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!!