by Titus Green
“Moath—Moath!” I called wearily to Moath Al-Harbi slumped at the back of the classroom. He was an eighteen-year old from Jubail allegedly at the university to become a successful petroleum engineer. He wanted to work for Aramco, make lots of money and get married. I knew this because I’d done his placement test interview three weeks earlier and he’d told me these laudable ambitions.
“Moath…oh for god’s sake,” I groaned. Most of the other students grinned at their dozing classmate, relishing the childish humour of the scene. Naif, a sly and disruptive boy snickered. Realizing that I was wasting my time hollering from the front of the room I approached Moath’s seat and looked in dismay at his lolled head, slack jaw and closed eyes. He was slumbering serenely with his arms drooping and his abandoned textbooks languishing in his bag. He was a huge, flabby lad whose excess mass could have been either been genetic or acquired as a result of the not uncommon couch potato Saudi lifestyle and Domino’s diet. This wasn’t the first time that Moath had been out for the count. Other students sometimes slept, including the continually distracted Nasser who wore a hooded jacket over his thobe in the foolish belief that this concealed his forbidden napping. However, Moath had slept through every lesson so far and had almost used up his allocation of allowable absences. We were only in week 3 of the semester, and he was already at risk of expulsion.
I’d made a massive mistake in allowing the students to dictate the seating arrangement. The horse-shoe configuration, with the chairs pushed back against the walls, transferred lethargy between the students who unsurprisingly found talking and fiddling with their digital devils more enjoyable than reviewing turgid grammar exercises. I should have arranged the chairs in the row formations used by other teachers which would have compelled the students to pay attention.
“Moath!” I called with weary exasperation. The snoring mountain didn’t respond. He looked like an obese, dozing walrus packed into a thobe with seams ready to burst. I cursed our toothless attendance policy, utterly free of guidance, which did not state that sleepers should be regarded as absent even though many instructors followed this principle. John, the haggard former British Aeronautical Systems teacher, enforced this policy without compromise and the oral howitzer fire of his rebukes of dozing students boomed down the corridors.
“GET OUT KHALED! GET OUT NASSER! I AM NOT WASTING MY TIME ON STUDENTS WHO SLEEP!”
Preludes to the ejections typically included whining protests. Familiar accented words so ubiquitous that they were ancestral tropes of complaint that had ricocheted off the walls of this institution for decades. I’m tired teacher I was watching Manchester United in Champions League last night and This is a long class there is a lot of homework. Sometimes there were raised voices when students defied John ejection orders, with the ringleaders of disobedience either pleading for second chances or refusing to leave based on justifications for sleeping. The ruckuses would escalate when John manhandled the troublemakers out of the classroom, bawling at them in the corridors as the cleaners shuffled past discreetly and teachers in other rooms peered through the glass apertures in their doors for a sight of the actors in these unedifying melodramatic episodes. John’s face would turn beetroot as he threatened the offenders with unenforceable sanctions, and then the exiles, expelled from these abysmal classes and ersatz materials, would head straight to Al-Qahtani’s office, bypassing Program Director Brad’s office and limited authority. They’d give aggrieved accounts of how a bad teacher was ruining their academic chances by ejecting them from the class while simultaneously demanding a change of instructor. Al-Qahtani supported the students and had no interest in hearing John’s version of events. Every time these incidents occurred the aloof, inscrutable Saudi sent e-mails to Brad critical of John that hammered more nails into the coffin of this teacher’s contract renewal prospects.
“Moath!” I repeated. This couldn’t continue. My authority had already been tested in the first wobbly weeks of that first torrid module. Not only had there been almost complete contempt for timekeeping from the students but also overuse of smartphone apps and surrendering of consciousness to the greedy screens of their Silicon Valley surrogate minds. I was strict with applying the late penalties initially, but then learned from Jasper, an Australian engaged to a Thai hostess in Bahrain, that this would approach could come back to bite me come student evaluation time. “I tell you mate it’s a fine and delicate balancing act, your classroom management. You’ve got to be their teacher, friend and baby-sitter all rolled into one. You’ve got to cut them some slack now and then, and then come down hard on them at other times,” he told me. After I had lectured one tardy boy, he confessed, as he chewed on a miswak that he was late because he had stayed up to watch UEFA Champions League matches, without indicating any grasp that it was actually his responsibility to set his alarm. I’d also had my fair share of grumbles about grades achieved in the first test and I had had to head off a few mutinous murmurs about the pace of my lessons and coverage of grammar. Fortunately, I wasn’t aware of any sneaky, behind-my-back visits to Al-Qahtani’s office yet.
