I met Michele in Korea when she was teaching English in Cheju Province and I was in Seoul. Recently I asked her for an interview about the time she taught in the Middle East, in Kuwait, Oman and the West Bank. This interview took place over Skype from me in the Philippines to Michele in Philadelpha. Thanks to Michele for all photos.
My introduction to the Middle East was fraught with a lot of tension and uncertainty. In January of 2000 I accepted an offer to go to Kuwait City to teach at AMIDEAST, a nonprofit American association established in 1951 to foster greater understanding between the US and Middle Eastern and North African countries, but as far as I could see the Kuwait office was there only to offer English language instruction. The Kuwait director, Kathleen, hired me to teach on a two-year contract, but I only stayed about two and a half months. I realized later that I shouldn’t have done this, but I’d paid the airfare to Kuwait myself after having been told I’d be reimbursed at the end of my contract. I was also told I would get a work visa when I got there.
The AMIDEAST office in Kuwait was housed in a rented villa. It had about fifteen bedrooms, which were classrooms, and huge open spaces. They had classes in English for students who were going to take the TOEFL exam. When I arrived I was moved into a three-bedroom apartment which was a nice enough. I was told I would be getting a roommate, and I did after maybe a week or two. The director had asked me about certain things, and one of the things I said was that I didn’t smoke and I would rather not live with somebody who smoked. However, the roommate I got shortly thereafter smoked. She said she’d smoke only in her room, but of course since we had central air the smell went everywhere. She also met some guy who would come to our apartment at about midnight. I could hear them having sex in her room and he’d leave about ten minutes later. I spoke to the director, but nothing ever came of it. The director herself would actually scream at employees about minor stuff in front of students and everyone in the hallway. She was getting so bizarre that I eventually called the head office in Washington DC to inform them of what was going on. They sent some people who were in the region, and she was removed from her post. So, the living situation wasn’t good and the work situation wasn’t good – not a good beginning.
Kuwait was very hot, even in January. I never dressed provocatively as I wanted to be respectful of the local customs, but I also didn’t cover fully. I wore long-sleeved shirts in the cooler months and short-sleeved (never sleeve-less) when it was really hot. Even so, wherever I went men just stared. My hair was a different color, and I was a Westerner, so maybe that was the attraction. I didn’t have a car initially so I was reliant on walking or taking a taxi. But when I did get a car I found that driving in Kuwait was just bizarre. People from many different countries—Indians, Pakistanis, other Asians—just drove their own way. So it was a very unpleasant experience being on the road.
Two and a half months after my arrival the director was still unable to get a work visa for me, and I was informed I wouldn’t get my airfare money back. AMIDEAST did offer to help me get another job in Kuwait, which they were able to do in April of 2000. The new organization was based in England and called IPETQ, which provides all sorts of training to military organizations, the Kuwait National Guard, as well as Saudi Arabian Texaco and other companies. I started working at Saudi Arabian Texaco, teaching company employees. I was living in a small town called Mahboula, and every morning I had to ride about forty minutes south to Mina Al-Zour (Port of Zour), which is about a ten-minute drive from the Saudi border.
The Texaco compound was on the Arabian Gulf, right on the beach, and the water there was beautiful—turquoise and clear. From my classroom window I could see the water and date palm trees. The training facility was built specifically for teaching. There were maybe eight classrooms and some offices. Texaco provided lunch for us in the restaurant, which was a 3-minute walk from the training facility. Lunch was very nice—salads, several main courses, a variety of desserts and fresh fruit.
Classes started at 7:30 in the morning and finished at 2:30 or 3:00. Three days a week were long days, and then twice a week there were short days so it wasn’t eight hours every day. All the students were Saudi men. They were very nice, actually. Of course, many men dressed in their traditional garb, but most of these guys were just relaxed in jeans and a shirt. Some of them might have worn uniforms. At one point I had a somewhat advanced class of students who wanted to study overseas and who needed to get a Band 6 in IELTS [International English Language Testing System], meaning they had a generally effective command of the language. If they got a Band 6, Texaco would pay for them to study in England. Otherwise I had intermediate students, maybe twelve to a class. The guys all knew each other. If they were relatives or they knew each other well, they would shake hands and kiss each other two or three times on the left or right cheek. If they knew each other really well they would touch noses, which I’d never seen before. In this society men could touch each other, shake hands, kiss cheeks and all of that, but never with a woman. I’m not a huggy person anyway, especially with men I don’t know, but I was conscious of giving myself a lot of personal space around them, which they did as well. But they were very open, very nice.
If you’re teaching EFL you ask students about their experiences relating to the topic being taught. Once we were talking about family, and I asked a student how many brothers and sisters he had and he said, “I don’t know.”
I said, “Come on!” But then it occurred to me that his father could have been married more than once. In the end I said, “Okay…approximately.”
