sand in my teacup

The real story

New Year and Summer Magic

When you are a teacher the New Year is really in September. It doesn’t matter about Champagne at midnight on December 31st, glittery parties and hastily made resolutions. The New Year will always be September. And it is this way for children too, and college kids. We live in a different year where the smell of new pencil shavings and a shiny thermos signal the start of newness, new beginnings and new hopes.

My summer was magical. Really. There is nothing quite like leaving one world behind and entering a whole different dimension for a month. Leaving a world of school, paper work, crazy drives, schedules and a desert (an end of term that comes with a tiredness that sits like an ache over your whole body) and bidding farewell to the routine of life for one whole month is quite simply a gift. My children said they felt lucky because for them, going home is a holiday while for all our friends it is “just” home. How right they are. We see everything with fresh eager eyes, taste food with the taste buds of aliens descended from a desert planet. And we continuously exclaim, to the amusement of all our friends “ ahh smell that forest, taste those cherries, oh my doesn’t the lake feel cool and clean in a way I had only dreamt of.” And I realized that green does, indeed, have a smell. And walking in the woods has a sound, somewhere between a crunch and a thud, a soft spilling of thankfulness onto an ancient bed of organic rot.

To sit and talk to old friends who know you so well, so that you feel instantly comfortable, so that the laughter runs as smoothly as the wine and the nights outdoors are just chilled enough to warrant a soft wrap around the shoulders, like the hug of a friend, but no more. And the roads have drivers, who understand the rules, and the shops have people serving who understand the product and the post office still has the same man in there who sold you stamps 10 years ago, and he smiles and nods, hello.

Yes it was magical. And often I feel the bitter taste of crossness on my tongue all summer long. The grumpy sulk of “why can’t I live here all the time and why why! Do I have to go back?” But this time it was different. I know it will all be there next summer; it will all be there next year. The magic will wait. And I know what I have to do, where I live and why I stay. It works, but it works because I know that the magic is on pause and I will go back.

So now another year starts. Year two. It already sings a brighter tune than last year. We know the steps, the foibles and the slips and starts that can catch. We know the rules, the things that work and the right routes that make for smooth sailing. Already I am caught off my feet, back at work, classrooms full and heavy with potential. There seems less time to write, and time must be paid for the things that matter.

The weaving of my days.

From the teacher file: beauty and diamonds

Sometimes after Parent-Teacher conferences I am stuck with two thoughts.

How do they manage to lift up that hand, let alone drive here with that enormous diamond sitting on that finger? I wanted to offer to take it off her when she reached for a pen to write some note, but in the end she managed to lift her hand and throw the glint of the diamond straight into my eye.

Arab women, on the whole, do not age well. The daughter is gorgeous, thin, sparking eyes and a full head of carefully blow dried shiny hair. Skin glows, teeth are white and they walk with the lightness of angels. Then I meet the mothers. It is hard to imagine that these women were once as light, carefree and delightful to look at as their teen daughters. Now they have pockmarked bloated skin, a head scarf pulled too tight under the chin and the weight of 4 pregnancies hanging around under their Abayas. Where did that lovely girl go?

No wonder they need the diamonds to shine.

The Doesn’t Make Sense File

I am opening up a “This does not make sense” file. These are the first things going in:

1. When you show a G rated film the trailer should also be G rated. Otherwise you scare the little children.

2. It is a good idea to give the teachers some idea of what they will be teaching next year a few weeks before the end of term. There are no students in and we are all sitting around twiddling thumbs and wasting time for 14 days. ( Yes I counted.) So why wait until the last day of term to let us in on the big secret?

3. When someone orders a latte or a cappuccino or even a frozen caramel macciato there is no need to ask if they would like an extra shot, hazelnut syrup or a slice of cheese cake. If we wanted those items we would have asked for them.

4. During a prize giving ceremony you ware not meant to just leave when your child has a prize. It is polite to wait until the entire event is over. Otherwise we have an awards ceremony that resembles Waterloo train station.

5. If you drive too fast you will hit a palm tree and die. We saw the aftermath of this accident the other morning. It doesn’t make sense. There are over 20,000 road accidents a year here. There are less than 1 million on the island. Something is wrong.