“EEuurggh!” Moath’s glottal, blissful moans of slumber continued. The wall was propping up his head, which rolled slightly to the left and compressed the cellular blancmange of his hefty triple-chin. His twitching eyelids suggested a dream journey, although I couldn’t imagine what such a sedentary human would dream about, except pizzas, Call of Duty and more sleeping. He was like a statue made of dough and his chest and bulbous belly expanded and contracted with each cycle of breath. A giant. A colossus of torpor sleeping through my troubled days. Meanwhile, his classmates grinned or watched muted football matches clasping their Android enabled Pandora’s boxes. I was mindful of the door’s glass aperture through which we could expect Brad or Program Manager Ishmael, lumbering through the corridors on ‘catch you out’ duty, to peer through at any moment. They would enter without knocks or warnings if they suspected there were sleepers or a general aimlessness in the progression of the lesson. Three incidences of sleepers in your class equalled a verbal warning. There was even a rumour that Al-Qahtani wanted to issue fines for instructors turning an indifferent eye to students taking siestas. Everyone slept at their peril in Building 21, including teachers; Chris from Riyadh who’d slept through our staff induction barely woke up. He was found snoring through a level 03 class with the students huddled around a laptop watching a soccer match. Chris was dismissed immediately. Insulating himself from the trials of a hardship posting in a cosy cocoon of slumber. He had the right idea!
“Tell me,” I addressed the class while staring into the corner of the ceiling at a patch of flaking plaster closely resembling the shape of a question mark. “What’s he dreaming of?” My question elicited a burst of laughter from the students, most of who were only grudgingly participating in this pedagogic charade because it was one of the hurdles to clear before entry to the First Year English Program, a staging point from where they could launch the next stage of their odyssey towards a job somewhere in the distance, connected to the flow of petroleum, that would reward them with a high salary for doing nothing. A lazy pipe dream inherited from their fathers’ generation, many of which had won just such a prize in the halcyon days. This generation Z Saudi, however, was going to be in for some bitter surprises when the orders to diversify the economy came. When push and shove collided in the sustainability war and the refineries would be eco-targets. Hard work to most of them was a blasphemous collocation spoken only by the guest-worker citizens of developing countries hired to clean their toilets, sweep their streets or toil on their construction sites. Vision 2030 was on the way, by which time Saudi youth Tik Tok videos might not be so upbeat.
“What’s he dreaming about?” I repeated. “He’s dreaming about burgerrrrs,” said apathetic Rayan with the rolled, rhotic Arabic ‘r’. This was a reasonable guess, since I’d seen Moath with other obese students waddling up to the counter of Burger King in the Student Mall countless times. I looked at the language I’d scraped onto the smudged, scratched blackboard. They were sentences exemplifying ‘modal verbs of deduction’ that were the core grammar items of the coursebook unit I was obliged to teach. My job was to make sure they could put might, could, must and can’t with its correct verb form into the right gapped sentences on a test paper on test days. The coursebook writers had presented this language in a surreal context, producing a text about the discovery of an ancient, mummified man in a European mountain range that was accompanied by a highly unnatural dialogue of two young men so riveted by this archaeological wonder that they speculated enthusiastically about how the man had lived and died, using sentences with he must have, could have or may have constructions. My barely legible exemplar sentences fought for the students’ attention, partially camouflaged by the heavily smudged blackboard and squashed onto one side of it by the badly installed projector screen.
He must have hunted with a spear.
(subject) (Modal + have) (past participle) (object/complement/preposition phrase)
I saw an opportunity to liven up the lesson and ditch the dull, insipid teaching materials. I could use Moath as an example to elicit the target language!
“Rayan. Say that again please.”
Rayan duly repeated his sentence about Moath’s hypothetical Burger King dream verbatim:
“He’s dreaming about burgerrrrs.”
“OK,” I said with encouragement as I walked to the board and began erasing my absurd display language of so little interest or relevance in the view of these young men.
