Monday, 14 September 2015

And now the good news...

A few years ago a reader commented that I have a tendency on this blog to make my job sound like hard work. What with all these tales of awkward students, culture clashes, linguistic train wrecks, plagiarists and cheats, you'd be forgiven for thinking we have a very hard time of it at the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) But just as your local rag never tells you how many houses were not burgled in your neighborhood last week, Lathophobic Aphasia tends to regard the good stuff as not newsworthy. A typical day provokes no great hilarity or indignation, and though it might not be boring to live through, it would be to read about, especially for those readers who are not teachers.

So just to balance things out a bit, I paste here part of an e-mail I received on Thursday last week from a student from Saudi Arabia. She is a teacher herself who has been a student of mine since October last year. Similar sentiments were expressed to me (and no doubt to many more of our teachers) face to face by students on Friday, the last day of the course. I shall make no comment on it. I shall entertain no thoughts on the lines of 'do you really think it was anything to do with you? Why base so much of your self-worth as a teacher on praise from a very hard-working students who simply kept her half of the bargain?' No. This will not be permitted to cross my mind.

Dear Steve,
I clearly remember when I first came to this country and how I was confused , nervous and afraid of faliur. At that time, a lot of questions were buzzing around in my mind about Am I going to pass this real exam ? and how I can manage to survive and deal with the homesick. I went to my first class with all these negativity but once i step in my class and introduced myself and met my teachers and friends all these feelings immediately vanished. I don't know how and when it happened all I know is I didn't feel that anymore. Day by day, my love and loyalty to my teachers and friends become stonger. I don't feel that I am only a student but I feel that I am a part of this institution. Now, we are approaching the end of this journey so I owe you all my teachers and friends and those who gave me a hand to change myself positively. I can't reward you but I will always be thankful for the rest of my life. Thank you to those who accompany me in this journy specially to my teacher and guide ( to you Steve). You were a friend and brother before being a teacher. You tought me how is a good teacher look like.Thank you again from the bottom of my heart.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

That's August done with.

Last month I mentioned that several members of a group that I taught had screwed up on their writing tests and were in danger of being kicked out of the university. I had entertained the hope that this might indeed be the outcome. When adult students who have been with us for four months are still pushing their written work under my nose and saying ‘is OK?’, I begin to lose patience. ‘Well, is it OK?’ I ask. ‘Does your introduction give some background to the topic? Does it tell us why the topic matters? Is there a thesis statement? You tell me if it’s OK!’

The failures were allowed to take a second test, and only one nose-dived again. I felt sorry for her, because she was hard-working and earnest, not like some of the blokes, who still blame me for their earlier failure. Their present teacher tells me that they are chastened, more hard-working and less complacent than before. Well, except for Hani. He says that if he does not get the required IELTS grade on this course, he will go back to Saudi Arabia and pay someone to do the test for him. It’ll rush him 2,000 quid to cheat the system.

‘You’ll pay 2,000 pounds?’ his teacher asked incredulously.

‘Is cheap!’ he replied, completely misconstruing the reason for her indignation.  

Even if these students are indeed chastened, it seems they still blame me and not themselves. They used to greet me enthusiastically in the corridor, and now they stare through me as if I were made of glass. Once upon a time, having a bunch of students blame me for their failure would have had me worried sick. These lazy, entitled bullshitters don’t faze me, though, as I can point to all the materials I made, a record of exactly what we did in class, and the fact that the majority of the students I teach did not fuck up on the same test. Still, teaching can be a cause of some paranoia. It can for me at any rate.

Ten years ago at Essex University a young man from Thailand told me that he liked my lessons. Flattered, I asked why. ‘Because you’re not serious,’ he said. I wondered then how flattered I was entitled to feel: did he mean I was a push-over? Not as rigorous as his other teachers? This was my first university job and I wasn’t as sure of myself as I would have liked to be. A week or two before this, passing me on the stairs, the course director had asked me how it was going.

‘Fine!’ (What else am I supposed to say?)

‘You’re the calmest first-timer we’ve ever had!’ she said. So of course then I fell to thinking I might be screwing up without realising it. More recently I withdrew from an MA module I was teaching because a period of depression had convinced me I was useless at everything and that the very plants of my sitting room were fed up of me. Someone else took over. I met one of the students as he was on his way to a lecture with the new broom, and asked how it was going.

‘OK…’ he said, rather grudgingly. ‘But I’d rather have you a thousand times.’

