Hurry Up and Wait

Today marked the end of the toughest week I’ve experienced so far. Surprisingly, it was also the most normal, or at least it had some semblance of normality. My daily routine has lost its glamour, and the wonderment that comes with living in a new place has just about dried up. My little desert prisons were pushing me to the end of my last nerve by Monday (hump day here in the Kingdom), and every hour thereafter was like pulling hair from the balding scalp that is my sanity.

The schedule I established (for the entire school as a new teacher in a foreign country) two weeks ago has been working wonders. It took some time for the other staff members to realize it would be wise to listen to the only person in the building with any experience working with children, as they might have the knowhow and wherewithal to fix the situation. Now that things are starting to function properly, small problems are starting to fix themselves. This turn of events has been great. But not really. Becoming a real school means there has been a noticeable decrease in everyday chaos, and a huge increase in problems stemming from all but one of the staff members having any experience or knowledge working with children. The dim speckle of light at the end of the tunnel is the new requirement that every teacher attend one mandatory teaching seminar each week. It’ll eventually help take the burden of teaching teachers how to teach off the shoulders of the four people who actually know what they’re doing (myself and three women in the Girls’ School), but only thirty minutes at a time, provided the seminars actually happen. They currently aren’t. It’s a great personal learning experience to teach the art of teaching and then see if your advice actually works, but it’s not particularly convenient to do it while teaching children at the same time. I mean that literally. I teach my students and am usually interrupted two or three times each period to answer questions or give advice to other staff members.

I’m relatively certain this is something that most people would not call an ideal first year teaching experience.

Compounding this is that up until late this afternoon I was without my passport or any legal or practical way to leave the country. I received my iqama late last week, which meant I could cash my paycheck and start trying to fill the void of normal life with things like a bank account, a mobile phone, health insurance, or driving a car. But if I wanted to leave the country, say to a small island nation a short drive down the road from my compound where one can legally purchase a significant amount of things that interest me, I couldn’t. By significant amount of things I mean bacon, booze that wasn’t made in a cupboard, and interacting with women who don’t wear bed sheet dresses. Most everybody else can, and, come Wednesday night, everyone relatively close to my age with any preference for consuming booze or indulging in social interaction with the opposite gender heads to Bahrain. I like sitting by the pool, and the weather is great, but middle aged Scottish women and moonshine hangovers just don’t cut it after a while. During my wait, I made several phone calls every day to my government agent, and was given more broken promises than I care to count. It took 43 days to get my Multi-Visa, which is 42 days and 22 hours longer than it actually takes, but now I have it, and I plan on putting it to good use.

Next week marks the start of our Eid Holiday. I plan on spending the better part of the next two weeks travelling, now that I actually can. It’ll be nice to take a break from the monotonous chaos people refer to as my job. Until then, my posting will probably be light, but I hope to come back with a few good stories and plenty of pictures. Peace.


Undoubtedly the Best Policy

Last Wednesday saw the first parent teacher conferences of the year. I didn’t think much of them, seeing as I’d already met most of the fathers, and after school activities (especially on a Wednesday night) are not something that many people here in the Kingdom actively participate in. Only after weaving our way through traffic, arriving 20 minutes late, and seeing the mass of people waiting in the school foyer, did I then realize how much trouble was in store.

Things got off on a bit of a sour note. After trying, and failing, to lighten the mood with a few jokes about it being cold and drizzly back in the States and the distinct tone my Midwestern accent gives certain words, did I realize I needed to stop beating the bush and be brutally honest about how incredibly bleak the current situation really was. Parents were astounded with how honest and forthright I was willing to be when they started asking questions. They couldn't believe I was willing to tell them that I don’t really know why I’m here in this relatively weak excuse for a school without any resources, support, or administration. They were shocked when I showed them the pile of textbooks I have available (it’s about 40 total books for 14 students in 6 separate subjects). One father made me physically show him that the outlets in my room didn’t work, and then pulled out his phone charger to make sure I wasn’t lying to his face. I finally just told them that I meant no disrespect towards my employers, but I couldn’t lie to a roomful of parents who actually care deeply for their sons’ educations just to make everything seem okay. They were not happy campers 20 minutes into our hour long session.

