June 15, 2003


Since the inner roilings of Saudi Arabia have been so much in the news lately, I thought I'd add my little bit.

In the mid-eighties I got a pickup job at a language school to one-on-one tutor a Saudi diplomat four hours a day, four days a week. The consulate was in the same highrise. I was the third one hired to try it, and the first man. The head of the school, a woman, thought that maybe the total lack of result heretofore was the--student's--alternatively cultured attitude towards females, which was a perfectly reasonable assumption. My two predecessors had quit.

If you've spent any kind of time in front of a classroom you understand the distinction between "unteachable" and "cretinous." There aren't many people who can't learn something, even if it's way under the minimum standard. To be truly unteachable takes a grit which Mr...let's call him, oh, Mr. Al-Bugr...had, big time. It was obvious after five minutes that cousin Achmed had gotten him the job so he wouldn't embarrass the family at home. I'm not exaggerating to be amusing. He was one of the most unspeakably stupid people I've ever even met, let alone had to be cooped up with. He had no idea that it was any part of his job as a member of the consular staff to get to know anybody local, join something, go anywhere, socialize, play soccer, do any damn thing at all except stamp visas. (The consulate no longer exists.)

Anyway, the actual "teaching" part was like having flaming bamboo shoots hammered under my fingernails.

His spoken English was more than adequate for direct method, maybe halfway along a regular adult ed track, but he couldn't write beyond "Dick and Jane", and he never quite got it through his wee brain that I was the teacher. I've blotted a lot out, but for instance one morning he came in with a bunch of sentences that he'd written out that he wanted to practice. They weren't so much wrong as silly and pointless, subject nouns followed by "is/are great," bereft of any kind of modifiers. It was a fairly long list, I remember, thirty or so, every single one something like "the thoughts are great."

This futility went on for several weeks, and beyond just the teeth-grinding exasperation of accomplishing nothing...I've repeated "What's this? It's a cup!" till I was hoarse in L.A. night school, and this was indescribably worse...there was the question of the ethics of my taking a paycheck for a job I wasn't really doing, even though that wasn't my fault. I'd just about had it, and then one night we bombed Libya.

The next morning when I went in, Mr. Al-Bugr fixed his wet, stupid little eyes on me, and said, "WY YOU DO DEES! WY YOU DO DEES!" And I told him. "We did this because when we had a president who would not have done it, the Ayatollah Khomeini drove him from office. That's why we did it." (Come to think of it, maybe that got the use of "would" across.) I like to think that maybe he actually thought for a minute, like a Buddhist having a first taste of Nirvana, but probably not. I did quit a few days later.

Fast forward a few years to Munich. I was in a bar near the Bahnhof and there was only one other guy in there. He spoke very good English, but no German, and I gave him some kind of language help. We started talking, and he was in town from guess where. Not a princeling, just an upper middle class businessman, probably with family connections, but not idle rich. He was in import-export, providing the goods the shiekdom is incapable of manufacturing. His sister was in another city for medical treatment and he was in Germany as her chaperon, his word.

We wandered on to another, nicer place, and he started asking me where the girls were. I suppose he'd expected the whorehouses to be near the railroad station the way they are in Frankfurt, the main airport. (The big one wasn't close, and I didn't take him, but I imagine he found the place okay). He was keeping up just fine beer for beer, and finally I simply asked, "How in the hell do you cope with living in Saudi Arabia? I'd either be insane or executed."

He didn't bat an eye, and I'll never forget the answer: "I work my ass off ten months out of the year and then get out and go party like hell for two."

And that's my contribution to the discussion of the internal social battles in Saudi Arabia. Not that everybody doesn't already know that the regime stays in place by buying the potential opposition off.

Posted by james_h at June 15, 2003 02:47 PM