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.    


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