Thursday, October 27, 2011

“Time we pray sir.”

A minute or so before, I had heard the call to prayer over the public address. These public address systems are all over Jeddah with different men calling the prayer at each one. The sounds blend like harmonizing mountain singers, forlorn and spiritual, distant and near, droning, droning, droning.

Besides the two employees, I was the only one in the bookstore. This particular bookstore was a small one. There was only one small area, a few shelves, dedicated to English lit. In my hands was a copy of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Reading stuffy mentally unstable Woolf in Arabia was my inner debate. Stream of consciousness with these dunes and camels and sheiks in thobes, the spells of jinns, and the experimentation with English amongst technical school graduates – I thought of all of this as I listened to the call to prayer and sighed a sigh of relief.

A sigh of relief because this time I had made it to my destination just in time and I had time to browse the bookstore before one of the two employees called to me (alluding to the fact that I had to leave the store):

"Time we pray sir."

I had walked a few kilometers to the store from the compound, a store that I had noticed a few nights ago when the shuttle had passed it. In the shuttle, Mr. Uzair takes us to the Corniche or to the Red Sea Mall. Mr. Uzair is from Pakistan. That is where his family live. He has lived here 30 years. He has a son in college in Pakistan. He sees his family maybe once a year. His life is in Saudi. His family’s life is in Pakistan.

Although, I had started out a bit before 7 p.m. to the bookstore, I was not sure if I would make it before the call to prayer that according to my calculations would be in the vicinity of 7:30. The other night, I arrived at the cleaners a minute or less after the call to prayer and that cleaning bird had flown. It was 5:55 when I arrived at the cleaners.

By my calculations, I had figured at least 20 minutes leeway until the call for prayer, which I thought was 6:20, the prayer being 6:30. I had arrived a good 20 or 25 minutes before this. If they were to be in their places at 6:30, then they should have plenty of time to get to their places if they closed shop at 6:20. At times, the call to prayer does not seem to follow a set schedule. Maybe the prayer callers do not have accurate watches of maybe the first one to call does not have a watch and everyone just follows him. I am still trying to figure out the system. The call to prayer does not seem to coincide with the world clock.

If you are walking along Sultan Road or King Abdullah Azziz Road when the prayer is called, you will see cars pulling over left and right. The first men to get to a makeshift prayer spot lay down the prayer rug. The men that arrive after take a place on the prayer rug unless the rug is full then another rug is laid.

Or if you are at Mall of Arabia when the prayer is called, the store gates come down and people take their places on the rugs wherever they find out of the way spots. Once when I was at Mall of Arabia, I saw a group of women in heaps of hijabs in front of a lingerie shop with prayer rugs laid praying as if they were praying to the lingerie. Oh Holy Hustler Superstore on Sunset Boulevard, this is a whole new way to look at lingerie.

Mushmouth Saud, A Jinn cast a spell on him I am quite sure. When this happened, I do not know. Maybe this happened when he was much younger. Maybe it happened just before he appeared in my life at TVTC, the technical school where I teach. In my head I hear Bowie’s TVC15 which should by all rights be the theme song for the school and probably for me and probably for modern society in general. But that’s not important now. Maybe the spell that has been cast on Saud is somehow family related or maybe past life related. Who knows for sure?

Maybe if I pray every, each night I sit there pleading

"Send back my dream test baby,

She's my main feature"

My T V C one five, he, he just

Stares back unblinking

Saud, as perhaps I have said before, has a perpetual fat lip and his eyes are crossed. When he first arrived a few days after classes began, I sized him up as a troublemaker, even a bully perhaps. This might be due to my shallowness. I could not see past the spell that the Jinn had cast. There was a vacancy in him.

…he, he just

Stares back unblinking…

Saadoon and Saud sit together. They help each other. Saud looks at what Saadoon writes. Saadoon tries to figure out what to write. Saud tries to speak but his fat malformed lips get in the way. As I hinted, he is like an Arabian Mushmouth, Fat Albert’s sidekick. When he tries to speak, I have to go over to him to hear him better. He has to say it a few times. Saadoon helps him.

A few days ago, Michael and I were having fourth week remorse. To cheer ourselves up, we decided to switch classes for what we call fudging Module. (We substitute a few letters in fudging and turn it into an altogether different word by the way.) Michael took over my classroom. I took over his. He teaches higher level students than I do. Although his students had just seen him 20 minutes before, I convinced them that he had left the school with a buxom blonde and packed bags. Camel Eyes was incredulous about this.

“Teacher Michael Leave?!”

“Yes,” I confirmed. “He was angry for some reason and has gone back to America.”

“America?” America as a question echoed across the classroom.