One thing about Saudi culture that I’m still getting accustomed to is their ability to forgive. A sincere apology is worth its weight in gold here, and a grudge isn’t something that most people are willing to keep (religion aside). It’s incredible, at least from this Westerner’s standpoint, how serious issues are resolved with an ‘I’m sorry’ and a handshake. I stood in front of a room full of people who spend more than a fourth of their income on one child’s education and had nothing better to say than to apologize for my employer's mistakes. I was anticipating an ass-chewing, but instead was met with more than a few smiles. They appreciated the honesty. From that point on, we worked towards establishing a type of pseudo-PTA in an attempt to get organized, and I explained to them the different ways in which they could help get things accomplished around the school. For starters, I gave them the name and number of the many Vice Presidents, none of whom decided to show up for the evening.

After the hour meeting was over, I had a chance to meet with many of the parents individually and talk about their sons. It was one of the first times that I have seen that much devotion to the ideals of education, and it made me realize how much westerners like myself can take things for granted. Something as basic as an elementary education can mean the world to certain people, and the sacrifices some parents are willing to make in order to give their children a better chance can sometimes be overwhelming. Most of my students are fairly well-to-do and it’s sometimes hard to empathize with their attitudes considering their standard of living, but taking into account the obstacles put in place by their nationality, their religion, and their society’s views on life in general, it’s still pretty refreshing to see the hope their parent’s have for future. 


Mind Your Ps and Qs

‘Early to bed, early to rise’ is not something any Saudi has taken to heart.

As I mentioned previously, things here operate on two schedules; Real Time and Saudi Time. An interesting aspect of living on Saudi Time is the daily routine. Aside from building their schedules around Salah (daily prayer), living in the middle of a barren ocean of sand means avoiding doing much of anything during the heat of the day. Some Saudis still work normal hours, relatively speaking, but they don’t accomplish much (mindsets and cultural norms aside). Lazy as it may seem, it makes a fair bit of sense. After sunset and the last of the daily prayers the heat dissipates, and attending to any personal business becomes much more bearable. Typical Saudis, including children, eat their evening meal well after dark, usually between 9 and 11, and stay up well past midnight. They’ll awake for morning Salah, which occurs just before sunrise (currently around 4:30am) and then head back to sleep until midmorning. Breakfast isn’t really that big of a meal and isn’t usually until 10 or 11, and lunch is taken around 2pm. It’s a wonderful schedule for coping with the heat and monotony of the desert. It’s also almost entirely incompatible with those of us living in Real Time.  

We have several Saudi employees at the Boys’ School, and after tweaking our schedule to relegate most of their responsibilities to the afternoon, things have taken a turn for the better. Sadly, because school starts at 7:30, the students are still trapped in a world of little sleep, low standards of parental supervision, diets with incredible amounts of oil and sugar, and a very ambivalent attitude towards exercise of any kind. It makes for an interesting day.

Our newest staff addition is the Vice President of Education for the company. After his quick orientation to what was supposed to resemble a school last week, he decided to spend more time sorting out exactly what was going on. He arrived every day this past week (surprisingly) a few hours into each school day, and seeing as his designated office is on the third floor of the Girls’ School which no male is allowed to enter during formal school hours, he spent his time wandering around our barebone facility. His first order of business was to upgrade our teachers’ lounge.

Swanky, eh?

It was a nice gesture, but aside from providing a nice spot for a nap during my prep period, it didn’t amount to much. What repaired his image in my book was his invitation to dinner at a traditional Saudi restaurant last night. It made for an exceptionally late night, but I walked away with a better sense that he wasn’t as dense or detached as he had originally seemed. I learned about his formal education as a teacher and the many years he lived in the States and the U.K. (he has an American accent but a British vocabulary), and he confided in private with me that he was just as frustrated with the current state of affairs at the school as I was.

