by Titus Green
“And that’s basically it, gents. KEEP TO THE PACING SCHEDULE! Do not deviate from it ever. It’s a system where there are going to be winners and losers, but a system that has worked. Matching the course average is the key here. Don’t let the students mess you around with the lates or the absences either. The policy is clear and no excuses. Ten absences and over and the student is denied.”
Denied what exactly, I mused thirty minutes into this excruciating presentation. Denied the right to doss around for a few more years to defer their inevitable unemployment, I surmised. Most of these Saudi lads were here for the perks, the generous student allowances, cheap campus falafels and daily PlayStation immersion. Most of them were eager recruits into this doomed academic project, only too happy to hide in this absurd institution to avoid membership of the real world and the unpalatable demands of effort, self-discipline and responsibility that came with it. They were one part of the supporting cast, the necessary actors in thi s grotesque farce called Gulf ESL. We, the infidel mercenaries were the other. It was an ancient racket. A pensioner of a scam that had been running for years perpetuated by the greedy and myopic. “Keep your attendance records accurate,” barked Brad, the brusque American millennial in charge of this educational charade as he finished his baffling section of the presentation. Big Ishmael, seated to his left, surveyed our interest levels with eyes that glowed like sensors of an android programmed for micro-management. A vast, humourless machine set up to patronize and rebuke. A smirk hadn’t moved from his rotund face since this highly demotivating induction talk had begun. His shaven head gleamed in the light, and his tapered goatee beard, combined with his rectangular-framed clerical glasses, projected the bogus impression of affability when he smiled. Externally, he could have been a jolly Bhuddist monk had he been dressed in a robe, perhaps, but he meditated only in the temple of control. He was scanning us, monitoring our attention, turning his head in the direction of where I was seated. I avoided his gaze. He reminded me of a cranky, territorial hippo patrolling a riverbank with bad intentions. Brad was handing over to him; it was his turn to inform us next and he looked determined to have our full attention.
It was 5.30 pm and a glowing amber sunset was forming beyond the window. Soon the adhan would sound its melodious instruction for the believers to assemble at the masjids and assume their solemn postures for the Mhagrib prayer. I wished I could communicate with them and request that they petition the one true god to bring an end to this tedious, synapses-melting staff induction we, the new crew of jaded riyal-chasing chancers, were obliged to attend. Brad had started the session, up on the podium and behind a shabby lectern with chipped varnish (no doubt weathered by the mass of verbal hot air blown over it during the years) by giving a grandiose speech about the university, its singular tradition of excellence in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, how its students were the cream of the country’s scholastic crop, how they were destined to become glorious future industrial generals of the nation’s Vision 2030 Saudization program, and finally how the department’s preparatory English program set the standard in terms of curriculum, teaching and assessment that other universities in the region were determined to emulate. “We set the standard gentlemen. We lead while others follow!” Naturally I regarded this guff with the scepticism it required, finding it hard to believe how teachers stiffed out of their pay, forced to sign a contract that penalized them two months’ wages if they dared to resign (and this in addition to having to work out a six-month notice period) and made to work in a building with corridors that stank of rotting bowel-motions could possibly be the reliable delivery agents of this much vaunted excellence. My new colleagues fitted the typical Saudi TEFL recruitment profile: most were middle-aged practitioners of tired timelines and dishevelled grammar presentations. Riyals-for-old rope specialists like me coming back for more, since a few of the more sociable and approachable of this cohort had told me this was their second, third or even fourth tour of duty in the Kingdom. Some had alternated their postings here in between more appealing ones in Asia and Europe and then returned when their nightlife cheques had to be cashed, their dissolute adventures or decade-deferred college loans had to be paid for, or their women and families supported. Some were near duplicates of Rick. Veterans of debauchery behind their po-faced teaching exteriors, barely able to wait for the first paycheque to guide them over the causeway into the greedy nozzle of Bahrain’s vast hedonic hoover that waited to vacuum clean their bank accounts. As we were waiting for the induction to begin, warily acknowledging each other clasping polystyrene cups of sugary local coffee, I ran into Tim, a former colleague from the English Council Teaching Centre (bitter ex teachers changed the syllables of the second word in the title of this (un)charitable institution into something vulgar and gynecological) in Seoul two decades earlier. TEFL was an incestuous occupation with a small pool of globally active practitioners, so such renewals of acquaintance were common. Tim’s face was more lined, and his skin wrinkled. Furrows of twenty-first century adversity were scored onto his forehead and around his eyes. On his temples, silvery-grey hair was defeating the black. I would learn later that he’d survived a divorce and a failed business venture outside of ELT. He’d also survived a lengthy contract with British Aeronautical Systems and knowing how that particular job mostly involved keeping rowdy classrooms of unemployable, near feral young men under control, I realised one factor that had likely contributed to the vertical skin ditches on his forehead. There hadn’t been much time to say much, because the presentation was starting. We just exchanged a few pleasantries and initial negative impressions of our new post.
