August. Sizzling hot. Years ago. The two young Saudis whom in fun I call “my handlers” are showing me around the campus of the Mahad Al Idara, or in English, The Institute of Public Administration, here in Riyadh. We’ve left the cafeteria and are crossing the plaza in the center of campus. The walls of office and classroom buildings around us provide some shade. We’re on a gravel path bordered by bougainvillea, with swaths of delicate petals in red, pink, and purple.
Hassan, energetic and very smart, will start a master’s program in the United States in January; Ahmed, soft-spoken, returned from one in June. Most Saudi colleagues I’ve met at the technical institute have a degree from an American university. At thirty-two, I’m not much older than these two and will be among the younger American instructors here. I’ve taught ESL in Italy and Spain, and this past year, I worked in the ESL program at Vanderbilt. I’ve come to Saudi Arabia with the intention of settling in for a few years, paying off student loans and earning a salary I can live on. I’ve never been in the Middle East; I arrived only days earlier, and I still feel the jet lag and the uncertainty of being immersed in an entirely new culture.
My handlers enjoy playing the role of hosts and cluing me in on the challenges I’ll soon face. They warn me that my students, all young men either fresh out of high school or newly enlisted in the customs security forces, are lazy and prone to cheat. To my left, Hassan is talking rapidly, emphasizing words by clenching his fingers, pointing, and waving his hands. “Don’t believe a word they say.” Hassan wags a finger.
“They’re terrible,” Ahmed sighs.
Hassan adds, “They will try to get away with anything. Anything!”
Their thobes, the long white shirts that reach to their ankles, swish as they walk, and the ends of their ghutrahs, or headdresses, flutter. I’m still not used to the Arabic dress. In these initial days, I keep imagining scenes from movies—Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, Sean Connery in The Wind and the Lion. I’m overwhelmed by the language, rapid and staccato, by the turbans and hijabs, by the frenzied traffic, the palm trees, the heat, the spicy scents of new foods, the prayer call that rings throughout the streets, and, now, this warning.
A week later, on the first day of classes, I’m nervous as I walk through the halls. I feel as if I’m leading a one-man parade, as if I’m a spectacle all on my own. Many students stare at me. Some glare. Others point and snicker. I don’t know what they’re saying. I’m thinking of Hassan’s warning as well as the cynical joking and head-shaking some of my American and British colleagues have since shared about the students. Whether my co-teachers have called them negotiators, manipulators, cheaters, or wise-guys, the fundamental message is that it’s us, the teachers, against them, the students, and my trek through the hallway only reinforces this sense I have of separateness. When I reach my classroom, a cluster of young men, all in white thobes, clears the way for me to enter, making an impromptu gauntlet. Two of them bow towards me, hands over their hearts, as if they’ve seen the same movies I have and know it. They giggle the second I pass.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” I say. “Find some seats, and let’s get started.” They should understand everything I say; they’re supposed to be at an intermediate level and in subsequent courses will learn the words they need to direct air traffic or exchange currencies. I don’t speak Arabic and can’t be sure, but apparently, some of the young men are asking others to translate.
One short and thin kid with scant wisps of a beard on his chin looks left, right, and left again. A classmate points to one seat at the front, and as the boy sits, another opens his jaw in mock panic. “La! La!” he says. “No! No!” The boy leaps from his seat as if it’s on fire. His classmates erupt into laughter. “Ya! Khalid!” some shout. Well, here’s my class clown, I think.
Though not often in class, when he does join us, Khalid raises his hand eagerly but nearly always offers the wrong answer. Whenever he tries to respond, his classmates wear the smile you have when you anticipate the punch line of a joke.
In the first week of the semester, I ask him, “Where are you from?”
“Khalid!” he says.
“No, Khalid. Let’s try another one: how old are you?” I circle my lips into a huge O.
“Khalid!” he insists.
I shake my head. “Where do you live?”
“OK. What’s your name?”
His smile explodes. “Khalid!” His peers applaud.
