Tag Archives: teaching

Roland Rant.

Working in Saudi Arabia is difficult enough for the majority of expats in terms of lifestyle adjustments.  But teaching contractors really don’t make it any easier.  From my experience so far they are inefficient, lazy, incompetent and generally rude.

I was prepared for this by my interview for the company I work for with it’s head honcho.  He asked me nothing during the interview about my teaching skills, abilities, experience etc…  (Although he did seem interested in my  “knowledge” of Saudi Arabia, which was refreshing and boosted my ego somewhat).   It was obvious here that the company was pretty desperate for teachers.   The only interview question he asked me was:

“What would you do if you were in a bar in London and someone knocked over your pint?”

I paused, briefly thinking this might be a trick question about alcohol.  No, just because I’m in a bar in London, doesn’t mean I can’t handle a year without alcohol.  Hmmm…  So I gave an honest answer, and one which I figured would also happen to demonstrate I’m suitable teacher material (ie patient):

“Well, i’d firstly check to see if this person had noticed they’d knocked over my dri…..”

At this point I was interrupted.  “No, that’s the wrong answer”, my soon-to-be-boss stated.  “You’re going to be working in Saudi Arabia.  Arabs like strong leaders.  They like to be put in their place and told what to do, it’s the only way they’ll get anything done”.  (Or words to that effect)  He then cited Saddam Hussein’s gassing of a Kurdish village, and the fact that the village had been interviewed a few years later and stated they still supported Saddam, as proof that Arabs like strong leaders.
Yes boss, Arabs love strong leaders.  It has nothing to do with a history of western colonial support for these leaders, or the fact that the resources of the region allow these leaders to stay in power, or the fact that strong leaders are seen as able to challenge Israel’s power.  Oh and those revolutions last year challenging those strong leaders?  Let’s just ignore those.  My boss had demonstrated his alpha male qualities from the very start.

Anyway, I was very keen to work in KSA, and it seemed most teaching companies who worked there were just as bad, so I took the job.

Generally working life has been pretty easy.  I work at a great little college, and my Saudi coworkers and Kuwaiti boss are great, and the hours aren’t too bad.  Dealing with my contractors, though, has been a nightmare.  Every month I have to leave the country for visa purposes.  Because it’s cheap, we are sent to Bahrain, often on 2 days notice.  The security situation there obviously isn’t great, but it’s not this that I mind…in fact it makes it more interesting for me.  It’s the fact that our flights are booked so late in the day that we fly at ungodly hours.  I’ve been here for 8 months and I’m yet to receive a shred of overtime payment.  My paycheck is often late.  Our salary isn’t broken down, so I have no idea if it’s correct or not.  We are yet to receive any visa or travel expenses. Contacting my boss is a nightmare, he never answers emails about simple queries.

My point here isn’t to moan about minor things.  It’s to highlight that there’s nothing I can do about any of these problems.  Saudi labour law is sketchy at best, and our contracts are probably not worth the paper they’re written on.  If I even suggest that I’ve spoken to the other teachers about the matter we could be changed with sedition.  The other company who contract teachers at our college have just told them that they’ll be stuck in KSA for the summer, with no work to do, and under the terms of their visas they’ll be unable to leave.

This is clearly nothing compared to the abuses that migrant workers from less developed nations face in the Kingdom, and there’s even less that they can do, as they will often have no contract, no passport, and often no means of escape.  My main contact with migrant workers has been through Filipinos.  The nurses as I know tend to be marginally happier than the male workers, janitors and gardeners who work at my college.  They live in a run down old tenement block nearby.  They get around one week holiday a year.  They are constantly borrowing money from us teachers.  Most of the day they are out in the sun.  When they aren’t, they’re being bossed around by Saudis.  I went on a beach trip with some Saudis, and two Filipinos came along to help out.  Basically working all day, ferrying food and drink.  They confessed to me that they didn’t know if they were going to get paid.