“The accommodation leaves much to be desired,” I muttered behind my cup. “And the place isn’t exactly surging with friendly, positive vibes.” Tim smiled ruefully and rolled his eyes in support of my assessment.
“You can say that again,” he concurred in his Yorkshire accent. “A guy at BAS recommended this place. ‘Best job in the Gulf’ he called it.” Tim expelled air through his lips to punctuate this statement with derision. “Brad’s really abrupt, isn’t he? And that Ishmael’s a total bell-end.”
“Hmm, yeah,” I nodded. “Seems a black-belt in control freakery determined to throw us around.”
“Let’s hope he doesn’t literally throw his weight around, or there could be some damage,” Tim replied. Then the presentation had started and here we were, thirty minutes later, feeling no readier to do our jobs judging by the nonplussed expressions of my new co-workers. In a perfunctory manner, Brad had gone over an absolutely baffling curriculum and assessment system that Balkanized English language into Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking components. There was an additional ‘Use of English’ paper, a construct they’d clearly plagiarized from the Cambridge FCE suite of exams. There were seven (or eight, I’d lost count) different coursebooks used and five separate exams. There were ‘tests’ every week to generate the student performance data for the pass or fail progression, and then a full Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam in the penultimate week. Multiple choice questions with three answer choices were the testing tools of choice for reading, grammar and use of English, which automatically weakened the assessment validity because the student had over a 35% chance of guessing the correct answer for each question. The gapped sentences on the grammar questions actually tested vocabulary and for the use of English paper, a list of 50 randomly selected lexical items was distributed to the students for self-study each week which would be tested with gapped sentences and more multiple choice. The reading tasks did not test either gist understanding of the passage or any higher-order skills, such as summarizing. Bizarrely, the decision makers had selected, as the core teaching material, Headway, an obsolete coursebook popular in the nineteen nineties for teaching general purpose English courses to adults in mostly European EFL schools. It included haram topics such as dating, socializing with alcohol and sunbathing. How on earth was this teaching resource appropriate for young Saudi men needing to acquire academic and technical English? Most perplexing of all however, was the assessment system used to decide whether students progressed or failed the course. In each class, all the students’ component scores were added together and then divided by the number of students to generate an average score. Teachers were required to use the algorithm on a specially designed Prince Salman University software program to perform this calculation. The average became the passing grade, which then had to be compared against the combined average of the entire department’s student cohort. I was cognitively lost within the first three minutes of Brad’s ‘simple explanation’ and now he eyed us suspiciously, not offering the chance for questions which were now instead going to be taken by Ishmael, who had mounted the podium.
“Thank you,” said Damian, a fellow Brit who’d been wasting away in a petro-ESL job at a refinery in Khafji for the past seven years. “But I just don’t quite understand this grading system. There is no set pass mark, but they, the students, have to meet the average that is determined by the total scores of all students taking the same level? Have I just about got that right?” I was thankful for Damian’s question, and the confidence to ask it. I clasped my pen, ready to make a second attempt to turn the claptrap of the management into coherent information.
“What? Say again,” snorted the Program Manager. Damian rephrased his question. “What’s the problem? I really don’t see how this is so difficult to follow,” he said with disdain, widening the target of his remark to include all of us. “There’s Listening, Reading, Grammar, Use of English, Speaking and TOEFL. There’s a quiz every week. You collect the scores and then the mean score of all students in each level is worked out by our software which works out the individual averages for both the group and the entire level.”
As Ishmael spoke, he was using a laser pointer to highlight sections of the Power Point (for us, PointlessPoint) presentation left up on the projector by Brad. It consisted of decorative graphics and icons, blocks packed with labels and numbers and some mystifying mathematical formulae.
“At the end of each module, the students take a TOEFL test. We convert the scores into percentages. the Department Heads and Deans meet to agree on the letter grade percentages, at which time you will be sent grades you will be responsible for entering. And if you fail to enter them properly, and by the deadline, there will be serious repercussions for you, as well as financial penalties.”