New bloke must be cracking the whip and working them harder, I thought. He’s a lot pointier headed and academicalish than the likes of I. Imagining that students were happier when not being pushed said a lot more about me than it did about them. (They like me because I'm not good enough?) Oh, for Christ’s sake, learn to take a complement, people tell you when you’re in your teens. Well, I try, but my usual reaction is 'must think I'm somebody else.'

In my present group a woman from Greece flabbergasted me the other day by telling me I was a strict teacher and everybody in the class was scared of me. This is so far removed from my perception of myself that I was temporarily speechless. We are using a new book and so every lesson, however carefully planned, is to me as a dress rehearsal, and I’m constantly noting how I’d do stuff differently in future, or that I’ve accidentally skipped a stage or deliberately omitted something that I only now realise was integral to the unit. How I could come across to anybody as intimidatingly knowledgeable and academically rigorous is beyond me, but it appears that at least to one student, I do. I’m not sure I buy the bit about everybody being scared of me. This is probably Argyro’s own projection.

So, when students are happy, I tend to assume it’s because I’m not sufficiently exacting, and when they tell me that I am indeed punctilious and demanding, I worry that I’m scaring the shit out of them. This sort of barmy logic is not what I'd  expected to be stuck in now, all grown up as I am at fifty-six and a half. I suppose you never really get it together, you just get better at spotting how bloody stupid your thought processes can get if you don't watch them.   

Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble - Dawn

Monday, 3 August 2015

Acid Test

I have a week off. It feels unearned, despite the last five weeks being full-on, for there hasn't been much work this year. Anyway, the break comes between two five-week blocks of teaching known as Pre-sessional A and Pre-sessional B, courses on which students from China, Brazil, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and I know not where else beside are taught how to write an academic essay, participate in a seminar, listen to a lecture and make sense of a journal article or chapter in a learned book. That’s the idea, at any rate.

I’ve been teaching for thirty-four years and trained scores of teachers, but pre-sessionals always make me feel like a rookie. I frankly haven’t a clue how to transform the word-salads churned out by our Mohammeds, Salehs and Saeeds into coherent essays, but I go sailing in there with my PowerPoints and task sheets, bossing, coaxing, cajoling and joking, and by pretending to know, somehow I persuade (or dupe) them, and they do usually improve somewhat. I have decided that Blagging Your Way Through is an indispensable ingredient in language teaching, and training courses really ought to include modules on ‘Looking the Part’ and ‘Sounding Like You Know What The Fuck You Are On About’ and 'Getting 'em On Your Side'. I taught a one-off lesson with a group of Chinese kids on the Friday in July that was Eid, when Muslim students and staff had the day off. The last hour in the muggiest room of the Hugh Pokemon building was a slog, and they hated me. Epic chutzpah fail there: I hadn’t convinced anybody that they were in exactly the right place at precisely the right time. I texted a colleague: ‘went on last act Friday at the Hugh, and I fucking died, darling.’

To be fair to myself, most of the Chinese undergraduates sit in ostensibly respectful (but more likely resentful) silence for 20 hours a week while their teacher uses everything short of thumb-screws and branding-irons to get the buggers to talk. The post-grads are usually slightly older, more confident, more forthcoming and more independent. I always make a special plea early in the year to be assigned to the post-grads come pre-sessiontide, as these days silent Chinese kids who are culturally and linguistically at sea try my diminishing reserves of patience: enough already. So I had an easy time of it with my Group 1 post grads, most of whom have been with us for quite some time and are used to the way we do things. I had a less easy time of it with the Group 2 post-grads, most of whom have been with us for just as long, but never really got it. Of them, more anon.

Every course ends with tests, one per skill: listening, reading, speaking, writing. Testing is always a headache. What do you test? How do you test it? How do you present the fact of testing to students without exaggerating or trivialising it? All our students come from learning cultures that are test mad, and many of them expect a course that ends with tests to have no aim other than to equip them with the complete linguistic wherewithal to pass them – not just the skills, but the exact vocabulary and grammar. I did three lessons with one group on critical thinking, introducing them to logical fallacies and getting them to spot strawmen, red herrings, slippery slopes, poisoned wells, question begging and all that good stuff.

‘Will this be in the test?’ Abeer wanted to know.

Stupidly, I said it wouldn’t, and omitted to point out that while there would be no requirement to spot and name examples of dodgy reasoning, being able to avoid them in one’s own writing would surely be a good thing. So I left Abeer with the impression that I was wasting her time, and handed her ammunition against me should she fail the tests.

