Arid Letters

The Diary of an English Teacher in Arabia


Saudi Aromaha

In the months before I left for Saudi Arabia, and during my recent vacation back home, I’ve picked up one common sentiment from a majority of strangers or acquaintances when they first learn I’m working in KSA. Questions like “Aren’t you worried?”; comments like “Stay safe over there”.  These words reveal a general anxiety about the idea of living or working in Arabia. Granted, maybe people are more inclined to xenophobia in my region of America than some other places. Middle America is a conservative bastion, which carries some unfortunate side-effects, such as a propensity for using terms like “towel head” or ignorance of the geographic fact that the place where I work is separated from regions of conflict by thousands of miles and multiple socio-/political borders. I suspect this confusion has roots in conflating “radical Islam” and “conservative Islam”. This generalization is about as accurate as lumping together Branch Davidians and the Amish.  But more about that in my next post.

You’ve probably picked up by now that I’m not in the least bit worried about getting my head cut off or anything like that. The only time I’ve feared for my life is when I’m riding in an unlicensed taxi cruising 160 km/hr (~95 mph) in the “fifth lane” (actually the inside shoulder of the freeway)

The hard shoulder, or "Saudi fifth lane".

The hard shoulder, or “Saudi fifth lane”

while the driver is searching YouTube so he can show me a specific dabka dance from his home region (this one).

All things considered, my life here is kind of boring. (About as boring as dabka to be honest. Seriously I come from a country where my grandma can still swing her partner and dosey doe at a square dance.  USA is home of the Charleston, b-boys, and Party Rock Shuffle.  In the context of these Western dance traditions, dabka seems catatonic and castrated, like some Dziga Vertov b-role of a Walking Dead clog troup.)  Whether or not Arabic dance styles are exciting (and some of them certainly must be – I mean, belly dancing, right?) my life here is not terribly (exciting, that is).  I spend my free time watching movies and getting angry at people on the internet.  On the weekends, I go to KFC, usually alone.  I try to wake up early so I can get in a jog before work.  I’ve finished eight books and five one-thousand-piece puzzles in a month and a half.  I definitely spend zero time hiding from MERS or dodging terrorists.  In terms of mundanity, I might as well be in Omaha, Nebraska.

The comparison between Riyadh and an insular, quasi-rural-but-still-metro environment like Omaha holds up in more ways than one. For example, let me tell you about my weekend. This weekend, I went down to Al Kharj with my friend Memo.

Memo and I

Memo and I

Kharj is where I worked last year, about one hour south of my current location in Riyadh. Guess what crazy desert adventures Memo and I had this weekend. Did we wrestle camels in the midst of a sandstorm? Nope. Throw sheikh-sized fistfuls of Bedouin gold at a harem of houris with everything veiled except their intentions?  Negative. Did I dodge stray RPGs from militant laillaha mouth breathers? Wrong again. What we did is Memo and I set up a chicken coup.

Actually it was a pigeon coup.  And actually we didn’t so much set it up as just go and pick up a handful of Pakistani day-laborers from the designated Paki day-laborer chill spot, and they set up the pigeon coup.

Some Paki day laborers chilling at the designated pick-up-Paki-day-laborer spot.

Some Paki day laborers chilling at the designated pick-up-Paki-day-laborer spot

(The similarities between Pakis in KSA and Mexicans in USA are numerous and will have to get more focus in another article, but for now just see I told you about that Saudi is like Omaha thing).

So my summer in USA was spent kind of hanging out with family and yknow mucking out my grandpa’s rabbit shed,

Grandpa Brubacher is definitely not cuddling this bunny.  He's doing some sort of farmer evaluation before either butchering it or keeping it alive only so he can eat its babies.

Grandpa Brubacher is definitely not cuddling this bunny. He’s doing some sort of farmer evaluation before either butchering it or keeping it alive only so he can eat its babies.

or spreading garden waste in the pen for my brother’s laying hens.

This chicken is so stupid why is it in the chicken feeder.  Chickens are so dumb that ending their life and consuming their flesh or stealing their unborn fetuses for the same purpose would me make me happy even if they weren't delicious.

