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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Saudis Do Get How To Dress

I’m writing this post to ameliorate the response that I received from yesterday’s post. I fear it sounded overly judgmental or critical. That wasn’t my intent. I simply wanted to point out things that are different here – things that don’t seem logical through the filter of my own perception, coming from the west. Yesterday’s post was one post full of things that don’t happen here, but please remember that every other post I have written details the many wonderful things that do happen here. In addition, I find myself in the regrettable but unavoidable position of needing to draw some generalities. Unavoidable, because I’m trying to paint a picture for friends and family at home of what things are like here. I make an effort to work strictly from personal anecdotes, but at some point, I have to make statements such as “Saudis are like this.” Not all Saudis, everywhere, all the time. It’s just a general impression I’m receiving as someone new to this country. I will try to avoid generalities from this point in. However, after yesterday’s post about things Saudis don’t get, here is today’s post about just a few of the things that Saudis do.

Saudis get how to dress. I haven’t seen one distastefully clothed person since I’ve been here. This county doesn’t have the equivalent of that lady at Walmart in sweatpants, with “Princess”
bedazzled across a stained, baggy shirt. You just don’t see things like that here. Even the lower classes wear tasteful button downs and slacks. Because Saudis get how to dress.

Saudis get how to have a good time. Once I got settled in Al Kharj, I haven’t had one occasion to feel bored. Trips to the desert, having coffee, playing soccer, going to the mall, going out to eat, seeing farms, going to museums and galleries… You get the point. Once I got settled in and met some local people, I have not had a single occasion to feel bored. Sometimes, on the weekends, I’ve actually wished I could have a little more time to myself. The best part is that Saudis know how to have a dance party without alcohol. Saudis get how to have a good time.

Saudis get good food. Oh me, oh my… Have I been barefoot since I got here? Because the food is consistently rocking my socks off. Kabobs, shwarmas, kabsa, delicious pastries, with all of it washed down by top notch tea and coffee – I’m havingh to do a lot of exercise to keep the weight off. One month in and I’ve been successful so far, but the food here is very carb heavy. Every dish comes with a pile of rice or flatbread, often both. But I think the food is still healthier here then in America. The meat is usually lean, chicken or lamb, and the dishes contain a lot of whole foods, especially fresh vegetables. Despite the desert climate, Saudis grow many vegetables with the use of greenhouses. The city I’m in, Al Kharj, is an agricultural center, and we have a produce market with tons of cheap veggies just a few blocks from our apartment. The food is always absent of preservatives and other chemicals, unlike in America. A burger from McDonalds just tastes like, well, a burger – almost a little bland, really, compared to the MSG and sodium laced stuff in America. And the food is here is so cheap. I can get top notch shwarma or a filling dish of curry for 6 or 7 riyals – less then two US dollars.

Saudis get progress. Hear me out here. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble – myself included – so I’m going to stay away from specifics. But there are two elements in this country – the system, imposed by a well-meaning but archaic hierarchy. The other element is popular opinion. From the many talks I’ve had with students, it seems clear that popular a opinion is yearning for change. For obvious reasons, I can’t say much more. Maybe this picture can say what I can’t. 20130527-214544.jpg Saudis get change.

Saudis get how to shop. Malls are one of the primary recreational outlets here. And they’re more then just a place to buy goods. They’re cultural centers and places to socialize. This building is Riyadh is home to one top notch mall – it is also the tallest building in the Kingdom at 99 stories. Saudis definitely know how to shop.
20130527-220000.jpg

Saudis get generosity. In other posts, I’ve talked about people giving rides to strangers, and about people never being to busy for another person. I’ve been literally overwhelmed by Saudi generosity – as I mentioned, by the end of last weekend, I was actually craving some time to myself. But we just had too many friends that wanted to entertain us, show us around, give us a good time. Because Saudis get generosity.

Oh one more thing. Saudis DEFINITELY get WWE. And how about Brock Lesner defeating Triple H?! Go South Dakota!

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Ennui To This

Yesterday, I began journaling because I felt incredibly bored.  By the time I was finished, I realized that I wasn’t bored anymore and had no reason to be.  Writing is funny like that. 

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Well – they warned me.  The other teachers talk a lot about the boredom.  They say it’s unavoidable.  I shrugged this off.  After all, momma always said, “Only boring people get bored,” right?  I thought, sure, maybe there are less opportunities to socialize here, not so much busyness as I’m used to, but that’s o.k., I had been craving less busyness in my life.  I remember specifically saying, not too long ago, back in the States, “Gosh, I really, really wish I could feel bored, just once.”

Well, I’ve found boredom, and honestly, it’s kind of sucky.

I don’t have internet or TV hooked up in my apartment yet, which is probably a good thing.  Just because I’m bored doesn’t mean I need to tune in to something mindless.

Here’s the list of activities I have available: read, write, study Arabic, revise some documents for work, exercise, cook, nap, or have a bath.  Yeah – I consider having a bath an activity.  What of it?  Actually, I only have a shower in my apartment, so this last option is kind of out the window.

The thing is, I’m tired of reading and studying Arabic, since that’s all I’ve been doing since 7.30 this morning.  It’s almost four in the afternoon now.  I arrived in Qassim with one week of classes left in the semester, so although I have to come to the office every day, I don’t exactly have anything to do.  So I’ve been spending my days reading and studying, which is great.  However, by this time in the afternoon, my brain is tired, and I’m ready for some recreation.

A bus leaves from the compound to take people shopping from four to six in the evening.  The last two days (my first days in Qassim), I went out with the shopping group.  I stocked up on groceries for my apartment (I had ostrich for supper the first night, and camel liver last night), and I took in the sights, such as they are.  Malls are one of the main recreational outlets in Saudi Arabia.  However, these shopping trips were already starting to feel boring, so I decided to stay home this afternoon and check out the gym on our compound.  Good plan – until I found out that from four to six the gym is reserved for ladies only.  You go girls.  I’ll just, y’know… not go… until later.

So.  I’m going to put on some music.  And cook my supper now so I can eat it right when I’m done working out later.  As soon as I finish exercising, I want to quickly eat, shower, and go to bed.  I’ve been going to bed very early, then waking up around four in the morning.  Don’t ask me why I wake up so early.  Maybe I’m hoping I’ll find something to do.

This was the supper I ended up making for myself.  The rest of the roast ostrich, along with roast carrots, cauliflower, onion, and fried green tomatoes.  Moussy Classic non-alcoholic malt bevarage from Sweden.  The cool part?  This meal cost me like three bucks.  And music is always free, this is what I was listening to: https://soundcloud.com/naravingian/the-xx-vs-telepopmusik .  Props to Devanshu Narang for being one great DJ.  My friends may be far away, but they still keep me going.  

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