Monday, June 10, 2013

They Own Us, Don't They?

“Thank you, your service matters.”  -The Admiral, first official staff meeting

The first week of school was spent in administration and orientation of students to the college while teachers scrambled in and out of classrooms for eight hours a day with 30 students, barely one of them could speak more than twenty words of English.  There were no computers  (they had not yet arrived… inshallah!) and so the admissions clerk, a sweet and patient Ethiopian  man named Mohamed-Atta sat at a small desk in the giant work shop in front of 700 students calling their names on by one to come forward and write their signatures on a large paper scroll.
 “This is such an opportunity.  You are a life-changer.”  -The Admiral, first official staff meeting

Of course, the problem was, that each student had already registered with an English name and they didn’t know or couldn't remember how they had originally spelled it (or how it was spelled for them).  So once they had collected all the new English names of the 700 which took over five hours, they realized they now needed to collect their Arabic spellings too…. So they called the students to do it again.
 “Teaching is a calling.  The impact you give will last a lifetime.”  -The Admiral, first official staff meeting

This created more problems because now students couldn’t remember how they originally registered in Arabic.  Did they use their grandfather’s name or their great-grandfather’s name or their father’s name, and many used all four names they carry.  So on the fourth day, the college had each teacher pass a list to students so that they could write their government issued number instead, which was written backwards in Arabic and needed to be straightened out for English.
 “We encourage you to believe in us.  Take this journey with us.”  -The Admiral, first official staff meeting

After the first week of school ended, after teaching on my feet for 8 hours in that room surrounded by cement walls, I wandered past the cafeteria and mosque to the giant work shop to check on Mohamad-Atta who had become a friend.  Even though he was an administrator at the school, his African born roots were looked down on by the Saudis.  Despite being raised in London, and he and I often trading Shakespeare quotes each morning on the bus back and forth through the desert to make one another laugh, the Saudis treated him with contempt.  Loud voices.  Fingers snapping at his nose.  His dark black skin bathed in sweat as he calmly processed each one.  
 “They’ll be lots of ups and downs.  But you must weather the storm.”  -The Admiral, first official staff meeting

I stood for a moment watching this brilliant man race back and forth between English and Arabic when Mad Dog tapped my shoulder.  There was a staff meeting.  The Admiral was calling us together to talk.
“In the end, these aren’t just Saudis or Yemenis or Shia.  These are someone’s brothers and sons, husbands and fathers.  They are like your sheep, and you are their shepherd.”  -The Admiral, first official staff meeting

Upstairs in the main conference room I dropped wearily into a chair.  The air-conditioning was set to ‘hell freezes over status’ and all the other teachers were assembled.  Some sat over folded arms.  Some hid in the back standing.  The Admiral was already speaking, poised in front of five very regal and stoic looking Saudi men in official white robes and red checkered scarves.  Their perfectly trimmed beards glistened, standing before us smiling back and forth confidently with their eyes. 
“This is just the beginning, isn’t it?”  I leaned over and whispered to Scoopes, who was staring blankly ahead.  “They own us, don’t they.”
Then I turned back and listened to the Admiral speak, and I swear, if it were a degree colder, I could have seen the breath of his words ice over in the air.

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