Group 2, then. It fell to me to do quite a bit of essay writing with them. They were a lively, humorous bunch, and not terribly conscientious. I hammered introductions and conclusions, topic sentences and supporting evidence, a bit of sequencing (firstly, secondly, finally) and a few discourse markers (although, however, despite) You don’t want to overdo these: students tend to see them as indispensable to sounding sophisticated in writing, and cram their paragraphs with on the one hands and on the other hands until the ideas are completely obscured by the glue that links them - and there are usually few enough ideas without drowning them. We spent whole days analysing sample essays, noting how ideas from source texts were incorporated and moreover how they were evaluated. We saw how the writer didn’t merely use stock phrases and as many linking words as could be bunged in but actually constructed an argument. At the end of the last lesson, several students came up to me to thank me for all my help. This is gratifying, but it must be borne in mind that it’s at least in part intended to secure your good will when you mark the essay. Then everyone went and did the writing test and dive-bombed spectacularly.  

Christ, but the essays were awful. I am a generous marker as a rule because I know how difficult it is to write, and how much more so in a foreign language, but, well, even Mister Niceguy had to acknowledge that to call some of these essays crap were to malign faeces. The aggregate test scores for all four skills meant that we would be losing about half of Group 2.

Last Friday was the day we handed out the students’ reports with the scores. Group 1 was my main group and only two of thirteen had failed the course. ‘But it was very difficult, everybody thought so!’ said Reham, shocked and tearful. I tried to persuade her that starting a Masters next month with her present level of reading and writing would be very stressful for her and she would probably end up withdrawing. Abeer was equally upset though less surprised. I bundled both of them off to the centre director, assuring them she would have helpful suggestions, although if pressed I couldn’t imagine what these might be. I felt like a cruel landlord turning penniless tenants out into the snow.

On the train home I texted the colleague with whom I shared group 2, imagining the scene when she broke the news to the perpetrators of those bloody essays. ‘Did you have a nice afternoon?’ I asked, flippantly. Her reply:

Good god. U are a shit teacher, Laurent is a shit teacher and all the tests were too hard is all I heard for an hour. Hani shouted at me so I shouted back saying he is a child and needs to grow up and stop blaming everyone but himself. Nearly walked out on them. Just had Sami on at me too saying his essay was amazing and structured with lots of ideas – he got 34%! They are deluded!!

So from thanks-for-all-your-help-Steve last Monday, by Friday I’m a shit teacher. Well, did I not spend all the last five week plotting their downfall? Did I not tell them to cram their essays with stock phrases and to hell with the ideas? I dismissed concerns about accurate spelling and grammar – who cares! Bugger analysis, sod evidence, screw referencing, I said, we’ll see you all OK. Suckers!  
Naturally they all summoned a huff and went off in it to tell the course director how they were merely cheated of their hopes by grifters. My suggestion by text that he have them all shot was considered but probably rejected, so I await further information now he’s had the weekend to think it all over.

Next course, I have my nice group 1 again three days a week, plus two days with a new group not yet arrived. I really, really don’t mind if they are silent Chinese kids. Once I’ve confiscated their phones, we’ll establish a modus vivendi whereby they won’t think my colleague and I are their best mates who’ll scrape them through, whatever bollocks they produce.    

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

From a You Tube thread

As some of you know, I can't stop myself getting into (largely pointless) arguments with US Jesus People on You Tube, some of whom are more convinced than ever that the end-times are upon us. Christians in the US, they assert, are an oppressed minority (despite being the majority) and soon the queers will have outlawed Christianity, and they'll be forcing everybody to collect porcelain, serve pureed salsify, worship Barbra Streisand and introduce water sports at church weddings. Be ready now for much fizzing of Evangelical mouth-froth, for the fags have won. Here's part of an exchange I had with one Scott Payne, servant of Jesus and gob-smackingly presumptuous twerp. Scott opens the conversation.

Well, I take it you are a little gay?

Not a little, totally. Do you know what that means? I have no interest in women sexually. That doesn’t license any other inferences on your part about my life or beliefs.

Ok, I Iived in San Francisco from 1982-2008, and one of the jobs I had took me though The Castro on my way home. You know what The Castro is?

Vaguely. I don’t live in the same hemisphere as you, so why should I?