This chicken is so stupid why is it in the chicken feeder. Chickens are so dumb that ending their life and consuming their flesh or stealing their unborn fetuses for the same purpose would me make me happy even if they weren’t delicious.

Upon return to Saudi, I’ve apparently just gone from one hobby poultry species to another. Life is kind of the same everywhere.

It’s not the first time that I’ve had this feeling: a sense like I’ve found my way into exactly the same kind of place that I came from. I first experienced it last year, on a massive dairy farm outside of Al Kharj.

If you're eating a Danon yogurt product anywhere in the Middle East, chances are it came from here - the Al Safi dairy.

If you’re eating a Danon yogurt product anywhere in the Middle East, chances are it came from here – the Al Safi dairy.

Often on weekends, I’d head out to this factory farm where I taught business English, and avail myself of their gym and pool facilities. One Friday night, as I was floating in the pool, laughing with my Arabic dairy farmer friends, and I thought of my grandfathers (both retired dairymen), uncle (still milking), and father (who worked as a dairy farmer when I was young).  I realized that I must be destined to spend my life in the immediate vicinity of folks who know their way around cow tits. I’m so blessed.

Moses once promised the children of Israel to “bring them up to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3). Coming from the Midwest I always knew he was referring to my neck of the woods.  My family is from the dairy capitol of America. The last place I lived, I got to to help establish a population of honey bees.

miss you guyzzz buzzz thankz for teaching me how to magic

miss you guyzzz buzzz thankz for teaching me how to magic

I was sad to leave behind the American Heartland, rich in nature and resources, but I was interested to discover what my “new life” in Saudi Arabia would be like. How could I guess that I’d spend my weekends hanging out on dairy farms and becoming a connoisseur of Middle Eastern honey. There are many shops here which sell nothing but honey and honey-related products.

Honey store in Riyadh.

Honey store in Riyadh

I love to visit and sample honey from Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, and of course every corner of Saudi Arabia, from Jazan to Tabuk. When I leave, I’ve always got a kilo or two of whichever strikes my fantasy. It costs maybe fifty riyal, or right around ten dollars, and I always push the shop keeper until he throws in a free portion of bee pollen.

Kilo of Paki gold and some bonus pollen

Kilo of Paki gold and some bonus pollen

Read this article in two ways. 1) Read that people and places are the same all around the world. At the risk of sounding like a Reading Rainbow platitude,

Go anywhere.  (On Starship Enterprise)  Be anything.  (If you can fund it on Kickstarter)

Go anywhere. (On Starship Enterprise). Be anything. (If you can fund it on Kickstarter).

I want you never to forget that from every corner of the planet, no matter the climate or culture, humans are all kind of the same and all want the same things. 2) Read that wherever I go, me, personally, I’m always drawn in a somehow magnetically inevitable fashion to the things that have defined my entire life. Let me tell you a couple stories to illustrate this:

Last year, a Saudi acquaintance invited me to his house for dinner. After dinner, he invited me to drive out to the desert with him and look at the stars. As we sat together, chatting and sipping coffee, he began to get, shall we say, very hands-y. “Hands-y” as in he was touching me a lot, with the clear hope of touching me more. Let me be clear that he wasn’t really molesting so much as just hitting on me.  I was never in any danger, but I’d never been in quite such a situation and felt more than a bit awkward, as I’m sure you can imagine.  This guy was my only way to get a ride back in from the desert, so I was kind of at his mercy.  In the US it would be as simple as “sorry not interested homie”, but I wasn’t (and still am not) sure what the local etiquette is in such a situation.  At just this very moment, a desert dog came trotting past us, maybe fifteen yards away. I leaped to my feet and whistled at her. She seemed quite well trained and responded agreeably to my gestured commands. She came, lay down, and believe me that hound proceeded to get a very vigorous belly rub. I was of course overjoyed, as I love dogs, so I freely gave her sweet puppy kisses on her desert dog nose and scratched her dusty belly as she whimpered and grunted in pleasure. This interaction had an added benefit: my amorous companion would now come nowhere near me, as Muslims of course have a strict taboo against dogs. I’m still confused about which taboos Saudis are comfortable flaunting and which they respect, but I definitely know that I love dogs, and even though dogs aren’t loved in KSA, I found one at just the right time. Or maybe she found me. Anyways, I’m always with the dogs.

