of thing Cartier would have on sale.
‘I won it for coming first in a…how do you say… competition. I was voted the best Saudi-native, female, French language professor in the whole of the languages faculty, department B, section A4 of Princess Noura University. This is a very…prestigious award.’
‘Mashallah,’ said Wafa, and the rest of the class echoed this and nodded with polite smiles. ‘How many people did you win against?’
‘In truth I am the only female French language professor who is Saudi-native working in department B, section A4, but I think that this shows how special I am. Nobody can be like me,’ responded Badriyah.
‘You won…against yourself?’ asked Hiba from the back of the room, a slight smirk playing on her lips.
Hiba was quiet most of the time until she found reason to speak, and it was always either something very sarcastic or very thoughtful.
‘It is the greatest achievement to win against yourself,’ said Badriyadh. ‘My personal trainer at the gym told me this. Now, do you want to see my husband on the big screen or not?’
I decided not to bother explaining the meaning of the term ‘big screen’, especially when, back then, there weren’t any cinemas allowed in Saudi Arabia anyway. Instead, I joined the rest of the girls as they gathered around Badriyah, eager to see who’d married this woman.
After a few seconds, a striking man appeared on the screen, talking smoothly in Arabic into the microphone. He was the epitome of the ‘tall, dark stranger’, having intense brown eyes, just the right amount of ‘stubble’ and a suggestive smile which flirted with the camera. He was wearing an immaculately tailored white thobe which stretched a little at the biceps and a perfectly positioned shemagh on his head – like something straight out of a tourism advert for the Arabian Gulf. It was easy to see why he was on television. I didn’t understand anything he was saying, but I understood the audible reaction of the girls in the class. He was gorgeous.
‘Mashallah your husband is so handsome!’ said Wafa, from the other side of the room.
‘Just wait…,’ said Badriyah.
Wait? Was he about to do something really cool?
Just at that moment, in the background behind the camera and off to the distant corner, an extremely thin man, also wearing a thobe but with no shemagh and a serious case of bed-head, squinted through Harry Potter style glasses toward the camera. Once he saw what he was looking at, his expression changed to one of alarm and bewilderment, before he quickly backed away, just as the camera swiveled quickly to the left to block him out.
‘There is my husband,’ said Badriyah, proudly.
Hiba started laughing so hard that tears pricked at the corners of her eyes, and Munirah and Wafa tried hard not to join her but couldn’t manage it. Soon the whole room was erupting in laughter.
‘This was your husband’s big television appearance?’ asked Hiba, incredulously.
‘Was he not on MBC Television like I said?’ Badriyah retorted stubbornly. ‘I did not lie!’
Munirah nodded in agreement. It was true – she hadn’t told a lie. Her husband was technically on television.
‘What was he even doing there?’ asked Hiba again.
‘I was supposed to be showing the MBC camera crew around the university, but I didn’t want to be late for this English class, so I called my husband and woke him from is nap. I told him to get here quickly and help MBC find their way around. He panicked a bit, because he has never been to the campus before, but I told him that he married me and promised to do what I wanted, so he had to do it. And he did.’
‘You did that just so you could attend this class Badriyah?’ I asked, surprised.
‘Yes. You are a good teacher and I have a good time here with the girls,’ she replied, and for the first time I saw a genuine smile.
The class went silent and I felt a little lump in my throat. I hadn’t expected that and I’d always been under the impression that Badriyah was miserable and surly.
A couple of days later we were back in class and Badriyah received a delivery. In came a rather impatient looking Filipina maid holding a giant bunch of roses which seemed to dwarf her, and she marched straight up to her boss to hand them over to her.
‘Ya Allah!’ exclaimed Badriyah, joyfully, ‘What an unexpected surprise! It’s probably from my husband!’
The look on the maid’s face as she rolled her eyes indicated that this wasn’t the first time she’d delivered flowers to her in front of an audience, and it wasn’t at all unexpected.
‘Thank you Suzy,’ said Badriyah, ‘Go now.’
Suzy the maid needed no further encouragement and hightailed it out the door, clearly having done this charade a number of times.
‘Your husband seems to really love you,’ said Hiba, enviously. ‘He came here to show MBC around when he doesn’t know his way around the campus, and he orders you flowers during class. That’s so sweet, Mashallah.’
Badriyah nodded but didn’t say anything.
The following day we had some speaking tests. This is a time when each student gets to speak to the teacher privately, one-on-one, and it can be quite revealing. This was one of those times.
‘So Badriyah,’ I began, ‘tell me something interesting about yourself.’
She paused for what seemed like an unusually long time and seemed to think. Then she closed her eyes and when she opened them they were wet with tears.