“Clear now?” said Ishmael looking at Damian as though failure to grasp it was a clear sign of intellectual inferiority, and my meek colleague simply wilted and retreated behind the defence of a bashful smile.
“But what happens if a student fails?” The question mark, sketched conspicuously next to the note in my pad, needed expression.
“Fails?” Ishmael sneered at me as if I was a canine deposit on a park lawn where dog-owners didn’t bother with plastic bags. His face twitched into a passive-aggressive smile full of barely concealed contempt.
“Were you actually listening during the presentation?” While not surprised by his rudeness, since I’d learned from my miserable Saudi debut at Gulf Training Enterprises, that petro-ESL managers usually had the tact and sensitivity of chainsaws, my neck hairs bristled at the remark. The casual way and ease with which he tossed this patronising, belittling stone into my face. A sign that he routinely spoke to teaching staff as though they were hired help of the lowest possible status. I felt a spasm of anger at this humiliating treatment that was only assuaged by the realisation that this individual clearly believed that his trivial authority made it possible to speak to teachers in this way, and that one day he’d be confronted by somebody not concerned by his ‘manager’ status who would like to give him some feedback about his manner with people. My new colleagues just watched passively as their fellow newbie was addressed like an obtuse schoolchild. I got a low initial reading on my esprit de corps sensor. Nobody gave a gigantic warehouse of shit for anything, apart from their untaxed riyals and weekend pleasures. All faces sagged with apathy, except for Tim whose familiar tensed jaw expressed his displeasure at my treatment. He had a fiery, courageous temperament. At the English Council he had clashed frequently with the insufferable upper-management, who were plummy-voiced, over-paid poster children for the superannuated mediocrity embraced by that cultural relations organization.
“Yes, I was listening,” I answered with certainty. “But I don’t think non-passing students were mentioned,” Ishmael shifted his weight from one foot to the other—probably the closest in his life he had come to doing any exercise—and grimaced, while Brad watched me with a disapproving frown. Ishmael then reinforced his grimace with a perplexed turn of his head, as if to show that he was aghast at my stupidity. Dr Al-Qahtani, with his Hammurabi beard and shortened thobe indicating his religious convictions, watched aloofly, languidly satisfied in his default superiority over us. Earlier he had delivered an abysmal welcome speech. It was a mumbling travesty of rhetoric full of faulty vocabulary and mystifying meaning. He told us when the offer is effective, Allah will guide you through the correct path. Based on what I’d seen so far, not even Allah’s will could save this shambolic syllabus.
“Look,” said Ishmael, grasping the mouse and moving the presentation back to a slide which had a flow-chart which included small anthropomorphic symbols representing students clustered together in a line snaking upwards towards a box labelled Preliminary English Program. This seemed to symbolize the ‘gate’ through which these pixelated pilgrims passed on their journey towards English literacy, but I couldn’t be certain. Above this box, more thick arrows fanned out across the width of the slide, with each pointing to a box representing an additional obligatory course for the students, such as Math, Life Skills, Computer Science and Physical Education. Each box had plus/minus symbols written beside it. Below this was another layer of arrows pointing to the separate English components of grammar, speaking, writing, listening use of English and vocabulary, which were tabulated with percentage values next to them and an abstruse formula below the table that read Group Average ÷ Course Average + Leveraged Score = Overall Student Percentage per module.
“Now pay close attention to this slide,” said Ishmael with a scowl.
He clicked the screen, and after an intricate revolving double helix slide transition finished one cycle of animation, a page jam-packed with bullet points in a minute 8-point font appeared. I shuddered to think of this English curriculum’s DNA and the mystifying mutant it would create.
I told the Program Manager that the tiny text was unreadable, and he reacted by highlighting a critical sentence and magnifying the font so that it overwhelmed the screen, shoving all the other bullet points out of the textbox.
The Deans of Graduate Studies will meet to calculate the final percentile scores for letter grades A-E. C is the lowest acceptable pass grade. Students not achieving this grade will, after consideration and consultation by senior faculty of the department, repeat the module.
I nodded, conceding the point yet certain that student failure had never been mentioned. I was too fatigued for any more dialogue with this fatiguing individual.
“You clearly weren’t listening when Brad said all detailed information about the course is included in point 67 of the handout,” Ishmael continued, determined to capitalize on my concession and magnify the sense of my own incapability. The thick pamphlet he was referring to was lying on the writing table attached to my chair.
