Heading into the Unknown

The process of acclimating to the Kingdom is a common topic of discussion for the expatriates here in my compound, and I've found that it definitely varies with each individual. For some it takes many months of frustration and anxiety to fully come to terms living in Saudi culture, while for others the transition from life at home to life in a compound is relatively smooth sailing. Seeing as I was left completely in the dark about what life was like here until I met my roommate during my layover at O’Hare, I was left thinking I would be living in squalid housing in the center of the tri-city area, forced to learn to speak Arabic in a matter of days in order to survive, and wind up trying to learn to adapt to an Islamic mindset that is entirely outside my own. Obviously, things turned out much better than I anticipated.

The only issue I’m dealing with so far is the absence of genuine Saudi Culture. Yes, I live in an incredibly restrictive environment in which I almost never seeing a woman’s face  and am supposedly free of vice and libations, but living in a compound is much like living in a retirement community in Arizona, and my outside contact with genuine Saudis is largely confined to the Boys’ School. The students I teach are about as Americanized as could be; nursing obsessions with popular music, movies, Ed Hardy clothing, and, for some insane reason, John Cena the professional wrestler. American style food is just as if not more easily obtainable that traditional Middle Eastern food at most grocery stores, and just about every outlet mall on the major routes to and from work are lined with American chains; Hardees, KFC, Harley Davidson, McDonalds, Ford, Chili’s, and so on. If they can get by without explicitly needing to serve pork, booze, or sex, it’s here and it’s everywhere.

I may be disheartened about the lack of cultural originality, but I’ve found a nice little bit of salvation here:


Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Week three has been a strangely ordinary week here in the Kingdom. Unfortunately, the King decided to take the opportunity to skip giving everyone an extra day off because of National Day celebrations, and instead announced that starting 4 years from now, women will be able to vote in municipal elections. I’m not trying to sound bigoted, I’m just saying I wouldn’t have objected to an extra day off. It’s a nice gesture of good faith towards establishing some semblance of equality, but it’s quite a way down the road and Saudis have a distinctly nonchalant attitude about keeping their promises. Only time will tell. Until then, my female Saudi compatriots will have to relish their victory by hiding themselves away in their abayas while their male drivers escort them around town and provide legal standing should the Muttawa (the religious police) decide to question them. Baby steps I guess.

This week at school started on a high note. We were greeted by a new classroom aide, a Pakistani man named Fahraz, who for whatever reason insisted we call him Fido and that students refer to him as Mr. Mohammed (which is not in any part of his name). He was an Associate Professor of Computer Technology at a school in the tri-city area, and decided that he could use a pay raise to be a classroom assistant at an elementary school. With his credentials it leaves the actual count of elementary teachers who work in the school at one; Me. The South African warmly welcomed him with “I’d say welcome to Hell, but you’re already living in it. You’ve apparently decided to move down a few levels to join our notoriety. Welcome.” Our schedules were revised, and aside from having an art teacher with a brain the size of a peanut and a penchant for calling all her students ‘princess’ regardless of their male gender, everything is starting to function in such a way that an outside observer could call it school.

We did, however, learn that out Romanian Principle is officially out of the picture, and our Superintendent has decided to leave at the end of this week to pursue another job in the States. Thus, it will now permanently be an un-administrated school casually overseen by the overworked and underpaid Principle of the Girls’ School. The Superintendent’s  Ma’a es Salaam (a going away party of sorts) was this afternoon and the central administration of the company were present to congratulate us for doing a wonderful job starting out the school year. In talking with the Vice President, a wealthy former Minister of Education, I was consoled about the slow process of furnishing and supplying our classroom with an offer to have a TV sent over to my apartment in our compound. I accepted. It won’t happen. Such is life in Saudi.

During my prep I decided to walk around the second floor and took some pictures of our school’s humble surroundings. Enjoy.

 Were there no security walls surrounding the building and you 
could see out of my classroom windows, this would be the view.

 A view of the rear of the Girls' School.