The dinner itself was set around a long low table surround with pillows and throws in a semi-lavish private room hazy with incense and candle light. The food was delicious, and the experience was memorable. The image you probably have in your mind is much more picturesque than it actually was, sadly. All but one of the attendants were Western, and the most common topic of conversation was awkward chatter about women’s rights. There were many relatively unintentional but nonetheless incredibly culturally offensive statements made by a few of my female coworkers about our host’s home country, which left the South African and myself a bit upset about being associated with their viewpoints. There was a bit of animosity on the bus ride home.

It’s a very different experience living in the Kingdom, one of which I don’t think many people are well suited to undertake. It’s easy to live within your own ignorance here, but being educated enough to realize that many people here don’t know any other life than the one they currently live makes it hard to sit around and let others label every Saudi as the crazy person they superficially seem to be. I keep my mouth shut, however, because karma usually has a funny way of handling these types of situations.

That, and I make all their booze.


One Day at a Time

The call to prayer came all too early this morning.

This week has been particularly uneventful yet still surprisingly tumultuous. The Kingdom has a funny way of creating a sense of monotony out of everyday chaos. Things are so unstable that without something new and ridiculous happening each day, it starts to feel like things aren’t happening at all. In the last four days we’ve received a new British teacher, restructured our entire class schedule, established a beginners English program, and found out that over the weekend 40 more Smartboards will be installed, inshallah, in the building (no computers or projectors to accompany them though), but it doesn’t really feel like we actually accomplished anything. When it came time to get on the bus this morning, I wasn’t feeling all that motivated.

After arriving at school and beginning our morning routine of holding a quick 3 minute staff meeting (all five of us now) in the foyer before students rush the doors, we noticed a woman in her abaya (or a Street Ninja as the South African calls them) walking up the stairs. It was a secretary from the Girls School (one of four secretaries in that building) informing us that a large factory just down the road from the compound, which specializes in producing toxic gases used in industrial applications, had sprung a leak overnight and students would be given a holiday. That explained the strange tinge of formaldehyde in the air.

After a celebratory sigh of relief and a quick prep for the week ahead (25 lessons in 15 minutes, including making copies), we left for home.

In hindsight, it would have been nice to have known that venturing into the area around the school was considered hazardous, or that because huge sections of highway that run through the heart of Dammam needed to be shut down traffic would substantially increase en route to our compound, turning our normal twenty minute commute into two and a half hours. Nonetheless, I spent the afternoon running some errands, then sunning by the pool enjoying some wine and eating some cheese. Such is life in Saudi. 

Reflecting over my time here has meant learning to take things in stride, even if they’re painstakingly annoying or, just as frequently, life threatening. They may be teensy little baby strides accompanied by an internal monologue filled with curse words and self-deprecation, but they’re still usually moving in the right direction.


Nothing but Time

I’ve been here a day over four weeks, though it seems much, much, longer. There has been so much to experience in such a short period of time that it all seems to blend together. I’m having a relatively good time, aside from dealing with a completely absurd working environment, but the nostalgia of moving to a new world seems to have started to wear off. Mostly, I think I’m just getting a bit annoyed with being stuck in two little prisons.

I spend the majority of each day at the Boys’ School surrounded by three meter security walls patrolled by men with large knifes and pistols, and the majority of each night on a four square block residential compound surrounded by three meter security walls topped with razor wire patrolled by a bunch of men with machine guns. I have the ability to leave each place if I choose to, but lacking a car, any type of credentials, language skills, or even a cell phone, means it’s a little bit painstaking and risky.

The view could be worse.


Mr. Volstead be Damned...