“Where?” asked Dale, a zealous Canadian. After some frantic scanning, in which Brad participated, the policy sentence was located concealed on a page dense with minute text. Meanwhile my presentation weary colleagues had glazed eyes, wondering when this punishment was going to end. Chris, a taciturn American who’d moved from a university in Riyadh, was dozing off in his seat. He’d looked bed-ready from the moment he’d entered the room.
Brad then told us no more questions were allowed and that Ishmael was now going to explain the speaking assessments to us. The Program Manager duly inserted another flash drive into the computer and opened a PPT with an image of two young men in thobes conversing. The speaking assessments were weekly, consisting of a choice of tasks for the instructor: either a short personal interview on familiar topics or describing photographs. The grading criteria included a scale that awarded higher marks the more frequently a certain verb tense was used, and a criterion for pronunciation that included such descriptors as speaks with loud, confident voice and does not sound like a native speaker. Tim was sitting next to me, and the withering side glances we made in tandem confirmed our agreement that we had landed in the ESL world that the qualified, knowledgeable and competent explorers had steered well clear of. After ten minutes of this erroneous drek Ishmael withdrew his flash-drive and plodded morosely off the speaking platform to applause Brad had prompted us to give.
“Thank you, Ishmael,” said our Program Director. “Those are the main points of our specially designed speaking assessments.” I noticed a hostile glance the Program Manager gave me as he retook his seat. Next, Brad introduced an Egyptian Math professor who was going to educate us about effective classroom management. The professor propelled himself onto the podium with the power of unsubtle pomposity, carrying the mannerisms and overbearing attitude of a man unwilling to give self-doubt the time of day. He strode up, and after giving profuse, obsequious thanks to Dr Al-Qahtani for reasons that weren’t clear, told us to pay close attention. For twenty minutes he told us about his achievements, awards and promotions. With expansive gestures he then translated some Arabic proverbs about teaching and instructed us to speak to our students in a commanding voice. He became more animated and passionate, vocatively demanding we bring our commanding voices to work and impose our authority on the students. He was reaching his peroration when his fluency was disturbed by an outburst of snoring from Chris. Long, hoarse bursts with rises, crescendos and falls lasting several seconds were coming from our colleague from Riyadh, who was slumped over his chair. A mortified Brad rose and approached Chris’ chair to rouse him. Unperturbed by this welcome hint, the Egyptian guru continued, finishing his masterclass in managing classes and giving us his e-mail address in case we needed further advice and tips. At one point he seemed reluctant to leave the podium and was expecting applause. Then another Egyptian Math professor was invited onto the stage to inform us about the campus and its splendid facilities. Before he began, he also gave greetings and thanks to Dr Al Qahtani and our illustrious Head of Department accepted these tokens of deference with a condescending nod. The professor told us that we were very lucky to have such excellent living and working conditions. He added that the campus had sports facilities that were the envy of the Gulf and shopping facilities so good that all our needs would be catered for. He was particularly keen to stress the supremacy of the staff supermarket which, he claimed, had everything we could possibly want.
Brad brought the induction to a close ten minutes later, telling us to be ready for the placement testing of the new student cohort the following week. I got up, intending to make acquaintance with a few more of my new colleagues to gauge their impressions of this setup and then talk to Tim some more and compare our housing situation.
“Henry, can I talk to you?”
There was no mistaking the voice of Ishmael, spoken in the tone of a man desperate to exercise authority. I turned around and faced him and there was a purplish hue to his cheeks. The blood of indignation was flowing. “Just step outside for a minute. Just here,” he said gesturing to the corridor. I was more depressed than apprehensive, ready to kick the skin off my own shins for being hypnotized by James Price’s commission-driven sales pitch for this miserable role back in the U.K. That weasel recruiter with the Estuary English coming out of his nose. If there was any justice, I would be allowed to kidnap him and force him to work in this blazing hot prison of shit and control-freakery for a year!
“I’m the Program Manager,” he said forcefully, pointing to his chest. “And I’m responsible for communicating important, in fact critical, information to all faculty regarding test procedure, entering grades and so on. This is to make sure things are done correctly, in line with university policies, so that mistakes are avoided. My time to do this in information sessions is limited. I have a lot of information to get across in a very short space of time. Do you follow?”
