My Arabia

My boyfriend, Peter, way back in 1979, after getting his PhD, took a teaching job at the University of Riyadh. He’d hated living there, yearned for fresh tomatoes and uncensored Time magazines, and wrote homesick letters. Then he made friends with a Saudi Prince (one of his students), and life improved a lot, mainly, he got to use a telephone whenever he wanted.

When Peter returned to the US, his eyes were filled with that ‘Holy shit, where the hell was I? Where the hell AM I?” look. In the so-called fullness of time the Prince came to Denver to study and during that period, the Prince was married by proxy. By then Peter was working in Oklahoma (?) so the Prince flew Peter to Denver for the wedding. At 2 in the morning, Peter called from the Prince’ apartment near the University of Denver and told me to come to the wedding. I did. I was the only woman there.

I was greeted at the door, “You are Peter’s special friend? You are welcome.” There was lots of wild dancing (with swords), lots of drinking (don’t tell me. Whenever a Saudi visited my house, he brought a bottle of Johnny Walker Red). Lots of laughing. I was treated like a queen. Everyone talked to me, danced with me, made sure I had something to eat. Peter flew back to Oklahoma that evening.

It was my first experience with Arab hospitality, and I wish it did not now seem so much like a dream.

I hadn’t been to China yet, so I didn’t know any Arabic. I know that sounds weird, but I learned a handful of Arabic words from Uygurs in the Moslem restaurant in Guangzhou.

After China, I taught international students. The school where I taught had begun as a partnership — some 8 years before I taught there — with ARAMCO, Arab American Oil Company. All of the students at that time were from Saudi Arabia. Some of my colleagues had lived in “Saudi” for a year or more in the foreigner’s compound in Riyadh. Some of them liked it; some of them hated it. However, it meant that a large percentage of our students were Saudis, most often working for Saudi Airlines.

These students stayed for a year or more. They rented apartments, brought their families, and really lived in San Diego. I ended up being their favorite teacher — I think because of my few words of Arabic, the fact that I liked them, was interested in their culture, and, of course, because Lawrence of Arabia — that beacon of light and wanderlust for me — had taught me about their world, as it had been back in the early 20th century, anyway. I’d also learned quite a bit of Arabic from Lawrence, something I realized when I was surrounded by Arabs.

Somewhere in my immense library of journals are photos of me and my Saudi families. I was closest to Mohammed Ali Assiri and his wife, Majda which is Martha in Arabic. Mohammed had two beautiful daughters that he adored. He was teaching his oldest daughter (she was five) English and one Thanksgiving at my house I was in the kitchen stirring the gravy. The little girl (dressed to the nines) came out to the kitchen and surprised me by suddenly saying, “Hey Martha, What’s up?”

In the passing of time, my home became theirs. I grew several kinds of mint so that my Arab friends could make tabouli the way they did at home. There was a party at my house at least once a month. On my wall was a black, beaded, Bedouin veil Peter had brought me from Saudi Arabia that caused incredible interest. I’d also been curious about why none of the Saudi women I knew wore veils, though they wore the hijab in public (not at home). I learned that, very wisely, the rule was that it would make relations with other country people difficult if they wore the veil. They didn’t drive or go anywhere without their husbands, but a lot of the American women I knew, though they drove, never went anywhere without their husband, either. A VERY few of my Arab students’ wives wore a purdah in public, but when they arrived at my house, they took it off. It was similar to, “You’re among friends. Let your hair down.”

Dinners at their homes were always wonderful. The food was amazing — I like Arabic cooking and I got recipes and a love for Cardamom. After dinner the men would sit around a ‘hubbly-bubbly,’ (Hooka) and smoke tobacco mixed with apricots. It was very fragrant and, yeah, Arab humor.

“No, no, Mister Jim. You must never point the hubbly-bubbly when you pass it. It’s, it’s, it’s very rude. Pass it this way,” Mohammed laughed and demonstrated correct hookah transmission, “You see, look like man’s parts.” It did. Everyone laughed — men and women. “Same with a sword, Mr. Jim. Never point it at another man.” The word “zip” in English cracked them up — zep is “penis” in Arabic.

Among our friends at that time was Al-Yaya (a nickname). Yaya was funny, gentle, kind and he had a huge crush on me. Before he left, he gave me a beautiful dark blue silk gown elaborately decorated in silver with beads and pearls. “Mr. Jim is very fortunate,” he said pressing the wrapped package into my hands.

Goodbyes were emotional and difficult. After a year or more, these students were more friend than student. I said goodbye to Mohammed and Majda in a taxi parked in front of my apartment in San Diego. They were on their way to the airport and I was having a party. They’d been invited (naturally) but couldn’t attend because it turned out to be the day they were to return to Yenbo. I went out to the car with a dish of cookies for their trip. They handed me a present; ornaments for my Christmas tree. There was much crying and embracing and promises to write — and we did for a while, but consider that if you are an Arabic speaker, English is a truly crazy language.