6. Watching the movie “Prime” on local TV the other day I made note of something interesting. This a movie where Uma Thurmon’s young hot lover turns out to be the son of her therapist played by Meryl Streep. Certain words are deemed wholly inappropriate by the censors. Asshole and Bitch are excluded, left blank or replaced by a beep or a messy silence, but the F word is left to hang in the wind. But during the speech where Meryl Streep’s character bemoans the fact that her son is dating a non Jewish girl I noticed something very alarming. Had I not seen this film before I might never have known why she was so upset, other than the fact that her take on a Upper West Side New York Jewish mother is played to stereotypical perfection. The word “Jewish” is edited out of the movie. It is deemed a word as wholly shocking as the zinger Asshole. But of course, you can’t say a word for something that doesn’t exist, can you now.

7. Sitting in a car that doesn’t move for one hour during the morning rush hour because a group of protesters, ( called “Thugs” by the Ministry of the Interior on their Twitter page), has set fire to a line of tires laid across the highway. Does this make any one more sympathetic to the protester’s cause? Doesn’t make sense.

A teenage state of mind

The boys are 17. School is nearly done, exams are over and most aren’t even bothering to come in anymore. But some do, maybe because their parents insisted, maybe because they are bored at home and hanging at school with their friends is preferable to staying at home with the maid.

In any case, they are in my room, sitting cross legged on a table, guitar in hand. Some are working quietly, tapping at a computer, doing some quiet work in this gentle atmosphere. The art teacher walks in and picks up the guitar. A tune is played on YouTube, music is discussed. Tea is brought in from the cafeteria. My room has become the chill room, the place to just talk, play a little music and wind the year down quietly.

Two of these boys: one is Palestinian the other is a mix of Arabian nations. One prays regularly and doesn’t drink; the other has little faith in organized religion. Despite their differences they have met on a middle ground and found a shared interest in music. They don’t judge each other and their contrasting beliefs don’t come between them. Admittedly it is hard to neglect religion in a place that is so observant but this is a tolerant place, generally, and it is easy to find friends who are accepting and ready to set aside a gap in shared beliefs.

Of course, this is not always so. You only have to step into certain neighbourhoods on a Friday afternoon and the angry face of difference is glaring though the smog of tear gas. A lot of focus has been placed by the media on the troubles here, the unfairness of a system that justifies one privileged group over another. And yes it is unfair.  There are many people in jail who are too young, too innocent or too unjustified. There are too many people who get jobs because of who they are, who they know or what their last name is. But there are many other points not being made by the foreign press. First, the protesters are allowed to protest.  This is not a right that exists over the bridge in Saudi or in Syria, or even China. Second, Bahrain became independent from Britain on August 15th 1971. Like many countries in the Gulf it has never been a democracy, and always had the comfort of one  absolute ruler. If we could create a time line similar to Britain, for we are forever comparing the Middle East to our set of Western centric principles, then Bahrain would be somewhere back in the first half of the 20th Century. So they are not quite caught up. Change will either come, or it will turn further towards the Right and a closed society. We cannot predict.  But give them a chance.

In the mean time, look at the teenagers and let’s imagine a glimpse of the future. There are those that slowly gain weight under their Thobes, talk endlessly about their new Toyota Sequoia and play cards in the rooms in their homes, reserved exclusively for men. They are 17 going on 52. Conservative in their views and behaviours, they are part of the elite and will be handed jobs in velvet lined gloves. Then there are the young angry crowd, bitter with injustice and educated in the local schools. They burn tires at the weekend and talk politics. And then there are the 17 year old boys in my room, playing the guitar and dreaming of a gap year in India or Australia. They embrace difference.

I hope this is the future.

Myth Busting.

  1. All Arab women cover their head.

This is not true. Actually the majority of my students do not cover their heads but the majority of the mothers do. So it seems to be something they do later, around the time they marry. But it is also quite normal to meet women with bare heads. There are a lot of Syrian and Lebanese here and they don’t all cover up.

  1. They wear pajamas under their Abayas.

Yes this is true in a lot of cases. I have been told that often they can’t be bothered to dress on the weekend and the Abaya is a wonderful way of staying in your PJs all day long. There is also the other school of thinking: Heels are the only things to be seen so for all I know it could be heels and PJs.

  1. They are fat.

Yes. Sadly this is true. A great many people here are scarily over weight and Diabetes is rife. I have students who waddle up and down the stairs and seem to gain pounds by the week. Of course there are also the super sporty football and gym folks who are slim and healthy but sadly this is a minority. It is entirely blamed on a sedentary lifestyle with too much fast food.

  1. They don’t drink.

Some do, and they drink a lot. But it is frowned upon and they know they shouldn’t. There are also those that smoke weed. This is dangerous as the penalty if you are caught is 5 years in jail.