I nodded, feeling the numbing futility of even attempting rational dialogue with this character. “When you ask unnecessary questions, it can hold up the presentation, and that wastes time. It can also distract me from the point I’m making, do you understand? My time is a precious commodity.” I was already contemplating how I would phrase my anonymous warning to potential applicants on Johnny MacSporran’s DON’T TEACH HERE EFL job blacklist site. I had a duty to warn the dupes in waiting, who were innocently queueing up their resumes like lines of sacrifices ignorant that they were heading towards a ritual slaughter of their hopes and expectations on an Aztec scale. Tim, further down the corridor, noticed my scolding in progress.
“But isn’t it quite important to know what happens to failing students?” My question seemed reasonable.
He pursed his lips. “No!” His tone became harsher. “Your job is to TEACH the students only. What happens if they do not match the course average does not matter to you.” He then adopted the slow, deliberate tone of an adult talking to children. “If you really need to know, read the information in the instructional package. In future, don’t interrupt managers again with unnecessary questions, especially when they cause confusion OK?” Satisfied that my non-cooperative attitude had been corrected, he walked away leaving me bewildered and angry. What swamp, what cemetery of gross mismanagement did the Saudis exhume these ghouls from? This was my intended question for Tim, who was still at the end of the corridor and now pinned down by Donald who’d appeared from nowhere and whose swivelling head and frantic jaw movements indicated a gossip download in progress. Tim needed to be warned about the manic and garrulous Irishman, and I hoped that my ex-colleague wasn’t going to share any confidences with him.
Back in the main room, Chris was in deep sleep, with his cheek squashed onto the desk and his arms hanging loose. I envied his dreamy refuge. Don’t wake up, or you’ll have to teach here, I thought. A Bangladeshi cleaner tidying the room was unsure about approaching him. As I headed towards Tim another familiar voice impeded my progress.
“Henry. Can I talk to you for a minute?” It was Brad’s Midwestern accent this time. I turned and faced the Program Director and saw Ishmael walking away from him, suggesting that they’d having a conflab about the new inquisitive troublemaker on the payroll.
I had briefly met Brad earlier in the day, or ‘been allowed’ to meet him. Peter had had to call ahead to get a five-minute meet and greet approved through Paul, Brad’s secretary. Paul showed us into his office in a very formal, fussy way and Brad greeted us minimally as he sat at his desk. We weren’t invited to sit, and Brad didn’t rise to shake my hand either. Peter summarised the progress in my arrival administration and application for the residency permit known as the iqama. He also mentioned the sanitation catastrophe in my apartment which caused our boss to grimace wearily, as though torrents of raw sewage were to be expected. He agreed to get me temporarily re-housed but added that I needed to get my iqama processed within two weeks or my employment contract might be terminated. Now the Program Director assessed me with a peevish vibe.
“That was a bit clumsy and inappropriate of you in there. Ishmael wasn’t impressed by your questions, and neither was I.”
Inappropriate! The distant rumble of a fighter jet accompanied my astonishment. Sorties for Sanaa probably. Here in the department, English language teaching best practice seemed under attack from the missiles of misguidance. I was faking contrition, since I was exhausted and desperately needed to get out of the management’s energy field. The fact that I had to pay my own visa and iqama processing costs for this now haunted me. It would deny sleep, that was for sure.
“Sorry Brad, I just, you know, need to know such details. To do my job to the best of my ability.”
“Failure, especially when referring to the students, is also a word we—and especially Dr Al Qahtani—don’t like to hear. It’s negative. Creates a bad impression. ‘Not promoted’ is an acceptable term, but not failure. You must never use it again. Do I make myself clear?”
I nodded. He then became a bit friendlier and before ending the conversation, he mentioned that there was some good news about my plumbing and re-housing issues.
“Peter’s talked to some people in Faculty Affairs, and we’re going to move you temporarily into one of the bachelor apartments over in the New Shabab block. You’ll spend a night or two in there until we find a new place for you. Just get your stuff ready to move over and somebody from the Housing and Logistics department will meet you. Peter’s going to meet you at your current place at 5.45.”
While this was a relief to hear, it denied me the chance to have a proper sit-down with Tim. We would have to compare notes later.
“You know you’re lucky,” said Brad as he walked away. “Those suites are reserved for the visiting consultants and lecturers. You’ll have a bit of luxury for a couple of nights.” I thanked him and said I was looking forward to having more comfortable accommodation.