Ancient Alfred must have made his own clothes from animal skins.
And what if he had? Unlike the characters in the coursebook, this was not a hypothesis that would be stimulating animated conversation or intellectual curiosity in the shisha cafes of Al-Khobar.
“OK Rayan, but do you know for certain, absolutely 100 percent, or is it just a possibility? Think about the grammar we’ve just been studying.” Rayan grimaced, and then nodded.
“He might be dreaming about burrrrrgers.”
“OK good,” I enthused and scrawled his sentence up on the board, adding a ‘timeline’ under it that clarified verb tense. I underlined might.
“When is Moath dreaming? Hadi?” Hadi was another student afflicted by a minute attention span. The only creativity he ever demonstrated was in producing excuses to leave the classroom. He needed galvanising, so I pointed at him and then to the past, now and future points on the timeline.
“Now. He is dreaming now,” he replied confidently, giving classmates a I’ve got grammar under control grin.
“Yes, and why an ‘ing’ form of the verb here? What’s special about the dream?” I found myself suddenly inspired, ready to bring forth all potential from my slumping prodigies.
“Because dream is an action takes long time,” Hadi said triumphantly.
“Good! That’s right. Now Nasser…Nasser?” Nasser’s face emerged from the shady cave of his Jedi hood with a wary grin. I was going to demand his participation. I pointed to the blackboard’s sentence and then to Moath, still blissfully and deeply detached from consciousness. Naif whispered to Nasser, who was sitting next to him. The whisper conveyed something provocative and definitely haram. A juicy, forbidden idea. A little firework to brighten the dim, forgettable procession of this lesson. The hyena giggle from Naif confirmed my suspicion. Naif was a bright boy and one of the students strongest in spoken English, but he was a seditious soul who regarded my classes as nothing more than incidental entertainment. An alternative to a Second Life or PlayStation session. Nasser grinned at his pal and nodded.
“He must be dreaming of going to Bahrain. He is dreaming of beautiful ladies.”
This comment detonated collective, cynical laughter from the young men for whom perhaps the incongruous image of slovenly, indolent Moath propping up hostess bars in the sleazy zeitgeist across the King Fahad Causeway was more reliably hilarious than any Netflix sitcom creation. It was obvious that most of these rakish rogues knew the profile of the Saudi frequent visitor to Manama and Juffair only too well, for they were themselves regular patrons of the gaudy neon lit bars obliged to barf out jarring, industrial ‘music’ from their sound systems and pump out watery, overpriced beer from their dirty taps. Judging by the salacious looks often traded by these students when weekends were drawing near and the word Bahrain was spoken as though it was a chunk of luxury chocolate they were going to eat, it was clear they were patrons of the type of Manama hotels slammed with half-star ratings as moral cesspits on Tripadvisor. They were weekend pilgrims to a different kind of Mecca. A place their Imams certainly wouldn’t approve of.
“Now Nasser, come on. Behave. You know we can’t say such things in this class.” I said this with narrowed eyes and the best po-faced mask of disapproval my weary features could manage. If I allowed such conversations to develop, I could be getting that summons to Brad or Al-Qahtani’s Court of Correct Conduct for a rebuke and first-strike verbal warning. Plus, the mendacity of students could never be underestimated. I’d heard the stories of teachers being set-up in classes in this way: being encouraged to discuss forbidden topics while RECORD buttons on devices were deftly pressed and played back to management later. This was a place where grudges festered and scores were taken, both literally and figuratively. Student grievances were complex and unpredictable beasts. They were like cunning vampires lurking in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to pounce and bite. They could be justified or utterly irrational. Sometimes they were infantile, such as being denied additional washroom breaks or simply your failure to support their preferred football teams. Constant vigilance was a mandatory prerequisite for job survival.
However, my attempts to steer the discussion away from Gulf debauchery were failing miserably. It was as though Nasser had not even heard my entreaty. He was enthralled. Suddenly caught up in a frisson. On a roll of mischief.
“Have you been to Bahrain mister? Do you know the Manama Paradise hotel?”
This highly inappropriate inquiry, obviously regarding some roach-infested knocking shop, some rancid flea pit of commercial sex transactions, acted like a lighted match tossed onto the gasoline of their repressed urges and covert routines. A ball of mirth erupted, with plumes of raucous, lusty laughter licking the tinder-dry walls of this inflammable lesson.
