Arid Letters

The Diary of an English Teacher in Arabia



Greetings all, I’ve been in Abu Dhabi for about five days now. Right now I’m streaming the Packers vs. Vikings game in my hotel room. It’s 2.45 AM, but I don’t mind being awake right now as I fell asleep around 4 pm yesterday, woke up briefly for supper, then went right back to sleep. So you can deduce two facts from this situation: 1) my life has been pretty easy since I got here, and 2) my sleep schedule is still a little wonky.

So a lot of my time over the last five days has been spent in the pool, the sauna, the gym, and in the sea breeze on a deck chair under palm trees. Winter weather here on the Persian Gulf coast is simply dreamy –  mid 80s and breezy every day. I’d say I got out of the Midwest just in time!

Don’t worry, I have been doing SOME work things since I’ve been here. (Packers just scored their first TD of the game, yay!) I’ve been going around to different offices filling out paperwork and getting fingerprinted for my Emirati ID, and had a couple different doctor appointments to clear me for residency in the UAE and qualification for the ADNOC health insurance. Yesterday I was in the doctor for about three hours, then the driver didn’t come to pick me up for another two hours, so it was a lot of waiting.

All things considered, my employer is way WAYYYYY better than my employer in KSA for the last couple years. I’m working for ADNOC schools – ADNOC stands for Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. So I’m not just working for a oil company, I’m working for the only oil company in the emirate, which means I have government benefits and get fairly pampered.

Today is my last day in the hotel, I believe they’re sending me to Madinat Zayed today. MZ is the city where I’ll be working, teaching in a K-12 school. It’s a city of less than 50,000 (this makes it by far the smallest city I’ll have lived in since coming to Arabia), on the edge of a gas field. While still in the province of Abu Dhabi, I’ll be about an hour and a half from the actual city of AD (but only half an hour from the coast – a sea kayak is high on my shopping list). Once I get settled in, I’ll be purchasing a car, hopefully a 4×4, as there will be a lot of opportunities for desert and beach adventures where I am this year. The employer gives me an interest free car loan to be repaid over two years – did I mention how pampered I feel this year? Anyway I better stop reveling in my good luck or I’ll jinx it. Did I mention I had to wait for five hours doing nothing yesterday? And the breeze coming off the gulf can feel kind of chilly if you’re wet and in the shade. So it’s not all beer and skittles over here.

My intention this year is not to spend all my time on the beach or in the mall however. Last year I was really inspired by my scholarship students from Syria, Yemen, and Palestine. I was impressed with their resolve and determination, heartbroken hearing some of their stories, impressed with the ability of education to really help people, and inspired to try do my part to make the world a better place. The UAE has had boots on the ground in Yemen for some time now, which has ushered in an interesting time in the country’s history. It may be the first gulf country to really develop a sense of nationalism and patriotic pride similar to what we have in the west, as their boys are being drafted and killed to fight for their country. Of course, that’s the war to the west, but there’s also the war to the north with daesh (devils) in Syria and Iraq.

As I’ve read commentary about these wars, two things have impressed me. 1) These are wars that are being won and lost in the media. Daesh have been successful through social media recruitment and shocking Youtube videos. 2) These are wars deeply rooted in generational ideologies which can’t be stamped out no matter how many bombs and bullets we employ. The only way to defeat extremism is by changing peoples’ hearts and minds.

I can contribute to the fight on these fronts. I’m actively looking for opportunities to make the world a better place through education. I don’t want to spend all of the next year by the pool (just some of it). I really hope I can find opportunities to help the underprivileged and elevate the consciousness of myself and those I meet through education. I also hope to spend the next year getting healthier and more disciplined. I’ll have lots of opportunities to be physically active, and plenty of free time to read and meditate. So I’ll have to try stay focused and not slip into the materialism and gluttony that is endemic to the luxurious ex-pat lifestyle here.

