Candid classroom conversations with students on an undisclosed army base in Kuwait.
“Guys! Listen! Hey!”
Ten minutes into English class and the talking (in Arabic) is still going strong.
“Listen to the tape. Listen!”
The two lieutenant colonels are having a conversation in Arabic. The cadet is sleeping. The airforce man has his ear glued to his smartphone. The major, fat and benign as an African Buddha, is leaning his chair back against the wall with his eyes closed. “Break teacher,” he announces with an air of finality. “I have headache. You have not left us time to breathe.” His tone is pained.
“The listening is not difficult. We have only thirty minutes – then you can have a break.”
“We are tired teacher. Very tough!” Lt. Col. Abdullah interrupts his conversation to explain this to me before easily switching back to his Arabic conversation.
“This is killing me!” Captain Ghazi yells gleefully from the back, emphasizing each syllable, delighted to have an opportunity to use a phrase he learned in our target vocabulary this morning.
I try the silent-statue approach to getting their attention. After standing there gawping for a minute, I feel as if I am floating above the classroom and viewing the chaos from the vantage of the in-class video camera, which is possibly being monitored by the General. I am woefully certain the students are not to be cajoled, persuaded, convinced or budged in the slightest degree.
One of the sergeants is now holding court, and all eyes are on him. Every now and then the lieutenant punctuates his speech with a marked gesture, and the room bursts into laughter.
“What are you talking about?” I ask, intrigued.
“It is about my friend, Khalid.”
“Can you tell me in English?”
“OK, I will try. Khalid is a crazy man. He does many things. For example, one time he was lined up with other soldiers and the Chief Commanding Officer ordered the company to move. And Khalid said,
‘No, no. I don’t want to move now; I am sleepy. First we will go to barracks, have a nap, then later we will talk about it together to see if everyone wants to go.’”
“Wha–? What did the Chief Commanding Officer do?”
“He just walk away, laugh. Another time, we have radio training. Each soldier must learn to use the radio. The Captain calls soldiers on the radio. When the Captain called Khalid, he used, how to say it, a lady voice?”
“He pretended to be a woman?”
“Yes, and he said…I cannot tell you the things he said. Very dangerous.”
“The captain – very angry. The captain come to each class to ask who spoke with the lady voice. Khalid – he stood up and just said, ‘Me!’ Like that! Amazing. He don’t have any fear.”
“Was he punished?”
“Yes! He was in jail for two days – he could not leave the barracks. But all the time he doing like this. Once the Chief Commanding Officer changed our start time from 7am to 6am. Everyone came at 6am but Khalid came at 7. The Chief Commanding Officer said, ‘Why you late?’ and Khalid said, ‘Late? I’m no late. Seven is best time! Why you early?’”
“Does he want to leave the army?”
“No, he like the army.”
“Why don’t they kick him out?”
The next day I teach a class of one person, Major Lazam, who is effectively a class of 15 wandering cats.
“So, you see, the verb ‘recommend’—”
My grammar explanation is interrupted by the cheery whistle of his phone ringing for something like the thirtieth time this lesson.
“Teacher, please teacher. I’m sorry,” he shrugs, as if to say, “What can I do?” I nod and prepare to wait.
Officially, mobile phones are not permitted in the classroom. Unofficially, the students are army guys and they’ll do what they want.
Major Lazam, my only student in this class, is resplendent as usual in his snow-white dishdasha that lovingly encases his ample frame. His moustache is carefully trimmed and shaped in symmetrical segments a bit like downward-sloping dragon-fly wings. His face, which reminds me of some comic actor of the 1940s, is framed by the gutra, which is also white and hangs back stylishly like the hood of a cobra. It is held in place by the ogal, a black cord that encircles the crown of his head. I don’t know why he is the only student in the whole school exempt from wearing the army uniform, but I assume wasta –that all-important form of social power– has something to do with it.
After a lively conversation, the major ends the call and explains to me, “My cousin. He is driving lesson today. The teacher say, ‘Very bad, no pass.’ So I say, ‘Pass, pass, pass! No problem.’” The major accompanies this with a scornful purse of the lips and little sweeps of his hand to indicate that the teacher is being extremely petty.