‘There is nothing,’ she said.
‘That’s not true,’ I said, ‘think about your wonderful job, the prize you won, your husband, and the flowers from this week…’
‘I live in Saudi Arabia teacher. Do you know what that means?’
‘Tell me,’ I said.
‘My husband is a good man, but I don’t love him and he doesn’t love me. We are cousins and we had to get married. I know he doesn’t love me because my brother-in-law told me that someone saw him on that app.’
‘What app?’ I asked, although I had already guessed.
‘Binder,’ she said.
‘Ah, you mean Tinder.’
‘You know it?’
‘It’s quite famous.’
‘Yes,’ Badriyah continued. ‘Suzy, my maid, likes it a lot. She said she has many boyfriends on there, although some of them are in prison so I don’t think she is choosing the good ones.’
‘So yes, my husband tries to meet a woman there. But I don’t care, because I also don’t want to be with him.’
‘So the flowers…’
‘They are from my son,’ she said. ‘He knows that I am not happy and he sends them. He’s a good boy. He also bought me the iphone cover. I didn’t win any prize.’
‘It’s really a brave thing to be so honest. You didn’t have to tell me any of that,’ I said, and I was genuinely touched that she’d decided to tell the truth.
‘Allah sees a liar,’ she responded, sadly.
‘Well, what are you going to do if you are not happy? Is there something you can do to change your situation?’ I asked. Although I knew that these questions were more out of politeness than anything else.
Badriyah just shrugged helplessly.
Saudi women are not as free to change their lives as other women are. Divorce is more common now, and is slowly becoming more acceptable, but it doesn’t mean that life is necessarily better after the marriage ends because most women have to go back home to live with their parents, and it’s not easy to re-marry. Besides this fact, most will not even consider the impact of losing their children, and by law custody would normally go to the fathers in Saudi Arabia. This law changed in March 2018, providing Saudi women with new powers, but neither I nor Badriyah could even imagine that just a few years later, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman would bring in sweeping changes to the country, introducing women’s right to drive, to work, to travel and to retain custody of their children after divorce.
‘Maybe I will try Binder…,’ she said, with a small laugh.
‘Yes that’s what I said. But I cannot put a picture, so I have to be careful. My friends are sometimes using this.’
‘Tinder is popular with women here?’ I asked.
‘Yes. But not for meeting, just for chatting, you know?’
I knew exactly what she meant. Lots of men and women in the Kingdom no doubt used Tinder to flirt and exchange messages without the worry of being caught by any family members, religious police or pious friends. In the past, Saudis would walk around in malls, in all-male or all-female groups of course, hoping to walk past each other and collect Blackberry Messenger PINS so they could message later on. Sometimes men would even have their PINS on the back of their cars. Before the advent of Blackberry, it had been scrawled, handwritten phone numbers on tiny pieces of paper dropped here and there around malls for members of the opposite (or sometimes the same) sex to find. Men would call random numbers, hoping to hear a woman’s voice. This happened so much when I had just arrived in the kingdom that I often hung up on the poor food delivery man who was just trying to find my location to deliver my pizza – thinking it was some random Saudi trying to hear my voice.
It was literally a stab in the dark for some illicit contact between young men and women, and sometimes phone relationships would develop that would last years before each one was reluctantly married off to someone in the correct social circle.
I wondered what had been the method of communication before mobile phones, or if there even was much communication. Would there be an Abdullah somewhere answering his direct line at work and pretending to speak to Faisal from the Jeddah branch when in fact it was a girl he’d met somewhere the month before? And where had they even met? It wasn’t like there were plenty of malls or even coffee shops back then, and everywhere was segregated.
Unexpectedly, I saw Badriyah again a few years later in a different institution, where she was still trying to improve her English. She told me that she was in the process of a divorce but that it was amicable and she’d share custody of her children with her husband. She’d even offered to recommend some good candidates to him on ‘Binder’ but he’d thought that that was probably a step too far. I admired her maturity in the situation.
She still teaches at Princess Noura University, and now there are more Saudi-native French language professors so she has an actual shot of winning a real competition now, although PNU doesn’t seem to want to have one as they don’t have enough money to buy a prize. Classic PNU.
This summer she plans to learn to drive on the campus of the university and her soon to be ex-husband has even offered to help her, along with her son. I haven’t asked her about her progress on any dating apps.
I learned two things upon meeting Badriyah. One is not to judge people so quickly because you really never know what is going on behind the scenes, especially in this particular country where everything is one big closed door. The other is that I’d never have believed I’d write a blog post talking about Saudi Arabia, Tinder, and women’s rights all in the same story.
Bring on more progress.