That Time My Emirati Students Were Afraid of Google

The beginning of the year was one of the hardest culture shocks for any teacher of the Abu Dhabi Education Council.  Generally, that’s the worst bit for teachers worldwide; having gotten used to a summer routine, teachers lose their voices as they bring order to their new classrooms, drag their feet from self-imposed exhaustion after weeks of an entirely better sleeping schedule, and wrangle with a series of strange kids who sometimes start the year by being utter dicks.

ADEC took all that and compounded it with crippling uncertainty.  School often “started” somewhere in September, and in 2012 that was roughly the first week.  But “started” deserves such quotations; kids appeared and disappeared, as did teachers who were suddenly transferred in and out of schools and classrooms.  A system-wide series of negotiations would get underway between ADEC-HQ and principals over staffing, between principals and teachers over who got how many classes and at what time of the day, between teachers and students over what the students would be allowed to get away with for the rest of the year.  Worst for teachers was that it took an average of a full month before you’d get your real classes; in the meantime, you’d just sit in a room with a random bunch of kids whose grades you knew would be tossed come final roster.

That abject period always led to creative solutions to fill the hours.  By 2012, I knew the game; grammar worksheets, videos, and other rather unimpressive claptrap did the job of at least keeping some of the students busy while the administration lackadaisically went about writing the real, final schedule.  By then I was in Abu Dhabi itself in a school that bothered to have classroom computers and Internet access.  YouTube was meant to be my salvation.

Then that asshole went and made Innocence of Muslims.

Take the swayback machine now.  September 2012 was election season in the U.S.; an unimpressive recovery was largely the headline, but then out came a short, badly-dubbed, apparently deceitful to even its own cast subpar film that lashed into the Prophet Mohammed as a pedophile, drunk, and sex fiend.  This coincided roughly with the September 11, 2012 Benghazi consulate attack, which was initially blamed on protests associated with the film.

Nobody in the emirates was worried about kids setting us Westerners on fire over that stupid film, but it did inspire some noteworthy events.

In my time sink class of grade 11s, filled to the brim with boys determined to do as little as possible, I resorted to films like Kony 2012 to inspire quiet and a semblance of order to students who knew as well as I did that I would never give them a real grade.  Shortly after Innocence of Muslims went viral in the Middle East, I was pulling Google up in front of the class to find films of car accidents to teach about automobile safety.

“No, no, teacher!  Not good, this website!”

You’d get a lot of that nonsense from time to time: some wretch would shout out, “No, no!” when you brought out real work, or tried to get the class to read from a book, as if this was some mortal offense to Emirati culture and religion.  New teachers would get blindsided by it (I certainly did), since the cultural land mines that littered the emirates were hard to spot for newcomers (Was the book banned?  Did the worksheet have a male-female couple holding hands?  Did the vocabulary for the day sound like “fuck” in Arabic?).  The rough kids would always try the same thing; if you took the bait, they’d run your class until you wised up, a process that usually took a full year.

Except this time it was the cadre of nice students; the ones who crowded up front desperate to pick up an American accent, who genuinely believed I’d been sent by their generous Crown Prince to uplift their people and make the UAE the best country in the world.

So instead of telling them to shut up, (“Chop, chop” in Emirati dialect), as I was wont to do by then, I stopped.

“What site?”

“Google!  Google!  Imam say no good!”

The click in my brain was pretty immediate; some imam somewhere had banned Google.  The UAE government was totally mum on the whole film controversy; they preferred to avoid taking strong stances on anything that might offend people, Western or Arab, especially in 2012 as they tried to find a new political balance post-Arab Spring.

“Google?”  I did a rapid calculation, and it struck me as extremely unlikely that this, of all the things I’d done up until that point, would get me fired or deported.  “No problem Google.”

They cringed in the back, worried that film might appear.  The rough kids, the manipulators and layabouts who are the bane of teachers everywhere, found the notion pretty enjoyable.  Should that film show up, they’d get to run me out of the classroom and get me fired.  If not, it still bothered the goody-goodies.  Win-win for them.

As for the good kids, they acted like choir boys who’d accidentally glanced at the underwear section of the newspaper.  They were the types who literally covered their eyes and ears in shock, horrified that something evil might slip into their souls and stay there forever.  That was part of the reason they were good kids; their naivety propelled them to try to help the bumbling Western teachers thrust into their midsts.  I clicked a video on car safety and the moment of danger passed.

Not long after, we had a heated debate over free speech and that film up in our department.  Our department head, Tunisian and Muslim, wanted the U.S. government to ban the film, as governments around the Muslim world were scrambling to do.  He was heavily outnumbered by Westerners; the purge of Arab teachers had run its course by then, leaving Western teachers dominant.  A conversation that, in my first year, would have had me on the defensive against an array of teachers from countries that did not have freedom of speech was now an onslaught of democratically-attuned Westerners against the lone censorship advocate.

This is actually Qatar’s web filter, but it does a good job at expression the absurdity of the whole censorship regime there.

The conversation was pretty typical of the talking past one another misunderstandings that seem to keep causing wars in the Middle East.  Our department head naturally found the film offensive and repugnant and wanted the U.S. government to ride in, with all its might, and ban the film and punish the filmmaker in the brutal fashion his own dictator of Ben Ali used to do.

It took a long time to get our department head to fully understand how sacrosanct we considered freedom of speech.  Raised in a political tyranny, he was as shocked that the U.S. couldn’t ban the film as we were shocked that an educator would wanted government censorship based on hurt feelings.

Since then Charlie Hebdo has been attacked and, more recently, some inept gunmen tried to take down a well-defended “Draw the Prophet” contest in Texas.  All of it boils down to Westerners poking their fingers in the eyes of religious Muslims, and fanatical, militant Sunni Muslims grabbing guns and trying to one up the insult with murder.  The comment threads of these news stories go much the same way, with echoes of my own debate playing out across the Internet in something like a perpetual motion machine.

There’s one thing I resent most of all from my time in the emirates.  This was a genuinely teachable moment: an important news event of great importance worth discussing.  It mattered to the students, to their community, to me as well.  I didn’t want the kids to necessarily watch it, nor to support the right to make it; they could have slagged off America, YouTube, and all of Western civilization for all I cared.  All I wanted was the discussion.

But because the UAE locked up people who talked too freely, I never dared.

That for me still cinches what side I take.

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