The Arab Spring From An Arab Classroom

“They want critical thinking.” 

In 2009, I took a job with the Abu Dhabi Education Council.  It was a first-of-its-kind opportunity, an attempt by the government to inject modern teaching methods into their dilapidated and decaying public school system, which had nearly decomposed to the point where its facilities were sand-encrusted wastelands that served more as places to dump kids for a few hours a day rather than to teach them anything useful.  The word the recruiter kept using over and over again was “critical thinking” – that this concept was what the government wanted for its students to prepare them for their “knowledge economy” that was due to arrive in the near future.

Critical thinking implied a lot; most of all, it meant we were to teach students how to question things.  I knew enough about the United Arab Emirates to know it was no beacon of liberal democracy or social freedom; I knew the people were Sunni Muslim, conservative and covered, focused on prayer and their religion more than the temporal gains of consumerism.  I knew the sheikhs were no democrats, but if it was true – if they really did want a whole generation to be raised on the concepts of critical thinking – it meant they were preparing the groundwork for a new society that could not exclude democracy.

I believed the wise old sheikhs of Abu Dhabi were quietly building a new and better country with their billions at a time when the U.S. was mired in recession and the hangover from its materialistic overindulgences.  I thought perhaps there was some secret wisdom on the shores of the Persian Gulf that would be imparted to me.

The trials and tribulations of the classroom are detailed elsewhere, but in that first year few things made me doubt the central vision of the Abu Dhabi Education Council.  There were severe fuck-ups and painful days, but these were easy to dismiss as symptoms of change, as things that would give way and allow us to do the heavy work of modernizing Emirati society.

Then the Arab Spring came.

“The boys want to talk about girls, cars, and camels.  You can talk about cars and camels.”

In December 2010, I started to hear about riots in Tunisia. I thought little of them. They were far away, small, and unimportant, and eventually, I believed, they’d go away.

A lot of people thought that, especially in the Persian Gulf, where nothing seemed to change unless the wise shiekhs in their elegant palaces said so.  At that time it was my second year at work in Al Ain, an oasis town built as a retreat for Emiratis unimpressed by the massive changes happening in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. In the English department, I worked alongside a Tunisian, Ahmed, two Egyptians, Nasser and Abuzeid, an Emirati, Abdullah, and a Syrian, Abdelnasser, who argued a lot, shouted a lot, and occasionally let me know what they were talking about, since most of it was in Arabic and my knowledge of the language at the time didn’t even extend to “good morning.”

I congratulated Ahmed when Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia; he beamed back.  Abdelnasser was more glum; Tunisia’s sudden revolution would not spread.  The Egyptians went back and forth as it emerged that people in Egypt were setting themselves alight in hopes of bringing revolution to their society as well.  There were a bunch of those reports, but my feeling was the same as Abdelnasser’s – after having watched disaster in Iraq, I held little hope that such things were possible when dictators were determined.  But they kept happening, and on January 25th, Egyptians came out in force.

One day Ahmed came in, laughing about the Battle of the Camels.  He found it hilarious that Egypt’s bottom classes did the most backward thing possible; they’d attacked Tahrir Square on camel back at the behest of the regime.  I caught Abuzeid on a cigarette break and made the mistake of thinking he thought it was funny, too; he corrected me to point out people were dying.  I meekly agreed all we could do was hope for the best.

They all stopped guessing what would happen somewhere at the end of January 2011.  Nobody knew anymore.  Egypt’s security forces had come and gone and Tahrir was still occupied.  Meanwhile, in the classroom, we dared not broach the topic – Abdelnasser had implied such a thing was haram, forbidden, which was a religious term abused for his purpose of shutting down political discussion.

In February 2011, I took a weekend trip to the kingdom of Bahrain, a tiny island-nation that took about two hours to explore as a tourist.  I knew about the Shi’a/Sunni divide there, but on the ground, it was so stark and shocking that I forgot, briefly, that I was in the rich lands of the Gulf.  The Shi’a slums hung black flags from their houses and shops; crowds of chanting men marched by on badly photoshopped posters.  I saw no protests, but I did feel anger, and knowing that it took five minutes to go from poor to rich on the highway gave me the feeling Bahrain was not immune to the changes due to come.  That Friday night, I smoked shisha in a cafe in downtown Manama and watched the protests in Egypt on al Jazeera.  Around me the cafe was quiet; maybe it was always quiet.

On return to Al Ain, I saw the headline on MSNBC: “MUBARAK QUITS CAIRO.”  So went Egypt.

