new cultures

Cultural Clashes Crumpling in the Classroom

It’s clear that I’m “not one of them.” The messages are subtle. Mumbled greetings. Ignoring me in the hallways. Grouping together in the classroom with disregard for what I have to say or present, heads bent on their phones or in huddled conversations between themselves. My 11th grade advisory students are all great kids but they clearly haven’t bought into the “advisory program” and they certainly do not see the purpose of my presence in their lives.

Through my current reading of the book, Understanding Arabs by Margaret K. Nydell (a must read for expats living in the Middle East) I learned that hospitality and the reception of hospitality is very important to Arabs. I asked my advisory students about Arabic hospitality and they went crazy explaining it to me. Using the expression “Welcome” itself is even important. It gave me an idea. If I could change their frame of reference when they entered my classroom maybe we could find a way to connect.

I decided to invite them into advisory as my guests. I brought in hand-made treats, chips, chocolate, fruit, sparkling juice and tea. I covered the table and arranged things nicely. Then I sent an email inviting them to come as my guests into my room for advisory.

 A couple of heads peek curiously into the room, surveying the scene. “Welcome!” I say and motion them into the room.  They spot the table and grins spread across their face. “"What is this?” they query as they begin seriously investigating the food on the table. “"It's a busy week and I think you need a break so I'm treating you like guests today” “This is so sweet.” “Wow, you did this for us?” Genuine expressions of gratitude erupt as they eagerly fill their plates.

 The second wave of students enter, my more skeptical ones. They are more hesitant, suspicious, perhaps expecting “"a catch”. They see the other students enjoying their munchies and they can’t resist. I emphasize my “welcome” and repeat the invitation to be my guest. Their proclivity towards disrespecting advisory is suddenly challenged by their ingrained cultural responsiveness and there is a pause as they are somewhat unsure how to proceed.

 However, they can't resist the draw of the food and drinks and they approach the table. Upon accepting the invitation to be my guest, their cultural reflexes surface and they don’t search for an excuse to leave advisory nor do they get on their phones and they do not ignore me. Instead, they press in, encircling me.

 Then, they start to talk. Really talk. Dreams are shared. Differences between what parents want and what they want are discussed. University hopes are expressed. And in a few minutes I learn more than I have in four months. 

 One even stays to help me clean up. He continues to talk about his fears and hopes for the future. 

 Two weeks have passed and every time I see my advisory students in the halls they call out to me by name. One student in particular comes to me at random times to update me on a project he’s started in an effort of pursuing his dreams. Even more importantly, I feel a connection to them and my care and concern for them has increased.

There is nothing new in this experience is there? It is just another example of the importance of bridging cultures and reaching out to our students in unique ways. It’s true, we didn’t get to the advisory lesson that day but what we did was so much more important and will hopefully lay the foundation for growth in our next year together.  

Insha’ Allah

Insha’ Allah: if Allah wills

Instead of being annoyed at, what seems to me, people not doing their jobs this phrase is employed. When an item is out of stock in the store this expression justifies the item not returning to the shelf for another month or more. It was used when my children’s visas weren’t processed. The store is closed for prayers and is supposed to open in 5 minutes but this statement justifies the opening time being delayed 15, 30, or even 60 minutes.

After 2 months of waiting for our visas to Saudi Arabia they finally arrived. We started school over a month late. No one was upset. Everyone just told us, "That's the way it is here." Insha' Allah

When things don’t work out here, everyone just sits back and utters, “Insha’ Allah.” To me it has become an excuse for inaction which goes against my mindset of “make it happen”, you know, do what it takes to make things work. Being a woman of faith myself, I can accept a philosophy of “It’s in God’s hands” but such an attitude  juxtaposes personal effort to work seriously towards the goal.  Only after I've exhausted all my own ideas is it acceptable to acknowledge an alternate plan. Here, however, it seems to me that if something doesn’t happen right away, everyone just nods and utters “Insha’Allah, accepting the fate. Sometimes it feels to me like a fatalistic approach to life resulting in a lack of motivation to take action.

 I began to think that if I heard the utterance “insha’ Allah” one more time I’d explode. “Your order will be ready on Saturday, insha’ Allah.” “Your visa will be ready in 2-3 days, insha’ Allah.” “Insha’ Allah, the store will open at 10:00.” “Insha' Allah, your food will come out in 15 minutes.” “So we have an appointment at 7:30, insha’ Allah.”

In the classroom, looking at the review sheet for one of our chapter tests sitting in front of each student it is clear to me that most of the students haven’t completed it.

“Did you not do the review packet?”

“Insha’ Allah, Dr. Markham.” My blood threatens to boil.

“What do you mean?” Of course I’m not really sure if I want to walk down this path.

“Insha’ Allah. If Allah wants us to do well on the test, we’ll do well on the test.” An explosion is hanging in the air.

