Memoir, Middle East, Nonfiction, Travel

Child’s Play in Kuwait

When we lived in Kuwait, I taught in the mornings but my afternoons were free. Since there are limited amusements in that dust-bath of a country, a lot of my colleagues took evening classes to make some extra money.  My friend Ahmed recommended I apply at a school near our house, saying they needed someone to teach English to women.

The school was brand-new, and the manager who interviewed me seemed very pleasant—a young woman passionate about education and proud to own her own business.

“We have few students right now, because we are new,” she explained. “I am sorry, there are only children. But soon more adults.”

“Oh, but…I’m not trained to teach children though.”

“No matter,” she smiled. “It is easy.”

“Uh…what level of English do they have?”

“They are complete beginners.”

“Uh…OK, I guess I’ll try.”

Without further ado, she led me to the classroom, which contained two small children, a girl of five and a boy of three, both with enormous eyes and no English at all. Not knowing what else to do, I drew a cat on the whiteboard. This got the party started all right; suddenly they both wanted to draw on the whiteboard themselves.




Up they got on two chairs and I hovered behind them, afraid they would fall. On the left side, the girl independently embarked on a column of ‘Aa.’ On the right, the boy formed a magnificent capital ‘H,’ then switched to a circular scribble. Discovering (from his sister’s scornful rebukes) that his name was Hassan, I thought of showing him how to write his name and gently tried to take the pen from him. He had other ideas and a chimp’s grip; his scribbling continued, ever more expansive.

Aiya, with almost manic intensity, forged ahead with a column of ‘Bb’. Meanwhile, Hassan’s scribble gained momentum, growing steadily in all directions. As Aiya began the Cc column, tension mounted– inevitably, the two worlds would collide. Sure enough, as soon as a tentacle of the scribble touched a ‘d’, all hell broke loose. Aiya gave Hassan a slap; he headbutted her in the stomach and immediate intervention was required.

At this point a fat boy of about eight wandered in to watch the proceedings, smiling wonderingly.


The siblings stopped hitting one another and started their ‘work’ again. As I racked my brains planning what to do next, Hassan found the whiteboard eraser and started disappearing Aiya’s letters. Aiya wrested the eraser from his grip and went to work on his scribble.

The fat boy looked at me and tssked.

At this point little Hassan got down off his chair and wandered out of the room. Alarmed, and not wanting the manager to notice this mutiny, I followed him at a distance and tried to coax him back with gentle cooing sounds. Futile. He turned to me and said something so sincerely that I realized he must need to go to the bathroom. Indeed, that was where he went. Maintaining their dreadful symmetry, Aiya went to the girls’ bathroom. Emerging, after a brief whispered conference, they decided to go into a nearby computer lab and do a satanic dance around the desks.

“Stop!” I said in English. “La La!” I attempted in Arabic, adding an emphatic tongue-click.

They responded with laughter and balletic twirls.



Desperate, I switched off the lights in the hope that reduced stimulation would entice them out of the lab, as with moths. This was successful. We were nearly back in the classroom when they suddenly caught a glimpse of a janitor, gleefully yelled something rude at him and stuck out their tongues.

A roar came from one of the females in reception and the pair fled back to the classroom. The director of the school (for it was she) appeared in the doorway and roared some more, so that both of them sat at their desks with straight backs and solemn expressions. The director looked at me, smiled and cocked her eyebrow as if to say, “That’s how you do it.”

Now that the kids were nicely terrified, I proceeded to draw a face on the board, asking them (in mime) to copy it in their books. Aiya, however, was sulking. Her mouth had formed a perfect pout and she gazed straight ahead at the wall, though her eyes strayed now and again down to the board.

Hassan, meanwhile, had his head in his hand and was losing focus fast. I tried to engage him with the ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’ song, but he kept saying something in Arabic that I didn’t understand, something like “abeeta”. He said it about a dozen times, and then finally closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. With long dark lashes brushing apricot cheeks, he looked like a sweet angel.



With her partner in crime out of action, Aiya could be persuaded to pick up her pencil and copy the face. The writing part bored her, though. Halfway through ‘nose’, she decided to pack up all her papers and pens ready to go–there was still an hour of lesson to go.

The next day Ahmed said the director wanted me to come back, she was pleased with my work. I asked him whether “abeeta” means “I’m sleepy” in Arabic. He looked at me in surprise and said, “Uh, no. It means silly, or stupid. It’s very rude.” I told him I unfortunately could not teach at that school anymore because something had come up.