Abuzeid and Nasser were ecstatic; the hated Mubarak was gone.  Abuzeid was an old Arab nationalist who loved former Egyptian president Gamel Abdelnasser, but thought Mubarak was an Israeli and American stooge.  Both used words that were alien to that room: “democracy,” “elections,” “voting.”  But we didn’t say a word to the students, nor they to us.

Abdullah, our lone Emirati teacher, had few opinions and fewer things to say on the matter.  He loved his hometown of Al Ain and hated Abu Dhabi; too crowded, too much traffic, too different from the country he’d grown up in.  He didn’t say much about the revolutions now sweeping the region, and Abuzeid once said to me, loudly and across the department, “These Gulf Arabs don’t care about politics.”  Abdullah said nothing.

Abdelnasser, on the other hand, had lots of opinions.  He was a schemer, and he managed our department by rumor, half truth, and disassociation.  He was at his best in a dictatorial environment, and our principal, the Saddam Hussein of education, was easy for him to understand.  These revolutions made no sense to him and he rarely found much footing in discussions about them.  He was too used to knowing who was powerful and how to please them.

“It will never happen in Syria,” he proclaimed to us.  “They will kill everyone.  If it happens in Syria, I will buy everyone dinner.” For a man with a family making less than me, such an offer was not unimportant.  When it did happen in Syria, he didn’t follow through.

When Mubarak fell, the virus spread.  The next week I saw news broadcasts from Bahrain.  On the very highway I’d driven from slum to luxury hotels I saw troops arrayed against their people.  Not far from where my hotel had been, I saw them open fire.  That was a heavy shock, a pang, as I realized that the king of Bahrain, a Gulf ruler who I’d had no opinion of before, was not much better than Ghaddafi.  What other scum hid in the capitals of these glittering cities?

A protest in Tahrir in March 2011.  (Credit: Myself)
A protest in Tahrir in March 2011. (Credit: Myself)

In March 2011 I visited Egypt in the glow of its revolution.  There were still protesters in Tahrir, but few police, and everyone was happy and full of optimism for the future – everyone but my Bedouin tour guide in the Western Desert, who chanted pro-Ghaddafi slogans in Arabic, thinking I didn’t know what he was saying.  As I got ready to leave for Egypt in Dubai, I heard the UN debate a war in Libya.  By the time I was camping in the White Desert, NATO was bombing Libya just a few hundred kilometers west.

Back in Al Ain, I heard about the protests in Sohar, some two hours east of our city, in Oman.  Omani forces swept in and killed several people; the protests died out.  For a few, tense weeks, with revolution breaking out seemingly everywhere, I stocked up on water (in case the desalinization plants went offline for whatever reason) and watched for signs of change in Al Ain.  There were none.  We were the eye of the hurricane and around us was chaos, but we were safe.

I got drunk one night and scribbled out my worries in a journal.  Who next?  Who next?  If Saudi goes, we all go.  And so I waited for the “Day of Rage” in Saudi Arabia in March 2011.  It came and went; one man showed up in Riyadh and he was arrested.  For us in the UAE, it was over.  There would be no revolution.

A Shi'a mosque in Bahrain in February 2011.
A Shi’a mosque in Bahrain in February 2011.

The students started to make Arab Spring jokes.  For them, ensconced in wealth and privilege, the government was a gentle father who doled out cash to his needy sons, not a tyrant who had to be got rid of to achieve a better life.  ADEC stayed mum on the subject, but we all knew the rule: we were to say nothing, to discuss nothing, to allow nothing to be discussed.  Business was usual; even the newspaper remained as bland and boring as ever.  The UAE sent forces with Saudi Arabia to Bahrain in March 2011, but no one said a word, even my co-workers who were from suddenly liberated countries.

One morning, I signed a condolence letter and gave some money to a co-worker whose family was killed by an RPG as they attempted to flee Libya.

It was strange; the world had changed, but we did not.  “It’s not your job,” was the sentiment.  True, we were there to teach English.  But what about critical thinking?  It was still possible to examine the Arab Spring and conclude the Emirati government was doing its job.  Such a perspective existed and was legitimate.  But I dared not bring up that lesson, not after Abdelnasser had told me how close a student had been to being arrested for saying pro-Saddam things in my classroom.

My friends and co-workers were convinced it would never happen in the UAE.  I was not of that camp, but when Saudi Arabia stayed quiet, it was true that we had bought some time.  The UAE Five came, were arrested, and were pardoned.  Meanwhile, I moved to the capital and was placed in the top school of the government system, minutes away from the presidential palace.