Fortunately, Tim was still at the end of the corridor. Most of the other newbies had dispersed and to my relief, Donald had moved on and was probably buttonholing other newcomers. On the wall there was a student progression diagram, a kind of cartoon, showing successful students progressing through the various levels of the program along a metaphorical road, along which there were various gates representing the end of level exams, the ritual linguistic trials these initiates were obliged to face. The gates had no mythological guardians beside them but were labelled with the baffling mathematical formulas we’d seen in Ishmael’s presentation. Students with higher English levels who entered the university with TOEFL 600 or IELTS 6.5 scores bypassed this gruesome process and went straight to the freshman ‘English 101’ academic English course taught exclusively by instructors with master’s degrees.
I looked at my erstwhile colleague with an incredulous expression. “Don’t ask me what the hell I have just done by signing a contract here,” I said with a rueful headshake. “But I must be insane. Can you credit the shit that went on in there?”
“They were well out of order, especially the way that big guy spoke to you,” he replied.
“Have you ever seen such an absolute car-wreck of a course?” I cried. “It’s outrageous.”
“The course is par the course for Saudi unfortunately,” he replied wearily. We exited the building, and a humid wall of early evening heat engulfed us. A contest of colour was taking place in the sky where a haze of brilliant, fiery orange was conceding defeat to the darkness as sunset neared completion. We walked across the square. Students were milling out of the mall, walking in groups and clasping their coffees while others had animated conversations.
“So, what did that guy want with you at the end there? And what’s his problem anyway?” asked Tim. I summarised my rebuke and Ishmael’s attitude when I’d met him earlier in the day.
“The guy’s an arsehole,” said Tim. “Really unfriendly. I arrived last night like you and my administrative helper didn’t contact me, so I had to walk down here in the scorching heat this morning, sweating buckets to find out what was going on, you know, like who the hell am I supposed to report to on my first day. Fucking shambles,” he added. I’d shared some details of my miserable arrival with him before the induction talk began, sparing the most stomach-churning ones about the sewage up-flow covering my living room carpet. There hadn’t been a chance to hear about his ‘landing at Prince Salman University’ experience yet.
“So, I come down here in the baking heat this morning—I didn’t have a SIM card so I couldn’t call anybody, and nobody had given me Brad’s number anyway. And I go into Building 22, trying to find Brad’s office. The signs directed me, and I made my way up. Anyway, I go up—yeah you couldn’t miss that rude graffiti in the elevator, could you? Made me smile —and the first thing I do is walk into that guy’s office by mistake. That Paul bloke wasn’t there to tell me where to go so I was none the wiser like.”
“I couldn’t believe it. He looks up, all offended like, as if I’m some smelly tramp or burglar invading his space and tells me I should knock before entering! Then he says who are you in a really snarky tone and starts giving me grief about not being with my admin helper, not following the correct induction protocols, not going by the exact petty rules basically.”
“So, he’s given us a similar reception,” I replied.
“A petty, nasty little Hitler.”
I couldn’t disagree, but such characters were foundational personalities of the petroleum English teaching world. You just had to survive them.
“Not what we should expect after having to fork out over a thousand quid for our visas, iqamas and other stuff is it?” I wasn’t proud of this disingenuous remark, but I had to say it. Tim was no Saudi debutant and knew the score. We were walking along the main artery road in the dusk, and the giant mace shaped tower that stood watch over the campus was now invisible. We were approaching the main intersection, nearing the large In Excellence We Strive sign that greeted visitors on entry. It was now illuminated by side lamps.
“Yeah. So many red flags,” sighed Tim. “I’m regretting taking this gig already, and I haven’t even started doing it!”
“You’re not the only one with buyer’s remorse mate,” I chuckled. “If only there was a cooling off period. One week in which to say thanks but no thanks.” Tim grinned at the evolving black comedy of our plight.
“What the hell did we learn from that induction?” he said, asking the darkening sky with despair. And what about the classrooms, and the ICT resources—are they interactive whiteboards or what? We haven’t been shown anything. ”
I told him what I’d seen when Peter had been able, after some red tape and calls to janitors by Paul, to get one of the classrooms open. “There was an old-style chalk board of the kind we saw in primary school, with some kind of crumpled screen at the top that rolls down when a button is pressed. Dusty floors. Abandoned chairs stacked at the sides. Aging garbage and food wrappings. Pretty shabby all round,” Tim reacted with a fatalistic smile and headshake. We exchanged impressions of other teaching staff we’d met so far, and I mentioned John, the weary, burnt-out petroleum industry English teacher I’d met in the corridor of Building 22.