  1. There is no dating.

That is what dark cinemas are for. They lie to their parents, they tell their drivers where to go, they tweet and text and figure it out and then they end up in the back row of the cinema. But in truth, there will certainly be a higher percentage of virgins in the graduating class than in other schools I have taught. In fact, losing your virginity before marriage, for either sex is the greatest of sins. One prophet even declared that the murder of 99 people would be forgiven before pre marital sex. Despite this standing for both girls and boys, should a boy lose his virginity before the wedding night, it would be quietly ignored and put down to expected male behaviour and needs. But if a girl were to do the deed…. the shame would be unspeakable. One girl I know is not allowed to ride a horse in the fear that she might inadvertently lose her maidenhood!

  1. Mosque or Harrods?

Both.

  1. Bikinis or Abayas?

Bikinis in the Maldives. Often women in full Abaya and veil will do the dance of the 7 veils on the plane and arrive at their Maldivian resort sporting teeny shorts and bikinis. Apparently the old adage: what happens on holiday stays on holiday is true. What happens at home is subject to the hundred scandalous whispers of the nearest and dearest. Reputation is everything.

  1. Do any of them work or do they all live off handouts from the King?

Yes they work! Lawyers, doctors, head of the Police force, bankers, civil servants. The same as anywhere else. They just get paid a ton of money to do it here. Some do get handouts. Many have their houses given to them. A lot of food is subsidized, local schools and hospitals are free and gas is the same price as water. This last fact is totally true.

  1. Cost of 5 litres of petrol. 5 Dinars. ( $12 US)

Cost of 5 litres of water. 5 Dinars. ( $12 US)

True.

  1. Arabs are hairy.

True. And from what I hear from my personal waxing technician: the ladies take it ALL off.

Lady Falsies cramping my latin soul

I attend a Latin dance class on Monday evenings and if I close my eyes and move my hips just so, I can pretend I am in Argentina, or Spain. Initially I went on the urging of a friend who has since dropped out but I keep going every Monday night without fail. Sometimes if I can, I even try to fit in a Saturday class too. You could say I am hooked; or at least my Latin soul is.

There is a core group that has been coming week in week out since January when the class started but occasionally we get a drop in or two. This week Lady Falsies came back for the second time. After the first visit from this Arabian Princess Airhead I hoped we’d seen the last of her, but there she was, all decked up to the nines with her false eyelashes, collagen pout and pretty white top with fussy bow that needed to be fiddled with at all times. Back she came for another week of watching herself “dance” between her frequent trips to the water fountain or bathroom to mop her pretty brow with a q-tip or fix her thick luscious locks. I have no problem with people giving something a go. Honestly I had my left and right feet all switcheroo when I started the class but this character had wondered off a Disney Princess set and right into a serious dance class and looked as spaced out as an airhead addicted to hairspray. While we leant left with arms outstretched she flailed right with bandy arms waving about like a lost octopus. She turned to the right, took three wiggly steps, bumped into me and then proceeded to do her own dance for the next ten minutes while we tried to ignore the perfumed and bedazzled lycra clad vision hopping between us all. Watching the instructor in the mirror was obviously too distracting since watching herself was lots better. And, of course, she needed to check that her eye lashes didn’t fall off .

Why she came I have no idea; a session at home in front of a full length mirror would surely have sufficed. But I supposed she had dressed up and done her hair so….

It was a case of laugh or leave.

The stages of moving: nutshell version

I am coming to the end of the first year of living and teaching here and it is time for a moment of reflection before I take off to green and pleasant climes. The desire to leave the sandy island for sidewalks, outdoor cafes, cold lakes and walks on grass beside trees has become urgent. The desert sand is fierce, we have had more than a few sand storms that whip the palm trees wildly back and forth and leave a ton of sand at my front door like a sad offering from the Beach God. The heat is punishing; it feels as if we are walking around inside an oven.

Some birds had just finished building a nest on the ledge outside my bathroom but the unrelenting winds came and blew it away. Two days later the birds are back with bits of palm and rubbish to build it all over again. Their persistence inspires me as the countdown to summer begins.

There are various stages to moving somewhere new. There is the first and often frustrating stage of learning to walk all over again, but this time in a new place with new terrain, words and rules. At this stage everything is brand new but the excitement is marred by the need to buy school uniforms, house plants and a laundry basket. Finding a doctor or dentist might come in here too. There is also the “let’s get very lost on the highway going in the wrong direction” adventure during this early phase. Wide-eyed confusion and “what the hell” expressions are tell tale signs that someone is in this first phase. Clubs are joined and non working wives attend a multitude of new comer lunches. There is an almost over eager glee to getting things done and getting stuck in. There can also be deep and dark moments of nostalgia when it hits you that you miss your old home and a hollow awareness that something is missing.

