By the spring of 2010 the principal of my school in Al Ain had concluded we weren’t a direct threat to him and started being a lot less of a dick. That meant he shouted at us a lot less, bullied us a lot less; quietly, he was sending signs he tacitly accepted that we were approaching “okay.”
That just about changed everything for me in Al Ain. Formerly scowling co-workers who dreamed of my deportation morphed into smiling colleagues who would properly greet me on the way to class. Students who believed they could bully me into abject humiliation began to accept that perhaps I was their teacher after all.
The door was open for someone to try to convert me to Islam.
Before, I was a passing shadow, not really worth the effort, since rumor had it we Westerners were to be fired by December. (A rumor, no doubt, fed by the principal). But now I had achieved a bit of a reputation: I was “ok.” Not “good” – not yet. But “ok.” And ripe for an uncomfortable conversation.
Much like Christian Evangelicals, the deeply religious folk of Al Ain felt guilty when they saw nice people who weren’t Muslim. They believed, quite firmly, that regardless of how nice one was, if you didn’t convert to Islam you were consigned to Hell. As we ADEC teachers gained acceptance amongst the tribes, many of the Emirati teachers and students approached their favorite Westerners and gave them the spiel on Islam.
That spring a grade 10 class finally made their go at me.
The English department had an “English room” upstairs; there was a rounded u-shaped desk arrangement so all students were forced to face towards a lecturer. A lavish carpet and a series of frilly pillows recreated a Bedouin tent while a Smart board sat almost utterly unused on the wall. It was a show piece; when Western inspectors came, different classes would book the room in order to appear to be modern as the inspectors ticked boxes on their little charts.
It was also a great place to hide an entire class.
Nothing was much accomplished in those days; we ADEC teachers were happy to have a stalemate with the students rather than the losing battle we’d experienced in the fall. The curriculum remained hopelessly out of date, and promises of a great change the next year made most of us feel our primary job was to look pretty for inspectors, provide worksheets that only about 25% of the class would fill out, and change grades so kids could pass come marking time.
So on days where I could sense the kids didn’t want to get anything done, I’d take them up to the “English room,” have them sit on the pillows and carpet, and just chat about whatever we fancied. It was as close to a speaking skills lesson as could be managed in those days.
I don’t remember how we go onto the topic of Islam; it came up a lot, but mostly as a “You know this, teacher?” set up where the kids tried to teach me new things about their interpretation of the religion. What began as informational transformed into a class-wide effort to save my soul.
Yusuf was one of the brighter grade 10s; bespectacled, with a wisp of a beard and mustache, he led the effort. Later on, during the chaotic early days of the Arab Spring, he’d tell me he had political ambition to change his country, but remarked that the rulers would never allow him to climb high enough to do much.
In general, it’s quite hard to get a group of Emiratis to shut up. I remember watching an interview with a wizened old sheikh from the 1970s; as he spoke, he was interrupted, cajoled, harassed, by other on-lookers. He didn’t seem to mind one bit. Our Western need for total silence when we speak is driven by our egotistical belief that everything we say is important. Emiratis tend to be more blunt; when they’re even slightly by bored by what you’re saying, or what you’re saying doesn’t pertain to them, they’ll start a better conversation right in front of you.
When Yusuf spoke, it was dead silence.
Yusuf told me that the class liked me; that they were worried about me; that they’d like to see me again in Paradise. He told me there was only one way to get there; the “true religion, Islam.” (He meant, of course, the Whahabbi strain of Sunni Islam popular amongst the tribes in Al Ain, though I wonder if he knew it).
All this was dodgy for me in the extreme. Especially back then, I was hypersensitive to the locals’ religious sensibilities. (That dulled over the years as I saw far too many Emiratis abusing their religion to get out of things). To refuse to convert was what I wanted to do; to say it outright could be misconstrued as an insult to the students at best and the religion at worst.
It was then that I picked up that ever-so-Arab trait for dealing with people who give me unwanted advice or direction. I thought of our Egyptian teacher Abuzeid, the man I learned it from, as I responded to Yusuf.
I told him thank you.
I didn’t say another word. No snide, “but no thanks.” No full-throated “How dare you.” Just, “Thank you.”
The class ended; we all walked out; I never converted to Islam; I kept my job.
I’ve been thanking people like that ever since.