arabic ability: salaam alaykoum
sanity status: every day brings something new!
Arabia is a land of legends. Ala ad-din. Sindi-bad. Ali Baba. The word ‘Arabia’ itself conjures romantic imagery: desert caravans, moonlit dunes, bejeweled, pot-bellied merchants reclined upon plush carpets, regaling each other with strange and fantastic tales.
Modern Saudi Arabia it seems is no different. Have you heard the tale of the Italian English-teacher who amuses himself while not at work by staring at the blank walls of his accommodation, or vacuuming his quarters, only he possesses no vacuum? Then there’s the legend of the ex-pat in Riyadh, who got piss drunk off his homemade concoction and woke up the next morning stained with blood, having bludgeoned his flatmate to death with a chair and an ashtray in the interim. My personal favorite, though, might be the account of the teaching veteran who one day wore a dress to work, sat on my managing director’s lap and called him “Daddy.”
Like petroleum, tall tales come cheap in Arabia. Marbles, though, are at a premium–best not to lose any. I believe my life here will boil down to simple economics: acquire as much of the former (hopefully less morbid and more locally-flavored), while sacrificing as few of the latter as possible (if need be, marble supplies can be replenished with ventures abroad, of course).
In a way, adjusting to life in Saudi Arabia is pretty simple. It’s always hot out, and there’s nothing to do but visit the malls.
Relative to Riyadh, my home city of Al Khobar is supposedly more liberal. Restaurants are segregated, but they only lock their doors at prayer times (others make you leave). Abaya and hijab abound, but there aren’t muttawa and the other day I even had a dialogue with a woman!
Me [staring at enormous floor plan of a mall…what else]: Where are we??
Woman [indicating obvious arrow]: Right here.
I live in a hotel of furnished flats in Olaya. It’s a new neighborhood on the western skirts of town (just west of the LP map, unfortunately) composed exclusively of nearly identical, 3-story, concrete hotels, future hotels in some stage of construction, and dusty, wasteland acre-plots (presumably land reserved for more identical lodging). It’s a groin-pulling stretch to call dusty, commercial Khobar a resort city (let alone my neighborhood), but the corniche is a few kilometers away and I’m 200 meters from the largest shopping mall I’ve ever seen. I’ve been told Saudi men from Riyadh or other central areas like to leave their wives and children here so they can shop all day, while the husbands cross the border to Bahrain to enjoy forbidden pleasures, returning at nightfall.
The school where I teach in Dammam is called the Institute for Public Administration (IPA). Students learn English as part of their training for employment with the national government. Everything sparkles (Filipino staff to thank, all male of course), classrooms are equipped with smartboards, and the whole building is basically refrigerated–sometimes it’s necessary to step outside simply to regain feeling in your hands. Really, the only trauma in daily experience here has been the recurring adjustments between nipple-hardening cold inside and blazing heat out. Well, that and commuting on the highways. Khobar must suffer from frequent pre-dawn bank robberies, because every morning our ride consists of dodging getaway vehicles. Modern, 6-lane highways, a desert wasteland allowing for straight roads with zero natural obstacles, and yet Saudi Arabia has the worst highway fatality rate in the world. (Perhaps not unrelated, many of my students love the Fast and the Furious and like to talk to me about “drifting.”)
My classes are all for the lowest-level students (welcome to IPA!), but conversationally even these students are actually quite good. Many are gregarious, but with good senses of humor and at least occasional willingness to listen to me. If everyone wasn’t dressed in thobes (Saudi suit-and-tie equivalent; basically private school dress) and male, I wouldn’t even be ever-conscious of the fact that I’m in the Kingdom. None of my prior concerns about avoiding taboo subjects in the classroom (movies, alcohol, pork, attire, women…even religion, to a certain extent) have proven founded, although that wouldn’t be the case everywhere in the country.
Of my roughly 120 students, perhaps 45 are named Mohammed, including a couple Mohammed Alis and even a Mohammed Mohammed. Both of my supervisors are also named Mohammed. Together with the names Ahmed, Faisel, Abdulaziz and Abdullah, probably 75% are accounted for–middle names become necessary.
In the interest of self-preservation (and, ideally, self-improvement), and also because there’s shit-else to do, I’ve joined a gym/spa on the top floor of the local Crown Plaza. It’s only perhaps 800 meters from where I live, but there’s literally not a single way to cross the highway between (Saudis don’t walk…most of the time, though, you can’t really blame them), so when we go, we have to take a 10 minute taxi ride up one side of the highway, then back down the other. In no way am I worthy of its opulence, but it’s been fun to work-out, then attempt to answer through experience the question ‘what’s the best order of operations: jacuzzi, then sauna, then high-intensity jacuzzi, then steam room?” and to know that spending 3 hours at a health center isn’t actually a waste of time, because there isn’t anything else on the docket.
Hopefully Arabic lessons and guitar strumming will work their way into the 5 day Sat-Wed workweek. Exploration of Saudi and, more proximately, Bahrain, to follow.