Before I arrived here in the Kingdom it had been of chief concern for a many number of individuals as to what I was possibly going to do without being able to indulge myself in libations. Not knowing what to expect, and generally fearing the worse, I consoled myself with the notion that I would pick up the worst habits I could, as soon as possible. Upon taking conversation, most people realized that without booze, women, or general freedoms, I would be pretty much on my own and suffering hideously, thus I would ultimately end up with an inevitable bad habit of picking up smoking. Or worse. Luckily, this has not been the case, for as much as people smoke here (and my do they smoke), my fears have never been realized.

Most weekends around the compound involve a considerable amount of illegality. Alcohol is completely illegal here in the Kingdom, but that hardly stops most westerners from indulging themselves in a myriad of different ways. Home-brewing is fairly common, and each compound has at least two or three reliable sources that one can count on to provide a good time. Moonshine is relatively available and goes by the name of Sidique (Sah Dee Kay), which is more often than not terrible, tastes of piss water, and gives some of the worst hangovers imaginable. Lastly, and only if you have connections or are incredibly lucky, you can procure regular beer or liquor through the available channels such as American or British consulates or Foreign Service members within the Royal Family. Each avenue has its disadvantages and costs.

Thankfully, one of the first weekends I was in country I befriended a wonderfully funny young Scottish man who went by the name of Mick. He had an incredible temper, and on more than one occasion ended up ruining an evening, but he made for a great host. He introduced me to homemade wine here in the Kingdom, and, upon finding out that he was going back home indefinitely, he was gracious enough to give me the materials necessary to start my own little hobby. Since then I’ve been a wee bit busy.

Homemade wine and hard apple cider. And, yes, that is a condom. Let me explain.


It's a Two Way Street

It goes without saying that life is very different here in the Kingdom. Before I came I generally considered myself ready for emersion into a culture different than my own, but the world in which I landed takes the meaning of different to a whole new level. The shock that travelers and expats talk about hasn’t overwhelmed me as of yet (who knows what tomorrow, or next week, or the coming months may bring), but getting used to the way of life here is tends to put a strain on one’s patience.

Saudi society revolves around Islam. They follow a separate Islamic calendar which is slightly shorter than the Gregorian one the rest of the world uses so the months never quite match up, and their workweek is Saturday through Wednesday meaning everything operates on two different schedules: Real Time and Saudi Time.

Daily prayer is an essential (and mandatory) part of life here, and is held 5 times each day. Some days it’s a unique aspect of life that can be enjoyed and is almost exotic in a way. Just about an hour before sunrise the first call to prayer fills the air with a relatively peaceful chorus of monotone voices, sung almost in harmony, that reverberate through bedrooms. The rest of the day the calls to prayer serve as a reminder that Saudis follow a different work schedule, usually 9-11ish and then 4-7ish, and nothing is more important than their obligation to stop what they’re doing and head to the nearest mosque. Everybody else is left waiting for their return, literally, because nothing is technically allowed to function during prayer. Stores, restaurants, and most every other business close during prayer, leaving their patrons stuck outside waiting to get in, or locked inside waiting to get out. Non-Muslims who work for Saudis must wait patiently to finish whatever it is they’re doing because although they may be subject to an 8-4 workday, things here operate on two different schedules: Real Time and Saudi Time.

Saudis themselves are a mysterious breed of individuals. Living in a culture that went from nomadic and poor to twenty-first century urban and incredibly rich in just a few decades means that modern expectations must deal with old world mindsets. To Saudis, nothing is more important than the individual, and, as a general rule of thumb, that individual is themselves. Being a Saudi in the kingdom means getting what You want, and nothing should limit your ability to get it. Wanting to talk to someone means putting yourself at the front of conversation because You are the most important, regardless of who is there, and you deserve to continue to talk until you’ve made your point. Driving to the store means complete disregard for anyone around you because You have the most important priorities, speed limits be damned, and everyone else, including the police, can bugger off. ‘Waiting in line’ is something that doesn’t make sense to you, because your desire to have something means You come before everyone else and, therefore, you get to move to the front of the line. Being told No isn’t a problem because No doesn’t generally apply to You, so you get to do what you want anyway. Dependability isn’t something you should worry about because your time is only important to You, and other people should be smart enough to realize that they should feel honored if you choose to grace them with your presence. Unsurprisingly, working as a Westerner, with all its expectations and responsibilities, while under the control of a Saudi, means you learn to operate on two different schedules: Real Time and Saudi Time.   