“Yeah, met him earlier. I worked with him at BAS too. Decent guy.”
“Yeah, too decent for this miserable inferno. He’s been here too long. I’ve never seen a teacher looking so stressed and fatigued. The lines on his face—not good. He needs to get out of this racket. And I saw you talking to Donald. What do you make of that character?”
“Weird, weird guy!” said Tim thoughtfully. “I’d only just met him and he starts telling me about an ex-teacher now in prison in Cambodia accused of crimes with boys, another ex-teacher fired for accidentally projecting porn on the whiteboards, yet another ex-teacher who’s just died of pancreatic cancer and a current teacher who’s a raging alcoholic.”
“Yeah, I noticed he’s a kind of historian of university teacher nightmare stories. A kind of Herodotus of the horrific. And I guess he also said you were going to get the highest evaluations?”
“That he did,” said Tim.
As we made our way up the campus artery road in the direction of the Old Shabab campus apartments for single men, the disappearance of daylight was almost complete. Blurred human shapes moved past us on the other side of the road in the crepuscular haze and then, lurching towards us some ten meters ahead came the wasted looking form of ‘Boozer Bagshaw’. As he approached us the streetlamp illuminated his craggy, pallid face and the scar running along one length of his shaven skull looked like a hideous pipeline burrowed under his scalp that meandered over and around his veins. I learned later that he had got into bar-brawls while in South Korea and perhaps this unsightly mark was a souvenir of some ill-judged bravado.
“Alright?” I said for a greeting but his eyes, with dilated pupils, just stared straight ahead and beyond me. He had no wish to leave his familiar zone of lowered serotonin, slurred speech and blank time and staggered past us accompanied by a pungent smell of malt.
“That’s the resident alcoholic Donald was telling you about. Boozer Bagshaw they call him. Apparently, he’s nearly gone into class drunk as a lord before.”
“We had our fair share of them at BAS. Some of them very nasty drunks too,” said Tim. I believed him and had read the story of a BAS teacher who’d beaten a British colleague to death in Riyadh in a drunken rage and fled the country before he could be arrested.
We were approaching our housing facility Old Shabab and I told Tim that Peter was coming to help me move my things across to my stop-gap apartment. I suggested that we meet the next day to discuss our issues further. As we followed the path that led around to the apartment block we heard a door open. There was some laughter, and I heard a familiar voice.
“Thanks man. I’ll make this last.” It was Rick, exiting an apartment. We saw him as we rounded the corner. He was wearing a garish tropical patterned short-sleeve shirt and clasping something in a paper bag.
“Hey! How’s it going?” He greeted us energetically and seemed pleased with something. With his reversed baseball cap and quirky expression, there was something of the ‘Howling’ Mad Murdoch from the 1980s A-Team episodes about him. With his determination to visit Bahrain as often as possible to compensate for these living and working conditions, his determination to full throttle the Kawasaki of pleasure up to the end of his middle age was impressive. I introduced him to Tim.
“Welcome on board,” he said, mentioning the weekend trips over the bridge and car-pooling arrangements if Tim was interested.
We got to my apartment, and I reached for my keys. Tim declined my invitation to go in and see how bad things were and when the unbearable lavatorial stench wafted from within when I opened the door, I didn’t blame him. He said his own place was pretty bad but didn’t go into details. He invited me to see for myself the next day. We exchanged numbers and said goodnight. Pulling my t-shirt over my nose, I turned on the light, braced myself and entered. The faeces puddles on the carpets were gone but revolting dark stains proved their earlier presence. Lingering excremental odours and detergent competed for olfactory domination and whatever attempts had been made to disinfect the place had been minimal. Fortunately, there wasn’t much to pack up but where was Peter? Wasn’t he supposed to be meeting me to coordinate the move? I’d barely processed the thought when it was interrupted by my mobile’s ringtone.
“Hi Henry. How’s it going? How was the induction?” The ambient blaring of car horns suggested Peter was jammed in traffic and nowhere near the campus.
“OK I replied,” with diminishing appetite for small talk. The dump I was standing in was haunted by the molecules of human waste and I wanted to get things moving. “But I’ve got to say that assessment system is a bit…convoluted.”
“It’ll make sense don’t worry.”
“I’m at the apartment now,” I said, to get down to brass tacks. “All packed and ready to go.”
