Toughing It Out, Part 1

This is a 2012 interview done over Skype, when I was in the Philippines and Sharon was in Indianapolis.

Sharon’s story

I started traveling in 2009. I taught in Singapore, China and Indonesia. Then in 2012 via a website I found a position through a recruiting company. The position was with a university preparatory program in Saudi Arabia. The company emailed me my airline ticket for flights from Los Vegas to Istanbul. I didn’t realize they hadn’t arranged for any visa documents. In Istanbul, Turkish Airlines employees helped me sort out my lack of  Saudi entry documents. I had to buy a Turkish visa for an overnight stay.   While waiting to hear what was what, I taught one of the Turkish Airlines employees how to play cards.  The recruiting company put me up in a quaint inn on a cobblestone street and instructed me to fly to Manama, Bahrain the next day. When I arrived at the Qatar Airlines ticket counter, I had to sign a disclaimer saying I wouldn’t hold the airline liable in case of a disaster. There was civil unrest going on in Bahrain, and my ticket had no exit date on it.

When I travel I carry business-size envelopes and colored pencils. In the airport waiting area I met a Saudi family, and we did what I call “envelope art.” This gives people an easy way to connect with others despite language problems, a fun memory and a creative mailer. The family drew a map of their country on the back. The Qatar Airlines employees told me what Turkey was like both in the east and in the west. One had lots of stories to share about working for the Disney Corporation in Orlando. At one point I’d become such a part of the group that I was even giving directions to customers at the airline counter. On the way to Qatar I met an architect from the Seattle area who had once designed a home for one of Bill Gates’ friends, but now because of the failing US economy simply couldn’t work there any longer. He’d accepted a two-year contract in Jeddah.

While I was in Turkey, all my communications with the company had been by email. I’d never talked to anyone on the telephone. After I arrived in Manamah, I spent eleven days at the Day’s Hotel, five of those without my suitcase. The hotel was several blocks from a very informative museum which I visited a couple of times. I took long walks around the island and attended lectures at the Al Fateh Mosque. I met people in the hotel restaurant at the Day’s Hotel and played Scrabble with an airline mechanic from Spain. After the company contracted a visa agent to facilitate my medical examination for my Saudi visa, two men picked me up and took me to a local medical clinic which tested my urine, blood pressure and eyesight and checked my skin. The next morning an agent came to pick up my stool sample from the hotel’s front desk. Finally I got my visa, and I flew into Riyadh. At the airport I didn’t have an abaya–the floor length black robe and head scarf to cover myself with. I’d foolishly assumed that since it was mandatory the company would provide one.

Before I left for the Middle East, I read travel writings by Freya Stark, who first went there in 1927. But nothing in the world can prepare you for arriving in Saudi Arabia, just as there are no words to describe the air pollution in China. You have to sign a document stating that you will obey all religious and secular laws. It doesn’t take long to “get with the program” regarding all of the do’s and don’ts. For example, although I’d been told that as a Western woman I need not cover my head, on a shopping trip with other teachers I was confronted by a mattawa, a religious policeman. His identity was clear from his white, ankle-length thobe. He said, “You are in Saudi Arabia. Cover yourself.”

I almost blurted out, “You’re so cute.” I’m so glad I didn’t.

At the university I saw something was wrong when I found out my classes had already had eight or nine teachers earlier the same year. Each of the teachers came and only stayed a very short period of time, like a few weeks or less.

The school was in a three-story, walled building just outside the main campus. The students were twenty-year-old females who had to attend for a year before being admitted to the main university program. The government paid them to attend. Every day they arrived in expensive cars, some after traveling long distances. I had two classes. My smaller class of ten students loved me, and I loved them. But in my larger class, with thirty students, discipline was a problem. Going to school was a social experience for these young women, so they’d talk through class, and the administration didn’t want them told to be quiet. You could say, “You’re being a little chatty,” but you couldn’t get irritated with them. You could assign homework, but you had no leverage over them if they didn’t do it. You couldn’t flunk anybody. Sometimes they’d do the work, and sometimes they wouldn’t. They weren’t motivated because they had so much money that they didn’t have to earn their living. They couldn’t see why studying and applying themselves might be beneficial. In the Middle East there’s no concept of learning something because it’s interesting and something they might want to know or of wanting to develop a particular skill.