“Ooh it’s really nice,” said Talal, another lazy non-achiever, another passenger hiding on the bogus bus of Saudization to avoid work of any kind. He reinforced his comment by shutting his eyes as though in a salacious trance. I needed to extinguish this discussion’s forbidden fire before it became a full-scale blaze because there was one student in the room guaranteed to take a dim view of this turn in the topic, and who could land me in deep trouble if he wished.
“Very, very nice,” chimed in Naif to boost his own rebellious street cred within the group. Although I tried not to make my quick side glance at Zahid too obvious, the severe look on the face of young apprentice cleric was all too clear. His face was turning grey under his taqiya. Despite this he seemed composed, as though determined to maintain the deportment commensurate with his position. Zahid was what Keith, a curt, sandpaper-skinned colleague referred to as a ‘mini mutt’ with ‘mutt’ being a derogatory abbreviation for mutawa. These ‘men of religion’, once ubiquitous on Saudi streets and in shopping malls to enforce Islamic observance and attendance at prayer, had diminished in number. I’d seen none at the Al-Rashid Mall since my return to the kingdom.
Nobody had spoken for several seconds, as though the symbolism inherent in the moment had contrived this dramatic silence. Zahid looked at his classmates and despite his august bearing, his trepidation was undisguisable. When the semester had started, I had expected the students to be deferential towards this potential future imam, but the opposite had been true. He’d been treated, in fact, with a startling indifference and his presence in the group had done nothing to regulate the behaviour more unruly young shababs. Zahid was becoming ever more aware that he was part of a diminishing brotherhood with declining influence. This was the classroom dynamic I’d been dreading: the Saudi past vs future conflict of piety. The clash between old, unchallenged traditions and the arrival of bolder behaviour sure to push boundaries the nation’s ulama didn’t want to see being pushed. A standoff began with Zahid studying his opponents’ faces sternly. I needed to diffuse the tension by bringing everybody’s attention back to the epic question of our sleeping giant’s dreams.
Now, if we look at these sentences,” I said pointing at He might be dreaming about burgers and He must be dreaming of going to Bahrain with the time lines I’d drawn under them. “The ‘dreaming’ is obviously a present activity, correct?” I experienced a surge of shame at the grotesque way I made my living in middle-age: forming trivial theories and policing smutty conversations with these men-children destined for unproductive futures. “But…what would we say if we were guessing about a past event that has caused Moath to be so sleepy now, at this very moment?” A hand shot up. It was Adel, yet another tricky character of the brat-pack fraternity.
“He must have slept too much at the Manama Paradise hotel.” Sniggers of approval punctuated the comment from all except Zahid whose calmness had gone. He was now glaring at them, indignant at this innuendo. He then addressed them in Arabic, and the tone of his speech left no doubt about the purpose of the message. He gestured angrily at them, stabbing the space with his hand tensed vertically as though it was a blade of righteousness, but his classmates just swatted the admonition away.
“He must have had a really good time,” added Nasser, determined to press home his peer group’s indifference to what Zahid stood for. The future cleric rose and assumed a tense posture of threatened authority but before he could speak, a sonorous command boomed down the corridor.
“WAKE UP NAWAF OR GET OUT OF MY CLASS!”
The students giggled. The usual strife was kicking off in John’s class, only two doors down from mine. The timing of the outburst could not have been better for creating a distraction from the approaching conflict. The clock revealed 5 minutes of the class remaining, I was about to start closing the lesson when a series of long, guttural sighs turned our attention towards the reclining mass across from us. Moath was stirring and with a few grunts and flickers of his eyelids the indolent giant came back to life. Groggily, he shook his head and looked at me with the satiated and guiltless face of man who frequently used my classroom as a capsule motel.
“Ah! Did you have a good rest Moath?” I asked. “Unfortunately, you’ve slept through an entire session on grammar that will be tested on at the end of this week.” He looked anxiously at the example sentences on the board and then at his smirking classmates.
“What? Doctor?” he asked, vaguely aware of the presence of an in-joke he was unknowingly part of.
