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Erin Anderson

Teaching Rules to Saudi Girls

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, originally the home of a ritualistically intense branch of Islam and a tribe named Saud, was now the capital of the world's largest oil exporter, whose daily income was as transparent as the crude it sold. And money could buy many things, including a mirage of modernity, which meant skyscrapers. One shiny, giant tower, a combination of a cell phone and bottle opener, loomed above miles of modest sand-colored buildings. It was so much higher than the few moderate high rises at its feet that it made me think Riyadh was giving the finger to the rest of the oil-consuming world.

On the surface of this city, life chased itself on freeways, clogging up construction-pocked streets or pulsing in its shopping malls where black-gowned women skimmed glossy marble. On the top floor, children rode roller coasters and ate fast food. Obesity and diabetes were not modern mirages.

Less modern were the streets outside of my housing area, one of which I walked to after covering my hair with a black scarf and snapping up my long-sleeved, ankle-length black abaaya over my street clothes. I wandered outside of my machine-gun guarded compound, dodged on-ramp traffic and stood on a freeway overpass, counting huge cranes on the horizon, a flock of metal-necked giants. So much building going on. So much shallow bedrock broken and scooped and ferried to the outskirts of town. On the drive out to the university where I worked, I'd noticed miles of truck-bed-sized mounds of rubble, a bizarre landscape of chunky monster anthills the color of disregard.

The shudder of steel from truck traffic below spurred my journey. I lunged over an emptiness between broken cement slabs and back onto the sidewalk, which disappeared all together after I followed the ramp down to the street. My tricky footwork was accompanied by the honking of horns. These were barks of commerce from taxi drivers in need of a fare, insistent that I could not have really chosen to walk to the shops. In a country where women were not allowed to drive, thousands of men from Asia fed their families back home and put their children through private schools by driving women somewhere in Saudi Arabia. Sometimes a driver would pull over and honk several times, so sure of his own powers of persuasion.

I would shake my head without turning and then simply disregard his insistence. My headshake had meant no. I didn't need to repeat myself. If he wanted to continue to waste his time, that was his business. I entered a street veined by splayed-headed palm trees. Workshops the dimensions of storage spaces with roll-down metal doors for prayer closings framed Asian men kneading and baking bread, sewing and pressing clothing, sawing and hammering furniture, and tinkering with old air conditioning units. Other Asians staffed shops flounced with pastry displays, or barbershop chairs, or ceiling hooks for skinned camel carcasses.

In the year and a half I lived there, I saw Saudization take root. More Saudi men ran the cash registers at the larger grocery stores, while Asian men still bagged the groceries and hoped for a chance to wheel the cart outside in exchange for a tip. A shopping cart was the only thing I was allowed to steer, but that wasn't why I refused help. It irked me to pay for an act I was perfectly capable of performing myself. I wasn't going to subsidize my own infantilism.

Other signs of Saudization were seen at the telecommunications company where a Saudi man sat in front of the computer, but an African man stood next to him and reminded him what to do. This company touted 100% Saudization. But I suspected that Saudization meant hiring more Saudi managers and firing more expatriate workers, leading to the doubling and tripling of the workloads of the remaining expatriates.

It took time to learn the skills and habits to function in a modern society, and not just look modern. And while those lessons were learned, there would be casualties. I was almost one of them. On a trip from the airport, one I could not walk, a middle-aged Saudi taxi driver began tail-gating at around 70 miles an hour. He was a fifty-something man from the city of Taif, muscling his way through the fast-lane, breathing down the metal collar of the car in front until it pulled over. At first I tried English, “Too close!” I said.

“Close?” He began to roll up the window.

My panicked brain recalled the Arabic words close to car, “Qarib min sayara,” and he backed off.

“No broblem,” he said. “Don't worry!”

Thus, I lived another day to continue my mission as one of those foreigners brought in to teach at a private middle school and a private university. I taught the girl children and young women who were either too young to be allowed to go overseas for their education yet, or would not be allowed unless accompanied by a husband, or not allowed at all.

