Life and Lexis

Archive for December 2012

When I arrived, I thought I would be an ordinary English teacher. Despite my background in speech therapy, it never occurred to me that I had any expertise. I had studied both American Sign Language and Arabic in college, for reasons unbeknownst to anyone.
A few weeks into the school year, I was approached by the HR director of our university. She asked me if I would be interested in teaching the deaf at the university. I was nervous as I had no hands-on experience, but I accepted the offer. I recognized that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and hoped that all that I had learned about the deaf and language had equipped me for the task at hand.

There is very little I can say that will describe the amount of fulfillment I have had during this semester. I taught English literacy to 20 extremely bright, deaf and hearing impaired women at the university. We went from learning letters and basic articles like “a/an” and “the” to writing long paragraphs. I realize now, that this is the purpose for which I had been sent to Saudi Arabia.

My biggest regret is not writing during this experience as it was perhaps the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life. I wrote a few short blurbs during the time that I will share here.

My students are profoundly deaf. Every day for them presents new challenges. Things as easy as ordering coffee or asking for directions can be frustrating, time consuming ordeals. They can’t make quick phone calls or speak to people they meet. Most of the world misunderstands them, looks down upon them or pities them.
Yet they’re some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. Every day I see 20 smiling faces watching me, eager to learn. Though they cannot hear their own laughter, they laugh so loud I have to keep the classroom door closed. They dream of travel, careers and education. Never do they complain about their situations or feel sorry for themselves. There is so much to be learned from these inspirational young women.

Before complaining, remember that there is always someone in a worse situation than you. Happiness is gratefulness for what you have. Happiness is a choice.

And about one student specifically…

One of my students is a 56 year old, profoundly deaf Saudi woman. She’s decided, after raising 8 kids, to get her Bachelor’s degree and learn English. She also lived in the U.S. for a few years while her husband studied at Gallaudet University for the deaf. She spent many years as a cooking teacher and has worked for a Saudi princess. Today she asked me if I have any Amish friends — because she had some in Virginia. She recently read a newspaper article about a woman who began University at 55, and said “I’m 56, I’m back in school AND I’m deaf. Why doesn’t anyone write about me?” Habibty, thank you for being one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever encountered.

 

I even had the wonderful opportunity to attend a deaf Saudi wedding. I was able to experience this wonderful subculture within the Saudi community — something even very few Saudis know about.

“Went to the wedding of a Deaf Saudi couple. They dance to the beat of the drums by feeling the vibrations through the floor. They literally feel the music. #subhanAllah”

In just four and a half months, I have learned Arabic Sign Language, Riyadhi Arabic and how to teach special needs. I’ve had the honor of creating a curriculum for the Hearing Impaired at the university and designing assessments. I’ve taught 20 wonderful girls that have changed my life without even trying.

This is why, despite all the challenges and homesickness, I am still in Saudi Arabia.

They say when you first arrive in a place you go through a “honeymoon” phase.  For the first month or so, I was infatuated with everything I saw here. I had arrived in a Muslim country, I thought. Having been raised Muslim in America I felt that I would find it easy to fit in here. I was aware of the way that Saudis practiced though I did not agree with a lot of it. How hard could it be to adjust?

I was intrigued by everything, snapping photos of soda cans and random buildings. The architecture was different, the people were different. All of a sudden my first language, Urdu, became incredibly useful. I had the opportunity to practice my Arabic as well.

Saudi Arabia Date palmsriyadhnightRiyadh at night

My work environment was amazing. We were on an all-female campus that looked more like a resort than a university.  They were paying us a decent amount to sit around for a few hours a day and teach for only three. I was making friends and exploring the new city. There was always a place to pray, whether I was at work or at the mall. People here were laid back and no one was worried about money. I loved teaching, I loved my students. I felt like I had hit the jackpot, I could stay here for years.

Things began to change in October, however, when I realized my visa situation would not permit me to travel home for Eid break. I ended up spending 2 weeks in my apartment, longing to go home to a society where I could travel freely.

You see, in Riyadh, single women don’t really have the freedom of movement. Since I did not have any mahram men with me, I was unable to do much of anything that required leaving the home. I could, of course, take a taxi. Unfortunately, this puts women in an awkward situation where we are forced to trust and depend on men that we don’t know at all. After a few bad experiences with drivers, I realized I was caging myself inside my apartment or only traveling in big groups. It was so different than the way I was used to living at home and quickly began to feel suffocated.

