Arid Letters

The Diary of an English Teacher in Arabia


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Barren Blooms

crazy eyes look less conspicuous when you’re surrounded by cactuses

One of my recent discussion prompts was this: “Tell me about when you were a little kid. What did you like to do for fun?” Of course, I didn’t expect the students to have the same responses as Western kids, but I assumed that everyone had a favorite game or hobby from their childhood. But I couldn’t believe the absolute uniformity my guys answered with. “Football” and “video games” – these were the only answers I received, in class after class. Almost 200 students, and I struggled to find a single different answer.

Of course, this was inconvenient, because it gave me little material to practice the grammar lesson. But, I wasn’t so much annoyed as befuddled, so I asked them in more detail, giving examples from my childhood: “Someone, I’m sure, liked riding bicycles? Pretending to be an animal? Playing with blocks or Legos? Finger painting?”

One of my best students finally responded:

“Here, we don’t do different things like in America. The father wants his family to stay home, and we don’t, um… ishoo [slang: 'waddya call it'] the things for play only …”

“Toys?”

Aywa [slang: 'yeah'], we don’t have much toys like kids in America. We play football and relax in al-jurooz (a place in Saudi houses like an old-fashioned sitting room). Now, play video games and watch movies also. But on the weekend, I don’t do much things for fun. I play video games and watch football only.”

It goes without saying, the desert is very barren, for the most part. But as I continue to settle into this culture, I understand more and more that the character of the environment is also reflected as a uniformly sparse character among the people who live here. Sometimes, I imagine that the environment must slowly program the genetics of its inhabitants. I don’t just mean the evolutionary concept of physical adaptation – it’s more of a shared personality between place and people. My idea is probably oversimplified and unscientific, but when a Saudi friend invites you to the desert, where you just sit and drink coffee for five hours, doing nothing but surveying the rocks and sand, you begin to understand the origin of his mono-everything worldview and austere attitude.

maybe got carried away with the whole "get away from it all" thing

maybe got carried away with the whole “get away from it all” thing

I’m beginning to feel the process of desertification in my own personality. Occasionally, Saudi friends invite me to their house for dinner. An evening with a Saudi goes something like this:

  • Arrive at eight. Settle on a couch in al-jarooz.
  • Sip coffee and tea from miniscule cups for the next two hours. You will discuss either Islam or work. (Of course, all the women are sequestered in their own portion of the house for the evening, except when they set up the meal in the dining room).
  • Dinner is served around ten p.m. Everyone sits cross-legged on the floor around a communal platter of rice and chicken, which is eaten with your hands. (The food and coffee is delicious, but more about that in another post. Right now I’m whining.)
  • After dinner, return to al-jarooz and repeat the tea-coffee-restrained conversation ritual until one or two in the morning (or whenever you can conjure a reason to excuse yourself).

That’s it. No board games, no walks in a park, no playing with pets or working together on a project . We don’t discuss music, or history, or politics, or new ideas. (Please don’t think this is representative of 100% of Saudi people, or 100% of my evenings on the weekend. I have made friends with some outstanding, progressive, intelligent, and active guys here. I’m only describing my general experience and what seems to be “normal”).

Where I initially felt confined or bored during these evenings, I’ve now learned to slip into an expectation-less trance. Just like my vocabulary has slowly melted due to constantly using the simplest phrasing available, my vibrant, scattered attitude and habits have eroded, leaving only a bedrock like some sort of bland, unsought zen. “Everyone here” used to mean “them”, now it means “us”.

During the work week, I teach for absurd lengths of time: 7 a.m. to 2.45 p.m., then back to the office at 4 to prepare for my 5 – 9 shift. Sometimes I’ll tutor an extra student after work or on the weekend. My life now: work, sleep. On the weekend: alternately eat chicken and rice with my hands, or politely circumvent encouragement to become a Muslim. .