Then the curiosity stage hits where short drives are taken to see the sights, find hidden gems and start to invite new friends over. During this stage new supermarkets are discovered and if you have just arrived from Africa the delight in finding Haagan Daaz and Waitrose bread is supreme. Driving for 45 minutes to buy particular jam imported from Britain is not unusual during this stage. A one off sailing lesson might happen, clubs at school are eagerly signed up for and a visit to the Mosque is mandatory. Like stage one, this period of time tends to be very expensive as new places to eat are discovered, food is purchased out of glee rather than necessity and there is a higher than usual volume of entertaining.

Stage three finds one at an impasse where the novelty has worn off, day in and day out it is all about routine and the budget starts to dictate how often you can eat out and buy expensive jam. An amazing thing called Witopia is discovered which permits the viewing of the BBC, as seen in Britain, by tricking your computer into thinking it is in Manchester and not Bahrain. The sofa becomes very comfortable. British culture is rediscovered after some 18 years and British humour needs to be explained to both husband and children. During this phase what was once charming and “different” can become a pain in the ass but you might still be too shy to admit this to new friends as you are supposed to love everything here and complainers are shunned. The smell of tear gas and burning tires on the highway become routine. Your daughter complains that she is the only one of her friends without a pool and you can’t believe you are hearing those words coming out of her mouth. There seems less to write about and even less to photograph.  You start missing the colour green and dream about purchasing green shoes just so you can see it when you walk. The mall, that paragon of joy after Africa, becomes a bit tiresome and you figure out how to avoid going too often. The quantity of sand at your doorstop stops surprising you. You drink less alcohol because it is such a pain to buy it. (I think this one might just be me).

In stage three the reality hits that this is where you really live, it has been a year since your last Safari and the big goodbye happened. Analysis of heartfelt nostalgia is replaced by biting comments on parking and driving. New friends are valued and you feel you have started to move on.

Gaps in knowledge: Moving Fast

They don’t move quickly the Arabs. They are known for taking their own sweet good time, whether it be walking from class to class, around the mall or paying for their Shawarma in the cafeteria. In fact they barely move beyond a strolling pace at any time other than in the car, when they are practising for the next F1 or driving close enough to catch a glimpse of the label of my shirt through their windscreen. One of my comrades at work told me that after a recent school trip oversees his trip through Dubai airport with a group of slow walking teens left him dazed and confused. There is never any need for hurry. After all if they should miss that plane then certainly there will be another waiting to take them on their merry way. And when they walk through the airport with the same gait as one on a leisurely stroll through the Jardin des Tuileries, pausing to glance at flowers and sniff warm croissants, they walk eight abreast so that no one with an actual fear of missing a flight has a chance to squeeze past.

When I tell my students to hurry up, and quick now, they might be late for their next class, they look at me as if I am quite mad. For why should they risk raising their heart beat just to be in time for a class? Again, I brought this up with my lovely students who are often amazed by my lack of comprehension over matters Bahraini and are more than happy to oblige with answers. Miss, one gorgeous girl said, as she swept back her mane of black locks, we don’t need to hurry because we are Arab.

Is it really as simple as that?

Yes, because there is no problem. It will all be okay and we are never late because everyone else is also taking their time.

And how, pray tell, will they survive when they hit Sheffield, Leeds, Kent or Manchester next year?

The answer, my friends, is very simple. They will find other Arabs to befriend who move at the same pace.

There is something to be envied in this attitude. Here we are in the West, rushing madly to catch buses and trains, meet deadlines and hurtle ourselves through life, stopping occasionally to gulp wine with friends before dashing to bed only to zip quickly through another day tomorrow. This way, the slow moving way, might be frustrating for those of us operating on a different speed, but for them it works. But somehow it doesn’t have the same ring as the laid back Jamaican “no problem, mon” attitude of a guy sitting on the beach with all the time in the world.  Here we are meant to be getting things done, moving at a clip, operating at First World Speed. Perhaps the whole reason lies in their dress. It is quite impossible to move at any impressive speed in a Thob. One would have to raise it above the knee and give it what for, risking limb, head scarf and dignity.

