teaching in Saudi Arabia

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.


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FIRST IMPRESSIONS: How does Middle Eastern Life present itself in my classroom?

Map courtesy of www.theodora.com/maps used with permission

“It’s like texting your grandmother on Eid instead of calling”  one student explains to the class. There is a unanimous hum of agreement as he continues, “you just wouldn’t do that. It’s wrong”. 

They are debating the plan for Facebook to introduce six new emojis in order to “rope in even more members” by providing users with more ways to interact with each other. These tech savvy youngsters are very critical of the insincere component of these new emojiis. While they have all had fb, Instagram, and snapchat accounts, many claim it isn’t worth their time. They agree that it gives users a false sense of security and well-being. They agree that the new emojis won’t entice them to use Facebook more as they perceive the use of these emojis to be fake engagement.

I must admit, I’m stunned by the fact that only a handful of students actively use social media and that most of them are very critical of it. So far, my experience in the U.S.A., China, and Europe has left me believing that teenagers are, indeed, the same all over the world. However, despite some universals, I am seeing differences in my arabic students as compared to their western counterparts.

It’s all about Getting someone else to do it

To get things done in this country, it’s easiest when one has connections. You want the Internet installed? It’s much faster if you have a friend that works for the company. To get a mobile phone account set up it will be much smoother if you take someone who knows someone who works at the phone store. You find someone to do it for you. Of course if something goes wrong, you find someone to blame.

In the robotics class when a robot doesn’t run the course properly, a student will insist on running the course over and over again claiming, “This stupid robot won’t do what I want.” It is much more logical to them to blame the robot rather than review for error in their own programming. Over and over again I encourage them to return to their program and make adjustments. Over and over again they finally realise that it IS the programming and NOT the robot!

Recently, a student came in to review an assignment on which he received a low grade. We examined the rubric together and as we discussed the first aspect of the rubric he put his finger up to indicate he’d be a minute as he dialed a number on his phone, “I’m with Miss Nina right now and she’s telling me we did something wrong.”

Apparently, it’s not uncommon for a maid, tutor, or parent to complete homework.

Different Educational Expectations

With disbelief a student stares at his poster lying in front of us on the table. A few days prior we had studied the rubric together and he took his project home to rework it for an improved grade. He can’t fathom that the grade has not changed despite his “improvements” to the poster, none of which reflect the expectations of the rubric.

“Then why did I do all that work? I should get some points for redoing it.” Of course secretly I want to ask him why he did all that work without consulting the rubric again! “Miss, can’t you at least give him some more points for making it better?” his pal queries while another pipes in, “Yes, Miss. He is a good kid. He should have an ‘A’.”

And they are serious.

On another occasion, a student points to her lab observations, “Miss, is this correct?” When informed that “there is no correct” as she is the scientist and her observations are real, her face scrunches up, she pouts, and jumps a bit. With near desperation and exasperation she pleads, “Please, Miss. Just tell me if it’s right”

The world of “right and wrong” and rote memorisation is very much a major component of the educational history of some of my new students.


On several occasions students or parents have approached me in a somewhat condescending tone, however, as soon as they realise I have a “Dr.” title, the tune changes dramatically.

In this part of the world, a simple title reduces reproof.

High School Sweethearts

Though I’ve been told that if I look carefully, I’ll see “pairing off”. However, there are no entwined couples. No back massages. No lap sitting. No hugging. Not even hand-holding.

The culture keeps men and women segregated to such an extreme that it permeates even the habits of teenagers attending our school offering a traditional American High School education.

Unique Life Experiences

The large printed words “Innocent kids during war in Syria” loom before us on the screen. As this young woman stands before the class her dark curls jostle gently as she turns from her slide and tells us that she chose this topic because her country, Syria, was “one of the safest countries in the world” but now 5 years of war has changed everything. She claims that most of the children in Syria have had their childhood taken away from them because they live in fear of being killed or bombed. She proceeds to share stunning and touching images of children at play in war-torn Syria and adds, “You can see that the kids are fighting for their childhood in these pictures, and they are much wiser than most of the children you’ll ever know…” The entire class, filled with students from Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, and other countries in the region, is listening, respectful, and sympathetic. 

Most of these 14-17 year olds all have first hand experience with war, unrest, and/or revolution.

Universal but Different

My students laugh, joke, study, and learn. They try to persuade me to to tell them what’s on the test or to make the test easy for them. Hormonal changes affect them. The relentless heat tires them. An exam makes them nervous. Playing sports is important to them. They debate who the best players are in football (soccer). They watch T.V. shows and have favorite movies (even though there are no movie theatres in this country). 