Fatigued from long hours, inept management, and an extreme environment, it’s tempting to simply give up. Thankfully, I live with another American teacher, and we work to stay vibrant in our limited free time. Like the pioneers first carving out homes on the unforgiving Great Plains, we remind ourselves that, with hard work and a resilient mindset, we can thrive anywhere – even here. So I read. I have solo dance parties in my bedroom. I’ve started drawing – not very well at it, but I enjoy myself.

it's just science, k?

it’s just science, k?

more science

more science

To my family and friends, I apologize for not writing frequently these past couple months. This suffocating work schedule really cramps my style. For self-preservation, I spend my limited free time with phone and computer off (the internet here only works half the time anyway). Usually, I spend my down time on our roof – a space we work to make colorful and alive. I’ll tell you more about my roof in another article.

This post sounds pessimistic, but I want to finish with positivity: we can flourish anywhere. My family moved from Michigan to Iowa when I was 12 years old. As we parted, a teacher told me: “Bloom where you’re planted”. Some places, it’s difficult to bloom, but it’s never impossible. Don’t forget that.

keeping my head just above the "I hate it here" waterline

keeping my head just above the “I hate it here” waterline


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Transit Kaleidoscope

I’m a little disappointed in the content I’ve written for this blog. I – WE, really – probably expected something different. We expected crazy stories about the strange things here in Arabia – camels, scorpions, mosques, veiled women, oil wells… I don’t know, what DID we expect, anyway? Something DIFFERENT, I guess.

But the reason I only sporadically have something different and strange to write about, is that I spend more time noticing the things that aren’t different, but the things that are the same.

So let me tell you a story, about something that has stayed the same: hotel rooms.

A year and a half ago, I was sitting in a hotel room in a strange town – Huron, SD, the definition of “strange town” if ever there was one. I was there doing a few weeks of training for my new job in insurance sales – this was going to be the job where I saved up money to settle down and start a family and turn my plans into reality …

Well, it’s like Grandpa Brubacher told me just last week. We were sitting in a Culver’s in Wausau, Wisconsin, and he said, “Boy, stop trying to plan so much. A lotta things are gonna change and you won’t be able to change ‘em.”

Gramps is a wise guy – I mean, my plans sure changed a lot since last April. In fact, that week, as I suffered through the training for my new job, was also the week I made my decision to go abroad. Everything changed that week. You changed, so we changed, so I changed my plans. That’s all a guy can do when he’s sitting alone in a hotel room.

But this is all wrong. I told you there was going to be a story about things that are the same. That was my plan, when I started writing this, but I keep encountering deviations.

Here’s something that stays the same: nights spent alone in hotels in strange towns. Tonight, the town is Manama, Bahrain – more of a city than a town, sure, but still a strange place.

Here’s something else that stays the same: if you’re in a strange city, alone in a hotel room, you have some strong drinks in the evening. I still remember how bitter that overdone coffee tasted every night in Huron. Tonight, I think it’s tea – double bagged, with so much sugar that there’s a layer of crystals left in the bottom every time I empty the cup.

The tea is sweet. So is Bahrain. It’s 3.30 a.m. right now. Jet lag and strong drink will keep you up too late, or have you up too early, or something. I can’t tell. It’s always changing.

I’m trying to reel it in here. I’m sorry, I really am. But things get so foggy when you’re in transit. Memories, time zones, plans … They all run together until all you can do is dance on their grave and puke them up out the other end of the kaleidoscope until the future looks more mixed up than that abortionist’s dumpster of a metaphor that I just pulled out of the blender.

In writing classes, they’ll say, “Show, don’t tell.” The funny thing is that “show, don’t tell” sounds more like telling than showing.

But the outcome always outweighs the decision, that’s what we’re getting at here. So I’d better start showing you some stories. The people want pictures!