Again, they have no awareness of their rights, and whether these rights exist or not.  This subject has been written about extensively elsewhere (see this recent HRW article: http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/04/10/saudi-arabia-step-aid-migrant-workers)  , I’m just pointing to my experiences at the hands of what are essentially western contractors, buying into the Saudi way of doing things.

To finish something I hear someone say almost every day: “It’s no wonder they’re short of teachers”

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Scared?

After Hamza Kashgari was forced to flee Saudi Arabia for his comments on the Prophet (peace be upon him) last week, two strands of thought occurred to me.

The first was purely selfish.  Is anything I’m saying controversial?  Unlikely in cyberspace – not sure anyone really cares.  But in the classroom?  We do have to be careful about what we say.  Obviously calling-a-teddy-bear-Mohammed levels of stupidity aren’t likely, but my colleagues to tell me about some of the things they do in the classroom and therefore my second worry their futures (the turnover rate at our college is extremely high, and we often don’t find out why…more on this later).  You never really know who you are teaching.  Rumours abound that X is the son of a Prince or the Y is a member of the muttawa.  Often this is unlikely, but the chances are there will be a couple of students with Wasta.  One prime suspect is a student who should be getting straight As, but due to his attitude (superior, disinterested, disruptive) he often gets kicked out of class.  Combined with some cheating, this got so bad that our co-ordinator and his teachers decided to make him resit the Elementary level.   Miraculously, with no discussion, he re-appeared this term in the level above this.

What you say in front of such students is an issue, but it becomes a problem if a connected student is a hard line Salafi.  Some teachers will play music (introducing students to the unheard-of Beatles), some will discuss what they do on their holidays (meet girls, drink alcohol).  I have been guilty of discussing similar topics, but not talking about my own actions.  The danger lies in how you talk about such subjects.

One of my colleagues (the one who was surprised that his students – many of whom consider music to be haram – hadn’t heard of the Beatles) recently had his room raided by the Muttawa and had his laptop confiscated and thoroughly searched.  A call to the Canadian embassy was met with a sigh and he was told that unless he had been arrested there was nothing they could do.  The colleague in question has publications on Islam, and is a well known academic, but is extremely careful about his behaviour in Saudi Arabia.  I’m not even sure I am as careful as him, which makes me worry again.

(On a side note, my flatmate recently left his wallet and passport in a taxi.  The following day it was miraculously returned to him by the Sri Lankan taxi driver who scoured the area where he picked my flatmate up asking people for clues as to his whereabouts.  Upon returning the walled the driver said he had taken it to the British Embassy and was told that there was nothing they could do…they refused to even hang on to it.)

I also realised this week that questions are possibly more likely to get me into trouble than answers.  If I answer a question about my girlfriend or my religion honestly then there’s not much the Saudis can do, or would want to do, unless I’m flaunting my beliefs.  After all, I have the right passport.  If I start going around asking questions about the political, religious, social or economic situation then I am more likely to arouse suspicions.  A new exhibition “Edge of Arabia” opened last week in Jeddah, and I went along.  In my opinion it was the most controversial of any exhibition I have been to in Saudi Arabia, and so – after a brief chat – I asked one of the curators how easy it is to get something like this shown in the Kingdom.  His demeanor suddenly changed and he practically denied there was anything revolutionary about the work on show.  Eventually he admitted that all work which goes on public display is vetted by the authorities, a process which often takes about 2 months.  I’m not entirely sure how some of the work passed the test.  But, Jeddah is a bastion of Saudi liberalism, and I am constantly surprised and pleased with the baby steps to reform which are occurring in the Kingdom – and I increasingly think King Abdullah deserves some credit for this.  If you’re in Jeddah, I’d urge you to go along.  I have enclosed one (unrepresentative) photo below, (if you know the artist, please comment) which sums up my experience of the Saudi postal service), but the other work on show is highly diverse and often more shocking.
In other news, I’m currently reading “Journey into America” by Akbar Ahmed.  Aside from containing some terrible anthropological methods, some arrogant views and some downright offensive views the book is quite informative and entertaining.  Then again, it’s probably nigh-on impossible to go to America, speak to a bunch of random people and not come away with something full of spice.  However, another problem I have with the book is the way it looks down it’s nose at Salafis.  The “literalist” interpretation of Islam, as Ahmed terms it, which is prevalent in Saudi Arabia is often cited as the root cause of troublesome relations between the West and Islam.  He is very much of the opinion that Salafis (in America) fail to integrate and foster cross-faith initiatives, and this view undoubtedly influences, and is influenced by what he sees or hears about Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.  Everyday experience in Saudi Arabia teaches me differently, and Muslims here are very open to discussing religion, very welcoming, and do not fit the picture painted by Ahmed at all.  This may not be the case amongst Salafis in America, but perhaps this suggests the problem is not the literalism, but the context.
So there.

