Looking back on my 5 month stint abroad, I realize that not only was I ill-prepared to function in the Middle Eastern culture, I was blind-sided. Oh sure, I attended an orientation, of sorts, and I read copious amounts of literature prior to leaving and even after I arrived. However, I always had the feeling that I was missing something. The feeling was akin to someone having told a joke and everybody in the room gets the punch line except you.
Up till now, I have only ever mentioned that I was teaching in the Middle East. Let me be bit a bit more clear. I was teaching in a small town about 100 miles from the Saudi Arabian border and about 2 and a half hours from the nearest big city. The town was steeped in the culture and I thought it was exactly what I was looking for; I wanted to learn about the culture. Thing is, no one wanted to teach me, until it was too late.
Looking back on my first days of school I remember making the observation that the teenage girls I was teaching had so much in common with the teenage girls I had been teaching in the states. They loved to laugh out loud, talk about falling in love, listen to popular music, and dance. These are all things I myself can do, after all, it wasn’t so long ago that I had teenage daughters. I understood these girls. When I was in the classroom I felt as though I belonged. It made up for the fact that I didn’t fit in anywhere else. Not with the other teachers, not in the community, and certainly not with the other women in town.
I discovered quite by accident that my students loved American popular music. One day I came into class singing a song I had been listening to on my way to work. The girls all squealed with delight, “Miss, you know that song?”
“Of course. Do you know that song?” I asked back. At which point one of the girls produced a flash drive and proceeded to put it into the computer on my desk. The list of songs she produced could have been on any American teenager’s iPod.
“Wow! You guys listen to these?” I asked a bit naively.
“Yes! Can we dance miss?”
Ok, I knew better than that. “No, I’m afraid not. Now let’s get to work.” Hmmm, these girls liked music and they liked dancing. Well what do you know. And throughout the term, I came to enjoy watching the girls hide out in their classrooms, listening to music and dancing. However, it always struck me as odd that the Arabic teachers would shake their head in disgust at the sight. I believed it to be adults having no patience with teenage girls. I have since come to believe that it was something much deeper.
Laughing out loud, now there is harmless activity, right? Wrong, apparently. My students loved to laugh out loud. I love to laugh out loud. We loved to laugh out loud together. Several times throughout the term, teachers on either side of my classroom would poke their heads into my class and say something to the effect that we shouldn’t be laughing so loud, people could hear us. I was always apologetic and promised to keep it down. However, I certainly didn’t understand why my students and I would get disgusted looks from the teachers when we laughed out loud during breaks between classes. Again, I believed it to be adults having no patience with teenage girls. I have since come to believe it was something much deeper.
Falling in love. What teenage girl doesn’t dream of falling in love? For that matter, what single woman on earth doesn’t dream of falling in love? My students loved the idea of love. In fact they spoke quite a bit about it. They were all so certain that they would first, marry, next, fall in love, and then, live happily ever after, in that order. I used to love listening to my students tell me about their dreams for their future, because it always ended in love. The other teachers would only shake their heads with dimay. Once again, I believed it to be adults having no patience with teenage girls. I have since come to believe it was something much deeper.
In order for me to put this all in context, I must tell you the story of Della (not her real name, but I’m getting tired of writing just initials). Della was one of my seniors. From the first time I met Della I knew she was more mature than her classmates. I also knew that she could not wait to move on with her life. Throughout the term, Della would confide in me her hopes for her future. She spoke English fluently and she was hoping to go away to college in the fall to improve her skills and become a news announcer. Well, she certainly had the confidence, the intelligence, the looks, and the speaking skills to make her dream a reality. During all of our time together, never once did she indicate that she wanted to fall in love. In fact, the subject of marriage never came up, until the last couple of days of the year.
“Miss, can I tell you something and you won’t tell on me?” She asked me on one of last days together.
“Miss, my mom wants me to marry my cousin right after school is through.”
“And you don’t want to?”
“No, miss I don’t even like him! But my mom says I should marry him because he is part of our family and at least if he hits me or something, we can control him.”
After I regained my composure, I said, “What about college? Doesn’t your mother know you want to go to college?”
“Yes. But she thinks it’s time for me to get married. I don’t think she will make me if I keep telling her no. And she stop talking about it a couple of weeks ago. But I think she is going to ask me again.”
“Well, can you keep telling her no? I mean, I don’t know…” and my voice trailed off into a mumble. We both knew the answer to that question, and we didn’t have the heart to face it.
It was here in our conversation that she began to divulge bits of information that I was never privy to. For example, the reason the Arabic teachers shook their heads in disgust at the music and the dancing was because it wasn’t allowed in society. They tolerated my students dancing because they were still considered girls. However, I should have known better. Once these girls graduate, they would have to behave differently. And once they were married, no music and certainly no dancing.
“Miss, I respect you so much. Even though we were so mean to you, you never yelled at us. You were never mean to us. The other teachers yell at us and they don’t even like us. At least we know that you like us.”
Looking back, I can see that it wasn’t that the teachers did not like the girls, it was that they were envious and perhaps even a little sad for them. These women, they had been young once, they had had dreams of living a full, happy life. Yet, they all seemed so sad, so pinched, so…sad.
No music, no dancing, no laughing out loud, not even in their own homes. So of course these girls have put all of their hopes into falling in love with the man they marry. What else do they have left? I won’t be the one to tell them that the chances of getting married and then falling in love, at least the kind of falling in love that they are looking for, are pretty slim.
And here I had myself convinced that I was fitting in. I covered up when in public, I was respectful and non-argumentative, I never raised my voice, I didn’t show the bottoms of my feet, I only touched food with my right hand (even though I am left handed), I always politely accepted when offered food and/or coffee, I behaved appropriately in public, I taught the girls that they should listen to their parents, and I never said anything that could even be remotely misinterpreted. I followed all of the dictates that had been mandated at my orientation. Yet, I still did not fit in. I still was seen as a bad influence on my students. At least that is what Della told me.
“Miss, they don’t like you because you can do things they can’t. They think we will want to be like you. I wanna be like you when I grow up. You are patient, you never scream, and you are always happy. I love you, miss.”
I saw Della one last time before I left. She had just finished her last final and she had come looking for me. We hugged, we cried and I wished her all the best in her future. But something was not quite right. She wasn’t the open, smiling, full of life young lady I had come to know and love. She was sad, and pinched, and…sad.
“Miss, my mom asked me again to marry my cousin. I said yes.” And with that, she stoically pulled away from me and left me to cry all by myself.