I nod. It figures. Every day on the ride to work you see a wreck by the side of the road – no, but really a wreck – tyres burst, roof battered, with one or more sides so thoroughly smashed it looks like it’s been hit by a cruise missile. A minute later you see an ambulance racing to the scene of a crash. Then, at the roundabout there will be two cars stopped in the middle of the road, drivers standing outside their vehicles gesticulating furiously after a rear-end collision (it is an unusual driver who doesn’t tail gate here).
“So, how about we go back to the grammar now?”
“Teacher! Presentation on Tuesday. I give now: ‘Hello my name Major Lazam. Today I talk about two people–’
“Woah – wait; hold on! Stand up; come to the front.”
He gets to his feet and makes his way to the front of the classroom. There he stands, looking unusually nervous and vulnerable. I wait.
He coughs, then looks over to me. I nod encouragingly.
“Hello, my name Major Lazam. Today I talk about two people. One my brother—”
A man’s head pops around the door—I recognize him as the colonel’s messenger. He holds up a hand to excuse himself to me, then he says something to the Major in Arabic. Major Lazam’s reply is delivered in his usual deadpan, cracking the messenger up.
“Teacher, I am sorry, excuse me. I must go to a meeting. What can I do?” he shrugs, smooths his moustaches, collects his (still unopened) satchel and the lesson ends early.
The Two Majors
Sayed and Ahmed are two majors who have the kind of charm and easy confidence one usually associates with successful Hollywood stars. They are urbane, cosmopolitan guys with excellent conversational English, a confident manner and a brotherly rapport. Both are unusually fit and muscular, no doubt due to the gym visits they mention frequently and possibly also to steroids, which they never mention at all (for one thing, it would be haram).
Sayed is impressively dignified and on the pale side. Ahmed is more African in looks and in manner—he laughs easily and adores African-American music–he even has a sidejob as a DJ, with the sobriquet ‘Black Horse’.
“Please turn to page 35,” I say, beginning our first lesson together.
“Excuse me, teacher,” Sayed says gently, “This book is too easy for us. Let me explain. With me and Major Ahmed, we prefer to discuss things ourselves. We choose a subject and have a debate. This is how we like to do it. We need only to practice English, not like the others.”
Ahmed nodded wisely.
“Yes, it is better for us. It is like our English diwaniya.”
The diwaniya is a Kuwaiti tradition in which the menfolk gather together in the evenings to relax, to debate, to create political alliances, to approve marriages…and so on. It is the word from which our ‘divan’ is derived. A lot of my students loathe it because it is so time-consuming and boring.
“But of course, when we make a mistake, you should correct us,” Sayed added magnanimously.
Ordinarily it probably wouldn’t be a great move to let a student dictate the lesson in this way, but the thing was, their English was very good. And, as my colleagues kept telling me, our job was essentially to keep the students happy.
“OK,” I said. “So what’s your topic for today?”
“Today we will talk about Thailand.”
“Oh, I like Thailand!” I said.
“Yes. It’s a good place,” Sayed agreed. “Back in 1995 I went to Thailand and I had a Louis Vuitton wallet. There was a place in the Chinese town of Bangkok; from the outside it looked like a barber’s shop, but inside it was a huge workshop. I showed the wallet to the man and he said, ‘Give me two weeks,’ so I went away to Pattaya and when I came back, the man showed me the copy. It was – you look very carefully, you’ll see no difference! He made it for one dinar. When I came back to Kuwait, I sell them—”
“Sold them to another man for three dinar. And he sell, sold it to another man for 15 dinar!”
“Wow! That’s a good profit.”
“Yes,” said Ahmed, “Back then in 1995, Thailand was the best place to find fakes; now is China.”
“It is China,” I said.
Sayed nodded, “After 2000, China flooded it.”
“Flooded the market,” I corrected.
“Yes, flooded the market.”
Sayed said, “Actually, I own a factory in China that makes these copies. I go there with my wife sometimes. And when I go to work in the morning, I drop my wife off at the mall. The mall is only for copies. It is huge – and there are three sections for the three grades of copies. Now I even hear they will make a section for VIP.”
“I hear they will even.”
“Yes. My wife went there and bought shoes copied from Christian Dior – nine dinars she bought them for. Later that day we went to a restaurant in a nice area of town. And there was a Christian Dior boutique. We went in to see if we could find the same shoes. They were there, and I looked carefully – I put the copy next to it and I could see no difference.”