“Yeah. Listen, that’s why I’m calling.” I heard his prelude to disappointing news with weary acceptance of the likely trajectory of this job. If I had hired an astrologer to look at this post’s horoscope, I doubted there would be any hopeful conjunctions. “I’m sorry I’m not going to make it. I got held up in Dammam and the traffic’s backed up.” I assumed he’d been moonlighting with the IELTS testing, not that I cared.
“Not to worry. I’ve asked Eduard from Housing to come along instead. He should be there soon, and he’ll give you a call before he comes. He’s got a van and he’ll take your gear to the temporary place, which I’ve heard is a bit plush by the way.”
“So I’ve heard,” I said. We agreed a time to meet the next day to continue with my registration formalities. Five minutes later I was called by Eduard, who arrived just as Peter had said. He pulled up in the car park in a flatbed truck. He was a taciturn Filipino emitting the specific world-weariness of a subdued soul obliged to live on his wits for survival. We collected my things, and I closed the door, telling Eduard I hoped I would never have to set foot in the cesspit again and he nodded with the indifference of a man who’d been listening to this expatriate script for decades.
The block with the interim accommodation was directly opposite the Old Shabab block and I’d heard it was the ‘enhanced’ quality Housing for teachers with greater seniority who’d earned the right to superior squalor. I would learn later of its major rat infestations later. Eduard helped me with my case, and I thanked him. We opened the door and…WOW! A clean, modern kitchen with spotless surfaces, spacious cupboards, a fairly new and large refrigerator, drawers with all the utensils. Things were looking up! My gladness increased when I saw the large bedroom with clean bedding stacked up neatly and a civilized bathroom unit that didn’t have any nasty smells.
“Much better,” I told Eduard who showed no interest in my evaluation. I offered to give him the keys to apartment 2471 but he refused, advising me to keep them for the time being.
It was sweltering, so I turned on the air-conditioning, unpacked some of my things and took a shower. I then went out. First I went to the campus supermarket given such a spectacular review by our Egyptian colleague. I managed to sneak in before the final Ishaa prayer call and was dismayed by the quality and inadequacy of the stock. In the main area, nothing but aisles upon aisles of huge drums of powered ghee, restaurant sized bags of rice, rows of overpriced breakfast cereals and party-sized chocolate bars confronted me. Pizzas ruled the freezer compartments, along with crumpled boxes of halal convenience foods such as kofta and Shish Tawook created from processed meat probably processed in a previous decade. In the fish compartment, measly, apologetic bricks of frozen salmon appealed for buyers for twenty-five US dollars per packet. I bought some water and exited rapidly, visiting one of the chicken and rice takeaways in the mall complex to buy a bland half-chicken that filled me up at least. I then returned to the new apartment, accompanied by the droning of the last adhans of the day, resonating in synch from masjids across the landscape. Just as I entered the building the harsher sound of a fighter jet sortie punctured the fleeting tranquility.
Before going out I had left the air-conditioning running, and the place was freezing. More worryingly, after turning it off I saw a sizeable puddle of water on the kitchen floor, under the air-conditioning vent in the ceiling. I mopped up the water with some paper towels, made a cup of tea and went to bed shortly afterwards, turning the air-conditioner back on and leaving it on a medium setting. I lay in the darkness determined to ignore the deafening alarm bells about this new job and forget its gigantic box of red flags for eight hours. This was ESL and its crapshoot job-market. I just craved seven or eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.
I thought I was dreaming of rain as a splattering, pattering noise woke me some time later. I was groggy and my throat was parched as though coated with felt. I needed a glass of cold water—but the pattering grew louder, and my apprehension increased. It was like the sound of torrential rain hitting paving stones but coming from inside the apartment.
I got up, turned on the light, opened the door and prepared for the worst. Torrents of water were cascading from the air-conditioning vent and soaking everything in proximity. If that wasn’t bad enough, water was teeming down all four walls and flowing onto the floor. I screamed and bellowed and my bestial howl resonated around the apartment. An SOS. The mayday call of just another EFL teacher who wasn’t getting an emergency evacuation. In calamitous petro-EFL jobs nobody hears you scream.
I watched helplessly as the water enclosed the legs of the furniture and advanced towards the apartment front door and wondered if I would ever get any peace. If Boozer Bagshaw was getting hammered on Siddique somewhere in one of these stinking wretched hovels, then I wanted to join him.