Thursday, November 17, 2011

KSA - The First Month

Teaching at Bahah University initially was chaotic – it was quite common for two (or more) teachers to arrive at a lecture room and have no students, or to be assigned to a room that was already in use. The students call us “doctor” – this is how they translate “teacher”. I rather enjoy being Dr. Gregory! The students face a daunting task in learning English; apart from the grammar and spelling, they also have to learn an alien alphabet and learn to write from left to right. Many of them cannot write their own names in English and in general their handwriting resembles a 7 year-olds in the west.

Things have, however, improved and we are now much more organized. There is however some resentment between the various nationalities regarding pay and perquisites.  At the top of the food chain are the westerners. Then come the Egyptians/Syrians/Jordanians etc. who earn half of what we earn.  They are disliked by Al Jazeera as being trouble makers and lazy. Then come the Filipinos who earn about half of what the Egyptians earn and have even fewer privileges but hold responsible administrative positions.

Al Jazeera is also big on paperwork and admin. There are always reports to be written, forms to be completed, papers to be filed… The type of criteria that teachers are evaluated against are: dress, neatness, reports submitted on time, all paperwork completed, all filing up to date, signing in and out on time, relationship with supervisor, relationship with supervisor’s boss… the quality of the teaching seems to be largely overlooked in their zeal to generate documents.

Warning letters are also issued at the drop of a hat and can entail a fine by means of a salary deduction. You can get a warning for going to the wrong room (no matter that your schedule says), speaking to university staff or breaking any one of dozens of rules of which you have no knowledge. So far, I have navigated this minefield safely! Having said that, the work is not difficult, the students are reasonably well behaved and the salary and perquisites are good.

One of the points of travelling to other lands is to experience different customs and KSA certainly offers many opportunites to experience these differences. It is quite usual to have to vacate a supermarket or other shop at prayer times. You leave your trolley right there and go outside for half-an-hour or so till prayers are over. I have frequently been locked in restaurants during prayer time. The owner lowers the blinds and dims the lights so the Mutawa can't see in and evict the patrons while prayers are in progress (5 times a day);  you are required to abandon your meal / shopping /work / teaching until after the faithful have concluded their discussions (broadcast loudly over external loadspeakers) with the Almighty.

Contact between the sexes is strictly prohibited. An unmarried couple meeting in a coffee shop could be arrested by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Religious Police) if seen. Pleasure spots (!) are mostly for family use only and off-limits to singles. Fun fairs and such are for family only.  Most malls have family days when singles are barred from entering. Apartment blocks are segregated. Bank branches are segregated – there are even ATMs reserved for women only; if your bank card identifies you as a male the ATM won’t dispense any cash. No wonder the Saudi divorce rate is around 70% - when a couple get married they don’t have the foggiest idea of what to do with this alien being with whom they now cohabit. 

And while no effort is spared to keep the boys and girls apart, it seems that, despite being an offense for which you can be beheaded, homosexuality is widespread and (unofficially) tolerated. And if a homosexual couple is bust, only the “receiving” male is considered homosexual - the "dispensing" (?) male is deemed to have been led astray. Despite all of this, I am told that prostitutes, male and female are readily available in larger cities if you have the right contacts.

One of the ways to discourage the boys from panting after the ladies is to require all females to wear the black and voluminous abaya to conceal their figures and a hijab to cover their hair and faces from the bridge of their noses to their necks, leaving a thin slit from which their eyes peer. Lest even the sight of female eyes inflame the lusty Arab lads beyond endurance, many ladies wear an additional veil that covers even their eyes and black gloves so that not the tiniest speck of female flesh is visible. The only titillation available is to try to imaging them wearing the most outrageous and wildly erotic underwear underneath those acres of black cloth! 

In the larger cities like Jeddah attitudes are much more liberal. One even hears music in the malls that are owned by the princes since the mutawa are banned from these (music is considered haram - against the laws of Islam, which basically covers anything that may be seen as fun. This includes bells (ding-dong bells, not the Whiskey), drinking, smoking, movies, dancing, flirting, singing…)

Since alcohol is illegal in KSA there are no pubs and no going for a beer after work or on the weekend. I have been offered a bottle of vodka for the equivalent of R1500. Considering the exorbitant price and the potential 200 lashes if caught, I have resisted the urge. I understand that some ex-pats brew a rather horrible homemade wine from fruit juice, sugar and yeast. And to be found in possession of narcotics will lose you your head (I believe about 70 heads have rolled so far this year in chop-chop square.)

The authorities are cognizant of the fact that this lifestyle is very alien to most westerners (and indeed, human beings in general!) and that since they require certain western skills here, they have made concessions. These are in the form of “compounds”, which are fortified villages for westerners. Saudis are strictly prohibited from these dens of decadence. In the compounds a western lifestyle prevails – normal dress, pubs, shops, males consorting with females (!!)… in short, a western oasis. Most people who inhabit the compounds are sponsored by companies as they tend to be expensive – around 6000 riyal per month for a studio apartment.

Some cities are more liberal than others - Jeddah, for instance, is considered to be probably the most liberal city in KSA. When I was there I found the malls to be lively and "vibey" with many women having uncovered (and expertly made up) faces. There was a Yemeni "band" performing at one of the malls while I was there one evening and the young girls, faces uncovered, were cheering and shouting and swaying like young girls anywhere in the world. I found this encouraging - it confirmed to me that you cannot legislate against human nature. I suspect that there are going to be large scale changes in KSA within the next 10 - 15 years. Who knows, maybe women will even be allowed to drive cars!!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Arriving in Saudi Arabia

The plane was a bit late in landing at Riyadh. At immigration control I stood in a queue of about 50 people for about an hour with absolutely no movement. Then a military type in a colonel’s uniform who had been strutting around the entrance hall all night barking instructions waved me to a much shorter queue. The immigration control is by far the most slapgat I have seen. The officials slouch in their chairs sleepily, then wander off to go chat with their buddies in the next cubicle, let their cigarette smoke drift into your face and very obviously discuss you in Arabic with their buddies.

