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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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.