Well I’ve written quite a bit and the Packers are taking shots at the end zone at the beginning of the second half. Thanks for your thoughts and prayers, and let me know what’s up with you! I really intend to be more in touch this year, so if you write I pinky swear to respond (somewhat) promptly.

much love – Sim

P.S. A couple days later, I’ve moved to Madinat Zayed. And we are out in the middle of NOWHERE. My accommodations are a resort on the edge of the Empty Quarter (more really nice digs – I’m getting so spoiled. If you feel like getting jealous google “Tilal Liwa Hotel”. Yeah, that’s my house). I’ll be teaching 6th and 7th grade students, almost all Emirati nationals. More about them soon.

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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
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:


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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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Pictures of the New Apartment

I am finally moved into a nice apartment in a good part of town.  We are close to the mall, although it is a family mall that mostly sells women’s clothes, so it doesn’t have a lot to offer us.

Unless we want love themed stuff.
Seriously, these stores sell nothing but groovy lights, teddy bears, and hearts – most of them emblazoned with the word “Love.”  And in typical Saudi fashion, there’s three of these stores right next to each other.
Oh- and if we want clothes with handlebar mustaches on them, they’ve got those.  Mother, guess what you’re getting for the holidays?
We’re also really close to a huge  produce market.
By the way, I’m talking about “we.”
This is my roommate, David.  He’s another teacher.  He’s from Los Angeles, and he’s pretty cool, except that he spent the last two years teaching with the Peace Corp in South Africa, in a mud hut way out in the bush.  So sometimes if there’s a delicious looking bug, he asks me, “You gonna eat that?”  He’s really good at eating rice with his hands.  Also, he smells pretty good for a guy who presumably isn’t bothered if he doesn’t have anything to wipe with after pooping. I haven’t asked him about this, so it’s pure speculation.  Seriously though, I couldn’t have gotten more lucky then to teach with this guy.  And, ladies, he’s single.  And of course, since we’re living in small town Saudi Arabia, he’s completely desperate.  I’ll forward him any fan mail you might want to send.
Saudis find shower curtains completely unnecessary.  This seems really barbarous to me.  They just let the water go all over their bathroom floor, which I guess they think is o.k. because it dries up so quickly here.  At least in our apartment, we’ll just get shower water on the floor, and not bidet water on the toilet seat.  This is a big issue in public restrooms, and the reason why I often hold it all day until I can go at home – because public restrooms are gross.  But not our restroom!  Right David?  David agrees.  Ladies, did I mention he’s single?
Our apartment has a couple small balconies, which is pretty cool.
They have a great view of the city.  As you can see, we’re really close to a mosque, which means the calls to prayer are pretty loud, but we don’t mind.
I kind of like waking up at 4 a.m. with the first call to prayer.  It makes me feel really good to know that, while others are praying, I’m in my boxers, drinking tea, reading poetry, and surfing the Internet – in my opinion, these are the only things that a well adjusted person could IMAGINE doing at 4 a.m., but I have plenty of family members who used to wake up at that time to milk cows, and I would never call their adjustment into question, at least when I know they’ll probably read this.
Our apartment is on top of a gym with a pool, which is awesome.  The gym is that place called Body Masters.  Our apartment is three floors up.  I like going to swim and workout, but I’m starting to think I should go in a burka after finding that  leers and advances from other men are quite common in this county, especially in the gym.  It makes sense, since female companionship is so rare here.  The fact is not talked about much, but estimates have about one-third of men here being gay or bisexual.  I’m pretty straight, but I still want to get swole, so I’ll tough out some guy-on-guy flirting for the gainz.
We’ve got a decent kitchen with a stove, which was one of the main reasons for moving to this apartment.  A lot of the places we looked at only had hot plates.
This is my bedroom.  It’s nice, but doing yoga on the tile floor adds a new dimension.  Of course, I haven’t seen yoga mats anywhere.  Up-dog to down-dog is really slippery once I get sweaty.  (Quick, can someone please ask me what’s “up-dog?”). And bow pose, plow, head stand, etc. kind of hurt.  But I can deal with it.

