Expat Eyes

This blog contains the photographs, observations and reflections of Rena Diana, an educator and writer, during extended stays in the Arabian Gulf, China, and Mongolia.

Archive for the category “Language”

Lessons from My Students Part 2

“Building good citizen (s) is the aim of each country that plan (s) to develop itself and provide  (a) good life for its people. Education is the main and only road to have good citizen (s). The more the country provides (an) advanced education system, the more the country achieves progress in all fields.”
Abbas , prospective university student
Education City, Qatar

(Corrections in parentheses are mine.)

Once again, in this post, I am protecting the privacy of my students. These are not their real names. (See May 14 Post: Lessons from My Students Part 1)

So here I am with my remaining seven students. Abbas, father of a four-year-old boy and twins – boy and girl- aged two. He is serious, hard working, and earnest, often asking the questions that fuel further learning for the entire group. Siraj has two boys and a little girl, whom he calls “his heart”. Siraj is a charmer, our class comedian, with an open and endearing manner. Very witty, ambitious, quite anxious about his skills in English and his prospects academically. He calls me “Teacher”, and I call him “Student”, in an on-going playful banter. Quiet, mysterious and dignified Naseem is the only unmarried one in the group. He has very little confidence in his ability in English and tends to miss class often. His deep, expressive eyes speak volumes.  I get the feeling he is overwhelmed with his life in general these days. Basim has an easy smile and a sweet disposition. He has two young sons. A first he stays virtually silent, as if he cannot believe he will ever be able to utter a word of English- much less read and write it- but as the weeks move along, he speaks out more and more, and smiles more and more. The most confident student in the class is Abdul, who puts in many hours revising his essays and taking practice tests in both reading and listening comprehension. At first, he politely rebuffs me, as if he needs no teacher. He is proud and intense, the father of two daughters. As the class proceeds, he relaxes, participates more, and begins to ask for help. This pleases me because his contributions to our class conversations are helpful.  Hani is the cool dude in the group.  Another charmer.  On a couple occasions, he arrives in class in jeans or some neat, casual outfit, which always throws me, as I am accustomed to seeing him clothed in Arab attire. He is very smart, a quick study, deceptively so. One of those students who appears to be distracted, then excels on an assessment.  Hani is warm, kind, clearly a leader, and totally devoted to his three young children, sometimes showing me their photos on his iphone. And, finally, there is Shihad, the oldest of the group at 37. Indeed he seems like “an elder” to me as well, with his direct, intelligent gaze and his no nonsense, mature approach to all assignments. The others respect him and look up to him as a sort of spokesman for the group, and so do I.

Finally, I could pave my way to my dream to study to get a degree in my favorite subject at one of the most well known universities. I believe that this will give me a tremendous opportunity for my future career. I am committed to being a student at University. I promise to study hard  and do my best in order to encourage (other) young Qatari (s) to join  (a) university and also to be an ideal example of my company. I am sure that the excellent quality education system in the University will be very helpful to my career and my life. Also (it will) contribute (to) the growth of education in Qatar and … the well being of the people here.”
Abdul

 

These are grown men in a traditionally male-dominated culture. They are vulnerable in this class, however, and I am aware of that, so I tread lightly. I cannot exactly tell them what to do in the same way I would the American middle schoolers I have taught (although how much even they complied is certainly debatable!) I am with these seven students for as many as five hours a day, several days a week. Everyday there is a break to observe the Call to Prayer- and to smoke and drink coffee. Sometimes these breaks extend to 45 minutes. After a couple weeks of this disappearing act, I decide to exert a bit more discipline and control in the group. One day, as they leave, I say, “Okay, gentlemen. Take your break, but be back here at exactly 3:00 o’clock.” Within a split second, Siraj responds, “3:00 P.M. or A.M.?!” –At that moment, I know we are all going to get along just fine…

Next Post: Lessons from My Students Part 3

What’s In A Name?

“No race in the world prizes lineage so highly as the Arabs and none has kept its blood so pure.”

Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands, 1959

One of the first challenges in arriving in the Middle East is trying to decode and pronounce the long names. It seems rude and lazy to mumble them or to avoid saying them altogether, and worse yet to call people by the wrong names.  When I first started teaching, I was so daunted by the fifteen seemingly identical men in white gowns (thobes) and headscarves  in my class with their complicated names, that I wrote notes to myself about their appearance and my own version of a pronunciation system, so I could sort them out. Saleh: “SAY-luh, with the sharp wit and expressive face”.  Jalal: “Juh-LAL- easy-going manner and  smiling eyes”.  Ahmad: “AH (with a little coughing sound)-med, who asks many questions”.  Fortunately, one only needs to call them by their first names!

I soon learned that there is indeed a pattern to Arabic names.  For men, “bin” ( or “ibn”) following the first name  means “son of” and is followed by the father’s first name, which is then followed by “al” which means “from the family of.” For example, the sheikh of Dubai is Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum.  His father was  Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum.  One of Sheikh Mohammed’s sons is Hamad bin Mohammed al Maktoum. The Qatar “emir,” another term for sheikh used more frequently among Qataris,  is Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani.  His father was  Kahlaifa bin Hamad al Thani. One son of the Emir is Tamin bin Hamad al Thani. There are only a few Arab names. Mohammeds, Khalifas, Thanis, Hamads,  Abdullahs, and Hassams abound. Therefore, this naming system allows one to unravel the puzzle of a person’s lineage. And family is absolutely central in the Arab culture, the key to a person’s identity, the most important of all qualifiers.

It is interesting to note that women keep their father’s family names when they marry. After a woman’s first name is “bint” followed by her father’s first name, then “al” referring to the father’s family name. For example, the third wife of Sheikh Mohammed is Haya bint Hussein. (She is the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan.)  The second wife of the Emir of Qatar is Mozah bint Nasser al Missned. This custom means that a couple never has the same family/last name, unless they are cousins, a common arrangement in royal families, which makes things even more confusing! A child never takes on his mother’s family name. In fact, it is impossible to determine who the mother of any individual is in the Arab world unless you are a personal acquaintance or it is a famous, usually royal, family who has made its records public, which is rare. Thus, you will not be able to identify the mother of any individual.

At first, I found this strange, but I quickly realized I was over-simplifying, tangled up in cultural nuances and assumption. Many women in the United States keep their so-called maiden names and give their children either hyphenated last names or only their husbands’ names. In other words, they are joining what is called the patrilineal genealogical structure of Asia and the Middle East, where there are no recorded birth lines to the mother’s family. It is easy to get trapped into dualistic thinking. “They do it that way in the East. We do it this way in the West.” The lines are blurred. And there is no one right way.

Next post: Construction in a Caravan Culture

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