First Day on the Job

I looked over and saw our head teacher, Reem, had poked her head into the room and was flashing her diamond-studded smile.

“Meeting with the men everyone!” she announced.

All the teachers stood up and started moving out the door. At first this seemed perfectly natural, but then a thought held me up. Wait a minute…this is a GIRL’S school…in Saudi Arabia! Surely no men are allowed? And none of the teachers are putting on their cloaks and veils so they can’t be going outside!

Puzzled, I picked up a notebook and followed them downstairs, wondering what was going on. Had men really been permitted into the women’s campus? What was the point of the armed guards and locked gates if a man could just waltz onto female turf? Was Saudi gender segregation just a sham after all? Were we going to have some kind of orgy?

“Who are we meeting?” I asked the tall pregnant woman, who was wandering along in a dreamy way.

“Dr. Aasif, the Head of the English Department.”

My colleagues wandered to a tiny receptionist’s office just inside the main entrance. The room was so full of people that I could barely squeeze through the doorway. Reem was huddling over a telephone that sat on a desk in the middle of the room. Everyone else encircled her. There wasn’t enough room for everyone so a couple of teachers went to stand outside. Reem wore a grave expression and hovered intently over the phone.

So that was why we didn’t have to cover up—the meeting was going to be over the phone! I felt a strange sense of relief. After all, the gender-apartheid system was internally consistent.

“Dr. Aasif is supposed to call at twelve o’clock,” said Reem. “Now it is one minute to.”

As time passed, we all stood there with a sense of nervous expectation. A few minutes after the time for the appointment, we relaxed into soft whispers, teasing and giggles. Well, most of us did. Reem looked to be wound up so tight that she might shatter from the pressure.

When the phone finally rang, Reem pounced on it and looked at us, pressing her finger to her lips in warning.

“Good afternoon Dr. Aasif, this is Reem,” her voice, which had previously been sharp and commanding, transformed to suddenly become very quiet and very meek.

“Yes, we are all here Dr. Aasif. Yes, all right, now I will switch to speakerphone.”

She asked him to hold for a moment as she said something under her breath then tried poking a switch.

“Yes, hello Dr. Aasif, can you speak please, just to test if it is working?”

We all looked at the phone waiting for the Great Voice. A tiny squeak was holding forth from the receiver, but the speakerphone was silent.

“Hello? Hello? Dr. Aasif?” Reem timidly tried to get Dr. Aasif’s attention, but he barreled right along, talking up a tiny storm. Reem started jabbing at the switch with more urgency.

It didn’t work.

“Dr. Aasif? Dr. Aasif,” but the voice kept squeaking. “Please! Doctor Aasif! The speakerphone is not working. One moment please while we try to fix it.” She set down the receiver and motioned to me.

“Kathy, dear, help.”

“Me? Um, I don’t know anything about phones.”

“Try dear.”

“OK.” I squinted at the switches, saw ‘on speakerphone’ and ‘off speakerphone’. The switch was definitely turned to ‘on speakerphone’. I twiddled the switch a few times but it made no difference. I shrugged and stepped back as Atif came forward to inspect it.

“Doctor Reem, it is broken,” Atif announced solemnly. Reem nodded, palely, as if being told a patient was terminal. She picked the receiver up again.

“Hello?  Dr. Aasif? Are you there? Hello. I am afraid the speakerphone is not working. What do you suggest we do?” She listened as the voice responded.

“Yes,” she answered at last, “I see. Taib’. Dear Teachers, because the machine will not cooperate with us, you will need to come very close to the telephone and be very quiet, so all can hear. I will turn the volume up as much as it can go.”

She put the handset on a desk and sat with her head resting near it. Then she beckoned us to do the same.

For some reason, the other teachers shoved me forward, and I joined the other three women who were closest. As he spoke, we all tried to get our heads close enough to hear him without giving each other head-butts. The other teachers behind us visibly relaxed—there was no way they were going to hear anything. Even from my position it was hopeless; all I could make out were the long, long oratorical cadences of someone used to holding forth. Reem seemed to understand some of it and did an admirable job of inserting ‘Yes’s and ‘Mmmms’ but a vein in her forehead was bulging with the effort.

She must have understood some of it because at one point she wanted clarification.

“Dr. Aasif? Yes. But Dr. Aasif…..Dr. Aasif…Yes of course, but Dr. Aasif, if I may…. I just want to…Dr. Aasif. DR AASIF! I would like to say one thing! Thank you.”

After an extremely long discussion about whether we ought to use green or red pens to mark exams, Dr. Aasif launched into a long speech. Miraculously, I managed to hear the topic, which was ‘Professional Development’.

Just at that moment, though, a deafening wail came through the walls and seemed to shake the whole building. It was a guttural roar, as if from the bowels of the earth, respecting no physical barrier, massaging the kidneys with its force. After the initial shock, I realized that it must be the mid-day call to prayer coming from the brand-new mosque next door, which had at least five top-of-the-range loudspeakers propped on its turret.

Some of the teachers got glazed looks on their faces and began muttering to themselves.  They were saying prayers. My shoulders relaxed and I prepared to stand up straight, thinking that the phone call would have to end now, for holiness’s sake. To my astonishment, though, Reem and the others were carrying on, heads nearly resting on the desk by the phone as if they couldn’t even hear the deafening blast.

I gave up. They could keep going if they wanted, but I wasn’t going to play along. I slumped against the wall and started doodling elephants on my notepad. I drew one of them with a speech bubble coming out from under the trunk that said, “This is dumbo.” The other elephant, whose trunk was a bit too short and fat, replied, “I like nodles.” Elephant one countered, “That’s not how you spell noodles. It’s n-o-o-d-l-e-s.”

After another ten minutes the phone conversation was nearly over. Dr. Aasif took yet another ten minutes to sum up and sign off, then Reem replaced the receiver looking flushed and weak from the stress. She did her best to mask her fatigue with a stately smile, and she raised her hands to signal an announcement.

“Dear teachers! You all know well that many minds are better than one! Here is your assignment: Write down all the points of the meeting that you remember. Then I will collect these notes and make a full account. Please, go and write it immediately while it is still fresh, and I will collect them in ten minutes!”

We all returned to the teachers’ room and everyone busily started writing notes. I looked at them in disbelief, then started to carefully and slowly write down the only two things I’d heard for sure: ‘Professional Development’ and the point about using green pens, which Reem had paraphrased for us.

When Reem returned, she came around our desks one by one, requesting our notes. I handed her my page.

“Is this all?” She said in surprise.

“Well, um, actually I couldn’t hear anything,” I replied.

She turned sadly but gracefully away.


Excerpt from my memoir about living in Saudi Arabia called Girls of the Empty Quarter (Le Ragazze di Rub’ al Khali in Italian).