The view directly across the street from the student entrance. 
It's new construction by the way.


Unnecessary Job in Saudi, First Edition: Meteorologist

I’m winding down from a gorgeous sunny afternoon spent lying around the pool with a few new friends, relaxing to the sounds of the doves and parrots sunning themselves in the midday heat. Tomorrow is National Day, which marks the 79th anniversary of the establishment of the Kingdom. It’s more or less a bank holiday, but schools are closed and most people, including myself, get one last long weekend to bask in the intense heat of late summer. There’s rumor the King is going to declare Sunday a holiday as well, which might be nice. It’s a bit odd to have everything shut down at the whim of an individual, but then again I haven’t done anything one would call normal since I arrived. 

The weather here is remarkable. The temperature is shocking at first but it becomes something you get used to quite quickly. What’s more unsettling is that the weather is the always the same, day, after day, after day. The forecast is always sunny, with high temps somewhere near 110 degrees, and nothing but clear blue skies. There are no clouds here. Looking across the sky every afternoon it’s an uninterrupted beautiful clear blue, suspended above an endless sea of brown, tan, beige, and taupe.

The forecast for the next week.

Not much going on, but the consistency is nice.

It does actually rain here in the Eastern Province, though much more infrequently than in other parts of the Kingdom. Talking with a nice man from the South in the pool earlier this afternoon he described his one chance encounter with rain while camping in the desert a few hours south of Dammam. It lasted all of 20 minutes, and the wet ground dried within minutes of the sun coming out. Apparently its quite an ordeal if a city gets rain because the lack of infrastructure and general inexperience of most Saudis make for one hell of a mess. Streets fill with several feet of water and life comes to a stop until everything drains away or dries up. Then it gets humid. For as close to the Gulf as it is, it never gets all that humid here, meteorologically speaking. Twenty or thirty percent humidity is the norm, but with temperatures in the triple digits it’s like breathing through a wet rag. A very old, dusty, wet rag from the garage that’s been used to clean up oil in the recent past.

All in all, the weather is enjoyable most days. I spend most of the days inside, where the air conditioning is on high, and only occasionally have to walk out into the midday heat. The early evenings make for perfect swimming and lounging weather, and the nights are decent for slow walks around the compound. Embarrassingly, I’ve found myself getting chills at times. (The temperature has never dropped below 75 degrees.)

As I’m writing this it’s 92 degrees. I’m sitting in my courtyard, the sun just having dipped below the horizon, wearing pants and a long sleeved shirt, sipping coffee. I’m not even sweating. It’s sad.


Everything Comes Full Circle

The first full week of school is coming to an end here in the Kingdom, and, rather surprisingly, there have been some significant changes for the better. It’s not to say that everything is hunky dory, but things are starting to look up.

A little background about the School.

Myself and two other men, one from South Africa, and the other an American who grew up in Moscow, teach in the Boys' School. It’s a three story modern building that will eventually hold grades 4-12 with somewhere around 500 students. It’s entirely separate from the Girls' School, which houses both the boys and girls sections of K-3 (classes can be co-ed and taught by women until grade 3), girls grades 4-6, and in the future, girls grades 7-12.

  The front door of the Boys' School.

The Girls' School is fully functioning, to use that word liberally, with 200 students, a library, a computer lab, a full array of support staff, and a healthy level of administration. On the Boys' side we have a football pitch and basketball court, neither of which is finished, and a support staff that includes Mohammed the Arabic Teacher who doesn’t speak English, our receptionist Jamal who also doesn’t speak English, and Ali our driver who also works as Gatekeeper (his actual title) preventing random riffraff from coming inside the school walls. Ali speaks Hindi, some English, and enough Arabic to get things accomplished. Our principle is a Romanian who has yet to enter the country and was last contacted 12 days ago. We’ve been told he’s due to arrive any day now. Other than that, it’s just us three teachers and a handful of rooms on the first floor with a random assortment of furniture.

The first floor foyer and reception desk, where Jamal and 
Mohammed spend most of their day talking on their cell phones.