Obviously, his father had been married four times or more. Saudis do consider half-siblings to be siblings, and they’ll introduce them as a brother or sister. Supposedly in Islam, if the man marries more than once, each wife is to be given her own place to live, but I found that some men would have a wife on one floor of the house and another wife on another floor. It’s up to the women to agree to this or not. The students said that these days, marrying more than once is sort of old-fashioned. None of the men I met who had married in the previous five, six or seven years had more than one wife.
I didn’t meet many local women because there weren’t any other women in the Texaco compound, and my activities outside of work were mostly with other expats. A lot of British people were there, not surprisingly because Kuwait was once a protectorate. I became friendly with some Brits and an Irish guy and various people from different nationalities. I did find that a lot of my colleagues were a bit—off, shall we say? And I don’t exclude myself from that. For example, alcohol was not allowed in the country, so it seemed that a lot of people became obsessed with it. They’d go to the Sultan Centre, a very nice supermarket which had everything – lots of different cheeses, all kinds of food – and they’d buy grape juice, sugar and yeast to make wine. Or they might make beer. Some of the stuff was pretty serious, like strong enough to make you go blind, and it must have caused killer hangovers. But these people were not necessarily alcoholics. They just wanted something that wasn’t available. Despite the possibility of being searched when they got off the plane in Kuwait, they’d smuggle it in from other countries. However, not everyone was searched, maybe a handful.
In Kuwait there were fast food restaurants all over the place – it was horrible. Burger King, KFC, Applebee’s, TGIFridays, McDonald’s… it was just gross. They were everywhere. But you could also find fabulous Indian food and great Middle Eastern food.
Anyway, I stayed in Kuwait for about three years, mostly at Saudi Arabian Texaco, although at various times I would go elsewhere if I was needed. I taught the Kuwait National Guard and other military personnel at another location.
Overall the experience was not great. There were a lot of foreigners in Kuwait, specifically Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who did manual jobs like cleaning the streets. They were often treated like they weren’t even human. At gas stations the guys who were pumping gas would be out all day, even in the summer when the temperature reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit [50 Centigrade]. They’d be out there in horrendous sand storms, when the sand would get in your nose, in your hair, in your eyes. Sandstorms would come every couple of months and last for about 24 hours.
Kuwait was flat for the most part, with the highest point being Mutla Ridge, which was made infamous during the First Gulf War as the point where Iraqi soldiers were retreating and US forces bombed the shit out of them. No sand dunes to speak of in Kuwait, just trash everywhere, like plastic bags. The only part that’s nice is by the water.
Water usage is another issue. Kuwaitis often have several servants—a driver, maids, various others—and they want their houses and themselves to look good. In summer the traditional garb, the dishdasha, is worn in light colors like white, ivory or tan. They’re starched and spotless – never dirty. The men’s headgear is always perfect. Cars are washed every day. I wondered where they were getting the huge amount of water they were using. It’s a desert. It might have been taken from the Gulf and desalinated. When the issue came up on essays, like with a cause-and-effect paper, the students inevitably blamed the people who worked for them. They didn’t seem to want to take responsibility for any of their own actions. I also found that to be true in other Gulf countries.
One of the reasons I wanted to leave Kuwait was that I couldn’t stand the inhumanity shown toward the overseas workers. You’d often see stories in the newspaper of maids from countries like Malaysia “falling” from balconies and dying. You’d hear horror stories. It would seem that the male members of the families would try to have sex with the foreign maids. The wife or husband’s mother would beat them and overwork them. You’d see them all the time in the shopping centers. They had the unhappiest faces I’ve ever seen on a human being. It was horrible. I hated to look at their faces. They looked so unhappy.
Many women who survived would seek refuge in their embassies. A friend of mine would have a party every six months or so and ask people to bring clothes they didn’t want. We’d trade, and whatever was left over my friend would take to the Indian, Pakistani or Malaysian embassy for the women who were hiding out there. They had no money, no means to get back home. Also, they were probably embarrassed because their families had had to put money together to buy the visa to get to Kuwait. They’d thought it was such a great opportunity to earn all this money and send it back to their families. Then everything fell apart. If a woman was raped, the possibility of getting married when she returned home was greatly reduced. It could scar her for life.
After three years I wanted to leave. I’d been made redundant by my employers in late 2003. So I left Kuwait and did a course in Hungary. Then I needed a job. I don’t know why now, but I decided to go back to IPETQ. I did this knowing that in about Sept. of 2001, after working there for a year and a half, I found out that they’d been paying me less than other teachers even though I had more academic degrees. The others were getting 700 Kuwaiti dinars a month—$2310 at that time—while I was getting 685. Apparently the Welshman who hired me thought he could get away with pocketing the rest of it. They were all creeps at that company, the men especially. When I found out the pay discrepancy and confronted him, he just said, “Yeah, okay, I’ll pay you 700.” However, I was never compensated for the previous 18 months or so.
I should have known not to go back to them, but I did. I got a year’s contract in May 2003, and two weeks after I arrived in Kuwait I was handed a two-month notice that my job would end. They’d just needed someone short-term but didn’t want to tell me. As of July I was out of a job. I’d shipped a box by sea from the US, which can take a long time. In the end I had to have it sent on to my new job, which was in Oman.