My opinion's (sic) are based on first hand experiences. No I did not meet every gay person in SF

I’m sure you didn’t.

but having lived in a "gay city" I've had enough of an experience to decide on an impartial basis

Impartial basis? (Quote: 'Sir after I die, I will be with Jesus.') First-hand experience of some denizens of the Castro does not equal first-hand experience of ‘gay life’, whatever that is. It’s like claiming you know all Christians from having lived near the Amish. Do you know anything of how a homosexual man or woman might live in Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Uganda or working-class Glasgow? Or anywhere else far removed from the Castro?

My decision is not my own, and I will be happy to tell you how I arrived at it,

OK, go on then. So long as you realise how ridiculously parochial you sound already.

but, first if you are gay, I want you to explain in explicit detail what does really happen in a gay relationship in the bed room,if you will?

If I asked you to tell me in explicit detail what you do in bed, you would quite rightly think me an utter creep and tell me it was none of my business, so why do you imagine it's OK to ask me that question? If I asked you what happens in heterosexuals’ bedrooms, I hope you’d have the intelligence to tell me that that is a stupid question, because there is far too much variety, and anyway, what consenting grown-ups do in the sack is of no interest to anyone else.


That last line was a mistake. People like Scott are obsessed with what other people do in the sack, as obsessed with sex as anorexics are with food. I hope that after a brief period of hysteria, gay-hating evangelicals will in due course back off and quietly die out.  

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Oh noes! Not the BUMBLEBEES!!

I do so admire a well-crafted argument.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Humour failure

I saw the above on a friend's Facebook timeline the other evening and attacked it with all the Merlot-fueled contempt at my disposal. Well, I'd been reading Irish Catholic priests talking about how their message will now have to be reworded, and how they'll have to find new, more loving ways of calling gay people disordered, and my sense of humour had evaporated. Almost every other commenter and clicker 'liked' it and I was chid for not being able to see the joke, or rather, for huffily refusing to laugh at it. But I thought then, and think now in sober daylight, that it is thoroughly offensive. I'm not so priggishly PC that I'd write to the Beeb to complain that there was no validation of LGBT rights in the shipping forecast, or that as a short gay man I feel marginalised whenever Stephen Fry appears on the telly without mentioning that not all gay men are as tall as he is, but dammit, this one pissed me off. Women experience the gamut of emotions through the course of a day, but men know nothing but smug entitlement from waking to sleeping? Men are simple-minded, one-dimensional creatures whose reactions are wholly predictable - and we are supposed to find that funny?

 Fucking hilarious.

Seems I'm in a minority and I promise I'll get my sense of humour back soon.


As Scarlett's Mum points out in her comment, the message could just as well be anti-women, portraying them as emotionally incontinent flibberty-gibbets. That reading hadn't occurred to me.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Two things life has taught me

1. Wear your glasses more. Soft-focus is attractive but deceptive.

2. Don't leap too quickly to worst-case scenarios.

Passing unspectacled through the sitting room en route to the bathroom, I notice a small white stain on the floor. It looks as if someone's heel has forcefully ground approximately three and a half  Mint Imperials into the carpet. I don't eat sweets, so I know this cannot be the cause, but am temporarily stumped. It can't be soap powder because I use liquid. It isn't flour, because I don't bake. I get a cloth from under the sink and start to scrub the stain, which is unyielding. I apply Vanish and more elbow-grease, to no avail.  I decide that somehow I must have splashed the carpet with bleach and that I am therefore stuck with this blemish for good. Shit. How to cover it? A rug would look ummm, unmotivated in this spot, but I go and dig out a throw and a large cushion to experiment with. I arrange the throw and cushion as if for a picnic. They do not cover the stain which now appears on the throw, even brighter against the dark red.

I realise that I have just spent ten minutes trying to wipe up a patch of sunlight.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Happy Easter

Friday, 20 March 2015

Lost in Translation

In which I'm a complete spoil-sport. Tell me if you think I'm missing the point.

Prepare to be amazed, for there's a collection here of ‘‘foreign words so rich and layered in meaning that the English language, despite its own unusual vocabulary [whatever that means] renders them practically untranslatable.’’ Except that the compiler, one Ella Frances Sanders, despite over-egging each lexical pudding, manages to make the meanings clear enough. Sanders makes Susan Polis Schultz sound hard-boiled:

The words in this book may be answers to questions you didn’t know to ask, and perhaps some you did. They might pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive or indescribable, or they may cause you to remember a person you’d forgotten. If you take something away from this book … let it be the realization or affirmation that you are human, [it's easily forgotten, after all] that you are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and feelings.
Writing her review, Maria Popova is as rapt as Sanders. She wants to know '...what happens when words are kept apart by too much unbridgeable otherness?' Anybody want to take that one? I haven't a clue what she means, so let's move on. On the Japanese word komorebi meaning ‘sunlight filtered through the trees’ Popova goes all precious on us:

These words invariably prompt you to wonder… whether a culture lacking a word for the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees is also one lacking the ennobling capacity for such quality of presence, for the attentive and appreciative stillness this very act requires.