The football field, made of artificial grass and padded with those little 
bits of rubber that get everywhere and smell like burnt tires.

The basketball court, where students display their complete lack of 
coordination for anything other than kicking a ball with their feet.

On to the week.


There's a Time and Place for Everything

Gaining residency in the Kingdom is a fairly extensive process, filled with an incredible amount of paperwork, medical examinations, and various random expenditures. For myself, most of this arduous and time consuming process was taken care of back in the States, but there are several key elements to being granted residency that can only be taken care of once you arrive in country.

The first involves obtaining your Iqama, which is a small driver’s license like identification card that basically states you have the legal right to live and work within the Kingdom. The card itself is inexpensive to procure, and aside from being mandatory for all non-Saudi residents within the country, it happens to be the only way you can obtain a multiple entry visa in your passport (which, subsequently, is the only way you can keep your passport on your person and not in possession of your employer). The second involves experiencing rapid medical processing through a Ministry of Health approved hospital.

It should be noted at this point that in order to even gain entrance into the Kingdom, I underwent a mandatory battery of laboratory tests and medical evaluations filled out to exact specifications and processed through the Royal Embassy in Washington D.C. This was so critical to being allowed permission to enter the country that I ended up doing the entire process twice.

That said, it came as a quite a surprise when I was informed shortly after getting to work last Tuesday that I would be going to a hospital immediately after school was finished to get the necessary medical exam. The man who I was walking into the building with, a young twenty something Brit who happens to be an Associate Professor of French at a college in northern Saudi but was somehow hired as a substitute teacher for the 5th grade and kept on as a helping hand for a few days, casually fluffed it off as something I “shouldn’t bugger on about,” that it “really would only take a minute” and that I’d be “right to go” after everything was said and done.

Now, any sensible person who has even the slightest idea of what I was going through during my short stay in the Kingdom would have sensed that something was amiss, and that it certainly couldn’t be as simple or straightforward as a quick trip to the clinic down the street. Seeing as I was ankle deep in the crisis that is my current situation, I took what he said earnestly and went on with my day.

As school ended, we (myself, my roommate, and another female teacher) were told that the other teachers needed to be dropped off at their compounds and when the bus returned, Ali, our driver, would take us to our evaluations. Someone, however, forgot to mention this to Ali, and after an hour wait he was called and told to come pick us up. Shortly thereafter we were on our way to a hospital called Astoon, which, unbeknownst to us, is located at the edge of the compound in which we all reside. We arrived shortly after 5pm, walked inside the main lobby up to the receptionist, and were greeted with a collective sneer from literally every person in the room. The female teacher in our group had forgotten her abaya, the traditional long black gown that is mandatory for all women regardless of nationality or religion, and was now about as offensive to Saudi society as Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day. Adding to our problem was the fact that this particular hospital only processes Iqama medical evaluations through appointments, which we didn’t have.

Back in the car, after a lengthy one-sided phone conversation with our Superintendent, Ali slammed it into gear and went tearing off in a direction opposite our compound. When asked where we were going now, he replied, “She say finish job, so I take you to 24 hour hospital.” What he was really implying was that we were going to go to an emergency room, and by emergency room he really meant any hospital in the tri-city area that was open past 6pm. After stopping at two more hospitals, we finally arrived at what looked to be a fairly lavish hotel. This was the main Indian hospital in the city of Khobar. This was not where we would be receiving our medical exams. After checking in with the receptionist, we snaked our way through the building, past the green marble fountains and bronze elevators, down a narrow darkly lit hallway, and came out through a side entrance into a waiting room lined with multicolored plastic lawn chairs in every state of disarray. This was the 24 hour Free Clinic operated via subsidy by the Government of Bangladesh, and this was where we were to be evaluated.

