One of the first things that struck me when I arrived was that people are prepared to talk. Not living in Saudi Arabia, and getting your information from a limited array of sources, one certainly gets the impression that the Muttawa are everywhere, listening to every word. Undoubtedly Jeddah is different to the rest of the country and my experiences here are limited (and often limited to the private quarters), but my expectations have certainly been counfounded.
Where I have had a chance to chat to Saudi shopkeepers (who are somewhat few and far between), I generally try to ask them what they think about Saudi Arabia and Jeddah. When you ask this question, there is generally a one-two second pause, an intake of breath and a rolling of the eyes. Those over 35 say something along the lines of “some good things, some bad things”. Like everywhere I guess. But when speaking to the younger generation, the pause doesn’t happen. Instead there is usually a chuckle followed by a resigned story of how dull life is here. Sometimes people will go further and criticise people in power. Mostly the younger generation will express their desire to leave. Clearly shopkeepers are not an accurate cross section of society (for a start, they’re all men), and nor are their responses likely to be unbiased when speaking to a Westerner who has just walked into their store. However, my point is that people aren’t afraid to speak.
My students do provide a more accurate cross section of the younger generation. Some turn up in giant GMC 4x4s, show you pictures of their important family members and somehow manage not to get kicked out of the college despite constantly turning up late. Others come from poorer backgrounds, some have little experience of city life and there are students who seemingly rely on the college and it’s accomadation in order to survive. I don’t know my students that well, it’s true, and I can’t accurately gauge what their backgrounds are. But the fact that I don’t know them well makes it all the more surprising what they come out with.
I had been told (by some of my more obnoxious teacher friends) that the way to ingratiate yourself with the students is to talk about sex, cars and rock and roll with them. I thought to myself ‘surely that’s a way to get yourself fired’. However, I quickly discovered that, whether you want to or not, the pupils will talk to you about these things. If even a half-chance presents itself, the students will start talking about Angelina Jolie or their girlfriends. Certain members of class also repeatedly ask ‘teacher, teacher, do you drink alcohol?’ Ask them where they would like to go on holiday, and the answer is, amongst a very select few, along the lines of ‘anywhere I can drink alcohol and see women in bikinis’. Some go a step further and start talking about drugs and even offering you drugs. Of course, this could be a joke, and is certainly said in a jovial manner…but there’s definitely something lurking under the surface. This ‘something’ is seemingly limited to what we, in the west, would consider ‘soft’ drugs. But I have invigilated an exam where one of the students (not mine, I hasten to add) was struggling to stay awake and upright, and furthermore was clutching his arm a fair bit.
Again, my point isn’t whether this is bad or good behaviour, or whether it is even as prevalent as I am making out. The more controversial topics here are only touched on by one or two students out of every 30. My point is that some students talk about sex, drugs and rock and roll amongst a group of people (and a teacher) they can’t be certain they can trust. Their criticism of authority is much more restrained, however, and when politics enters the conversation the atmosphere suddenly becomes more uncomfortable as people go silent and shift and squirm in their seats. If I ask (often the most uncontroversial questions) about anything that has happened in the Middle East in the last year, an opinion will not be forthcoming. The majority of students will, however, react positively when asked what they think of the progress of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
Of course, the other area where some students virtually leap out of their seats in anger is with any mention of the USA. While certain students certainly want to go there one day, developing a wholehearted love of the place is unlikely. As for Israel…I’ll have to come back to that.