“Yes,” I confirmed once again and then asked, “Did you do something to make him angry? I have no idea why he left. He said you called him fat?”

“Fat?... America?” once again echoed around the classroom.

“Yes, yes. America,” I was honestly starting to feel a bit guilty.

“Teacher, why this?” one of the students, maybe a Mohammad pointed at my long right pinky nail.

“Guitar,” I said as I pantomimed playing a guitar.

“Oh guitar,” to this there were multiple nods of approval as the word ‘guitar’ echoed around the room.

Since I had traded lessons with Michael, I did not want to be the one talking. I wanted the students to talk. I wanted to find out about them. They wanted to find out about me. They asked me my age. I told them to guess. The guesses ranged from 25 to 68. Hosam said 19 but I think he was trying to flatter me.

Since rock and roll is foreign and a bit magical to them, I thought I would mention that I once had a band. I wrote the band name on the board. I tried to pantomime the reason behind the name. I failed miserably. They asked me if I was famous like Westlife and Celine Dion. They wanted to see a video.

This is the slippery slope. Some say pop music is forbidden in the kingdom. I have been told to not play songs in class. Leave the Dylan and Beatles at home. Do not tempt them with the Stones or Led Zep. Most of the students would raise no objections but if one does, then there is trouble. Nevertheless, I got on Youtube and searched for a video. I pulled up “Pop Heiress Dies.” When the video started, there was no sound coming out of the speakers.

Hosam came up to help me figure out the problem. Then another student came up, an Abdullah or Mohammad. Both of them followed the cables to the connections. Everything was in order. The class was waiting to see and hear the video. We were stumped. Finally, Hosam looked at the amplifier and hit the power button. I started the video. Suddenly there was a picture and sound. Near the beginning of the video, I had forgotten about the girl dancing in a bikini, which was another no no in the Kingdom:

After the video played, a few of the students thought that I was just having a laugh with them. The person singing in the video was not me they told me. They saw no resemblance whatsoever. Thus, I did what I have not done in a long time. I sang. I sang acapello.

I was not sure how this would go over. And I did not know if I could even sing without my voice cracking. In front of this small group of 10 or so students, I was more nervous than I had been singing ever before.

After the boisterous applause, I told them thank you and came clean about Michael. He was in my classroom; we had switched. This sent Camel Eyes, Michael’s student and star of the classroom, into a spasm of misused expletives embedded in threats such as: “I am to asskick going Mr. Michael!” “Oh when I blur blur blur him!” “Oh I am so ass angry!” Last he added: “I am coming with you! I ass is kick!”

Not one to censor or impede students, Camel Eyes came back with me to my classroom. He was ranting and raving the entire time. I was a little afraid for Michael actually. My plan was if it turned into a punch-up maybe I could get one of the students like Hassan Mohammad to intervene and gently restrain Camel Eyes.

Arriving at my classroom, with trepidation I opened the door. There Michael was. The students were quiet. A student was talking. Everyone was listening. Camel Eyes looked at him and his anger left. In a loud enough voice for the students to hear, Michael told me he had each student present himself and each had done a great job. We both gave them a big hand. Michael and Camel Eyes left. Camel Eyes was chattering away to him as they left the classroom.

Later in the teacher’s office, I told Michael that the students had really enjoyed his lesson. He asked me about the student who sat next to the student that was sitting by the beam, the beam that divided the classroom in half.

“Saadoon sits next to the beam and Saud sits next to Saadoon,” I replied. “Why?”

“Well, when it was his turn to present,” Michael started and then stopped.

“Yes?” I questioned. I was thinking that Saud might have made trouble. Michael, however, is very good at nipping trouble, or getting kicked out of a mall in Riyadh, one or the other, so I was not that worried.

“Well, uh, I felt bad for him.”

“You felt bad for him? Why?” This truly perplexed me. Saud had a touch of Kotter’s Sweathogs in him and I was not sure what had happened. Maybe he had made a whoopee cushion sound.

“When it was his turn, he started shaking so bad that he could hardly even speak.”

“What?” This was not the Saud that I had noticed. Sure he was always copying off of Saadoon but I assumed this had to do with him being cross-eyed. Suddenly, I felt empathy for Saud. This brought back memories of being called upon at school and being afraid to answer but I don’t think I ever visibly shook when I answered.

Saud is a big guy, probably six feet tall. If he were American, he would probably be a baseball player. He has an all American look to him. If you squinted that is, he has an all American look to him.

Definitely, Saud is under some evil jinn’s spell. I had not noticed in the three weeks plus since school had begun that Saud had any sort of nervous condition. After Michael told me this, indistinct correct answers started to register in my head that before had just been unidentifiable background noise. Now the background noise I realized was Saud answering the questions in his Mushmouth way.