The English classes were 90 minutes long with a break for prayers. They had six levels of English—all skills, writing, reading, listening speaking, grammar. I taught level 3 with an American co-teacher. We were supposed to have textbooks, but only one class did. A typical class would start with an icebreaker, like “I would rather marry a rich man than a handsome man” or “I would rather be a little fat and enjoy chocolate than be skinny and do without.” Then the class would split up according to their preferences and talk about them. Or the girls would line up by height and we’d make sentences with “tall, taller, tallest” and “short, shorter, shortest.” Then we’d do their lesson with the textbook or the Smart Board and the Internet or some kind of writing. Or the students would get into small groups to come up with adjectives to describe reading or clothing or places. I’d pass out packets with pieces of paper cut up, and they’d have to put individual words together to make sentences or put sentences together to make paragraphs. We did reader’s theater, reading aloud and sharing in pairs. There was a long list of things you couldn’t discuss in Saudi Arabia: boyfriends, music, movies, politics, religion and even superheroes like Batman and Superman. I had the students discussing travel. For example, one person might say, “On Saturday I am going to travel to the Empty Quarter.” That’s a large expanse of desert. And the other person might respond, “What will you do in the Empty Quarter?”

Some of the teachers invested a lot of money in their own printers and word processors, but then they wouldn’t stay long because they got fired or quit. One of the teachers didn’t want to make materials, so she bought a bunch of word games in a bookstore in Riyadh. She divided her classes into groups and did games a lot. But I must say, on the third floor there was the most amazing “thinking room” with chess sets, rubric cubes—about fifty different mind activities. It was very well put together.

Mostly the school was dreary. There’s no way to exercise. The students were only allowed onto the main campus for thirty minutes a day. I tried to get my girls to walk upstairs to the thinking room—all the research shows that moving around helps you absorb information better. But they thought that was horrible. They wanted to get on the elevator. The dean criticized me for trying to make them get them up and start moving. Climbing stairs wasn’t ladylike.

A lot of the teachers were very unhappy. Several of the women of color claimed to have converted to Islam, although their behavior certainly didn’t show it. I think it came from a strong desire to conform to the majority. They also couldn’t understand why I was there. They said, “You’re not black. Why do you want to be here?” I said, “I don’t think skin color has anything to do with it. It’s an interesting cultural experience.”

After I left I heard that one of the teachers had gotten pregnant by the Egyptian desk clerk and that the teacher they were hanging out with every day had turned them into the matawa. The company got all three of them out of the country, but the desk clerk had to pay a huge fine first. If the matawa had caught up to the couple, they would have killed them.

 One day in November, I was cleaning and organizing my grade-level classroom, which I shared with twenty other teachers, when an administrator came in and said, “You might want to read your email.” That’s how I found out I’d been dismissed three days earlier. I just laughed. I thought it was hilarious. No reason was given, but I knew that if any of the technology in the classroom didn’t work, any of the software or hardware for your E-Podium or your Smart Board, they blamed you. This is apparently typical Saudi thinking. For example, if you’re in a taxi and there’s a car accident, get out and run, because the thinking is it’s your fault: if you hadn’t been in the taxi there wouldn’t have been an accident.

Now, by this time I’d met a lawyer who’d done post-doctoral work at Harvard. He came to see me at my hotel apartment—I’d never been given teacher housing. I had to leave my door open, inform the front desk who he was, provide documents as evidence for this, and then stay covered head to toe while he was in my apartment. The matawa had started paying visits to our hotel. If an officer found an unmarried man with a woman he could beat both of them and then arrest them.

The lawyer looked at all my documents and encouraged me to sue. He said, “You have a crystal-clear case.”

I thought, a Western woman suing here? And on that contract? In Saudi courts, a woman appears with her husband, son, father and/or brother. Because the court never sees her face, two male family members have to vouch for who she is. I’d met a Western man who was suing his former employer. He couldn’t leave the country during the litigation, and he’d been in litigation for two years. He couldn’t work for anyone else. He had to continue paying for his housing in a diplomatic quarter, which was very pricy. Losing in court would mean paying the legal costs of everyone on the other side. For me suing was not an option. I started looking for another job, which the school knew, but employers don’t do local hires. I was told to go back to the US and I’d be interviewed from there.

When you’re asked to leave, you leave. No one told me what airline I was flying or what time. They don’t tell you anything. Our Indian driver just came and picked me up.