One of my closest Arab friends was from Kuwait. His name was Salem (peace) and he was a brilliant man. He called himself the “Epic Legendary Hero,” and he had a philosophical attitude toward the innumerable cultures of the world. He was a minister in the Kuwaiti government and had traveled a lot. He loved San Diego except for its malls — from time to time his entire female family would arrive and that required him to spend days carting them around town shopping.

I have dozens of letters from him that I treasure. They demonstrate his rather dark sense of humor, cynicism and yet hope for the improvement of relations between people. They offer long analyses of the good and bad of Arabic vs. American culture, sometimes wide swaths of generalizations, sometimes not. I taught classes in American literature, history and culture and my one goal was to reveal something of the complexity of this world that my students had gotten through movies and TV and the yammering opinions of their media. I was naive, too. But I had great teachers.

I loved Arabic green coffee and when he left America for good (after three years) Salem gave me a tiny golden Dhula, Arab coffee pot, on a golden chain to wear around my neck. “Never forget us,” he said. My world was as rare and exotic to him as his to me. He wanted to leave a little bit of his with me.This was a common sentiment — one of my student papers, that I’ve saved, by Ahmed, says, “Everyone in bad mood. Teacher say is Santa An wins but I think because we say goodbye soon.”

Ramadan was, naturally, very important and I got to celebrate several times. Once, though, as I went to the drinking fountain after class, a student tried to stop me, “No Teacher! You must not drink! It’s Ramadan!” I looked at him and he was suddenly embarrassed. “I forgot.”

God — no way to teach Arabs without God. I had a rule in my classes that we did not discuss religion. My students came from all over the world and THAT was a hopeless subject that could lead to something more emotional than fluency in English. One term ended. We said our goodbyes in class. “Good luck everyone! I’ve enjoyed our class!” I said, or something similar. They all left. I gathered my things, and left, too. My goal was the ATM and money for the weekend. At the ATM I was stopped by one of my Saudi students. “Teacher, I must know. How are things with you and God?”

I looked at him. There was genuine concern in his eyes. “God and I are good with each other.”

He was visibly relieved. “I’m happy, teacher. I was worried. God bless you, teacher.”

When Bush I bombed Kuwait, I was frantic for news about Salem who, it happened, wasn’t in the country at the time. But, one of my students was killed in that fracas. He and his brother — twins — had been in one of my classes. After Christmas break, I returned to school to see him walking alone, something that NEVER happened. He just looked at me with the whole world of sorrow in his eyes and I knew.

At one point I got the job of teaching an intensive grammar course to a young man from Emirates Air Force. One day I arrived late. He was standing by the curb as I drove by. I stopped and rolled down the window, “Ali, I have to find a parking place. Get in.” He hopped up into my truck and we drove around and around and around.

“You call this freedom for women?” he demanded. “No Kuwaiti woman has to suffer this!” I couldn’t disagree.

I could write a lot more about this, but I realized over these past months how lucky I’ve been. I wanted to see the whole world when I was young, but the circumstances of my life brought the whole world to me. I had the privilege of helping them translate their worlds into English — over dinner. ❀

21 thoughts on “My Arabia

    • It’s incredible. I got exiled from “the world” when I started teaching straight-up English, but when I switched to Business Communication, there was the world again. πŸ™‚

  1. Thanks for sharing this fascinating story. I wanted it to continue! Such a unique opportunity as a teacher to really get to know students. In your case their cultures as well. Yes, you were lucky but so were the students. πŸ™‚

  2. Wow! This was so fun to read!
    You’ve prompted so many memories of my own, although in my case it was late ’70s college as a student, and most of the foreign students I got to know were from Iran, right before the overthrow of the Shah. But also students from China, Nigeria, Palestine…all over the world. Such a great education for me!
    I think you’ve given me an idea for a blog post… πŸ™‚

    • I look forward to reading it. πŸ™‚ You’ve inspired me to write a blog post about a semi-degenerate evening… I shall say no more except caviar was involved.

  3. Wonderful! I’ve only been to Canada and Mexico but I’ve had graduate student friends from all over the world too! When I was in college my boyfriend at the time had a foreign student as a roommate – he introduced himself as from Persia mostly because the relationship between the US and Iran was tentative at best. When he was visiting the BFs home for the holidays we all went out to eat. In the car we sat in the front seat with me in the middle. My knee hit his leg as we took a corner. He was scandalized and informed me that in his country we would have to get married! He didn’t understand why I found that amusing…

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