Yawn. You can appreciate the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees whether you call it 'komorebi' or ‘the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees’. But amateur language fanciers are usually more impressed by words than by phrases, subscribing to the fallacy that one word always equals one meaning, and that if language A lacks a word found in language B, then that concept is lost to speakers of A. The fact is that one meaning potentially gives rise to many words and phrases, and this Japanese word is not a single block of meaning like table or milk. Ko-more-bi can be analysed as ‘tree-leak-sun’, i.e., ‘sun leaking through the trees’, a phenomenon frequently observed and appreciated by people who live where there are trees, whatever they choose to call it. 

The Yiddish word Luftmensch ‘air person’ is one of the more interesting words in the collection, because it immediately brought to my mind the English ‘airhead’. But beware connotation: the English word means a person with not a lot up top, whereas the Yiddish means an impractical dreamer. I think connotation might be a bit too prosaic for Sanders: she’s for awe, life-affirming interconnectedness and umm, stuff like that. In search of these, she often homes in on a single use of a common word and presents it as an amazing affirmation of the fundamental intrinsic human bonds and what-not that she’s blathering on about. I submit that it would not be unreasonable to suppose that the rest of the words in her book are as easy to demystify as komorebi and these five after the jump. (Go on, jump.) 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Of Aging, Yoga and Demons.

It’s my birthday again today. I’d swear that this is becoming a biannual event. (Christmas, too.) ‘It’s only a number!’ people tell you cheerily. Yeah, yeah. I mentioned the other week that a student told me he was forty-four, and added ‘I think same like you?’ thus underestimating my age at the time by eleven years. I felt quite chuffed. Then last week a dental hygienist making small talk asked me ‘so what do you do then? Are you retired?’ effectively transposing the digits of my real age as they stand as from three o’ clock this morning. I wanted to tell her that holding hairdresser-like conversations with people whose mouths are full of tubes and mirrors is pretty pointless, but couldn’t because my mouth was full of tubes and mirrors.

I decided last week it was about time I started to take more exercise, so I dragged my yoga mat out of the cupboard and began once again to yoge. Nine years ago in Kalamata I had a private teacher and was quite good. Nothing rubs in the fact of aging like restarting yoga after nearly a decade off: I felt as if I were wearing full armour. The pose janusirshasana, or head-to-knee forward bend, is one I could do quite comfortably back then but is now among the many I can’t even contemplate for the time being. The site from which I took the photo lists diarrhoea among the counter indications for the pose and it’s easy to see the logic here, though why anyone with afflicted with the shits would even attempt it is harder to fathom. 

You might think that the risks of yoga would be confined to trying too hard and thereby pulling muscles, snapping tendons or stippling the wall with your channa daal. But you’d be wrong. Some grey-faced drama queens in the Catholic Church have warned us of the unsuspected dangers of trying to put your forehead on your knees. Gabriele Amorth is the Vatican’s chief exorcist and so presumably has lots of spare time to think on these matters. He says that yoga is of Satan and it leads to evil ‘just like Harry Potter’. (He's not mad keen on sex, either.) One Fr Roland Colhoun has recently made a tit of himself by telling his flock that yoga may lead Christians to the Kingdom of Darkness. Apparently ‘there is a great body of research (theological, spiritual and psychological) already done on it.’ I’m very curious as to what ‘theological and spiritual research’ might be, and how it is undertaken and especially how it is peer reviewed. Do they have evicted demons on the panels?

Well anyway. Happy birthday to me.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015


Four o'clock this morning. I'm on my way, via innumerable detours and delays, from city A to city B. City B seems to be Leeds. To cut a very long dream short, I arrive in the nick of time on a station platform where my boat is almost ready to leave. (It's a dream, remember.) But drat and dash it, I have no money on me. Fortunately, in the entrance just before the ticket barrier I spot my mate Christopher Hitchens, looking youngish and healthy in a smart grey suit. Great, I can tap him for a loan. Cheerfully he agrees to bale me out and gives me a pair of smart grey underpants. These I hand over at the ticket office, where the two Greek blokes that man it are amused but put up no objection.