“I’ve been reviewing modal perfects Moath, and we have been using the grammar to guess what you may have been dreaming about for the past hour.”
The dazed, confounded expression stayed on Moath’s pasty face. “He is probably dreaming about Bahrain,” he read, still oblivious of his connection to the sentence. Naif and Nasser tittered maliciously.
“Doctor. Why don’t you come to Bahrain with us? We will show you it is a nice city!” said Nasser, upping the nonsense ante.
“Khalas!” Zahid uttered the command to stop with a combination of despair and desperation, but Nasser just shrugged the imperative off.
“Going somewhere?” I asked Talal, who was getting up to leave with four minutes remaining of the class.
“Teacher, we have a Math exam tomorrow—we need to study,” he protested.
“Look. There needs to be a major change of attitude around here!” I told them, as they prepared to shuffle out. “Some of you really need to think about why you are at this university, what you want from these exam results and what you need to do to get them.” The homily was useless because many of the chancers in this room weren’t hearing it for the first time: they’d either failed the module and were repeating or had been expelled from other quasi Saudization programs in other colleges that were intended to steer Saudi youths onto great things. “Do you realize how fortunate you all are to even be at this college?”
“Teacher!” Bleary Moath enquired. “Why it say probably dreaming?”
“Not the best time to be asking that question is it Moath? Sometime during the lesson would have been more appropriate. Come and see me in office hour this afternoon and I’ll go through modals again but there’s no time now.”
Moath seemed offended that his personal needs couldn’t be accommodated at times of his choosing.
“Right,” I said picking up the workbook, a supplement to the coursebook full of forgettable sentence transformation exercises.
“Page 65 tasks two and three please.” There was a despairing collective groan from Naif, Hadi and Nasser.
“No teacher—please. Too much homework,” said Naif dramatically with outstretched arms, pleading as desperately as a convicted man pleading to a judge for a lighter sentence.
“Please!” he repeated with his hands clasped together under his chin. I wondered where this slacker would be in ten years. I couldn’t see him in elevated corporate surroundings but envisioned him touting for taxi fares in the arrivals area at King Fahad Airport and overcharging jet-lagged foreigners three times the rate. He wouldn’t have looked out of place next to Mr Don’t Worry on the SIM card stall.
“We need some rest,” chimed in Adel and Nasser in unison while Moath seemed to be teetering on the verge of slumber again, as if he could slide back into stage 4 sleep at any moment. Mansour, another large boy with troll features and large, heavily calloused feet gave him a nudge and Moath woke.
“Homework Moath!” I said repeated wearily, conforming to the department’s futile homework directives. “Homework Adel, Mansour, Naif, Nasser and the rest of you,” I cried pointing to them as they were named. “Page 65 two and three,” I pointed again at the page reference I’d scrawled onto the misty white smudges of the board. “I want it done!” They pulled out their workbooks. Every page of Naif’s book was pristine, as was Nasser’s and this legacy of their laziness, pages unvisited by a pencil, starkly symbolized the failed investment. The gap filling exercises from Oxford University Press pleaded for attention they were never going to get. Fleetingly, the sight of Naif fertilized myriad visions and epiphanies, and I suddenly saw his not so distant Bedouin ancestors ambling over arid dunes with camels. Now he, a descendant of the desert wanderers, was struggling to conform to this uncompromising timetable and global cult of productivity while taking instructions from a kafir clown alien to his world of prayers. A tedious actor his patrons obliged him to rehearse with. Neither of us belonged there. We were both prisoners of Saudization’s jail.
“Go on—surprise me for once with some homework,” I implored Naif, who just smiled and placed the index finger of his right hand rapidly under each of his eyes in some incomprehensible gesture. “How can I award any of you effort marks if you make no effort?” I asked them as they stirred themselves to leave. The ‘effort marks’ were additional digital smears of irrelevance I was obliged to type into an Excel sheet, along with more numerical data that allegedly held some correlation with their English language abilities. “And how can I reward you for effort when you sleep in class?” My question stung Moath like the tip of a whip.
“I’m tired doctor,” he replied defiantly. What would his obituary say? I imagined the following:
Moath Abdullah, aged 30, died peacefully in front of his PlayStation console and with an unfinished plate of Burger King Whoppers by his side at his home in Al-Khobar. Moath was never awake for more than ten minutes each day during his attendance at Prince Salman University of Petroleum and Minerals. He didn’t work a day in his life. May Allah bless his soul.