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Everyone is a Cabbie

Everyone here is a cabbie.  I’m in Al-Kharj, a city of a few hundred thousand, located about an hour’s drive south of Riyadh.  The town is small enough that it doesn’t support a taxi industry.  But here’s the cool thing – it’s normal just to flag down anyone driving and ask them to give you a ride.  You offer them a few riyals (the equivalent of about one US dollar), but half the time they refuse payment.  I find it so novel – I get to work just by hitch hiking, essentially.
This system works here, because giving someone a lift is one of the basic good deeds you can perform to honor Allah in Islam.  By the way, the most basic good deed is giving someone a smile.  How beautiful is that?  In any case, a majority of the drivers here will just stop and give someone a ride wherever he needs to go.  It’s a really inspiring kind of love-thy-neighbor thing.  
Saudi culture contains somewhat of an inherent socialism by default.  People are never too busy for one another.  And they don’t have our capitalist drive to always be better, and to have more.  
At first, it seemed illogical to me that all businesses here are grouped next to each other.  All the cabinet shops are neighbors, all the tire shops are neighbors, all the phone stores are on one street, all the pharmacies are on another street.  This is counterintuitive from a Western perspective – you don’t have a successful business by opening up shop right next to a “competitor,” you go somewhere where there is a “demand.” Right? 
But it seems that Saudis don’t really have this mindset that looks at others as “competitors.” Maybe I’ll find out the case is different as I spend more time here.  But it’s hard to think otherwise when you see neighboring shop owners loitering in front of their businesses, laughing and sharing cigarettes.  
Although family and tribal identity forges a stronger bond between people here then their national identity as Saudis, they are all united as Muslims.  A man might not actually believe in God, he might not live up to all the moral values, but it doesn’t matter.  If he’s Arabian, he’s a Muslim.  Every Arab I have met has an attitude of brotherhood and helpfulness ingrained in him that seems very socialist in my eyes, but not overtly so.  It’s more subtle, a casual understanding that everyone here is working together.  
It’s beautiful.  
(I want to take a moment to acknowledge that, in this writing I have drawn sweeping generalities from isolated anecdotes and my overall impressions of the people and attitudes I have encountered here.  Any generality can be dangerously misleading.  Of course, there are always multiple sides of a story, and I could discount everything I said by citing rivalries, both historic and current, between various Arab factions.  However, I believe my point stands as far as the people I have met on the street and at work.)

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Tie Up Your Camel

The other day, when it was time for me to come back from Qassim to Riyadh, I asked if I could take a bus instead of fly. The drive was about four hours, and I wanted to “see the countryside,” such as it is. I’ll never take a bus in Saudi Arabia again if I can help it, only because it was so cramped and deodorant isn’t really a popular product here.
In any case, I arrived in Riyadh and began trying to get a cab to take me from the bus terminal – on the outskirts of the city – to my hotel, which is in the center. The first taxi driver I talked to said he would take me for seventy riyals, which is a stupidly unfair price. I told him it was too much, at which point he turned and talked to the other cabbies, and then NONE of them would give me a ride for less then seventy.
So I grabbed my bags and walked from the terminal out to the highway. The first couple taxis I talked to were still asking too much – sixty riyals, then fifty riyals – finally one said he would do it for thirty, a fair price.
I opened the back door of his cab, unslung my first bag from my shoulder, set it on the seat…. And he just drove off, leaving me and taking my bag.
I was speechless – at least I was less any speech that I will reprint here. This was my important bag, containing my iPad, laptop, camera, lucky rock, photo album from Mom… yeah, THAT bag. Not to mention, it contained all my official documents.
I sat on the curb for about ten minutes with my head spinning. Eventually, I got up and just began walking. A short thought ran through my head – it was a little prayer. Generally, I have a principle that I only say prayers of thanks. I think people should rely on themselves to deal with their personal problems. But this quick thought ran through my mind before I could stop it – “God, if You’re really up there, I’d be so thankful if You could just bring my bag back.” In the split-second after I had this thought, two things happened:
The first thing was that I began thinking how wrong it was to have an idea like that – how faith isn’t contingent on good or bad luck, and the presence or absence of my valuables doesn’t tell me much about the nature of God, and it’s not like it proves there’s no spirit world at all just because I don’t get my bag back – etc.
The second thing that happened, was that the taxi cab came whipping around the corner, with the driver speaking excitedly in Arabic, motioning for me to get in quickly. Keep in mind – my accidental prayer, existential considerations, and the appearance of the cab all took place in less time then it took you to read about it. Like, two seconds.
The driver spoke no English, and I couldn’t understand much of his Arabic, but the best that I could pick up was that he didn’t want the other cab drivers to see him giving me a ride for a cheaper fair just outside the bus terminal.
Lesson learned: respect the taxi drivers. I’m just thankful I got my bag back.
Here are two practical lessons that I learned after I almost became the victim of a perfect crime. Because really – he could have dashed off with my bag SOOO easily.
1) Always check the number of the taxi cab before you get in or put any luggage in the door.
2) Try to put your least valuable bag in the cab first, and keep that smaller carry-on bag, which probably has all the important stuff in it, on your shoulder, then in your lap, as you sit down.
I read a funny line the other day in the novel “Herland,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I doubt she knew much about Arabia, but the line was, “As the Mohamedans say, ‘Have faith in God, but tie up your camel.'” Seemed fitting.