Next time … I promise I’ll tell you a good story. That’s my plan, anyway. But tonight, I only have chopped up, scrambled, tiny pieces of stories, running together … You find yourself in a strange city, can’t remember how long you slept or when/where it was, you’ve got too many hours on the plane behind you, and kilometers to go before you sleep (all respect to Robert Frost). And the only thing to do is have some strong drink in an empty hotel room in the early early morning. So I pour some more tea and play some music that I would usually detest, but under the circumstances, so far from home, it makes more sense.

You guys, it’s a true story: I’m listening to Sheryl Crow tonight. Strange cities and empty hotel rooms have a way of making things like Sheryl Crow sound ok. You have plans, they change, no problem. You think we know who I am until we find out that you don’t know who we are, but that’s ok too – it’s all people. Time and plans and stories all run together, and the drink is still hot and strong.

Empty hotel rooms in strange cities have a way of invalidating doubts and regret. But make no mistake … Every single day, I still wish you could be here with me.


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A Look at the Syrian Question – from an American in Saudi Arabia

This blog post regards the current situation in Syria.  I have committed myself, for the most part, to avoiding political opinions on my blog.  However, I have formed some ideas, due to staying here in Saudi Arabia, that I think may be unique, and perhaps helpful to some of my readers in the United States.

The Case Against US Intervention:

  • The United States has a war hangover.

    Hopefully, our recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us some things.  Making war is expensive.  We must have an exit strategy.  In the Middle East and Central Asia, going to war with one problematic party will bring another problematic party to power.  And we’re sick of dealing with these issues.  Many of these same problems from Iraq and Afghanistan will be present in Syria if we choose to involve ourselves.

  • US intervention in Syria would turn into another proxy war with Russia.

    I would like to believe that the days of the Great Game are over.  Allying ourselves with insurgents, or unpopular governments, for no other reason than to gain power in a region is barbaric.  The United States, Britain, France, and Russia have a shameful history in this region of meddling in previously autonomous communities as a way of making war against each other without getting their hands dirty.  This must stop.

  • Just like in Egypt, US support for the insurgency will probably turn into US support for an oppressive, ultra-conservative “Islamist” regime.

    I must take time to point out that these ultra-conservative “Islamist” regimes are not in line with the attitudes and goals of the majority of Muslims across the world (but this is a topic for a different post).  However, the point stands that, just like US support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, if we help depose the Assad regime it will equate to a defacto support for Al Qaeda and other tafkiri elements.

The Case for Leaving the “Syrian Problem” to the UN:

  • Chemical weapons are an issue for the global community.

    This means, despite the added hassle of navigating Russian and Chinese objections, we must deal with this issue as a global community.  This is exactly the sort of situation that the United Nations was created to handle.

  • Some might object:
    “If the UN decides to act, won’t most of the forces deployed still be American planes dropping American bombs?”

    The answer is probably “Yes.”  Unfortunately, the US has allocated a disproportionately large amount of funds towards turning ourselves into a global police force and a frightening war machine.  While our education systems suffer, we protest that we can’t afford universal health care, and our innovation in progressive energy production lags behind the Germans and Chinese, we still support a larger military force than the next top five nations combined.  However, this does not give us a mandate to use our military might, it merely highlights our misguided priorities. 

 

Saudi Arabia’s Opportunity and Responsibility:

  • The Syrian problem should be resolved by the country’s neighbors. 

    Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey should be the countries stepping forward to help their neighbor.  Why has it become America’s job to take care of everyone’s problems from the opposite side of the planet?

  • Saudi intervention would give the country a chance to attain a new level of responsibility and respect on a global scale.

    The Saudi military industrial complex, specifically the Air Force and Navy, have a large amount of resources and technology that have never been deployed.  I see this first hand, as I spend the first half of my work day teaching English at a Saudi military university.  If the country wants to be considered globally relevant, they should be willing to step forward and take the lead on the Syrian problem.  This could be conducted in an air-support-only, no boots on the ground fashion, in the same way that America has been considering.

  •  Saudi could work towards her dedication to curtailing Al Qaeda influence.