I met some amazing talent in my students, much humbling perseverance, along with ordinary efforts and general adolescent rebellion. These students, some of whom had been to Paris and Los Angeles with their families, were proud of the modernity of their city, the skyscrapers, the conveniences, the Western food items filling the grocery stores in the huge malls squatting the length of a city block. But they thought the rest of the world ungenerously judged Saudi women. “Psycho” was one of the words a student had used regarding what she imagined the world thought. I was not sure why she thought that. I had thought more in terms of lack of choice when I had thought of Saudi women, if I had thought about them at all. But these were young women much like other young women around the planet, struggling daily with compulsions to meet individual, family, societal, and global needs.

Whether they veiled their face in public or simply covered their hair--and of course everyone wore the black abaaya--they functioned as agents of modernization, consuming modern products in modern stores, riding in modern single-family transportation.

Other students, gliding along the marble floors of the feminine space of the university, washed, wiped, and buffed every thirty minutes by Asian cleaning women, retained an ancient master-slave paradigm. Their relationship to their writing errors mirrored their relationship to the papers and cans and plastic cups they would leave on their desks to be discarded by someone else. Errors were something a teacher was expected to clean up, which students would correct, then resubmit, expecting a perfect grade because now they had a perfect paper. Those students had little awareness that a habit was being changed, and that it was their responsibility to change it.

When one of my least-motivated students failed to meet basic requirements for her research paper, I asked her, “What lesson have you learned from this?” I was hoping she would say she had learned the necessity of learning more about her computer, about how to create a chart from her survey results, but she answered, “Find someone who can do this.”

I really had no idea what challenges my students would face in a country where the preferred female role was to be married to a Saudi male and have children. And with the push to be educated and do some kind of work, maybe in a bank or a school or a business of some sort, many women were expected to financially contribute to the edifice of Saudi life, complete with maids and nannies and personal drivers.

I tried to give them what I considered professional rules. I considered the classroom a pre-professional environment where we practiced learning instructions and following them. If a person could learn to follow one rule consistently, she could eventually conquer the world, at least the world of a particle-board office cubicle. Rules were the basis of a modern society, as long as the rules were reasonably consistent with human nature and everyone was held accountable. But then again, if my students ended up having an office at all, it would probably be a corner office with a view. And if they had any choice between that or a marble-floored house as a wife and mother with a nanny and a maid from Asia, that choice was probably not dependent upon their mastery of rules, but a matter of genetics, plastic surgery, and marriage brokering.

As difficult as it was to get a young adult to envision options for her future in ordinary circumstances, the need to overcome fears, insecurities, develop deeper levels of commitment to changing habits that would eventually lead to more choices in life, this was especially paradoxical in Saudi Arabia. The skills I tried to develop might not lead to the empowerment of women, but could ultimately be exploited by male guardians, who maintained financial control of earnings. Then again, I came at the whole thing from my narcissistic, individualistic Western way of looking at things. A woman from this culture might see any contribution she made to her family, whether to her parents or to her husband and children as a matter of honor and a source of deep contentment.

On one level, our school and its instructors were simply an alternative hobby for many students, who would otherwise be horseback riding, swimming, doing ballet, shopping, or eating with their families in small rooms in the family section of a restaurant if they weren't watching or presenting PowerPoint presentations in a classroom. On the other hand, there were some highly motivated students who had come to this school for the opportunity of being trained by Western teachers in Western ways in a country that offered only a handful of such programs.

I had always been too literal, expecting logical connections between what I heard people say, what I read and the actions I took. And as far as my limited vision showed me, what females in this country between the ages of 18 and 22 really needed was not what I could give them.

They needed advice on how to deal with their schizophrenic experiences of acting like Western teenagers in Paris Disneyland and then returning to this country.