This dichotomy creates chaos for those unaccustomed to it, but for those with the patience, or apathy, living in the Kingdom can be simplified relatively easily. This is done by converting to Inshallah. It's loosely translated as ‘if god wills it’ with if being the operative word. Get asked to do something and don’t want to do it, “I’ll do it when I can, Inshallah.” Now you don’t have to do it. Someone asks you to buy something, “Sure, the next time I go to the store, Inshallah.” Now your money is saved. Required to make a promise about something, “I promise it will be done, Inshallah.” Now your conscious is clear. I’m relatively certain most Saudis are unaware of Karma, but I like to think that their collective actions will one day come back to haunt them.

Until then, I say please and thank you when I talk to Saudis, I say excuse me when I interrupt a conversation or bump into someone, and I wait patiently in line no matter how many people budge. I minimize my negative waves with Saudis whenever I can, and Inshallah the hell out of everything else. 


Tomorrow is a New Day

The past several days have been a whirlwind of emotions. In keeping with the theme of opening a new school in a country with no sense of normality, it was happiness one minute then frustration and anger the next, with an ever present sense of sheer disbelief and bewilderment looming overhead.

Life at the Boys’ School has fallen into a regular pattern. Each day I arrive at the building with only the slightest idea of what’s in store, I make my way through the day in small patient steps to get through each strenuous hour, and by the end of the day I’m faced with the continual realization that I’m entirely unprepared for whatever tomorrow will bring through no fault of my own. Schedules change on a daily basis, depending on the time of day the majority of staff members disappear for prayer or coffee, and parents stop by two or three times a day and stay to chat for twenty minutes during the middle of a subject. I’ve welcomed two new students in the past week who lack any English abilities, and seen several others stop attending because their parents pull them out without warning. I’ll be greeting one more new student tomorrow morning, and have been told to expect another at the beginning of next week. Days that start off well turn sour relatively quickly, while others that make me question my decision to come here have resulted in some of the most rewarding teaching experiences I’ve ever had. This life is manic.

The mania extends beyond the classroom. I attempted to supplement my currently non-existent income by venturing into the world of teaching English to adults. I spent an evening meeting with one of the Vice Presidents of our company and was genuinely excited to learn more about teaching at the Men’s School. After arriving there I was backhanded with the same routine of smoke and mirrors and dangerously subtle false pretenses. This was not the type of situation I needed. I came to my senses and decided to forgo this moonlighting adventure, but was unexpectedly shooed out of the building in haste, left by myself at the side of a major highway with no phone, a limited amount of cash, and no idea where I was. I got back to the compound and laid floating in the pool, staring into the dusty glow of Al Khobar at night, feeling particularly uneasy about being able to come to terms with what I’ve gotten myself into.

A different Vice President paid us a visit this afternoon. He stumbled into a fight on the football pitch, and after unsuccessfully trying to find a staff member to help him resolve the situation, he suddenly realized how ridiculous this school had become. In a relatively short meeting (by Saudi standards) he gave us full reign to restructure the school to better fit the needs of our students with our limited resources. He promised more help and more staff, and started making phone calls during the meeting (it’s incredibly impolite, but it’s how they accomplish things here in the Kingdom). I felt the weight lift from my shoulders and tried to process a flurry of ideas of how to utilize these new gifts. Then, tilting his head and lowering his voice he uttered “Inshallah.” It pulled us back to reality in one shared anticlimactic sigh. The bus ride home was very quiet.