More recently, I spent the weekend at Memo’s. I woke up early on Friday morning (jum’ah weekly holy day for Muslims, the same as Sunday in the west). I ate a bowl of oatmeal with honey and bee pollen, then I went outside to lay in the grass. That’s right, Memo loves grass, and keeps a pretty respectable lawn flourishing inside the walls of his courtyard. (All the houses are walled in. So it’s not exactly like Omaha I guess. The thick walls and barred windows are maybe more like, say, Kansas City convenience stores.)

As I inhaled those universally sweet sweet grass fumes, I wondered whether I should pass my day reading or binge watching 80’s post-apocalypse flics on YouTube. Then it hit me. Right now, the place I’m in is Saudi Arabia, but I’ve always been in the same place.

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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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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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Saudis Don’t Get Ketchup


Saudis don’t get ketchup. I cannot tell you how many non-ketchup-worthy foods I have received with ketchup packets included. We’re talking pizza, pasta, kabsa (a broiled chicken and rice dish), or shawarma (a kind of roast chicken and veggie burrito). These are things that just don’t go with ketchup, but still the restaurant includes ketchup packets with the take-out. But, when I order french fries, guess how many ketchup packets I get. One. One ketchup packet for a whole order of fries. Saudis don’t get ketchup.

Saudis don’t get bathrooms. First off, this is the 21st century. This country has smart phones, Hummers, and MTV. So why is there any excuse for so many toilets like this? I shared the absence of shower curtains yesterday, and the inherent disregard for water on the bathroom floor. But seriously, can you believe it is common to walk into bathroom stalls that look like this? Men here don’t think about the ricochet from their bidet. However, I DO think about it, and it’s the reason I only poop at home. Because Saudis don’t get bathrooms.

Saudis don’t get timeliness. This goes both by the hour and by the day. In my personal experience, if I’m told that we will meet at 8 a.m., it means we’ll meet at 9.30 a.m. If I’m told that we’ll meet at 9.30 a.m., it means we’ll maybe meet in the morning, maybe in the evening. For a country of people that checks into prayer times like clockwork, five times a day, they don’t seem to think about the time very often. Maybe the frequent breaks for prayer undermine the workplace efficiency. Something certainly does, because Saudis must work the slowest of any people on the planet. I have been told for weeks now that someone will locate my passport and update my visa… “Tomorrow.” Tomorrow still has not come. Because Saudis don’t get timeliness.

Saudis don’t get rules of the road. I have been in cross-walks, half-way across the street, and had drivers SPEED UP as they approach me, then they yell at me to get out of the road. The other night, I crossed the street, in a cross-walk, in front of a truck that was at a standstill, waiting to turn. I locked eyes with the driver as I walked in front of him. When I was almost past his bumper, he slammed on the gas, forcing me to jump out of the way. I was also forced to call him some names that he probably didn’t understand, although it made me feel better. More then once, I have seen drivers turn into one way traffic, heading the opposite direction, and drive up the side of the street against the flow. More then once, I have seen kids about age ten or eleven driving. Maybe that’s why Saudis don’t get the rules of the road.

Saudis don’t get waiting in lines. Everyone will gently elbow each other around a counter, waiving their cash at the checkout man, trying to get served first. It seemed really rude to me at first. But now, I’m getting used to it, and I notice a lot of times it seems like I get served first, presumably because I’m white or well-dressed. It still seems unfair to me, but there’s nothing I can do about the fact that Saudis don’t get waiting in line.

Saudis don’t get trash cans. Seriously, the litter is piling up in this country at an astounding rate. The attitude is that, if they don’t throw their trash on the ground, the street sweepers wouldn’t have anything to do. From the looks of things, I think the street sweepers could use some help. But this help will never come, because Saudis don’t get trash cans.

However, as I’ve shared in other posts, Saudis do get generosity, good food, a healthy attitude of relaxation, and many other wonderful attitudes that make this a great place to live. Forgive this one post. I’m not really complaining, I just don’t understand what Saudis don’t get about ketchup.

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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.