Girls of the Empty Quarter is my memoir about teaching English as a second language to girls in Saudi Arabia. The title is named for the vast desert the Empty Quarter (also named Rub’ al Khali) that extends from the centre of the Arabian peninsula down to Yemen. The town where I lived was called Najran, only eight miles from the Yemeni border.
The book has received positive reviews in Italy, where it was first published, so I have translated a couple and you can read them below.
This interview appeared in Marie Claire:
Teaching Girls in Saudi Arabia
Katherine Dolan worked for one year in a girls’ school in a little city in Saudi Arabia and in Girls of the Empty Quarter she reveals how it went.
by Marta Cervino 4 November 2016 – 12.00
It all started in August 2011 when Katherine Dolan got laid off. It was in that moment, sitting in a pizzeria, worried about her future and the rent – she and her husband John had just survived ‘the Boat Era’ (when they emigrated to Canada from New Zealand, they’d had the unfortunate idea of buying a boat from a pothead, a disastrous experience that signalled the nadir) – a girlfriend told her that in Saudi Arabia they were looking for English Teachers.
Girls of the Empty Quarter (Astoria) is the tale of this experience. Of what it means to end up in a little city in Saudi Arabia, Najran, of the constant restrictions, of the difficulty of living in a country designed for men, of what it means not to be able to walk around by yourself, to drive, to go jogging. But also of the students and of their contradictions (girls who hide fashionable T-shirts under their abayas, or who dream of studying abroad), of the solidarity that is created between this disparate group of teachers who have all come from different countries. In the last year—one reads in the last chapter, ‘Najran has become a war zone. The Shia of Yemen have bombed the city in revenge for Saudi airstrikes on their land’. After this experience, Katherine and John have travelled a lot: they have been in Kuwait, East Timor, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece, England, Hungary, Thailand and Cambodia. Now they live in Turin and Katherine is learning Italian.
What did you know about Saudi Arabia when you decided to go? In Vancouver, in the school where I taught English, there were a few Saudi students, and this served as my introduction. I knew that women had to wear the veil and needed permission of their mahram (husband or male relative) to study abroad. Once I had serious words with a married couple: the husband insisted that his wife should not speak to male classmates. In Saudi Arabia it is absolutely forbidden for sexes to mix unless they are related. And, for the husband, it was already a big concession that she was in a classroom with unknown men.
If you could go back would you do it again? Yes, I wouldn’t change anything. This experience has forced me to examine and to rethink my ideals, what I believe in. The process has been exhausting but instructive. I also learned to enjoy pleasures I used to take for granted—music, freedom of movement and the feel of the sun on my skin.
When and why did you think: ‘I have to get out of here.’? There was a moment, I’d been there about 8 months, when I looked up at the sky. It was marvellous, brilliant blue and I realized that under a sky just like that girls in Rome, New York or Durban could lie on the grass in a park (haram!), dressed in a T-shirt and shorts (haram!), reading Harry Potter (haram!), eating icecream without a veil (haram!), listening to music (haram!), holding her boyfriend’s hand (haram forever!), watching dogs play (haram!). And I suddenly thought: ‘Wow, this is how it feels to be in prison!’
What does it mean to be a woman in Saudi Arabia? It depends on who you are. Are you a native or are you a Philippino maid? Are you African or Arab? Sunni or Shia? Are you from a rich open-minded family from Riyadh? Or are you a child bride from Qassim? I believe that the only thing you can say about women in Saudi Arabia is that they survive in a regime that is determined to undermine their ability and to deny their independence.
What kind of relationship did you have with other teachers? Did you make friends? My collagues in Najran were an extraordinary group of women who endured the inevitable frustrations with grace and diplomacy. None of them were Saudi, they came from Jordan, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Canada and South Africa. Some of them had worked at the school for many years. Our fantastic head of school Muna was there from the beginning. They were very good to me and I consider them friends. I’m still friends with a lot of them on Facebook.
