Monday, August 5, 2013

Bovine Scatology: Ahmed the Spy

 The futbol match was Mad Irish Dave’s idea.  He’d spent a lifetime a suffering Limerick fan peeking through squinting fingers at missed penalty kicks and poorly executed off-sides.  To be honest, I think he secretly enjoyed the misery and wouldn’t know how to back a winner if it fell in his lap.  That’s why he suggested pitting Saudi classes against one another.   A magic clover  conundrum up his sleeve.  Win and he looked like a genius.  Lose and he was one step closer to home.
 The plan was to start gradual, an initial game between our two classes.  Mad Dave assured me the soccer skills of our students were high.  We weren’t allowed practice time or to coach.  Instead we’d referee, finding old cloth jerseys in a sports bin in town, a couple of whistles and a ball.  Then we cut yellow and red cards from supply room stock.  
 When we told the students,  they went wild, hurriedly scrapping textbooks to begin drawing up plays on the whiteboard.  I can’t speak for Dave, but standing back in the classroom listening to the excited voices and watching them divvy up positions and argue about strategy was a complete revelation.  I’d always been able to connect with difficult classes, creating roles of responsibility for troubled students and taking the extra time to reach at-risk ones as well.
 Yet in Saudi, every student was at-risk.  A potential danger to himself, to me, to others.  A futbol match was exactly what these students needed. 
Especially these days, when there is so much mistrust and animosity between people.  Some days at the school, it was so thick you could slice is like a meaty kebab.  I had experienced this greatly in Taiwan, where Chinese teachers swam political circles around me like backstabbing sharks.  I never knew who to trust.  
 Still, no matter how bad the landscape closed in around me, the classroom was always my refuge.  My little corner of the world I kept sacred.  Watching those students laugh and draw arrows between X’s and O’s on the board, I felt that I’d already won.  No matter the box score.  This was only the beginning of good things in Saudi.
 Of course, there was one slight problem.  The school had to say yes.  Our point person was Hassan.  A man whose desk was a boneyard of requests and acquisitions forms.  We still had not received our Iqamas and were trapped in this desert country.  Certainly, Hassan would see our reasoning and grant us access to this pristine artificial field with its virgin plastic grass.  Certainly, right?
Keep dreaming.  After a week of mewling and nibbling his hair lip, ducking out of the office to smoke long thin cigarettes behind the science building, I got fed up.  Mad Dave and I had arranged the schedule, gone over the rules with our students, notified the HR department, bribed the security guards with coffees and sweets.  We’d covered our bases.  Still, Hassan wouldn’t give us an answer.
So I went over his head.
 The following morning I went to see the Admiral.  The head man in charge.  Believe me, nobody knocked on the Admiral’s door for any reason.  He carried himself with this swagger, like John Wayne in a pair of Banana Republic slacks and a comfortable pair of loafers.  He spoke flawless Arabic, was a millionaire numerous times over, was chauffeured around with the Saudi princess, and just generally seemed like the smartest guy in the room.  He was the obvious choice.
 I climbed the stairs and turned the corner past his private bathroom when I heard voices inside.  Hushed whispered voices.  Stopping to listen at the door in shock, I heard my name being spoken in Arabic in the room.  Believing it to be Hassan, I stepped into the doorway ready to defend myself.  I was completely wrong.
 It was my student Ahmed.  A quiet, unassuming older man, with  dark black hair and a trimmed mustache.  The kind of student almost invisible in class.  Never raising a hand to speak.  Never offering any information about himself.  If you called on him to read or answer a question, he would almost effortlessly, but looking at him, assessing him, it was as if he was never there. 
 Yet here he was, sitting at the long conference table chatting with the Admiral, speaking my name in Arabic.  I’d been warned that each class had a secret Saudi police officer posing as a student.  Now, I’d discovered mine.
“Teacher Brian,” the Admiral said in a wistful voice, “What’s up?”
I stood in the doorway quickly collecting myself, “Exactly, what’s up?”
There was an awkward silence as I stared straight at Ahmed who looked back at me without any emotion on his face.
“Well, I need to speak to you about a soccer match.”
“Yes,” the Admiral sat back in his chair, lifting his arms to cradle his head.  “I’ve heard.”
I stared at my student.
Assalam Alay-kum, Ahmed.”
Alay-kum Assalam, Teacher Brian.”
 At this I attempted to excuse myself, admitting to the Admiral I didn’t mean to intrude. 
“Bovine Scatology,” he barked.  “No need.  I think a soccer match is a fine idea.  You send the paperwork up to me.  I’ll see that you have no problem with our Arab hosts.”
Relieved, I nodded.  “Thanks. Admiral.”
The old desert fox winked.
I backed out of the room, eyeing Ahmed the whole way.
Mad Irish Dave was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs.
“Are we golden, boy?”
I slapped his back.  “We’re golden.”
Mad Dave started rambling then, spouting off about how this was the best he’d felt since Danny Drew took the lads back to Rathbane and the won the League Cup over those poofs from Derry City back in ’02, saying, “I can’t wait to tell the lads back in class.”
“Yeah,” I said.  “Let’s go tell the classes. We’ve already won.”

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