If you were to picture my life in a time lapse film, I would be a beige blur running out of frame, and there, sharply in focus would be the Arabs, still and glossy in their splendour, smiling and shaking their heads at my madness

Noora’s story

Noora is an intense girl, fiercely proud, academic and sporty and shoots straight talk from the hip. She is tall and lean with the body of a girl who plays a lot of sport. She arrives every morning, whips her back pack off, slumps onto a chair and listens to whatever is coming out of the white plugs in her ears and only after a few moments does she turn around and start to engage with the crowd in the classroom. Unlike the majority of girls at school she wears a black head scarf, and not the kind that slips just so, revealing a pretty swath of black glossy hair; hers is pulled tight, under the chin and circling her face. She looks out from black rimmed glasses and is one of the highest achievers in the school. Noora wants to be a doctor so she is one of my fabulous few.

I had always thought her head scarf to be incongruous. It didn’t fit with the girl who loved hard core rap, was a fervent feminist, argued passionately against blind belief and never seemed to go to the Mosque at break time to pray. Yesterday I found out the real story. Noora did not choose to cover her head. She was told to put it on about 4 years ago and there was no opportunity to dissent. Unlike the other girls I have spoken to who choose when and even if to wear the scarf, Noora covered her head out of obligation and fear of the looks and glares towards both her and her family if she didn’t.

This is in sharp contrast to a girl in the other class, Fatima, who told me that she had chosen to cover her head despite the fact that neither her mother nor sister wore one. When asked what made her choose to, she gave this eloquent answer. “I went to Saudi last year to do the Hajj and while I was there I just felt something. I didn’t know it was coming and I waited to see if the feeling would go away but it didn’t. It is a huge decision to decide to cover your head because once you do you cannot take it off. So I gave it a few weeks of thought and I started by covering my arms and legs. Once I finally put it on I felt amazing. Now I feel like a jewel.”

Fatima glowed from within and I could see what she meant by feeling like a jewel. She shone with the sense of being someone special who had made an important and personal choice. Noora does not shine. Her eyes are angry and she walks with a determined stride that suggests all is not right with her world. She told me that when she leaves Bahrain she will take it off, even knowing that means she cannot return here. “I will never come back here”, she told me.” I can’t wait to be out of this culture that puts us in a box and defines who I am and must be. Do you know that it is impossible to have a friend who is a boy? And that if ever I am seen with a boy who is not my brother everyone will talk and cause my family shame? That is stupid. This whole culture is small minded and stupid. The Middle East is one small corner of the world, that’s it. I want to be out of here and in the real world and I won’t look back.”

The reason this is so shocking is that over 98% of all Bahrainis who leave to study oversees return to the safe and traditional nooks of their family. To leave permanently is unthinkable. Noora told me that because she comes from a village and is Shia the rules are different for her. Her world is conservative, narrow minded and fearful of shame. On the weekend when she goes out with her cousins she has to wear an Abaya and she hates it. But she does it because she doesn’t want to cause her Mom any pain. Noora is well read, informed and open minded. She stands in stark contrast to her environment and lives with the pain of knowing that for the time being she has to be uncomfortable in her skin and play by someone else’s rules.

This is another side of the story.

Inshallah

You will hear this word said over and over again here. Sometimes it genuinely means: If God wills it. Other times it means, well, we will see if I feel like it. Either way it is said a hundred times a day, by everybody.

Will I get your home work tomorrow Khalid? Inshalla. To which I reply: ” I think Allah has plenty to do without worrying about your homework, Khalid. Let’s just leave that in your good hands and make sure you bring it in tomorrow.”

Have a wonderful wedding! Inshalla! Yes, in this case, holding some hope in the Fates might be a good idea. Considering all that could go wrong: Palm tree falling on tent, cake collapsing, male guests seeing the female guests ( weddings are separate here- another post.), someone parking diagonally over two places consequently leaving insufficient parking space, bride having a make-up mishap: Yes, hoping for the good will of divine intervention might be prudent.

But when I ask if my water will be reconnected soon and the answer is Inshalla I feel a bit nervous.

When I ask if we will get paid this Thursday or the supermarket will restock vanilla essence any time soon or the Internet speed will go back to “normal” and I hear Inshalla, I feel nervous.

I worry that if we remove consequence and personal responsibility even infinitesimally, the whole kit and kaboodle might just collapse. Because where I live there is no personal resopnsibility or consequence for any thing going wrong. NO ONE gets fired, NO ONE gets expelled, NO ONE fails high school.

You want to get into a good university, get a decent job and buy a porche?

Insha Allah