While Moath rose with the physical uncertainty of a man four times his age, the others streamed through the door, satisfied that I had recorded their attendance, which was the only criteria for daily achievement for most of them now pining for coffee and engagement with their apps. Several had left their bags and books behind, as they often did, and the floor was strewn with their empty coffee cups and food wrappings. I had to clean up after them because ‘Richard the Psycho’, the teacher who shared the room with me in the morning classes, had a reputation for violence and volatility and may have attacked me over this mess. According to Donald, he’d punched out a few colleagues in the staff apartments after one cup of Siddique too many and was to be dealt with carefully. Apparently, he’d also come close to arrest in Bahrain several times. Too anybody outside of the Saudi English language teaching business, the fact that its teaching ranks were populated with individuals fit for police do not approach this man warnings back home would be astonishing.
“I will help you teacher,” said Zahid earnestly and I thanked him. As we cleared up detritus he requested an office hour, and I expected he’d be bringing along some Islamic information leaflets along with questions about relative pronouns following object nouns.
Outside, the corridor teemed with sauntering students chatting or congregating in tight, conspiratorial huddles. Passing them I heard English keywords TOEFL collocated with Arabic mushkila, or problem. Tim was at the corridor junction adjacent to the stairwell with Donald who was characteristically holding court, along with San Francisco Roy, a frequent weekend Bahrain sexual adventurer. Donald was more than usually animated, having the tasty details of Chris’ dismissal to broadcast. He prided himself on his ability to dig for additional dirt on disgraced teachers, having close connections to both Al Qahtani and the Filipino staff of the HR department. His head stopped in mid swivel when he saw me approach.
“Now here’s the university’s top teacher!” he announced grandiosely, switching his routine. “I’ve heard,” he began, making the exaggeration to follow more impactful with a pause and a solemn tone, “That his evaluations are the highest. Always gets the best scores because his lessons are the best!” I’d only been at the university for four weeks but Donald’s schtick about evaluations already felt more ancient than a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Every teacher got it routinely, this corroding barrel of bullshit about high evaluations that was his trademark mind game. The frivolous, whim-driven student evaluations of teaching were Donald’s all-consuming obsession. They were collected close to the end of semesters and were as meaningless as data documents of teaching competence as they were critical to job survival prospects and boosts in salary. Numbers chosen by immature boys raised by PlayStation determined your future in this managerial court of opinion. While Donald did everything possible to discover the evaluations of colleagues, he kept his own as secret as Masonic handshakes, guarding them with cagey answers when asked. Allegedly he maintained his own high evaluations, and by extension monopoly of the lucrative overtime classes for who high evaluations was the reward, by either coercing his students or entering into sly quid pro quos with them on the side. There was talk that he did things with past exam papers obtained illicitly, fudged attendance records and used forbidden TOEFL preparation materials. I kept my distance from him and the backs he was scratching, but he frequently closed that distance as he barged into my office each morning and poured sordid, tabloidesque stories about former PSUPM teachers into my ear.
Did you hear about a fella called Simmons? Used to invite students back to his flat and got up to you-know-what.
I also cringed when he stopped by my classrooms, just before lessons began. He’d poke his head in and embarrass me in front of my students with the best teacher with highest evaluations performances delivered with his gravelly Galway brogue while his beady eyes twinkled. After just a month this tiresome ‘ribbing’ was already a grating broken record glued to the stylus, a kind of stink bomb in his arsenal of psychological weapons he was addicted to dropping. As for the students, they loved the sly old hustler’s entrances and laughed copiously at his antics, some of them showing through their effusive greetings that they were ex-students of his and possible actors in his schemes.
“I’ve heard the boozer’s been given a final warning,” he told us with undisguised relish. He stepped forward and his head revolved rapidly, which signalled that one of his lurid little scoops was coming. He’d been a journalist during an earlier life and this compulsion to give us exclusives couldn’t be contained.
“Students are complaining all the time. They can smell the booze on his breath, and he’s always late for class.”