    Many Americans are not aware of this, but the Saudi government is every bit at war with Al Qaeda as is the US government.  Al Qaeda terrorists have repeatedly attacked targets in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi regime has ongoing anti-terrorism operations, including a “terrorist rehabilitation program”.  If Saudi took a hands on approach to neutralizing the crises in Syria, the country could simultaneously quell the influence of Al Qaeda and other tafkiri elements that have played a leading role in the insurgency. 

 

I’m well aware that I don’t have all the answers to the Syrian problem.  I don’t pretend to be an expert on Middle Eastern politics.  But living and working closer to the problems has made me aware of some things that I think many Americans don’t consider.  I hope that reading this has helped you consider an alternative solution to the Syrian problem, and most of all I hope that peace will prevail, in the Middle East and around the world.


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We’re All Gonna’ Make It

To be honest, I didn’t think I would like teaching. If anyone doesn’t know, I was homeschooled, and this contributes to a certain discomfort in classrooms that began the moment I entered university. (Well, actually it began the moment I started attending public high school in the middle of junior year, but that’s a needless detail. So why did I add it? Why am I not deleting it? Because it’s MY BLOG, NOW STOP ASKING QUESTIONS.)

When I started tutoring ESL students in South Dakota, I was similarly indisposed to the classroom setting. I like passing on knowledge, sure, and I like helping people. But I just don’t like being in school – no matter whether I’m sitting at a desk or standing in front of a white board. I get fidgety. My thoughts jump all over the place. I don’t like people. I want to go outside. This is my brain on drugs…. Whoops, wait, no, I mean “This is my brain on school”. Anyways.

When I signed up to teach in Saudi Arabia, I did it as a means to an end. I knew that I wanted to travel. The money is good. Arabia and Islamic culture have fascinated me for awhile. So, “Sure”, I thought, “I’ll be a teacher, if it gets me there”. But, to my joy, I’m finding out that – money and adventures aside – I just like teaching!

Here’s why:

1) I like young people.
Did I really just say “young people”? Does that make me an “old people”? Well, no. I’m not much older than a lot of the “kids” I teach. But I like youth culture, with all its new ideas and questions and subversiveness and occasional angst, and teaching is a great way to keep myself right in the middle of it.

2) I like farming. “What? I thought he was teaching?” Here’s what I mean. I like cultivating things. I like checking in on them every day, feeding and watering them, watching them grow, and eventually eating them. O.k., so I haven’t eaten any students yet, but I do have some nice vegetables sprouting on my roof. You get my point.

3) It feels good to organize ideas.
My mom doesn’t believe in ADD. I do. I’ve been diagnosed with it by two separate people with licenses to evaluate and label things like this. I’m not saying I need drugs for it (although, to be honest, drugs make things a lot easier), but what I AM saying is that, sometimes I feel really frazzled and disorganized. This is stressful. It’s unpleasant. So when I have to sit down (because it’s my job to do this after all), and plan out a lesson, write out a conversation using a certain set of vocabulary, tie it in to some simple grammar, and neatly package it in the context of a pop culture reference, I feel good. Things come into focus. I calm down. I chug a bunch of green tea, do some pushups, and I make a plan – a lesson plan, a game plan, a life plan, I’m not sure. But it’s good for me.

4) I like simplicity.
This ties in to my last point. Let me tell you a bit more about the students I teach. Most of my classes are what my school calls “Foundation” and “Level 1” students. This means they have a very small handful of vocabulary (most of which they got from TV), they can introduce themselves, and that’s it. They’ve invariably received a PITIFUL grammar education, so as I teach conversation and pronunciation (which is my job), I also try to work in some simple grammar lessons. “We say ‘my’ and ‘your’. What are these? ‘Possessive pronouns’. A possessive pronoun is an adjective. What’s an adjective?” Etc. I like this. I repeat and repeat these things to the same students, because nobody else is doing it as far as I can tell (except for David), and it takes them a while to catch on. And I’ve found a sort of zen in the simple repetitive nature of teaching English grammar. Keep it coming baby.