A few days later, Saadoon coaxed Saud into writing a sentence on the board. The students were expressing their condolences to the King’s family because the King’s brother Prince Sultan had passed away this week. Suddenly, I was hyper aware of Saud’s situation.

“Teacher! Teacher! NO! NO!” Waleed who sits on the other side of Saud yelled while Saud was writing his answer on the board. With this he feigns a heart attack hoping that I would do the same.

“It’s all right Saud. It’s okay. You are doing good,” is all I could say. “Waleed, Saud is doing fine.”

“No! Teacher!” And with that Waleed collapsed in his chair.

At the beginning of the term, we were short teachers due to visa problems so each class had four or five extra students. When the missing teachers got here, the extra students were transferred into the newly arrived teachers’ classrooms. Saleh was one of these students. He was a student of whom I was fond. He and Eesi were buddies.

Last week, he came into my classroom with Eesi. They had something to ask but they were not sure how to ask. Finally, somehow they got it across to me that Saleh wanted to come back into my classroom. He had talked to Samir (who runs the school) about coming back. I volunteered to talk to Samir. So after class that is what I did. Samir told me he would see what he could do. I assumed he was just paying me lip service.

Yesterday, Saleh came back to my classroom. I had been sent an email telling me to expect him so when he was not there at the beginning of class I asked Eesi where he was. Eesi called him. Saleh was sleeping. By the time he got to class, class was almost over. Maybe I had a mistake in going to Samir on his behalf to get him back into my class.

When he did not show, I assume he thought that I had not been alerted that he was going to be coming back into my class. He figured he could sleep in or miss class altogether. When he did arrive, he had a note with him to tell me to let him back into class. Being over an hour late the first day back was not a good start in my book. Nor did it help matters that we had a holiday coming up in a few days. Already, the students were in holiday mode. The students driving from Taif and Mecca everyday were going to be excused the two days before the holiday because of the Hajj traffic. Hajj actually translates from Arabic into pilgrimage to Mecca. Supposedly, millions of pilgrims will be coming in for this.

Since the holiday is coming up, I wrote on the board:

“What will you do over Hajj?”

Granted, I had to explain the word ‘over’. The students, Waleed and Saadoon mostly, kept asking “Game over?”

Once I had clarified the meaning –

“Game over?”

Or thought I had clarified the meaning –

“Game over?”

Or at least tried to clarify the meaning for ‘over,’ the students came up and wrote their answers on the board. Saadoon wrote:

“I will cut my hair over Hajj.”

Rami wrote:

“I will work over Hajj.”

Mosleh wrote:

“I will drive taxi over Hajj.”

Waleed wrote:

“I will travel over Hajj.”

Then Hassan Mohammad came to the board. Hassan Mohammad scares me. I admit it. He looks like a thug owing to the fact that he is brutish and has a scar down the left side of his face that makes him look like some sort of James Bond villain ready to throw his teacher to the sharks or piranhas or cobras – whatever is handy.

The first day of class he just sat and stared at me with that James Bond villain stare – a Dr. No henchman, Mr. Jaws poker pal. He had no pen, no paper, no notebook.

“Where is your pen?” I asked in the most intimidating voice I could muster, which I am sure sounded more like Ichabod Crane than Clint Eastwood.

He just shrugged. Eesi gave him a pen. With that I gave Hassan Mohammad a dirty look as if to say this sort of tomfoolery did not fly in my classroom. He just smiled back. Whether this was an apology or the smile that a cobra gives to his prey, I did not know.

As those first weeks went past, Hassan Mohammad continuously rubbed me the wrong way – at times 30 minutes late to class, at times he was a no show. At that point, I figured he would miss enough classes to be thrown out of the program and I would be shut of him.

But then, something strange happened, something unexplainable. Although he would still occasionally be late or miss class, he actually started to become more engaged. When I would be at the board trying to squeeze out an answer from the students at large I would hear:


I would turn around and I would hear it again:


“Mohammad Hassan was that you.”

“Is,” he would repeat.

“Yes, Hassan Mohammad,” I would confirm “My brother is tall. Very good.”

Then when I would have the students come up to the board and write a sentence on their own, Mohammad would come up and usually write close to a flawless sentence and I would be somewhat dumbfounded. How could this young man who looks as if he might tear my head off without much effort, how could he write this flawless English sentence? – Having nothing to do with the fact that he often smells vaguely of camel dung.

In actuality, he has an inner beauty that I had overlooked. The smile that I thought was a cobra smile is actually a warm-hearted smile. When I congratulate him, he shakes my hand. Hassan Mohammad, I was wrong.

So when he wrote:

“I will slaughter camel over Hajj,” I did not flinch as I congratulated him on the proper use of ‘slaughter’.


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