After the clerk at the counter copied our passports and we each handed over 200 riyals (mostly an ‘incentive’ for the doctor to process our forms), we were ushered into a side room to wait to get our physicals. After 20 minutes I was next in line, and once inside the doctor’s office I was moved to an exam table, and given a 20 second heart/lung/liver test and then ushered to the X-ray room. Fully clothed, a technician took my chest x-ray, then moved me to yet another room to have my blood drawn. After asking the male nurse to change his latex gloves (they were stained with dried blood) he pulled out a syringe, which was still sealed in the packaging, and proceeded to draw an indiscriminant amount of blood. He took off the needle, opened two test tubes, and squirted in enough to fill them, then threw the still half full syringe in the wastebasket. Then he handed me a baggy, and said slightly chuckling in broken English, “big cup number one, small cup number two” and showed me to the bathroom. As unprepared as I was to now have to provide these samples, my desire to remove myself from this situation sped the process along, and even though there was nothing but a toilet in this bathroom, I did what I had to do. And by nothing but a toilet, I mean exactly that; no sink, no faucet, no toilet seat, no toilet paper, no paper towels; nothing.    

Four hours after beginning this little adventure, I finally arrived home, took a shower, and went to bed. The next day, after letting my students outside for their morning break, the Brit came over and asked me how my medical exam went. I shot him a look, he smirked a little and said, “You didn’t know you had to make in a cup, did you? Saudi’s full of fun little surprises…”


A Diamond in the Rough

Given the ridiculousness that is my job, one solid perk is living on a compound. Needless to say, it’s a little different than any of my previous housing.

As you drive onto the compound road, weaving between the 500 meters of concrete barricades, headlights dimmed, over the dozen or so tire spikes and speed bumps, you’re greeted by two heavily armored Saudi National Guardsmen with machine guns, who watch silently as other guards search the underside and trunk of your car for bombs. You pull away from their post, weave through 250 more meters of barricades and speed bumps, past two military trucks with mounted heavy machine guns (their operator usually napping in the shade), and wait by the hydraulic car blockade just outside the main 10 ton wrought iron gate of the compound. After your credentials are cross referenced by the clerk inside, you’re given clearance to enter the compound. Here is what you’ll find:

Second Verse; same as the First

A tumultuous first week has come to an end. Thankfully, things are starting to fall into place, but it’s been a dive, face first, arms tucked, into the reality of life in Saudi.

My classroom was made exponentially better with the addition of a whiteboard, with both a black and a blue marker (heaven forbid I lose them). It’s amazing what you can accomplish once you procure a few supplies. I walked to the over to the girls building and raided their supply room, which was more of a closet with a few boxes filled with random materials, and came back with a box of pencils, a large stack of legal pads, half a box of paper clips, and a red pen. The best stolen material being the legal pads, because I finally have enough paper for my students to do work in class, as well as at home. The downside is that I have 12 students, and 10 textbooks. I don’t mind not having a teacher copy of any of the subjects, but it’s incredibly hard to teach anything of value when you can’t assign any work and someone is always left out.

My state of the art classroom. Notice the small whiteboard on the side wall. 
The Arabic teacher stole it shortly after I took this picture. 

Any reasonable person would assume I could just ask the students to share textbooks, or give two days to complete homework so students could take turns bringing the books home, but they would be sadly mistaken. First, Saudi’s have a hard time grasping the concept or sharing, which usually ends up in a contest to see who can swear the loudest in Arabic. Secondly, half of them can’t read well enough to do any work by themselves anyway. Their English abilities range from speaking perfect British English, with slang well above my understanding, to only knowing how to say the phrase ‘no problem’ without actually knowing what it means.    

The upside to all this business is that every day has been better than the day before, and it’s literally impossible (short of being shot or having a student defecate on me) for it to get any worse than it already is. I met several fathers yesterday, and they were very concerned with the well being of their sons. They wondered why they hadn’t had any updates sent home about their students after the first week of school, and were bewildered as to why I wasn’t assigning homework. Their questions were answered as soon as they walked into my classroom and they could see for themselves what I was working with, but as one father said “My son is here because I want him to see how bright his future can be. He’s an investment, and I’m here to get what I paid for.”     