He often stops by my small, windowless office as the semester winds on. He drops in even on afternoons when he’s missed the morning class. I have over one hundred pupils, and the more advanced drop in to practice the specific kind of vocabulary they’ll use at the jobs they expect to begin soon, the language of law and trade. Khalid is different. Through a mix of gesture and basic vocabulary in Arabic and English, and always in the present tense, we communicate, and our conversations touch upon many topics, especially life in the United States.
He tells me he wants to go to America. He has a cousin who studied in America, and his cousin loved it. Khalid asks advice about places to go and things to do. He wants to see Niagara—Nee-ah-garah—Falls and Hollywood. He has questions about universities: can you really take “any classes the people want?” About beaches: “the women and men on one beach?” When he learns I grew up in the New York area, he leans across my desk, eyes wide. He asks about subways, bridges, and skyscrapers, which, at first, he calls “the tall house” as he points upward. He’d like to build these things one day. He is smarter than his English, he tells me. He ends almost every conversation by asking if I need “some service,” a common expression in Saudi Arabia used to offer a favor.
The other instructors see him enter or exit my office. Rich, a Floridian who’s been in Saudi Arabia a long time, jokes, “Who’s your little friend?”
“Just a student.”
He says, “More like a pet. A Jack Russell.”
“He’s a good kid,” I respond. “Just needs a lot of tutoring.”
Most of my Western colleagues have spent years in the Mideast—ten, twelve, and even fifteen years. They tell me they avoid their students. They warn me not to trust them because they’ll ask for favors, for higher grades, or that I drop their lowest grades. They may even hint at an invitation to a Western party. Maybe alcohol. Magazines. “Just keep it to the classroom,” Rich says. That doesn’t sit right with me; I didn’t go into teaching to avoid students. I want to motivate and inspire them, and so I keep an open-door policy. I like to think I’m building relationships with them, Khalid foremost. Though his exams show very limited improvement, I’m sure he’s learning more English in our face-to-face conversations than he’s ever learned in class.
Some of my students dislike me. I catch three young men cheating on the midterm exam, so I assign the violators zeros for that grade. In retaliation, a few days after the cheating fiasco, one accuses me of raising forbidden topics in class discussion. Mentioning women in virtually any context, alcohol, or, worst of all, religion is taboo. Hassan, Ahmed, and other colleagues made this rule clear from the first day. A student who cheated raises his hand, interrupting a role-playing exercise in which some pupils act as grocery store clerks, others as customers. “Teacher, how much costs the beer?” Many of his classmates smirk; three or four frown. Those who frown wear the long beards often associated with fundamentalism. Khalid shifts in his seat, hunching his shoulders. He looks down. Others stare at me intently.
“Let’s get back to work,” I reply.
“And how much for the women?” the youth sitting next to the first asks. Some boys are laughing. We stare at each other.
“Why you not answer the questions?” the first interrupts. “What if we need to buy these things?”
Under my breath, I mumble, “Shut the hell up.” The troublemakers and several students near them hear me, and immediately a heated discussion ensues. I don’t know what they’re saying, but I lean over them. “Back to work.”
One of the boys—I never learn who, but I suspect it was the one who started the whole thing—complains to the department chair, Omar, that I’m encouraging students to discuss alcohol and women and to use prohibited language. Later that day in Omar’s office, I have to explain. Omar is usually polite, but always direct. He spent years in the United States as a grad student and speaks with virtually no accent. With his right hand, he tugs at the ends of his mustache. “No women, no alcohol, no religion, no politics, no curse words,” he reminds me.
Back in my office, I’m seething. Bunch of damn cheaters and liars, I’m thinking. Every one of them, sneaky and manipulative. And I stupidly fell into their trap. I resolve that, from then on, I’ll deliver my lessons, keep my mouth shut in the hallway, and my office door closed. If they raise forbidden topics, I’ll report them. Simple.