“Without reviewing?”


The words are on the tip of my tongue, “I guess you won't do well on the test because you weren't inspired to do the review packet.” But I do not utter them. I also want to remind them that they will need to be pushing the pencil when they sit to write the exam and no one else can do it for them, however I do not. This expression, 'Insha' Allah', while part of the culture may mean "hopefully" is also linked to the religion that many of these students adhere to and in that case it is linked to deity. Thus, I do not wish to offend and must find away to work with the situation as is.

I’ve been pondering how to handle it. How can culture remain in-tact while building motivation to work?

Midterm exams. This time I have prepared an in-class review with questions in a Power Point format for the students to respond to and initiate discussion with. Empowered with white boards and note taking paper the students begin to reply to the queries appearing before them.

“Will you give us a copy of this Power Point?” If the answer is affirmative then all note-taking will cease so, of course, my retort is “no.” And I follow up with, “All of these questions are directly related to the exam, if you want to do well you must take notes and make sure you understand each point we discuss today in class.”

A student queries, “If we know everything from this review will be do well on the exam?

“Insha’ Allah” I reply. To my surprise, the entire class erupts in cheers.

“Here’s the deal,” I continue, “There are two ways to phrase this. Either ‘Insha’ Allah I’ll do my best and do well on the test’ or….” Students are silent, almost holding their breath, as they await my upcoming thought.

 “Or….I’ll do my best and insha’ Allah I’ll do well on the test.” Another giant eruption of cheers accompanied by the outburst, “Oooh” follows. It’s as though I've performed some tricky move in a sports event upsetting the opponent.

With a magnificent smile a student confirms, “We get it Dr. Markham. We get it. We have to do the work.”

 Just the simple implementation of my own personal syntax has eliminated my individual frustration with what I perceive as an excessive use of “Insha ‘Allah.”  It is my motto to appreciate and embrace the culture in which I live. And, by employing the use of “Insh’Allah” in my classroom rather than shunning  it as I was initially inclined to do, my students and I have each taken one step closer to each other.


"Essential Office Stationery... for the Middle East |" N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.

Freedom in Western Escapes

“No pictures! No pictures!” he shouts as he frantically waves his hands and approaches me.

“Just my snorkelling gear. No people!” In affirming the subject of my photo, I'm hoping to assuage his anxiety.

“No camera. No camera.” His curls are tousled from swimming in the sea and then drying in the warm breeze. With continued hand and head gesticulations he blocks any view of his wife and child as if to protect them from my evil intent.

I’ve just created the ideal scene: my fins, mask and snorkel artistically arranged on a rock ledge with the Red Sea stretching out behind. The snorkel gear would be in focus and the rocks and sea would be a blurry nostalgic background. It was to be the perfect reminder of this glorious day. 

Just hours before, the snorkel gear enabled me to slide into the refreshing waters of the Red Sea and discover, just steps away from the beach where we swam, a pristine coral reef alive with diverse and colourful marine life. Floating there and looking down 25 meters along the reef through the clear waters into the undersea world was a true escape from the heat, humidity, cement, rubble, constantly humming air conditioners, and rules of my new life. 

But here this agitated man is reminding me of more rules! I can’t even take a picture of snorkelling gear? I gather my items, without taking the picture, and stow them under the straw beach umbrella where my husband snoozes in his reclining lounge chair.

Later I notice the large “no video or still photography” signs accompanied with an image of a camera marked through with an “X”. I’m glad I didn’t insist on clicking the button on my camera for that one shot.

We are all guests at a private beach. We women have entered the premises wearing our abayas. However, once inside the gates, we immediately remove them. At other locations where women are allowed to swim, we would be required to wear head-to-toe swimming attire. But not here. We swim and enjoy the beach as we would anywhere else in the world. All afternoon families lounge, swim, and eat together in total relaxation. There are sounds of joy coming from the beach and bursts of laughter from groups seated in lounge chairs or around tables scattered throughout the property. 

It is a sense of freedom I have never before appreciated. But it is also a special privilege and no one wants official documentation of it. In all fairness, my frenetic opponent did not want his (or his family’s) picture from this location to be made public in any way. 

The burning heat on the backs of my legs (as I did not anticipate spending so much time floating on the water due to stupendous snorkelling and did not properly apply sunscreen) serves to remind me of the magnificent escape at the surface of the Red Sea this afternoon. And coming home I take a picture of my snorkelling gear on the floor of my house. Not the same but it’s the best I have. Images of vibrant coral, brilliant Bullethead Parrotfish,  pendulous Masked Puffer fish along with a host of other dazzling creatures observed today flutter through my mind. Those relaxing, peaceful moments on the sea are recollections that stay with me long into the night.

It makes me reflect on freedom. What does it mean to me to be free? Today, to me it means being able to act as I am accustomed within my cultural norms and within the laws of the land. Then, I am free.