This was hardly a revelation, since many of us had been rudely awakened several times in the early hours in the staff apartment block by the raucous, relentless bawling of Jimmy ‘Boozer’ Bagshaw as he staggered around the dimly lit pathways of our shabby cluster of hovels snarling profanities half-cut. The disturbance worsened when he started banging on the doors of known Siddique brewers demanding replenishment. Ricky, an American who was no stranger to scandal since it was alleged he’d clandestinely moved an impoverished Ethiopian woman into his apartment right under the noses of the university’s security, was blasted with abuse when he opened his door and stepped out to remonstrate. The boozer was on self-destruction’s highway and wasn’t interested in the off ramp.
“Sounds like his career here is on borrowed time,” I remarked, figuring it was a suitable summary of the situation that didn’t encourage the development of the conversation Donald was so eager to have. He had bottles of dirt on Boozer he was desperate to share but we had no thirst for his schadenfreude cocktails. Sensing our lack of appetite in more depressing information about our car wreck of a colleague, he bitched instead about one of his classes and its poor performances in the grammar quizzes. We listened with resigned ennui, having lost most of our elan in our own less than dynamic lessons. Tim followed Donald’s monologue and I noticed bags under his eyes while Roy’s grin was merely a placeholder as he dreamed not of high evaluations but naked, supine Thai women on crumpled sheets in overpriced Manama hotel rooms. The weekend was approaching, and the dream zone was within reach. Soon Roy’s Toyota Yaris would be packed with lusty pilgrims, reaching for the Viagra in their backpacks and the dials of the time machines in their minds.
“Does anybody know where we can find any decent supplementary materials?” I asked, fearful of class revolt if I went any further with the what did Ancient Alfred eat unit. Tim and I were still bewildered newbies. The department did not provide computers and there was no Cloud or drives of any kind with teaching resources. My question produced a blank stare from Donald and a nonplussed half-shrug from Roy. Donald then lost interest in us and scuttled off down the hallway. “Ahoy there Baines!” we overheard him say as he buttonholed another colleague.
“A strange character,” said Tim gravely when the Irishman was out of earshot.
Roy made an uncomplimentary gesture with his index figure pointed to his temple and turned clockwise. With his meaty jowls, he half-resembled a version of James Gandolfini that had been dipped in decades of dissolution. He had a predictable proposition.
“I’ve got one space in the car if either of you want to take a trip over the bridge. A few minutes in Thelma and Louise’s and you’ll be a new man!” Thelma and Louise was the lounge bar of a hotel populated by Chinese prostitutes. “Rick’s coming—he’s really up for it. Really wants to party!” Tim seemed tempted. I told Roy that I wasn’t ready for this hedonistic odyssey because I didn’t have an entry/exit visa. I promised to call Tim later and we parted. I climbed the stairwell to level 2 where my office was located. I passed a classroom where students were practicing inference questions for the listening section of the TOEFL exam.
American male freshman: Did you submit your term paper for Professor Rogers?
American female student: Yes, but only just in time. It took me hours to check my grammar and punctuation.
Prompt: What can we infer from the girl’s response?
That her Grammarly app had been hacked? That her paper was a dog’s breakfast of a disaster purchased from an online essay mill? Or that she’d been spending too much time performing for her saucy Only Fans side hustle to pay her extortionate college tuition? TOEFL’s students were guests staying in a penthouse suite of Cloud Cuckoo Land Motel. Their phony campus lives and corny collegiate conversations were ridiculous deviations from 21st century university reality. No TOEFL recordings ever took place during riotous frat house parties with inference questions about passed out freshman lying in puddles of vomit. I hadn’t heard any dialogues featuring instructor-student conflicts about using preferred pronouns either. The University of TOEFL guarded its gates carefully, keeping out the forces of social reality like an ancient walled city protecting itself from the rampaging barbarian hordes outside. It seemed determined to defy the forces of change, keeping the anodyne discussions going forever.
The stench of the toilet on our floor almost knocked me over as I passed the nauseating facilities. We could produce our own in-house TOEFL listening practice materials:
Urrghh! Man that’s gross.
What can we infer from the instructor’s reaction?
- That he is looking at a very large object.
- That he is feeling tired
- That his office area smells like a sewer, reeking of bowel motions?
