Sunday, 21 July 2013

Lessons from an English Teacher and a Ramadan Story.

Two of my young students created this when I was teaching a class of gifted children in New Zealand. I’d asked them to choose a figurative expression and present it literally. I explained that they could take something like butterflies in your tummy, which really means feeling nervous, and then create an image of what it might look like if the words were true.

These two boys chose to work with put your foot in your mouth.

This classroom exercise suddenly crossed my mind the other day, when I was thinking about all the areas of cultural sensitivity in Saudi and how easy it is to inadvertently say the wrong thing.

Here's an example of what I mean. 

It was the beginning of the school year and I was talking to a small group of parents in my classroom. It was the Meet the Teacher evening, when you outline the year’s programme and explain your teaching philosophy. As I looked around the room, it crossed my mind that this occasion was like every other Meet the Teacher I'd held. The parents who came were the committed, interested and supportive ones. The parents you needed to see rarely turned up.

I sighed quietly to myself and carried on. I explained that parents were a hugely important part of any child’s progress and that we needed to work closely together. As I saw a couple of heads nodding, I was encouraged and so added, just for emphasis, “Of course, I know I’m preaching to the converted.”

It was a golden foot in the mouth moment. Two words one should never use in Saudi:  preach and convert.

And impossible to eat my words.

But at the moment it’s Ramadan, when a foot in the mouth is potentially less dangerous than food in the mouth.

You see, during daylight we fast. I say we, because, although Ramadan is a Muslim festival, eating or drinking in public is banned for everyone: Muslim and non-Muslim alike. 

Ramadan fasting is about prayer and reflection, remembering that this is the time when the Qu’ran was first revealed to Muhammad.  It's a time of compassion and bringing people together.

At sunset the fast is traditionally broken with a glass of water and a couple of dates. Then there is a feast called Iftaar, which can be as simple as soup at home with family, or as elaborate as a sumptuous buffet in a hotel or restaurant.

It’s a difficult time to be in Riyadh, not only because it's the height of summer, but also because life turns upside down. Many who fast choose to sleep during the day and then wake to eat during the night.  Malls are shut during the day and open most of the night. I remember this time last year when I rang to make a hair appointment, “Yes,” I was told, “We can see you at 1 am.” I declined.

The only exception is supermarkets, which open briefly before midday prayer. Last week I caught our compound bus into one of the local supermarkets. I’d left my water bottle at home, because even water is banned during daytime.

I approached the deli area where feta cheese is sold. “Which is less salty?” I enquired, "the Egyptian feta or the Hungarian?”  
Try some, Madam,” the man behind the counter told me, and he reached in and handed me a sizeable chunk to taste test. 

Minutes later, I was in the bakery eyeing up the baklava and cookies. “Where are your maamoul cookies? “ I asked.  
“Try one madam,” came the same response. 

But this time I kept my mouth firmly closed and shook my head.  There are some temptations in life that just aren't worth it. Especially during Ramadan. 

Photo source: eTime

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