'Ο κύριος είναι γνωστός στην Αγγλία! (The gentleman is well known in England!)' I tell them brightly. 'Δημοσιογράφος!'(Journalist!)'

On the boat are people known to me in the dream, colleagues and students all bound for the same unspecified purpose to Leeds. I cannot wait to announce to general mirth that I bought my ticket with Christopher Hitchens's underpants. But when I do, nobody's listening or interested, and the big joke falls flat as a fart.


Thursday, 22 January 2015

Kalenda Maia

Kalenda Maia is a favourite melody of mine, and this gently undulating account by Hesperion XXI is one that I frequently play in class as students are discussing some issue in pairs or groups. I don't know if it relaxes them, but it certainly helps to keep me sweet, so if they don't like it, tough. Lyrics (not heard here) were composed by the Provençal troubadour Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, (c. 1180 - 1207) although the melody may not have been his. The tune is possibly the only surviving piece of pre-13th century instrumental music.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

It'll End in Tears

Today was my first day of teaching since mid-December.  I have the same group as before Christmas, with five Saudis and one Libyan. They’re a nice bunch of people ranging in age from twenty to forty-four. Ali is the forty four-year old.

‘I’m forty four,’ he told me before Christmas. ‘I think same like you?’

This was most flattering as he had underestimated my age by more than a decade. Of course it’s always possible I misheard him or that he needs new contacts.

‘Today, ladies and gentlemen, we turn our attention to verbs that are followed by an infinitive or by the ‘-ing form’. For the time being, only eight of these need detain us. I am not going to tell you that there are plenty more where these came from and it all gets maddeningly complicated round about April.’

Once the verbs had been introduced, the students were given the following sentence halves and asked to complete them in any way they wanted before putting their questions to colleagues:  

What do you want…
Do you like…
Why did you decide…
What do you hope…
Have you ever thought of…
Do you enjoy…

‘What do you hope to do for your society?’ Manal asked Ali. Unfortunately I didn’t hear his plans for sorting out Libya. Then she asked me. I said I hoped to persuade as many people as possible not to vote UKIP. I can do this at no great personal cost, as none of my acquaintance would dream of it. I asked Manal what she hoped to do for Saudi Arabia. She said she wanted to be a good mother and a good teacher. (She’s a university lecturer.) Nothing wrong with that, but I’d rather hoped for a bit more fire – I dunno, bring about an Islamic Reformation, push for public debate instead of conformity and obedience. Bit more of a challenge than my heroic stand against UKIP, admittedly. I asked for a start if she thought that the women of the Kingdom of the Two Holy Mosques should at least be allowed to drive.

‘Oh, no,’ she said, dismissively. ‘I’m much too busy.’ She made it sound as if we were talking about something faddish and silly, such as bungee jumping.

‘Yeah,’ Shaden agreed. ‘In the car is the only time I get to relax.’

Ain’t it the bitter truth. They’re so busy looking after their kids and husbands they can’t see any necessity to drive, let alone feel indignant that they are forbidden to do so.

‘But it isn’t illegal in KSA,’ I persisted, ‘the ban's just traditional.’

‘In Saudi Arabia,’ Shaden said, ‘tradition is the law.’

OK, Steve, drop it.   

‘I have question I want ask everybody,’ Manal says. ‘’What do you want to say to your mum?’’ Hamid?’

Hamid goes misty-eyed and gestures expansively, to express the inadequacy of mere language to convey the depth of his sentiments. The question elicits the same breathless aphasia from everyone and in attempting to answer her own question, Manal breaks down in sobs. Bugger me if soon there isn't a dry eye in the house.

‘Right, okaaaaay… Do you err… like, umm, want to take a break?’ I ask, meaning ‘I’m British and I don’t do this sort of thing and I think I’d rather leave you to it for a bit.’

I go and make a big mug of rooibos and sit at my computer in the teachers’ room for such time as I deem sufficient for Manal to repair extensive damage to her mazzy and false eyelashes. Was it all for real, I wonder, or is it just a cultural expectation that mention of your mother should reduce you to a blubbering wreck? Even if it is a cultural expectation, does that make the reaction any less real? Maybe it’s like the way the British think understatement is funny, when hardly anyone else seems to.


A colleague told me at lunchtime that she’d stayed with her cousin at Christmas. ‘I can tell you’re a teacher.’ the cousin had said. ‘You don’t close the toilet lid after you’ve been.’ We are both still puzzling over that one.    

Friday, 26 December 2014

He came down to Earth from Heaven...


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