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Linky

I’ve been away for a couple of weeks, and unfortunately missed out on all the Hajj fun.  Although my students have been taking great pleasure in telling me how many sheep they sacrificed.  My arrival back to SA was massively easier than last time when I had to wait 5 hours.   However, it’s taking me a while to get back into the swing of things here.  If you fail to do so, it can feel like you’re imprisoned sometimes.  But I’m getting there again…it just takes a while to learn to enjoy yourself in different ways to what we’re accustomed to in the west.

Anyway, here’s a link which is interesting (if you’re interested in SA)http://csis.org/publication/saudi-youth-unveiling-force-change

I’m not entirely convinced by some of the interviewing.  Firstly, the article says marriage is being delayed by financial constraints.  Not only is this something which would be nigh on impossible to ascertain by interviewing people, but in the west the opposite is generally accepted as being logical:  as people get more comfortable they marry later.   Amongst the even more unscientific sample of my students there is still an eagerness to get married.  They are very confused about how someone my age (28-35) can be unmarried.  The article also later links the higher education of women to the higher marriage age, implying a different causation.  This is not to say that education and wealth are the same thing though.  As the article makes clear this is one of the main problems in SA (and much of the developing world) – education with no opportunities (40% of 20-24 year olds are unemployed).

The article also anticipates the proposed limits on foreign workers (who currently make up over 80% of the private sector) which will come into play next year and should lead to more chances for Saudis to progress within the private sector (although will, according to Citi bankers hurt the economy)

The idea that limited opportunites and changing social ideas are a recipe for protest is perhaps overstating the case though.  My students and some of my fellow teachers believe this is unlikely because of the complacency of much of the younger generation.  Even without great jobs, many of them will live a reasonably comfortable life.  Or is this a biased opinion of those who wish to excuse students’ behaviour or paint a particular picture of Saudis?

Incidentally, the other point which made me question some of the research methods was the interview question to which 84% of women and 65% of men responded affirmatively: 
“I feel that I have the courage and the strength to overcome all the challenges that might be
associated with the working life of women."

I’ve had some training in research methods, and though I’m no expert, I know that this isn’t the best way to gauge whether people feel happy with the progress of women’s rights.
My limited experience concurs with the idea that young Saudis are different and have got differing views about the state, their lives, and the world to the previous generation.  However, I also get the feeling the article is expecting something that might not be forthcoming.  It also seems to want something that may not be desired by many Saudis.  Witness, for instance, the way it talks about Saudi society valuing conformity.  This is a generalisation in my mind, and one which implies conformity is a bad thing.  Could it not just be that individuals desire similar things?  Or that people put society before themselves?  It’s desire for “bold, independent thinking” which (it says) can be driven by international actors seems to stem more from wanting societal change than helping the workforce (precisely how many people who work for large private firms engage in any bold, independent thinking?).  Paradoxically, helping the workforce get jobs may impede any such desire.  Although it would also change the social contract which may affect society’s demands (both areas the article neglects).

I’ve already gone off on a massive tangent so I’ll cut my ramblings short here.

 



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Veils and cars and soft rock and roll.

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.

 

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