Then there’s a soft knock on the door. Khalid pokes his head in, pushing the ghutrah away from his face. He’s wearing that broad, toothy grin. “How is doing my teacher? Some service?”
Khalid visits less frequently in the latter half of the semester. I still see him often in the hallway and the cafeteria, laughing among his peers, always joking around. His friends slap him on the back, and I imagine they’re saying, “That’s a good one!” Once, on a day he actually makes it to class, I enter and see him in the back, encircled by about a dozen classmates. He’s doing the Saudi Sword Dance, his arms raised as if he’s holding aloft two imaginary swords, as his classmates clap in rhythm. He spins his wrists, cuts the air, swirls his invisible swords, and, from the smile on his face, seems to love every second of the attention. If only he loved studying, I think.
“You’re going to fail this course,” I tell him during one of his rarer visits to my office late in the term. “You need to buckle down and study.”
“Buckle? Like for the belt.”
“Study is good, my teacher.”
I point at him, then to a book on my desk. “You study.”
“I try, Teacher.”
He sighs. “I have so many work in uncle’s business. I not have the time.”
“You need to make time, Khalid.” I try to express making time with my hands, working my fingers, rolling my wrists, but apparently I look foolish to him, as if I’m kneading invisible dough.
Khalid points and laughs. “What you do?”
“I don’t know, Khalid.”
“OK, Teacher. Some service?”
When he leaves, Rich appears in the doorway. “Looks like your friend is stocking up on wastah.”
Wastah means something like “influence,” but this definition only scratches the surface. The word implies connections, and much gets done in Saudi Arabia through wastah. You build it by doing “some service” for an individual who will return the favor. It’s a system of loyalty and favors among family, friends, and associates, a network of codependence wherein one person reaches out to another, who in turn may contact an ally further down the social line, creating ever broadening rings of influence. Whether you inherit it or create it, wastah boils down to your getting preferential treatment and gifts regardless of merit.
My students know they’re in a fixed game: they have no choice but to hope their powerful friends and relatives will pull strings to help them advance to that brightly lit office and that glowing business contract. Most look forward to the stability in employment their fathers have known, to the wives their mothers will arrange for them among their cousins, and to the plots of land they’ll receive from the government to start building homes. But I suspect others feel trapped. Some, such as Hassan, want to spend a year or more in the United States, “just to do what I want.” Few will ever get the opportunities I had as a younger man—wandering through Europe, working in Verona and later in León, and later, in the United States, learning Italian and Spanish, and finding friends and lovers through those languages. I felt freedom in pursuing my own path, and most of my students in Saudi Arabia will never feel that. I imagine that embitters some of them.
Perhaps that is why they may harass the Filipino or Bangladeshi laborers, men at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, who have no power at all. Some buy bootleg alcohol and drugs from the Pakistani and Egyptian dealers. A few embrace fundamentalism and grow their beards. Too many of them pile into cars for wild races on city streets; at night, I often hear cars skidding as the young men reach high speeds, release the wheel, and hit the brakes. After their rebellious fits, many fall in line, but some never get the chance. One year, four young men at the institute died in separate crashes, just as crushed by the system, I believe, as by the force of their speeding Chevys.
My colleagues and I sneer at the system. We put our faith in meritocracy. You get what you earn, we like to say, so when Rich teases me about Khalid creating wastah, I tell him, “He’s just checking in.”
“Yup, like a gardener checking his tomatoes. Making sure his wastah’s growing.”
I place my palms atop my desk. “Not here.”
End of term. Final exams. Khalid has done miserably. Even those who earned zeros for cheating on the midterm exam have done better. When students fail, as I learn early in my career at the institute, they usually appeal directly to Omar, not the instructor. If students can make Omar’s peaceful life difficult—if they know the right people—they get what they want. If not, they don’t. Rich described one instance in which a complaining student in his class had such good connections that the entire class got a grade boost with the stroke of a pen. Rich had no choice but to accept Omar’s decision.