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So I’m back in Riyadh, turns out I won’t be teaching in Qassim after all. The company that hired me has switched all my information around with another employee named “Simon.” So when I finally interviewed with the Dean of the university last week, we found out he was expecting someone else (with a Masters’ degree) and I was promptly sent back to Riyadh.


There are positives and negatives in this situation. The positive side is that I can stay relaxed – I’ll eventually start teaching somewhere – there’s no doubt of that. And I’ve been getting paid since my plane landed. So in typical Saudi fashion, I am just supposed to relax and let the situation work itself out… “inshallah.”


“Inshallah”… It’s always “inshallah” here, or “God willing.” While I appreciate the relaxed attitude, sometimes I really wish someone would tell me “For sure” instead of “inshallah.” Sometimes I want to grab people by the shoulders, shake them, and say “Get out of here with your ‘inshallah!’ How about ‘inshyourself’ for once!?” But I don’t.


This isn’t just a problem in Arabia, although I’ve noticed it here more. But people do this in the States too. They have this idea that some force outside themselves – luck, God, the government, whatever – is going to determine the outcome of their life. This becomes a big problem if people use it as an excuse for not taking their destiny into their own hands.


Seriously, Saudis take “lackadaisical” to a whole new level though. It’s not an all bad, or all good, thing. It’s just the way it is here. Sometimes it’s really pleasant to work in such low-pressure situations. But other times, it can be ridiculous. Like when a multi-million dollar company with a skyscraper office in downtown Riyadh can’t keep their employees straight because they apparently only looked at our first names.


Here’s another example: last week, I was sharing an office with another teacher. It was the last week of the semester, and every day students would stream in, asking for him to drop some absences from their record so they were eligible to pass. Let me put this in perspective: Saudi students get paid a considerable monthly stipend as long as their butt has the minimum requirement of contact with a chair in the classroom. They are getting paid, as long as they have less then twenty-six absences in a semester. You read that right, as long as they skip less then a month of class they should pass and receive their money. And these kids were still coming in, begging for reprieve, because they had skipped thirty or more classes. I was certainly no honor role student, and I skipped my share of class, but this blew my mind. Needless to say, the “Protestant work ethic” isn’t a major factor here.


Their are many elements I love about working in this relaxed culture, but currently I’m drowning my frustrations in a second pot of green tea. My employer doesn’t know who I am, and already gave the position where I was supposed to go, on the east coast, to the other guy. I’ve been in this county almost a month, living in hotel rooms, and there’s no end in sight. They have misplaced my contract in someone else’s file and every time I ask them to find it they say, “We’ll get it tomorrow, inshallah.”


And this is all… A blessing. I’ve gotta look at it that way. It’s all good baby. Just a chance for me to breath deeply and meet more new friends in more new places.


Maybe soon I’ll stop being such an American. After all, their are other things to do besides work.