Arid Letters

The Diary of an English Teacher in Arabia


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YAbuDhabiDoo

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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Najdcore

So far my Saudi home base has been the Riyadh area, smack in the center of KSA- actually pretty much in the middle of the entire Arabian peninsula. From ancient times, this central region has been called the Najd. You can think of this region as sort of similar to the American Midwest – the “Heartland”. While Middle America features cattle, corn fields, semi-trucks, and religious fundamentalists, Middle Arabia features camels, date palms, caravans*, and religious fundamentalists. Najd has never been the most populated area of Arabia. For centuries, human settlement existed sporadically in the form of nomadic Bedouins or insular small towns huddled around a source of potable water like so many prairie homesteaders crowding around a pot belly stove. Despite it’s sparse population, Najd birthed Wahhabism, an Islamic denomination which swept Arabia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Arabic historian Fouad Ibrahim describes a region composed of religious minorities from which the Salafists emerged the “dominant minority”. Today, Saudi-Wahhabism is a defining political/social force with influence well beyond Saudi borders.

* modern caravans also use semis, but have solar power, so you can live in them too

Think of the example how folk music and flannel shirts influence the American scene from LA to NYC. Modern Najd has kind of done the same thing, exporting back country traditions to more worldy metropolii. For perspective, imagine if over the last century USA had moved our population center to Montana. What was once the home of sparsely scattered ranchers and wild individualists blossoms into the seat of our government and culture. Folks from Miami are headed to Bismark because it’s a little closer to the action. Despite this rapid expansion, the region keeps it’s  staunch conservatism and insular communities. In a matter of decades, the social hub of the country emerges from a place no one had ever heard of.

Al-Namrood is a Saudi black metal band that you’ve probably never heard of. Most Saudis have never heard of them either. Worldwide, NOBODY has ever even seen them. That’s because, despite having released five albums in a career spanning almost a decade, Al-Namrood has never had the chance to play a concert. Of course divergent opinions and the sub-cultures which foster them are kept to a brutally strict minimum here.

I’ve written before about all my students giving identical answers, like they all live exactly the same life on the weekends. This is a positive here, not a negative. We might generalize that Eastern cultures are more collective compared to Western individualism, and Arabia is no exception. This is the country where a Saudi friend rebuked me for suggesting that we screen print a thobe. It’s just not done. Amazingly, this culture has preserved a formal dialect unchanged for a millennium and a half. You might feel the same way about your language if you were convinced that it was the pure, uncorrupted, uncorruptible dialect that God used to send down his final revelation. (King James Version only Christians literally can’t even.) And within this society, somewhere, three dudes are recording black metal and mailing it off to Canada, C/O Shaytan Records, their record label.  

Secrecy is necessary as apostasy charges are a very real possibility. “Apostasy” as the definition goes in this neck of the Najd is a renunciation of one’s religious/political allegiance. In KSA atheism is literally the same thing as terrorism, and the penalty is death. While I’m poorly qualified to speculate on the rulings of Wahabbi jurisprudence, it seems a safe guess Al-Namrood would be marked slightly apostasy flavored should the issue ever come up. The band’s lyrics are full of pre-Islamic polytheism and appropriated holy war imagery and so on. At least, this is what the internet says re A-N lyrics, to be fair it all sounds like Arabic black metal to me.The band’s name honors King Nimrod, a legendary rebel against the Almighty, in some tales responsible for the tower of Babel, in others he’s the king who went to war against Abraham, or founded the evil city of Ninevah, or received instruction in the dark arts from Noah’s fourth son (my favorite). These dudes are making music that could literally* result in a guy with a sword and another guy with a basket for catching detached items, all on the accusation of thrashing against the Lord. So metal.

I’m using “literally” millenially i.e. figuratively. Statistics for executions in KSA are difficult to trust. Islamic leaders point out that decapitation is not Koranic, calling it “an old Nejdi tradition having nothing to do with Islam”. so in the case of apostasy the government usually sticks to several years of imprisonment receiving monthly lashings.  Continue reading


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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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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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Saudis Don’t Get Ketchup

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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.

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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.

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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.