5) I like sharing knowledge.
This world has the potential to be a scary place. Governments and systems and habits continue to cause a lot of problems. In the face of all the scientific, medical, and social progress we’ve made, places like Saudi Arabia (not to mention the US) have a long way to go before we can feel like we’ve “made it”. But I believe, like any teacher must, that we’re all going to make it. So while I help students learn a language, I also get a chance to help them learn to think, to learn manners, to experience a bigger culture than their own. This country has a terrible problem with idiotic driving and rampant littering. As my readers are probably aware, there are much larger issues with gender roles and freedom of expression which it is not my place to address in this blog. But if I can help a handful of folks evolve into slightly more enlightened people, I will feel like I’ve done a good job.

THAT is why I like teaching.


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Where In The World Is Simeon Brown?

Go ahead, just start off by listening to this.  You know you want to.
*
Now that we’ve pondered the musical question, “Where in the world is
Carmen Sandiego?” perhaps I can more adequately answer the question,
“Where in the world is Simeon Brown?”
*
The short answer is – Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia.  It’s a really nice
place (no offence to Sheldon, Iowa – the original “Really nice place.”)
I’ve been here since the end of May, so going on three months now.
Al Kharj is a “farming community” – or it was at one point.  It is
still the home of some of the largest dairies in the world.  (The Al
Safi dairy, located southwest of Al  Kharj, is one of the primary
suppliers for Danon products).
*
Al Kharj is a city of roughly half a million people.  It is a cheap
place to live.  Food is cheap everywhere in Saudi Arabia, since the
government subsidizes costs, but transportation and housing are also
only a half or a third of what they cost in a larger cities like
Riyadh, Dammam, or Jeddah (granted – even these costs are considerably
lower then what I’m used to paying in the USA).
*
Al Kharj is a city full of friendly people.  In my short time here,
I’ve made many friends – Saudi, Egyptian, Yemeni, Syrian, etc.  Do not
believe the negative messages touted by Western media; Arabs are
friendly, generous people.  I feel safer on the streets of Al Kharj
then I would on the streets of a major metropolitan area like
Minneapolis or Chicago (well, I feel safer from crime, although the
insane driving here is another story altogether…).  Since I’ve been
here, friends have invited me into their homes for meals, they’ve
taken me shopping, and have guided me on tours through their farms
and, um, camel ranches? I guess? I’m not sure what you call a herd of
camels in the middle of the desert.  But, yeah, they showed me that
too.  Good friends.
*
Al Kharj is only an hour drive south of Riyadh (less if you hire a
crazy driver and tell him you want to get there fast – I only made
that mistake once).  This is nice, because I can enjoy the benefits of
a smaller city during the work week, but still easily bump up to
Riyadh on the weekend if I’m so inclined.  My city is also just a few
hours to the west of Dammam and the Persian Gulf, and a few hours to
the north of the “Empty Quarter”, a picturesque area of clean, red
sand and rolling sand dunes, which I have still yet to tour.
*
Al Kharj used to be located on top of one of the largest natural
aquifers in the country.  Unfortunately, a booming population has
mostly drained this supply, and now the city’s water comes largely
from desalinated sea water, like the rest of the country.  However,
the presence of this aquifer was enough to establish the city as one
of the major farming communities in Saudi Arabia, as I mentioned
above.
*
Speaking of water, one of the things that living in Saudi Arabia has
taught me is how truly precious water is.  Growing up in middle
America, I kind of took water for granted, with our cheap, delicious
supplies of fresh lake and river water supplying every city.  Of
course, it’s a different story here in the desert.  One doesn’t have
to look far to be reminded what a struggle it has been to build a
civilization here.  I plead with my fellow westerners – never forget how precious water is.  With many scientists warning of climate change in different incarnations, it’s never too early to start practicing smarter conservation practices.  I pretend that I’m on a mission to Mars when I use water now – using the smallest amount possible for washing dishes, showering, etc.  I’m not
perfect, but I’m getting better at it.
*
Salaam!  More coming soon! Simeon.


