Monday, January 7, 2013

The Cake Incident

This morning is an exemplary illustration of the kind of unnecessary office drama that goes on at the university. The only way to keep your sanity in this job is to avoid office politics as much as possible. Since we are cooped up here all day, unable to leave, with nothing to do now that the students are gone, it's gotten much worse.

All morning I've been hearing whispered arguments out in the hallway, which are not out of the ordinary and which I have decided to ignore due to the fact that I don't give a crap anymore.

After being at work for about two hours, my co-teacher, Carol, came over to me with a soft "can I talk to you about something?" This is the kind of thing she said when one of our student was reporting us to the higher-ups, which is a serious, job-ending thing, and I suspect the same voice she'd use in case of alien invasion or global apocalypse, so I was immediately on my guard. What could have possibly gone wrong now that we don't even have class anymore? Was this the end times?

Turns out the whispered arguments that have been escalating in the hallway all morning were all about – wait for it – me.

Specifically the fact that I didn't get any cake on Saturday.


On Saturday, the first day of the week, we had a party for our coordinator, complete with cake and a gift. I, like everyone else, contributed monetarily to the celebration before hand, but was sick the day of.
Now, two days later, someone has taken it upon themselves to be outraged on my behalf that no one saved me a piece of cake.

I am not making this up.

This argument has been brewing ALL MORNING.  Someone was almost in tears.

Because I didn't get a piece of cake.

I didn't even remember there was supposed to be cake at the party, and no part of me ever had the expectation that someone would save a piece for me. I had no idea where this came from, but it certainly hadn't been from me.

People are so bored they are starting shit just for the hell of it.

Someone please give us something to do.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas in the Kingdom

I still haven't figured out Christmas away from my family. The day is pretty miserable without the usual trappings of the tree and my brothers and my parents and my relatives. My co-workers have been wanting to watch Christmas movies and sing Christmas carols, but I just can't get into it. I always agree to do these things with them, and then at the last moment, say, you know what, let's not. I don't want to be reminded of what I'm missing, honestly. Some people have chosen not to come in today, but I can be miserable at work just as easy as I can be miserable at home so there's no point. 

All day, people have been creeping around the office to whisper "Merry Christmas" in each other's ears, afraid to say it too loud.

I did go to a lovely party yesterday at one of the lead teacher's houses. It was so nice to be somewhere that felt like a home, with children and a Christmas tree and a turkey dinner. It made me alternate between being very sad and being very comfortable.

We have several parties planned – on the down low, you understand – but I don't know if I will be up for them.

Christmas just isn't Christmas without family

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Top Secret Santa

The Christmas season has a kind of weird twist to it in the Kingdom. It's not that Christmas is outlawed or anything – some Muslims celebrate Christmas and it's not against the Islamic faith – it's just that it's heavily discouraged. At the University, it's more or less a hanging crime to mention Christmas around the wrong people.

In the University, we are almost encouraged to report each other for any misdemeanor or supposed slight. If someone hears you say something like 'Merry Christmas' or, God forbid, you should say it to the wrong person, you could be called into HR for a talking to.

For the past couple of weeks we have been conducting a Secret Santa project in… well, secret. Every week we give our victims Secret Santas two gifts, each signed with a "SS" instead of "Secret Santa" in case the note should fall into the wrong hands.

We fall silent when someone who has reported us before for 'intolerant behavior' (the irony is not lost on us) walks by.

I've been leaving my Secret Santa booby traps of food in front of her door so that when she opens it she inevitable steps on it. You have to make your own fun in the Kingdom.

For the final gift I have gotten her a ball pit. Like a child's ball pit a la Chucky Cheese. She is going to freak and this is the most exciting thing that I can look forward to around the Christmas season.  Going to Christmas parties are not any kind of fun without my family around.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Reasons Why

In case you haven't heard the news, I've officially resigned my position here. 

There are a lot of reasons and all of them are personal. It took me a long time to accept the fact that personal/emotional reasons were enough to leave a good job behind.

Reason One, "The Most Important One": 

My mood is so unstable here that it's not good for my emotional health. When I first decided to leave, I was wracked with indecision because one day I was ready to hop on a plane, and the next day, I thought it wouldn't be so bad to stay here a year. The changes were so severe and so unpredictable that I felt like I couldn't plan anything in advance because who knows how I would feel when the actual date rolled around?

Reason Two, "The Official Reason":
My Visa. Or lack thereof. When I came here, I was told that I wouldn't be getting a resident's visa or Iqama as it's known in the Arab world. I was fine with that. Iqamas took four weeks to get, you had to go back to your home country to get them, and your employer has the right to keep your passport. I've learned too much about human trafficking to be comfortable with someone taking my passport for safe keeping. 

The visa I came on was a three month, multiple-entry visa that would expire into a single entry visa after three months. Meaning that I could come and go as I pleased the first three months, but after that, if I left, I couldn't get back in. I was told that in January, I could go home and renew this visa in order to travel for another three months in the area. 

The laws of the country have been changing – in the last couple of months, actually – and these visas are no longer available.

I had just bought my plane ticket to go home (after informing my employers this was my intention and receiving positive acknowledgement in return) when I received an email that stated there were no visas, that no one would be able to leave during the school break. I was understandably pissed off. But I didn't cancel my plane flight.