What was the most difficult thing? Not to be able to run. To exercise at home because in Najran there were no women’s gyms. Unfortunately there is still the deep-rooted prejudice that sport is ‘immoral’ for women and girls.
What could you have never imagined? That Saudi girls would be so interested in Romantic Korean dramas. A lot of them started learning the language on the internet.
When did you feel powerless, afraid? One day my colleagues and I were walking home from school and it started to rain. It rains very few days per year but when it does the streets flood quickly. Suddenly there appeared an SUV that was speeding, swerving and we kept close to a wall. When we saw who was driving we saw that it was a little boy, not even six years old! This kid had been allowed to use the SUV like a toy while Saudi women are banned from driving. The absurdity of the situation gave me a sense of frustration and helplessness.
What did you learn about this culture? It’s changing rapidly and this sudden and massive cultural shift is creating problems and opportunities. For example, even though boys and girls are forbidden from interacting in person, a huge number of teenagers have smartphones, access to the internet and social media profiles. So in effect they can easily circumvent the rules on relationships between the sexes.
Did your husband have the same experience as you in Najran? No, everything hangs in the favor of men. John could dress in his usual clothes; he could hitchhike (there was no public transport in Najran), eat in any restaurant; go home from school when he pleased. I, a woman, had to wear the veil, I was discouraged from appearing in public spaces, I could only eat in ‘family’ restaurants – places where the tables were hidden from sight by screens or walls. At school my colleagues and I were surveilled by armed guards until the moment we were allowed to leave.
What did you find unbearable? To be always watched. This gave me a sense of oppression. Once I walked alone to the market and men stared at me. The fact that I always had to wear the veil made them think I was Saudi, and Saudi women are not supposed to go anywhere alone. A few minutes later I was stopped by a police car. The police calmed down when they saw my foreign passport, but this little incident gave me a sense of empathy for the women constantly confined in their houses or tied to a male guardian.
Can you tell me three positive things about your year of teaching? Teaching students who were so enthusiastic, fun and cooperative and who were really motivated. Working with a diverse group of women and learning something about their lives was a real pleasure. Thirdly, learning to box with our colleague and writer Carlos Hughes was great fun—we set up a boxing stand at home and he came to give us lessons.
Is there anything you regret?
Yes, not having intervened when I heard yelling and screaming, when there was an incident of domestic violence in the appartment next to ours.
What have you learned from this experience? The main revelation was discovering the abyss between what is communicated through the media and the reality. Saudi Arabia is often presented by the western press as a country that is making small steps, slow but sure steps, towards a system more compatible with our precious ideals of democracy and equality. The vision in which the Saudis kindly lead their people into the future like a recalcitrant mule, is paternalistic and dangerous. It ignores the incredible courage and suffering of Saudis like Raif Badawi (activist and blogger, who was condemned by Saudi authorities and remains in prison, ndr) and Sheikh Nimr (the religious leader and spokesman of the Shia minority who was condemned to death and was executed January 2016, ndr) who have dared and still dare to speak out against inhuman laws.
It was also reviewed in Elle by Natalia Aspesi, a super-stylish Milanese legend of letters!
Here is my (rough) translation of her summary:
Notes by Natalia Aspesi – Diary of a teacher transferred to Saudi Arabia in Girls of the Empty Quarter
A literary lightning strike: a little slice of the world seen through the eyes of students in the book by Katherine Dolan.
Every so often we westerners talk about Islam. Is the veil a constriction for women who live in Islamic countries and should we try to free them from it, is it a free choice for those women who live in our cities and should we not renounce it?
Katherine Dolan, not yet forty, from New Zealand (now she lives in Turin) is a poet and writer, but above all a teacher of English as a foreign language: she has worked in East Timor, Kurdistan, Kuwait and in Saudi Arabia. And her experience in this last country she illuminates in The Girls of the Empty Quarter (Astoria/Assaggi).