Khalid apparently has no wastah with Omar; he comes to my office the day after I post results to appeal to me directly. He bids me good morning with his broad smile. When we shake hands, his is as light as a leaf. He then places it briefly over his heart, a deferential gesture not many pupils do for their Western teachers. He asks to speak. “Of course,” I say.
“Teacher, why you not give me the pass for test?”
“Khalid, why didn’t you come to class?’
“I try Teacher. I busy. Little time. You help me?”
I shrug. “The test was fair, and so are your results.”
He looks confused, his mouth open and brow furrowed.
I explain that I didn’t give him the grade: he earned it. “You’d have done just fine if you’d studied and put in the time.” He still looks confused, so I add, “Maybe you need to get your priorities straight.” It doesn’t occur to me right then that maybe they are.
Although we’ve met often, I still don’t know what Khalid’s life is like outside the institute. I don’t know what he does for his uncle or what obligations have kept him from class. In fact, despite hours of conversation with many of these young men, I’ve only gained some vague ideas about their lives. Card-playing, joy-riding, TV-watching, and smoking shisha. The more active play soccer. A few have part-time clerical jobs or run small shops selling electronics. Despite my being here several months already, I still see them as a mass of thobes and ghutrahs in clusters outside the classroom door, young men whose language remains a mystery to me, with its guttural sounds riding a roller coaster of intonation—language that still abruptly simmers into giggles when I enter the classroom.
“Khalid, I’ll help you when you take the course again.”
“No, I cannot,” he says, enunciating the final t in such a way that it lingers in the air between us. He pulls a cord of stone prayer beads from the pocket of his thobe. Many Saudis carry these beads. Khalid’s has small medallions dangling from one link, inscribed with lines from the Koran. They guide a man in his prayers, and often they serve as a thing to fiddle with when he gets nervous. Khalid begins clicking them, one at a time, along his fingertips.
“My father, he say I pass this course, he send me to America for study in university. I not pass, he don’t send me.” He stops flipping through the beads and leans forward. “I speak you English now, no? You understand all. You help me.”
I’m not sure what to say, because, by now, my heart is breaking for him. I wish circumstances were different, that his English was more fluent, but it’s not.
He looks away, sighing as he slips the beads back in his pocket. He joins his hands, bows his head so that, for a moment, his ghutrah covers his face, then raises his eyes to mine, and says, “My teacher. My future is in your hands.”
His pronunciation is very good; he’s obviously practiced the expression, and that makes hearing it even sadder. I shake my head. “Khalid, your future is in your own hands.”
“Laysh?” he says. “Why?”
“You make your own future by what you do today,” I clarify. “No one makes it for you; only you can make it.” I try the hand gesture he laughed at, the one where I seemed to be rolling dough.
He frowns and looks above me. His chest rises and falls. His lips saw back and forth. He tries to speak, falters. He opens both hands, says a phrase in Arabic, lowers his hands, and looks at the floor. I’m not doing my part as Khalid understands it. He’s offered me “some service” repeatedly throughout the semester, and now he probably believes it’s his turn to use the wastah he’s created.
Why not lower my standards in this one instance and give him a C? I’d leave my office that day having made him the happiest kid in the institute, and no one would say a thing. He would get his year in an American college, and if diligent, he’d learn English quickly. Who knows what opportunities might arise? But then, I’d be boosting him up to the level of classmates who earned their grades and ignoring principles fundamental to me: I prepare the lessons to the best of my ability; you do the work to the best of yours. Simple.
I break the silence. “I’m sorry, Khalid. I can’t.”
His voice trembles. “You can.”
“I won’t.” I’ve learned some basic Arabic phrases and use the most common one now. “Inshallah, you’ll pass next time.”
Inshallah means “God willing.” In daily conversation, however, it often indicates not God’s will, but the will of the more powerful speaker. In that context, it means “not a chance.” When I arrived in the kingdom, I asked the housing director at the institute’s compound to assign me an apartment with a balcony. “Inshallah,” he replied. A computer in my office. “Inshallah,” the tech director replied. An office with a window. “Inshallah,” Omar had replied. I use the expression now as these others have with me, to signal that our conversation is over.
