In the course of my short teaching career, I have already learnt that you can make them do anything and that there’s nothing worse than a runny nose. My fourth confession is marginally more profound: you learn more than you teach.
Since I started working last February, it’s been the Arab students who have most fascinated and inspired me and of course it is they who have cemented my desire to learn Arabic and to visit the middle east.
Among Saudi and Omani students I have met with the most genuinely gallant and warm-hearted of gentlemen. “Teacher, let me carry your bags” “Teacher, I will help you clean board”, “Teacher, in Saudi Arabia; BIG respect for teacher”, “After you, teacher”.
Among Saudi women, I have noticed more than anything the expressiveness of their eyes. In many cases, along with the feet and hands, the eyes have been the only feature visible to me. They are often heavily made up. Their nails too are carefully painted and manicured. It’s surprising how little one needs to be identified: the shape of your eyes and the size of your head; the colour and pattern of a headscarf.
. Some months ago in class, I posed an open question: “Do you like Dublin?”
Generally, a mixed response: Ridiculous weather. Friendly people. Bad food. Not enough to do. Two Saudi women shook their heads. “Not good city” said the first. “Oh”, I said, interested. “Why not?” “Not big enough” the other answered: “No shops..”
“No SHOPS?!”, I asked incredulously. “But We’re right in the city!”.
“Not many shops”, they repeated.
“What about Dundrum?” I insisted. “That’s one of the biggest shopping centres in Europe”.
“Yeah; Europe“, they muttered and rolled their eyes.
And then there’s the unparalleled adulation for King Abdullah. Some time ago a student asked me what I thought of the uprisings in the middle east. I was uncomfortable in my answer and skirted about the subject by stressing the general importance of putting an end to corrupt regimes, but that I knew too little about the region. I did ask however whether King Abdullah was popular. “Oh yes”, he replied, his lips curling into a smile and his eyes wistful “I love him like my father”.
And they really do. He is constantly nominated for the “greatest person in the world” contest, which I occasionally moderate for the purposes of fluency development. They tell me that he introduced a social welfare system a few months ago as part of his great reforms, which some say were a way of saying thanks for the no-show of protests following some facebook stirrings urging people to go to the streets.
Money has none of the moral associations that I am used to. One day I am practising opposite adjectives with an elementary class. The opposite of rich?” I prompt. They all know this one.
“In Saudi Arabia, no poor people”, a girl tells me.
“NONE?” I repeat
I put in on the board. “Poor people=0%??????”
“Yes!” another chips in. “Saudi Arabia lots of Oil”.
“I know”, I say “but I’m sure there are one or two poor people…”
Another time, we are practising modal verbs of obligation to respond to the problem pages of a magazine. A girl called Jenny is an unemployed shopaholic. Her habit is sustained by a foolish and ubergenerous grandmother, who keeps sending her money. “She should get a job” a French student says. “Yeah, and her grandmother should stop to give her money”, a Brazilian adds. “No problem in Saudi Arabia”, the girl from Riyhad chips in. “Family send money every day. No problem”.
Most of all, they enjoy shocking me with descriptions of the terrible consequences of committing minor offences in their country. “First time drunk on street” one tells me “name in book; second time, lashings” (he mimes a violent whipping action in case I have misunderstood) “Third time life prison”.
There is a sudden outburst of laughter from the whole class because they have noticed the horrified expression I have been wearing unaware. He grins, adding in a conciliatory tone “Alcohol, in secret, no problem”, as if that had been my biggest concern.
LSB never fails to make an appearance either. One day, I got chatting to a class about my leprechaun-kraut heritage. The Saudi ladies seemed disproportionately impressed by my having a German mother, which makes a nice change from the inane references to Fascism to which I am accustomed.
“Boyfriend Irish or German?” they ask.
“Irish” I say.
“WHY Irish?” they gasp
“What do you mean?”, I enquire.
“Why you choose Irish man, not German. Germany better”.
I pause. “Because… because I like him”, I almost whine.
“Yes, I like LSB. And LSB is Irish.”
They shake their heads and raise their eyes.
A few days later LSB makes a re-appearance.
“Teacher how long you know boyfriend””
I sigh “Oh about 5 years” I answer.
“When you marry, teacher?”
It’s my turn to shock. “Oh I don’t know” I say with a sigh of casual self-indulgence.