Smoke and Mirrors

Today was the first day of class and oh what a wonderful time it was.

Our van of teachers pulled into the school’s outer wall area about 20 minutes before students were set to arrive, and after walking into the building, I was greeted by a woman who spoke neither English nor Arabic, and was supposedly the substitute from the day before. I mulled around with my roommate, who happens to teach 5th grade, and a few minutes before students started making their way into the building I was shown my classroom. It had 12 student desks, a smartboard in a box leaning against the wall, an unpacked but still wrapped in styrofoam computer sitting on my desk, and a stack of textbooks for another classroom piled near the trash can by the door. That's it. That was the entire contents of my classroom. There was no whiteboard or markers, no posters on the walls, no shelving units of any kind, nor were there any materials to put on them. I eventually found enough textbooks for 10 of my 12 students, but I lacked teacher manuals for all of them except health, students didn’t have any school supplies, and the only paper that was eventually made available for my class was one yellow legal pad with misshapen margins and uneven multicolor lines. I was told that “Today, we teach math” and left to my own business.

My students are all Saudis boys, most of whom have attended at least one other English speaking school in the past few years, and they are all relatively well behaved (not that that’s saying much considering my past experiences). The common strength in my class is their uncanny ability to memorize passages and recite them without mistake. It seemed like things were really going smoothly until I realized that none of them comprehend what they were reciting. They have spent the majority of their education learning to memorize passages of the Koran through recitation, and they have developed otherworldly abilities to apply that to a number of different circumstances. In math it was time tables, in language arts it was everything. They can memorize anything without understanding and they have never been taught to learn any other way.  

I should mention at this point that I’m working in a magnificently lavish building with ornate facades, marble floors, solid wood paneled bathrooms, glass doors and walls in every classroom, and extremely efficient air conditioning. As the fourth grade teacher, an older, rather overwhelmed and frustrated South African who's worked in the Kingdom for a decade said “They must have spent thousands and thousands of riyals making every detail look exactly perfect, but it’s all fucking smoke and mirrors, man. Everything here is that way.” 


And so it begins

After a 12 day delay, 36 hours on 3 separate flights, 4 hours on a bus ride through customs with a dozen illiterate Nepalese construction workers, an hour haggling with unlicensed cabbies in a back alley in the city center of Al Khobar at 2 in the morning, and a ‘cab’ ride that resulted in an unnecessarily prolonged silent tour of the sights and sounds of the main roads of the tri-city area at dawn, I have finally made it to the Kingdom.

Driving across King Fhad Causeway from the airport in Bahrain to the city center of Khobar gave us a look into some different aspects of life here in Saudi Arabia, however, it was the middle of the night on Saturday (the equivalent of Monday in the rest of the world) and some of what we saw most likely isn’t the norm for everyday life. Driving is exactly what everyone warned about; a competition to go the fastest, drive the most aggressively, and have complete disregard for anything around you, including the police (who didn’t seem to care all that much about anything that was going on either). Customs was interesting in that every single person who worked there (all Saudis and all men) couldn’t possibly have cared any less about their job than they already do. For every one person actually accomplishing a task there were two others having a cigarette and talking on their cell phones while simultaneously carrying out a brash conversation with the on-task individual, ensuring nobody had a quick or efficient time of anything. They highlighted the generally accepted notion of most of the expats we’ve talked to have, which is that Saudi men have a universal code of “I don’t give a shit” in regards to pretty much anything in life, including life itself. So far this has held true for everyone we’ve met, and it’s can almost be overwhelming how indifferent some people are to the world around them.  Also, everyone is pretty overtly racist (not to mention sexist but that’s an entirely different conversation) and they are not ashamed to treat the darker skinned foreigners like dirt, or worse. 

It’s a different world here.

Due to our early morning arrival, and the subsequent phone calls to a very surprised and angry boss, we were given the day off to acclimate and arrange everything for our first day at school tomorrow. In the coming days I’ll post pictures of my compound and a few of the other things I’ve seen so far.