By Ray Bennett
It began as most of our end-of-session parties did – students brought food, mostly from their own cultural traditions (though I didn’t realize how popular pasta might be in Saudi Arabia). The food was fabulous – tastes of China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Korea, washed down with Chinese green tea, Arabic coffee, Sprite, and Orange Crush.
An escalation in the proceedings came with two Saudi gentlemen, arriving late and dressed in traditional garb, including headdress. A young Chinese woman had changed into a qipao – a traditional Chinese silk dress, fitted and sexy. Now, she somehow arranged to try on the Saudi headwear, to which she then added, improbably, a protective breathing mask of the type worn to retard the spread of diseases such as the H1N1 virus, a hot topic in those days. (She had a package of dozens of these masks in her purse.) Many photos were taken, with various combinations of garb – mash-ups, we could say – the sparking point.
A musically gifted Turkish woman strummed a guitar brought by a Japanese from a different class who’d been invited to join us, the guitar his ticket in. She sang what sounded like emotional, slightly doleful songs in Turkish. People applauded and whistled enthusiastically.
The next escalation came when a Saudi asked if he could play some of his iPod collection. This started out being pretty much Western hip-hop, but at the urging of his countrymen and women morphed into another kind of mash-up – an overlay of hip-hop onto Saudi rhythms and Arabic poetry. It took one Saudi’s movement to this startling music, urged on by others, to kick things up another notch, as one would say, and now occupants of other classroom parties down the corridor began to converge on ours, spilling in through the doorway and into the clapping circles of students from around the world.
When one of the new arrivals, a young man, jumped into the centre to perform his dance, followed by a second countryman, the Saudi women whooped and howled in that customary way they have – a zaghareet, it’s called. The clapping and vocalizing began to drive the motion of the dancers as much as the music, and we approached a kind of critical mass.
The final eruption came when the two Saudi men began to dance together, one of them shaking, quivering, vibrating as if he’d studied belly dancing from an Egyptian woman and then applied the technique to his entire body, needing only the music, his male partner, and the energy of the audience. Cultures, identities, were unraveling and recombining now, before our eyes, like the strands of DNA at conception. We teachers became a deferential audience despite ourselves, losing that teacherly cool that has seen everything worth anything.
Afterwards, several students said they’d never experienced anything like it. Teachers regained themselves and questioned one another on how it all happened. Office staff, stuck off down at the end of the corridor, were said to have found the commotion somewhat disturbing.
I realized, again, that these sorts of spontaneous combustions, tribal fusions, cultural mash-ups, are what can change our minds, lives, and worlds, a little at a time, or maybe a lot. And the work of the language teacher and language learner, often mundane for each of them, thus becomes acutely transformative and valuable, by accident.