“Sallam allaykum,” said the stooping, wizened little Saudi dressed in a tatty thobe as he shuffled past. I returned the greeting. It was the ancient photocopying man, who carried out our photocopying requests which had to be completed on handwritten forms in triplicate and submitted three days in advance. He’d been at the university for decades, existing reclusively in the office with the copiers. Although sometimes elusive at times when urgent copying tasks had to be done, he was at least flexible enough to bypass the suffocating bureaucracy and do copy jobs at short notice without fuss. I made a note to find him later because I had an urgent copying job at odds with the sluggish pace of department procedure and its byzantine micromanagement.
Inside my spartan office, the objects and furnishings were not inspirational. The dual essences of waste and neglect dominated the space. A bookcase full of mouldering, ancient textbooks that hadn’t been used in decades was a time capsule of the Golden Gulf ESL era with the dated, pre internet era materials suggestive of slower, less pressurized times and much higher salaries. Outside, the melodious drone of the adhan had started and the believers were assembling in the teaching building’s interior masjid visible below my window. sliding off their shoes, clasping their arms and adopting their sombre positions in lines of submission. Since the cafes were closed during prayers, I made myself a coffee and completed the lesson attendance data entry. I planned to get back to the mall close to the accommodation block where I might be able to hurriedly eat a blackened half-chicken, potato chips and a tabouleh salad for nourishment before returning for the exhausting afternoon classes.
I cursed my lack of car as I traipsed across campus towards the mall. It was about 40 degrees and rays from the azure gulf sky roasted me like a garlic coated shawarma. As I passed the traffic lights adjacent to the main gate and stopped to wipe my sweat-sodden brow, a scooter tearing around the bend of the inclined road about one hundred yards ahead caught my attention. The rider swerved around and in front of a massive SUV at no less than fifty miles per hour, causing the driver to swerve and vigorously horn the cavalier on the scooter so indifferent to the possibility of pileups, mangled cars and smashed bodies. The death-wish rider, who seemed to have gone native in his approach to road safety, flew past me. There was no mistaking the pallor of the face, the five o’ clock shadow or the glassy eyes. It was Boozer Bagshaw on his kamikaze chariot showing zero regard for getting out of the magic kingdom alive and to my dismay, he was heading in the direction of Teaching Building 21.
Next morning Donald burst into my office shortly before I was going to leave to teach my morning lessons.
“Did you hear about Boozer?”
His eyes glowed, illuminated by the unique excitement in other’s misfortunes which electrified him. I shook my head, glancing down at the textbooks and my planning notes to hint that I was busy.
“He’s been kicked out. Went into class yesterday drunk as a lord! I heard he’s been sacked. He’s out!” With this announcement, Donald kicked the air to emphasise that Bagshaw’s services had been dispensed with.
“How much time have they given him to clear out then?” I asked.
“Usually a couple of weeks,” said the department’s historian in instructor disgrace, infamy and scandal. “If you’ve really done it and made somebody high up angry, if you’ve pissed off the president, they’ll arrange a car to collect you and take you straight to the Bahrain border. Like Jenkins, once came into class drunk as well. Was doing the night school and was sick all over the president’s son…nearly passed out.” This got Donald started on additional narratives of shame I didn’t have time to hear. I made my excuses and left for my classroom.
We got the details later at an informal ‘press conference’ that Donald held at the first- floor corridor junction. Boozer had staggered into class—how he hadn’t crashed and died during the ride into his shift I never knew— stinking of home-brewed Siddique. He had then started the lesson with a mumbled, slurring diatribe against the department’s management, with Brad coming in for particularly vitriolic comment and Ishmael not spared either. He then told the class that there was going to be a different lesson: they weren’t going to be doing the ‘bollocks’ coursebook unit on narrative tenses. Instead, they were going to see some bona-fide motor sports: the raw, adrenalin-rush excitement of motorcycle racing! And so, he turned on the projector, navigated to YouTube and played one uninterrupted hour of the Isle of Man TT motorcycle race with the volume cranked up to maximum. Another source claimed Boozer had finished his lesson and career at Prince Salman University by standing on a chair and flatulating into the microphone attached to the lectern, but this couldn’t be corroborated. Word must have reached Dr Al-Qahtani in minutes, with students messaging video and stills of the ‘lesson’ in progress directly to the mysterious principal. By the end of the day, Boozer was gone.