For several days, I sat and stewed. Finally, the CEO came to face us and tell us that, he has Iqamas available, but he wasn't going to give them to us. He said he needed them to bring new teachers in that would replace the teachers who already left. We asked him why he didn't try harder to keep the teachers he already has (i.e.: give us the visas) and he simply shrugged his shoulders. At which point I told him, very calmly, my position: I have paid for a plane flight in January. I will be on that plane, out of the country. If you want me back, then you can get me an Iqama.

I don't think they are going to offer me one, but they may. In which case I would seriously consider coming back.

Reason Three, "The Obvious":
Not being able to leave the house by myself is taking a serious toll on my sanity. Left to my own devices, I like to take long walks by myself to just think. In the Kingdom, I have to walk in circles on my roof inside the high walls like a prisoner. All I see every day is the four walls of my apartment, the four walls at the university, and the things I can glance out the tinted windows as we drive to work.

Reason Four, "The Company":

The way the company treats us has been intolerable from the start. Things like telling us to be ready to go shopping at 6:00am, and then phoning us up three hours later to tell us the trip has been canceled. No other explanation. Like it doesn't matter that we've gotten up ridiculously early and been waiting for three hours. This is only one example of many that include safety issues both in transit (they stranded my friend in the middle of the night on the side of the road without explanation), and at home (our accommodation has only one doorman, who is a string bean of a man, and glass doors). Also a problem is their habit of not paying us so that we can access our money in a timely manner, and not allowing the proper amount of sick days (we have been told, several times, that if we are sick, we should just suck it up and go to work).

Reason Five, "My Goals":
I had certain goals when I came here. They were, in order of priority – be creative, write, learn Arabic, travel to the nearby countries, explore Kingdom Culture, get university experience, and make money.  Being creative and writing is almost impossible when I never see anything new in my life. I was promised free Arabic lessons which have never materialized. I've honestly learned more Urdu than I have Arabic working here. I would do better with Rosetta Stone. Obviously, the visa situation makes travel impossible and I've been out and about in Kingdom Culture for about four months now.  The experience is great, but now I have a semester, so that goal is more or less accomplished. That leaves making money, and doing this only for money is something I suspect I will regret in the future. 

Therefore, I have nothing left to gain by being here.

            UPDATE: They have offered me an Iqama when it seemed that I was serious about going home. I had a couple hours of indecision about why I was really leaving and would my problems really be fixed with an Iqama. I finally decided that getting the visa didn't really make a difference. I am leaving anyway.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Happy Feet in the Desert

Even though in the Capitol things like dancing are frowned upon (especially in public), I have been attending more dance lessons than I ever have in my life. Before coming here, the closest I'd ever come to a dance class was watching Center Stage over and over again for a year in University.
But here, I have four dance classes a week. Four.

On Monday, the middle of the week, we start off with Tango. This is a small class held in a room in the basement of what I guess is a compound rec center. This is taught by Hamdi who is known for shouting things like "Give her gancho!" ('gancho' apparently being the little leg flick you do in tango) and "Control the Women!"

The last time he shouted this, my partner, an Australian man who was new, shouted back: "I can't, I think this one's American!" 

The American Bashing never really stops over here, but it's mostly good-natured. It's because Kingdomites like us better. And we're just plain cooler.

A wide variety of people attend, and friend Shelly and I gossip about the people and their dancing abilities. The one we talk about most is this guy who is terrible at dancing, but thinks he's awesome. In fact, he's so sure he's awesome, if he makes a mistake; it's obviously your fault.

Just to be clear, it's never the woman's fault in tango. Tango is all male directed. All the woman has to do is follow what the man does. This dude will stop dancing just to tell you sorrowfully: "you really don't get it, do you?" He'll ask the instructor to come and observe his partner, just to make sure she's doing it right, and Hamdi will inevitably tell him something harsh in Arabic and dude will say nothing else to you about it.

On Tuesday, there's Salsa. Salsa was the first class I took in Riyadh and it got me to thinking I wasn't as bad at dancing as I thought I was. For anyone who has always wanted to try a dance class, but thinks they will make a fool of themselves, I tell you this: It is not as hard as you think it is. For women especially, it's easier than it looks. The first day I was doing twirls and whirls that made it look like I knew what I was doing. Like in Tango, it's all in the partner.

This is a big class with about sixty, seventy people, held in an aerobics room on another compound farther away. There are several teachers there: a severe New Zealander (I didn't know they came in severe), a large Lebanese fellow, and some other various people – most of whom come to Tango.

A couple weeks ago we had a visit from a Lebanese woman who was a professional salsa dancer. She gave some lessons that were fantastic - she made us look like professionals. Even though I am still a beginner, it was easy to follow.

As an interesting side note, that weekend, we went camping with the Hash House Harriers (more on them later) and all of the people who were in charge of salsa showed up with strobe lights and Lebanese music, turning our camp into a raving party spot.

It made me think there was about three foreigners in the Kingdom and I knew them all.

Finally, on Friday and Wednesday I have Belly Dancing, taught by one of my co-workers, Natalie, in the play room at our accommodation. (Yes, we have a playroom).

This is a lot of fun in general even when Mary – who was barred from the class because she is what us teachers call a 'behavior problem' – comes into the back of the class and starts hip thrusting wildly in every direction.

Going to and from these classes requires being secretive about our destination when it comes to our doorman and I occasionally feel like I live in Footloose. Maybe we should find somewhere to play chicken with some tractors. Except that women on tractors would be HARAM.