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Lizard Noodlin

Back in Iowa they used to do something like this with Flathead Catfish called noodlin.  Here in Saudi they go noodlin for the local desert lizard, called the “thub.”  Here’s how it works:

IMG_2109

Step 1: Get a bunch of water. You’re going to need this for later.

IMG_2113

Step 2: Try to stay awake on your trip out to the desert. We had to wake up really early to beat the heat. We probably still didn’t beat the heat. It’s always hot.

Step 3: Find a lizard hole and start dumping water in there. If the lizard is home, it will believe it's raining and, if you're very quiet, will stick it's head out.

Step 3: Find a lizard hole and start dumping water in there. If the lizard is home, it will believe it’s raining and, if you’re very quiet, will stick it’s head out.

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Step 4: When the lizard pokes its head out, grab said lizard by the face. This part might be tough. The little buggers are really stuck in there. And sometimes they bite.

lizard

Step 5: Repeat until everybody’s got a lizard. These are the two that David and I are eating for supper tonight.

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Step 6: Try to stay out of the sun while you’re hunting. It gets pretty hot out there, and the Saudis told us it would make us crazy if we didn’t cover our heads.

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RE: “Don’t let the heat get to you.” Is it just me or does lizzy look like she’s into it?


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Camellicious

The first thing about camels – they’re hilarious. They have lips that for some reason remind me of the California Raisins’. Camel lips seem to have a life of their own – perhaps they use their lip wiggles to communicate with each other, like the way that dogs talk through eyebrow twitches. In any case, camel’s have very funny faces.  Really, look at these things.  

Also – camels sound super scary.  Like, I’m pretty sure this is the sound that Lord Cthulu makes to strike fear into inferior beings before he consumes them.  Camels might look cute, but they sound terrifying.  And it is LOUD.  

I really want to touch the bottom of their feet – I bet the bottom of a camel’s foot is very soft. When they step, their foot pads squish out to distribute the weight over the sand. It’s reminiscient of some kind of moon walking technology.  I’d show you a video of camel feet, but searching for “camel foot” only brought me video results for camel toes… these were completely unhelpful.  

Image

I can’t believe how big camels are. From afar, they look like they are approximately the size of the horse. Upon getting closer, however, I find that they are probably twice as large as any horse. I’m amazed that at some point, desert people were able to domesticate these creatures. A horse is of a certain size and disposition that I can imagine being the first caveman to lure one within reach, tie it up, and courageously get on it’s back. In the same way, a cow seems like an animal naturally inclined to domestication. Their passive nature and lumbering grazing would make them an easy target for early innovators in farming. But a camel… as I got close, I realized just how CRAZY the first desert nomad must have been when he lured one of these beasts within range, tied it up, and eventually milked it, butchered it, and tamed it. How did they do that? This would be more like taming a buffalo then anything else. A splay-legged, wiggly-lipped, goofy-lookin’ buffalo. 

Camel milk is supposed to be really good for you. Not only is it supposed to be really good for you, it is also really healthy and good for you. This means that drinking camel milk will help your overall health and make you feel good. In short, camel milk is a beneficial drink. 

It tastes really… “animally”, somehow. Like, a cross between grass and horse fur. I remember this smell that would come from deer when my Dad and I butchered them as a kid. Not the bloody, sawing-through-bone smell, but the other “previously-frolicking-in-an-charmed-forest-and-open-prairie” smell. Camel milk tastes sort of like that smell. It is supposed to make you poop your brains out if you have any intestinal problems. I didn’t poop my brains out after drinking it, which I was told means that I have a healthy intestinal tract and a strong stomach. Go me. I didn’t poop. David didn’t poop either.  Check it here.  

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