Frustration and Elation
King Abdullah's Welcome Announcement
25 September 2011
Frustration and Elation
My frustration at being steamrolled by bronchitis and pneumonia has given way to elation: Today’s headlines trumpet the decision by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to enfranchise Saudi women and, unbelievably, allow them to run for local public office, beginning in 2015.
I worked with Saudi Arabians for eight years (1977-1985) in Cupertino, California. Hired to teach in a corporation that contracted to train Saudi Arabian men in computer skills (yes—we still had keypunch machines and computer languages at that ancient time), I was the first female instructor assigned to the two-man (Ron L. and B. Clay) ESL “department.” It seemed like a strange job, but after two years of sporadic part-time jobs, I grabbed the incredibly well-paid position as soon as it was offered.
What was it like getting to know Saudis and working with them at close range?
In my first weeks at Sysorex, I was terrified. Young and clueless about Arabs and their culture, I found myself in a sleek, modern high-tech classroom surrounded by friendly tanned faces above crisp white robes. The strange men babbled loudly in a language I could never begin to fathom, never mind speak. The Saudis were very curious about me because many of them had ever seen an unveiled female adult outside of their homes.
Their curiosity daunted me and posed a problem to my stiff Anglo-Saxon expectations regarding personal space and allowable distance between two people. (For more info, look up proxemics .) In terms of body language, the Saudis seemed invasive and brash, even to the extent of making sexual come-ons. I felt constantly on the defensive, wary of every word, smile or move, both theirs and mine.
As they approached, I took several steps back. As I stepped back, they approached even more closely. As their voices got louder, my answers squeaked out, expressing my startled emotions as being half intimidated and half angry. Soon I was face-to-face—even nose-to-nose—with strange men I had barely made acquaintance with. Though I was grateful they were very friendly and vocal and therefore easier to teach language to, I was beginning to think they were being too friendly for the wrong reasons.
Word went round the company that while I was an excellent instructor, I seemed not to like my students enough to really engage them. Not like them? I liked them fine. It was they who were the problem, not taking me seriously because I was a woman. Right?
Wrong. I had so much to learn about myself and others! Someone took the time, I believe it was Art C. our institute director, to instruct me in intercultural differences. The cultural gaps between Americans (especially American women) and Saudis were immense: For example, Saudis position themselves at a very close physical distance from their interlocutor, almost nose-to-nose or from 3 to 9 inches; this translates as either intimate or belligerent space to us Americans, who are used to about 4 or more feet between our physical public space bubbles. But my Saudi students were only trying to be polite, not “pushy,” when they came up in my face and spoke loudly to me. And I, I was showing them with my backwards tango steps that I didn’t like them and didn’t want to listen to them.
There were many other “little” misunderstandings built on miscues of body language that enlightened me over the months and years. One such gem to know is that when Saudis are agreeing with you or indicating “yes,” they will move their head from side to side as we do when we mean “no” or we disagree. Another had to do with the etiquette of eye contact. Most Arab peoples prefer to maintain fairly intense eye contact while talking at such range. My being on the shy side and often gazing into space or at the floor did not help my cause. Learning to maintain nearly constant eye contact was very exhausting to me. Yet for the love of learning and teaching, I did my best.
Then a miracle occurred. I learned a cultural “secret” that changed my life: Most Arab people are adept at interpreting other people’s degree of eye dilation so they can tell what’s going on with your emotions, specifically the emotions of like/dislike, love/hate. If you don’t like them, they know without your ever having to say a thing.
This is one reason that you will always see photographs of Gadhafi and the late Yasser Arafat wearing sunglasses at all their meetings and negotiations, even indoors. They do not want to be read like open books.
So maybe my eyes were not lying—the students made me feel uncomfortable, which surely translated in my eyes, or my pupils, to make a pun. Over a long weekend, I contemplated what to do with this stunning new information. Sunglasses were out, since the average person wearing sunglasses indoors is an insult to most Arabs, for now obvious reasons.
By the next Tuesday I was a changed person. My students immediately sensed it. Before encountering a student, I made myself think that the love of my life had just surprised me with a visit and plane tickets to Paris, or that Pavarotti was serenading me personally with Che Gelida Manina , or some similar fantasy-imbued thought I could sustain for a while. As I did this, I could feel eyes and my face relax into twinkles and smiles, and soon my whole being glow with joyous feelings. Then I looked the person in the eye and greeted them warmly. Magic!
Now I held the keys to two great mysteries. Not only did this joyful thinking re-train my neural-synaptic responses—and my eye dilation—to express genuine liking for another (for I did not confine this to only my Saudis, but used it with everyone), it created a genuine liking and affection for self and other in my psyche! It wasn’t a trick—it was a major life transformation. I truly did genuinely like and care about each of my students now. This “secret” brought me a cache of fabulous gifts, among them a new patience, curiosity and openness in my daily interactions with all. This secret made me quarry out a genuine Maria-self from the deeper character strata hidden within me.
Frustration had given way to elation.
From this time forward, I never doubted that as a teacher and instructor, I gave to my students some important content information about language. But, conversely, the real beneficiary of an education is and was always me, with all my students being the greatest teachers I ever had or hoped for.
So what was it like teaching Saudis? A great honor and beyond my best expectations.
What were they like? My Saudis were as diverse and multi-faceted as any group of people can be.
Most were warm, friendly, fun-loving, respectful, intelligent, and personable. Relationships come first for them, so they were very forgiving and could never stay angry or upset for very long. Some were stand-offish, some foolhardy, some hard to get to know, some lazy, some hyper…just like any other group. But I don’t recall one who was a fake. These Arabs led me to demand such genuineness of myself. Though such genuineness leads to vulnerability and therefore many more opportunities to get hurt, a two-dimensional life is much more tragic than instructive pain. And so my learning evolved.
The Saudi students’ religious views on women were difficult for me to accept, but I remember one thing: with a few exceptions—and I know this sounds like a sterotype of the Controller but—I never heard one of my students talk about women with disrespect. In fact, their conversation regarding their wives or woman in their culture was amazingly elevated and glowed with complete respect. Their control over women was, in their minds, all about protection from “harm” (which, granted, included normal living, but we have many centuries to make up here), not about oppression.
And most curiously, though I remember them having celebrations at the birth of a son, they spoke of their daughters more frequently and adoringly, expressing their desire for them to find the highest happiness in life, even if that meant she took the rare course of never marrying but becoming a doctor or professional instead.
You go Saudi women! And may Allah bless you, King Abdullah Al Saud.