They needed to protect themselves from the pain and disappointment of their mothers whose emotional needs were no longer being met by husbands who had taken second, third or fourth wives.

They needed to deal with getting older and not being asked to get married while younger sisters became engaged in a country that was trying to establish a minimum marriageable age at 18, but where some found Quranic precedent to marry off girls at the age of nine.

Some of them needed to learn how to synthesize fundamentalist Islamic tenets with modern life. In my first term, one of my students stepped into the hall when her classmates showed media clips that featured music. When the music was over, she was called back into the class where her classmates summarized the information. In that class of eleven, two wore a face veil when they traveled outside of the country. The rest dressed like Western teenagers.

Maybe in our approach, we confused these students. In the secondary school where I had worked on the weekends, pupils knew the rules. In the classroom, they stood up to answer questions. The doors of the school were locked so they couldn't escape unescorted. They were not allowed to leave the school premises until their names were announced through a very loud speaker. Even then, they were not allowed in a car until the male driver had shown an I.D. with a last name that matched the girl's. Those were rules. It was so important in fact that females be kept locked inside a school that in March 2002 in Mecca, 15 females died in a school fire because male firemen were not allowed to enter and the girls could not get out.

When controls were externalized, people did not have to carry them around. And nowhere else on the planet were externalized controls of women more apparent than in Saudi Arabia, where women were not allowed to drive, had to cover clothing and hair with black cloth in public, and were not allowed to work in most sectors of the economy because of an interpretation of the Quran which prohibited them from mixing with unrelated men in public. So, perhaps some of my students simply did not realize how important rules were when they were airy words from a Western teacher or squiggly lines on a piece of paper and not locked metal in a door frame.

But our students might argue this point. They did not seem to feel restricted. One student had even extolled the virtues of anonymity that the veil provided, especially when she was not behaving well in public. Even I had enjoyed the drop of black cloth as I sat in the company van. The mesh preserved moisture in my eyes in very, very dry air. It cut the harsh light. And through the cloth, I could still see the faces of my colleagues, but they could not see mine. "What are you doing? You're not even Muslim," they said, disconcerted by my loss of face.

The greatest need of my students seemed to be for comfort. Being with unrelated men was uncomfortable. Even being with girls from other ethnicities or other families seemed to be difficult. Girls were reluctant, if they did not out and out refuse, to join small groups that were not comprised of their friends. This caused particular discomfort when one's friends passed on to the next level, leaving behind a permanently discontented and forlorn girl.

One student whose name bore that of the country in which she lived had told me that she had always felt uncomfortable at that school. If she could only find enough girls to agree, she could participate in a small program in her home where professors from a university like Harvard would come and give lessons, but there were only a few degrees offered, one of them being jewelry design.

These women were used to black tinted passenger windows in chauffeur-driven cars, one-way windows in buildings and architecture that cradled them. The three-story woman's building encircled a horseshoe-shaped courtyard with a sweeping spiral ramp for strolling, a fountain, a small lawn and a palm tree. Glass walls separated this space from girls chatting and text messaging while they lounged in overstuffed leather armchairs, their talk bouncing off marble floors and glass. They did the best they could to maintain their comfort, despite our Western ways, our silly insistence on rules that had little to do with the real architecture of their lives.

As they slowly swayed down the halls, their abaayas open, exposing jeans and T-shirts, the black cloth flapping in their wake, they tried to exude a saturation of ease, but I suspected several of them had already guessed that comfort was not one of the things modernity promised.

©2013 by Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson's work has appeared in Word Riot, Summerset Review, Slow Trains, The Cream City Review, and The Mississippi Review (under the name Erin Camander). She received a Master of Fine Arts degree from Northern Michigan University and a Master in TESOL from SIT/World Learning Graduate Institute. She has worked in California, Michigan, Germany, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, and the Republic of Georgia. She is currently navigating the cold Siberian blasts sweeping down from the top of the planet and from the local shop assistants.

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