When our one trusted driver turned out to be undeserving of trust, I began to lose the will to put myself in awkward situations to leave the home. I definitely would not be going out alone anymore. My view of Saudi Arabia as a Muslim society began to crumble. I found myself constantly disappointed by the actions of people, and learned that hypocrisy was rampant. Naturally, homesickness ensued. I longed for the ability to get my own car and go where I wanted to go. I longed for freedom and some sense of equality between men and women. Our visa situation did not permit us to leave the country and return, so unfortunately, I began to feel stuck. I had to choose between my career and this wonderful job opportunity or the freedom and comfort of home.

For a few very good reasons, I chose the first.

I left America on August 15th, having promised myself that I would keep writing and document all that has happened in my time here. Unfortunately, I have been much to busy adjusting, socializing and working to do so. I’m going to try — though it may be impossible — to summarize all that has happened in the past few months.

Leaving Home
Leaving America was probably one of the craziest things I have ever done in my life, though I didn’t realize how crazy it was at the time. I had decided not to think too much as I was leaving my family at the airport, in case I talked myself out of taking this giant leap. Surprisingly, I didn’t even shed a tear and I wasn’t thinking much of anything as I left. I wasn’t thinking about how far I was going or how long I would be gone, I just gave everyone a hug and walked away. I don’t know how I did it, but I did. And that’s probably the only reason I was able to leave the people I love and the comfort of home.

Saudi Arabia

After 18 long, boring hours, and a quick stop over in Frankfurt, I was finally in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The first few hours in the country were incredibly overwhelming. One of the first things I realized was that men here look at women differently. There was almost always a weird smile on their face, something I noticed when I gave my passport to the man at the counter at King Khaled Airport. I learned quickly not to smile back at them. Something that was a polite gesture at home meant something completely different here. In a society this segregated, gender relations were something that you had to be very careful about.

When I arrived at the baggage claim, I was taken aback by the sight of women cloaked head to toe. I had thought I dressed conservatively until I realized I was one of the few women who had my face showing, apart from some obviously western looking women. Almost all the men were wearing white thobes and red checkered shimaaghs on their heads. I saw a fat man walk by in a thobe and aviator sunglasses. Three cloaked women followed behind him. “Where have I come?” I thought to myself, I was suddenly afraid for the first time.
I picked up my bags from the baggage claim. “barra! barra!” a man shouted at me. I swung around and saw a short Indian man yelling at me in Arabic. I knew what he was saying, but for some reason I didn’t care to use my broken Arabic just yet. “English?” I asked. He nodded and gestured outside.

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I was overtaken by a wave of dry heat. It must have been well over 100 degrees. I later realized I had undershot by about 15 degrees. The smell of dust filled the air.  A young boy approached me with dates and water. Ramadan. I had almost forgotten, It was time for iftaar. 

I was luckier than a lot of the other teachers in that I had a few people I kind of  knew in the area. My father’s friends picked me up from the airport. A company car took all of us to my new accommodation.

My new place was small but spacious. A kitchen, queen sized bed, living area and flat screen TV. An upgrade from my college living, I was satisfied. I settled in and met a few of the other teachers. I was expecting to be the youngest in a job like this, but was pleasantly surprised when I was greeted by young, energetic faces… majority of which were from England.

Arwa, from England, said to me “ooooh, you’re American. I love your accent!” This was
something that would take time to get used to. I always knew that Americans were fascinated by British accents, but never realized it was the other way around as well.

Mary, also from England, quickly became my big sister in Saudi Arabia. She was always there to help and was perhaps one of the most generous and kind people I have met in all of my life.
There were at least 15 of us in the building at the time. I realized I had arrived pretty early and had a few weeks to get acclimated to the place.

I spent my first Eid in Saudi Arabia with who I soon began to refer to as my “relatives.”  They were a pleasant family who had moved 2 years ago from America. They treated me as their own and their house quickly became a home away from home. It was nice to have a little bit of normalcy and someone who cared about me in this new country.

In Saudi Arabia they pray Eid Salah just after Fajr. There is a great deal of diversity in this country, and it quickly became one of the things I love most about living here. Women and children hand out sweets and money to one another. There is a general feeling of love and unity among people.

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Minaret on Eid morning

Rooftops in Riyadh
One of my favorite things quickly became spending time on the rooftop of our building. It is something that I wish I could do in the States. You feel as if there is nothing between you and the sky, the stars are clearly visible and the night air is fresh.
Riyadh is a very well lit city and from the rooftop of our building you could really take in the sight. Many times, we teachers had rooftop dinners and rooftop barbecues, followed by rooftop dancing. My favorite thing, however, was being on the roof when it was silent and suddenly all the surrounding mosques would begin the call to prayer. In just seconds the sky would be filled with the call coming from all sides:
God is Great. God is Great. There is no God but God.

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