I got out of the airport at about 4am and was met by Mohammed (there are many Mohammeds here) who took me to my accommodation. It had 4 bedrooms, 3 of which had 2 beds. On a few of the beds there was a sheet & pillow slip set – 1 sheet and 1 pillow slip. The sheet was about the same length as the mattress so tucking it in was out of the question. Also, the edges weren’t hemmed so they were unraveling. Both bathrooms and toilets were encrusted with dirt, as was the kitchen. The rubbish bin in the kitchen I threw out with the rubbish as it stank like week-old road kill.

The next day Mohammed took me shopping – luckily it was a “singles” day so we were permitted into the mall to do shopping. "Hyper Panda" in Riyadh is very large and modern and you can get about anything there. On “family” days no singles are admitted to the malls. The temperature in Riyadh is about 40 during the day dropping right down to about 30 at night. Happily aircons abound, including one in each bedroom.

The school is an impressive building – very modern and clean. The academy itself is very bound by rules and everybody is called “mister” – Mr Gregory, Mr Mohammed, Mr Achmed… The whiteboards in the lecture rooms are smartboards – electronic and computer controlled. The different coloured pens are actually dummies and you can even write with your finger if you like. You can also scroll up & down, save sheets and recall them, and the textbooks are also on the computer. Very impressive.

Everyday at 12pm and 6pm is prayer time. The devout gather in the lobby and face Mecca and the prayers are piped through the PA system for about 20 minutes. All the shops and malls also close for the duration of prayer time.

The first few days I had a couple of “remedial” classes to teach - these are students who missed classes and need to catch up. Then on Monday evening at about 20h30 Mr Ayman told me that I would be flying to Al Bahah in the morning and the driver would pick me up at 5h30. Also, 4 other guys would be sleeping at my place that night and flying with me in the morning. I stayed awake till 12am and when no one had arrived I went to sleep. Just after 1 I got a phone call – the first guy was waiting outside. I helped him carry his stuff up 2 flights of stairs and after half an hour went back to sleep. An hour later the next traveler arrived (these are all Egyptian English teachers and had travelled about 500km in a cab to get to Riyadh).

When my alarm went off at 5 I wasn’t feeling too chirpy. Anyway, we got to the airport and after some discussions with airport officials regarding baggage weight we took off for Al Baha. Al Baha airport is small – 1 runway and the plane has to make a U-turn to get to the terminal.

We were picked up and taken to the university, which is very large, with lots of construction going on and in the middle of nowhere. We were introduced to herds of people and then left to our own devices for the better part of an hour. Then Mr Reda told us that he wanted us to start teaching immediately. This was not a popular idea with us. We were all dressed in casual clothes, needed a shower and were knackered from lack of sleep. He kept on at us and I asked him if he’d like me to unpack my suitcase is the sandy parking lot to find my suit and wrinkled shirts. Eventually he gave up and sent us home.

Home is like a double block of flats – one block for married couples and the other for singles. I share with an American (Tim) who is health conscious and very into cleanliness (for which I am grateful - the place was spotless). The other is Sam, a young English guy. The flat has an entrance hall, lounge with flat screen TV and couches and chairs, kitchen with a gas cooker and fridge and there is also a washing machine. My room also has a “sun room” which eventually I intend to make “nice”.

The shower head is broken and Sam had rigged something with a wire hanger. The first time I showered the whole thing fell down which distressed Sam when he went to shower the next morning. Also, the toilet leaks if you don’t close the tap and the remains of a previous explosive movement seemed to be embedded in the porcelain. So yesterday I used a brand new hanger and made a more stable arrangement for the shower (I also put in a request to get it fixed), fixed the toilet and bought a toilet brush to clean the toilet.

We are also over the road from a mosque and just before 5 in the morning the first call to prayer rattles the windows. This is followed up with further mournful chanting at about 5h20 for a further 20 minutes. No danger of oversleeping here…

Downstairs we have a large recreational area with Wi-Fi, a pool table and a table tennis table. All that's missing is the fridge stocked with Amstels.

The university (men only) is about an hour away from our accommodation and a bus collects us at about 6h30 and brings us back again about 17h00. There are about 100 TEFL teachers on contract at the university and they are recruiting more. There is a very large contingent of Egyptian teachers. A bus is also available to take us into town (about 10km away) for shopping twice a week… singles and families on different days obviously.

The first day was chaos. Nobody knew what classes they were teaching, no teacher’s guides available, students wandering around aimlessly… I was told to go to lecture room 2123 and start teaching. When I asked for copies of the relevant books, what level the students were at, pens for the whiteboard and directions to the lecture room I was told to just go there and start teaching! So after wandering around for 15 minutes I found the lecture room and my students and gave a class. There was no white board to write on as the room was equipped with a smart board which was not yet functional. So instead I had to write stuff on sheets of paper and hold them up for the students to see. Loads of fun. I believe the smartboards will soon be functional. I can’t wait - I can’t teach without a board!

Anyway the next day I was given my office and tomorrow I get given a laptop – for school and personal use!

There’s a few South Africans here –a good bunch of guys. It’s nice to have compatriots to talk to. There are places worth visiting around here but transport is a challenge at the moment – unlike Chachapoyas nothing is in walking distance here, but I will sort something out. We are in a “mountainous” area (Peruvians would laugh at that description) and there are forests and mountain passes that are worth a visit.

We will get to them.