Bahrain smoldered, Egypt swayed, and Syria disintegrated, but I kept having the same problems as before, and none of them had anything to do with the Spring.  Above my head, I realized, our wise old sheikhs had concluded critical thinking was dangerous, if they were ever serious about it all.  National Day in December 2011 was very loud and emphasized unity above all.  In the newspapers, the tribes gathered and proclaimed their loyalty to the president.

I was given a classroom of elite Emirati students, the top performers from the government system, and so it was to them that I tested the waters, to see if they saw things the way I did, if they cared about the same things so many in the region did.  They often didn’t want to talk about it.  I sensed fear sometimes, but mostly boredom.  The government took care of them; what more was there?  They had no interest in questioning the hand that fed them.

“It’s full of Shi’a”

“Madinat Zayed is a bad place,” my new department head in Abu Dhabi once said to me at morning assembly, referring to part of downtown Abu Dhabi.  “It’s full of Shi’a.”

That wasn’t the first time someone slagged off Shi’a Muslims.

“They are like Jews,” one student said to me.  “You can’t trust them.”  I stopped that student and forced him to say that people are people and that no one group is less untrustworthy than another.  But I went no further than that.  I knew that the school and the government behind it officially believed both of the things he’d said.

A year had come and gone and the Arab Spring had not yet devolved into the mess that it is today, and so I decided I’d had enough of certain things in Emirati society and that I was going to start teaching a unit dedicated to anti-racism.  This was not easy; students didn’t fully understand what racism was, would use racist terms like “nigger” to refer to their darker skinned friends (who would not take offense because they didn’t fully understand where the word came from), and who lived in a society with a strict racial hierarchy.

A typical government school classroom.  The map details three islands invaded by Iran in 1971 and still occupied to this day.  These islands were a central part of the government's anti-Iran propaganda.
A typical government school classroom. The map details three islands invaded by Iran in 1971 and still occupied to this day. These islands were a central part of the government’s anti-Iran propaganda.

We did plays and skits based on locals shoving Pakistanis out of a line; we read the UAE’s constitution that stipulated everyone was equal before the law. “Emirati, British, American, Indian, Jews, Shi’a, Sunni, Christian, me, you,” I would list as part of the lesson.  It started to sink in.  Nobody hauled me in to tell me to shut up; the students started to playfully point out when their friends were being racist, and even though I didn’t quite like the flippancy by which they used the term, the point was they were finally understanding it.

I pushed the unit onto the other teachers within the English department.  By that time, ADEC had cleared house and most of the Arabs were fired; a series of Westerners had filled their places.  They presented the lessons and soon the whole grade 11 was being given the anti-racism unit.  I heard no bad reports, no uprisings.  For the first time, I felt like we were doing our job.

We culminated in an out-of-school community project that most students put an unusual amount of effort into.  Most of them just picked up trash; others, however, visited labor camps and gave out food and drink.  Many were shocked to learn just how little the workers made and how hard their jobs were.  It was my best moment.

In the background, the UAE’s security forces were on the move.  Saudi Arabia had led the tone; dissidents were either anti-Muslim liberals, Muslim Brotherhood schemers, or Shi’a traitors.  In July 2012, the UAE moved against the first two.  In the largest of their kind up until that point, about 90 dissidents were arrested for belonging to an organization related to the Muslim Brotherhood.  One of them was the former head of my school.

“He was an Islamist,” my department head said without sympathy.  Details of torture emerged; that man, Eisa Khalifa al Suwaidi, got ten years.

It was then, in the spring of 2012, that I realized we were a joke.  We had not been brought in to modernize their society; we were a feather in the cap of the Crown Prince, a “look at what my money can do” project.  They had no idea what they were asking us to do or, if they did, were such cynical liars that they made it impossible for us to do much.

I taught my anti-racism unit again the following year, but the lists of detainees grew longer and the UAE passed its Cyber Crimes Law in November 2012.  To say anything was from then on criminal.  We had not noticed, but we were living in state that had grown fierce claws.

I resigned that year.  The first thing I did when I landed in the United States was publish a blog detailing my experiences as an ADEC employee.  It was meant to inform those who might take jobs with ADEC, but it was almost meant to clear my conscience.  For a long time, I self-censored, and knew I was doing it.  I had had enough.  Safe behind my borders, I could say what I wanted at long last.  For my students left behind, there was no such option.  The Arab Spring had come.  In the UAE, it had given way to a cold winter.