Khalid brushes the back of his hand across his eyes. “I must have the paper, Teacher.” With the index and middle fingers of his right hand, he taps his left forearm. I’ve seen the gesture when Saudis talk about a report card or a certificate. I think Khalid means “a passing grade,” but for all I know, he could be talking about a plane ticket to the United States.
“Inshallah,” I reply. I stand up and do what Omar and others have done whenever my appeals fail. I stretch one arm to the door. “Thank you for coming, Khalid. Good luck.”
He rises from his seat and shuffles to the door. “My future is in your hands,” he says quietly. He steps into the hall, closing the door behind him. The latch clicks.
Khalid waits at my office door the next morning. His thobe is bright white and crisply ironed. He’s shaved and soaked himself in cologne, and he isn’t wearing his ghutrah. This is the first time I’ve seen him without the headdress, with just the taqiyah, or white skullcap, and he looks even smaller and more vulnerable. He offers his hand. It trembles when he brings it to his heart. He then presses his palms together and, without looking me in the eye, asks to take the test again.
This is impossible. Although we can change a student’s grade, no questions asked, we instructors are forbidden from administering an exam twice. As a matter of principle, I never would anyway, not just to one student.
“The test is over and done with. You can take the course again.” I unlock the door.
He steps in front of me, blocking the entrance. His eyes narrow; his voice rises. “I follow you until you change mind.”
This angry version of Khalid startles me. I want to tell him to change his own mind, or to speak to his father and change his mind about sending him to America. Instead, I reach around Khalid to push the door open, and after brushing past him to enter my office, I shut it in his face. I sit at my desk knowing that we’re both acting out of character, but I don’t rise to apologize.
Khalid keeps good on his promise. Whenever I leave the office suite that day and enter the lobby outside it, he’s waiting, seated on the lime green sofa next to the suite’s entrance. Without saying a word, he follows me throughout the hallways, first to the mailroom, later to the cafeteria. Some of Khalid’s friends see this and surely notice the frustration on both our faces. After lunch, two of his classmates stop him and, one on either side, lead him from the lobby to the plaza. I hear Khalid’s tone of voice as he argues with them when they grasp his elbows, but I don’t understand what they’re saying.
Khalid again stations himself on the sofa in the lobby the next day. His ghutrah conceals most of his face, but I can see his scowl. Throughout the morning, he glares at me as I come and go, but neither speaks nor follows. Around noon, I glance at him as I leave for lunch. He’s staring at the floor with his arms crossed over his chest, his hands buried out of sight within the folds of his thobe. A bearded friend is leaning over him, touching his shoulder, reasoning. I catch one word the friend says as I pass: Inshallah.
That was the last I ever saw him. I spent another two years in Saudi and have been teaching ever since. I’ve had thousands of students and have forgotten the names and faces of many, but as Khalid promised, he has followed me, this image of a boy who made me see beyond the stereotypes, someone who distinguished himself and emerged fully human, endowed with grace and pain. A loving, joking, passionate, but powerless kid.
Sometimes I think about him when a student complains about a grade or on those occasions when a student says words to the effect that their future is in my hands. I reply the same way: they hold the future in their own hands. I say so even when I know they won’t make it, not this time. “Give it your best shot,” I tell them. No matter what system we’re living in, that is the ultimate choice we have.
I wonder if Khalid has ever built the towers and bridges he dreamed of, or if, instead, he grew his beard and embraced fundamentalism, or if, one night, he simply let go of the wheel and spun his car into oblivion. Most likely, this boy with too few connections wound up as a clerk in some government ministry or bank through the machinations of an uncle, got himself a small office halfway down a dim hallway, accepted the marriage his mother would arrange, and drifted into his future, which in truth, lay neither in his hands nor in mine.