“How much were the originals?” I asked.
“One hundred and twenty dinars,” he said. “No difference. Same shape, same design, same materials even.”
“What do you think about Thailand? Where is the best place to go?” Ahmed asked his friend.
“For me it’s Pattaya. There are clubs and pubs for every nation. The Thailand people are very smart. They copy everything, not just things. For example, in Pattaya there is an Irish pub. They have the Irish beer, the Irish music – the musicians are all Thailand people but when they sing they have an Irish accent. Also there is a cowboy bar, playing cowboy music. Thailand people dress like cowboys, and the people from Southern US love it there, it make them feel comfortable. The Arab bars – actually there are no Arab bars.”
“Yes, the Thai people are smart. They know what everybody likes,” Ahmed agreed. “Really, you can take anything to them. Like this bottle of water. They will look at it, then say, ‘Give me two weeks,’ and when you come back, it’s the same – you can’t tell the difference. Not only with things, but with characters”
“Characteristics,” I said uncertainly.
“Characteristics and movements. There is a new African-American club in Pattaya – all the Thailand people who work there have the hair like this—“
“In corn rows?”
“Yes, corn row and the way of moving,” Ahmed brought out some swagger-slouch gestures, rap-style hand movements.”
“For me, I don’t like Pattaya,” Sayed sniffed. “I prefer Phuket. It is smaller. When I am in Pattaya, sometimes I see people from my tribe, younger people, you know – 20, 21. They see me, they will go straight to their people and talk, talk, talk. All day people will make a meal of you. No! When I am away from home, I don’t want to meet people I know – relations or subordinate soldiers — on the street. I will look them and say, ‘OK, go. You don’t see me.’”
“You didn’t see me,” I said.
“For me,” Ahmed interrupted, “I don’t care. I see cousins and nephews. So what? They see me – for them see me, they have to be in the same place! One day I saw soldiers at a bar. They try to stare me down, make me uncomfortable. I say, ‘Hey guys, how are you?’ I am relaxed. When I am not at work, I am free. I learn this when I was stationed in England. From nine to five there is discipline. After five, officers and soldiers drink together in the bar, play pool…”
“For me, I don’t like this,” Sayed countered. “In US, yes, officers and soldiers drink together. But after some drinks, fights can break out.”
The last class I had before summer holidays consisted of one student, a polite, self-contained young airforce lieutenant who had only just graduated from military school. He was a capable, studious learner so completed the course early. I decided to spend our last day talking about movies; he’d mentioned that he usually watched at least four movies each weekend.
“What’s your favourite movie?”
He spent some time thinking. I wondered if he’d understood the question.
“Or what is a movie you have seen recently?”
“Yes, yes,” he nodded. “My favourite movie is Troy. I have seen it maybe nine times. “
“Really? Can you tell me what happens in the movie?”
“Yes. It is drama. About a war between two countries. First, Troy and Greek are—there is a problem, so two brothers from Troy go there to solve it. But when they in Greece—’
‘When they are in Greece.’
‘When they are in Greece one of the brothers takes the Greek king’s wife, he hides her in the ship when they go back.”
“Uh oh…” (I slyly pretended not to know the plot, to encourage the exposition).
“Yes. It is bad. And,” his eyes widened, “the old brother, he doesn’t know she is there. When he knows he becomes too angry and he fight his brother. Because he know there will be war. Then the Greek soldiers go to Troy and they fight but they can’t catch the town because of the high walls. The brother who take the Greek wife, Hercules–”
“Yes, Hercules, after he die, the Greeks build a big horse with wood. They take their ships around the land but not far far–”
“They hide close by, so it seems like they went away?”
“Yes. They put soldiers into the wooden horse. But Troy people don’t know; they put the horse into the city.”
“Because to win the war. It is something to show they win. But one of the King-of-Troy sons says they should fire it–”
“Set it on fire.”
“If set it on fire, Troy would not be destroy.”
“What did you like least about the movie? Was the…”
“I didn’t like when Paris took the woman. It caused all of the problems.”
“Did you know the movie is based on a famous poem?”
“Poem?” He frowned. “No, no! It is happen in real life. They have found the horse.”