So, they are similar to teenagers throughout the world but they also bring to the table new dimensions that will enrich our classroom experience together. As I look forward to this year, I’m eager for what they will teach me.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Wearing the abaya

It is a law in Saudi Arabia that all women are properly covered when in public. For local women this means wearing a robe, or abaya, and a head scarf, or hijab. Of westerners in Jeddah it is required that we wear only the abaya.  This has been explained and well-outlined to me before we signed contracts to teach in this country. My husband has been given a robe to deliver to me with instructions to put on the abaya before exiting the plane in Saudi Arabia.

In cities throughout the world fully covered (i.e. abaya and hijab) Muslim women outside their country of origins can be seen. Thus, my expectation was to find, at the gate in New York, before boarding the plane to Jeddah, that most of the women would be covered with both abaya and hijab.

However, there are only a handful of woman wearing both abaya and hijab. Many more women are are wearing “normal clothes” i.e. a pair of pants and a shirt accompanied with a hijab. A young mother in jeans and a t-shirt is wearing a white hijab and corrals two little boys into our same row in the plane.

Twenty minutes before landing in Jeddah,  I contemplate getting into the robe. I reach down to the bottom of my Egyptian tent-maker bag and feel the silky abaya rolled up under my computer like a sausage. Secretly, I fear feeling foolish once I don the robe. Since no other women have made an effort to put on the black abaya, I busy myself with a scrabble game hoping these last few minutes of flight will quickly pass. At one point I look up and am astonished to see that the young mother of the two boys has pulled on a black abaya and has switched her white hijab for a black one and added a veil that falls from the bridge of her nose and covers the lower half of her face (I believe it’s called a Niqaab). In fact, her transformation is so extreme that it is by her boys I actually identify her.

In looking around it is apparent that other women have exchanged their lighter abayas and hijab for black. A few, but not all, have added the Niqaab. Non-Saudi arabic women choose to wear black but most of the westerners remain in lighter colored abayas. I resist putting on my abaya until we have landed and it’s time to exit the plane.

The abaya slips on easily and I snap the buttons down the front, closing the abaya around my body.  Indeed, I feel somewhat foolish. My 14-year old, Skyler, eyes me skeptically and I wonder what it’s like for him to see his mother so clad.

We step out onto the stairs descending from the plane to the bus that will take us to the terminal. The heat and humidity take my breath away and by the time I reach the bus I am sweltering. Immediately I am grateful that it is not expected of me to cover my head and face. 

The air conditioning in the airport is a relief from my short foray in the afternoon sun and makes wearing the abaya tolerable. As Steve deals with our lost baggage, Skyler and I have plenty of time to observe people passing through the airport. The women interest me most. First of all, black is definitely the dominant color. Of the women clad in black, there are different levels of facial covering. A few women have elegantly draped Hijabs that allow for their entire face to be seen. For some the face is completely shrouded in black. Referring to women completely enveloped in black, Skyler remarks, “Mom, you could opt for that technique where you just drape the veil over your face and don’t bother wrapping it”. He seems to perceive the burqa (or total covering) as a method of “ease” rather than a level of covering. As such women pass us, I notice several of them pressing the mesh closer to their face so they can see. Some also wear black gloves. None of them have bare feet (even if wearing sandals they have black socks on). Many women have either the Niqaab, covering the lower portion of their faces or the burqa, cloaking the entire face. Near us a women is eating a snack. She places a hand under her veil and pushes it out from her face a sufficient distance to allow herself to bring the food to her mouth. Her face and hands remain completely covered.

Of the non-black abayas there is a diverse ranges of styles, colors, and fabrics. Some of them look outright comfortable and I make a silent note to self to secure myself a lightly coloured abaya made out of linen or other lightweight fabric. If I plan to be out and about I think it will be worth finding a way to increase my comfort level in the heat.

Once again I feel ludicrous as I stumble over my robe in an effort to manipulate a piece of luggage onto the conveyor belt of the scanning machine at the airport’s exit. I notice none of the other women are handling baggage and I follow their example by simply standing by the cart as my husband places and retrieves all of our suitcases on and from the conveyor belt.

At our new home once again I flounder in my abaya as I try to push our suitcases up the sidewalk. Realizing I am not obligated to wear the abaya on the compound, I shed myself of it and enjoy the freedom of being able to help with our baggage.

The next morning I wear my abaya to take take passport photos and undergo medical examination for my iqama (residence permit). There are three of us: another new hire and our woman escort who is helping us out. While waiting for our photos we decide to walk a couple of blocks away to a Starbucks for some refreshment. We question our decision to walk (instead of asking the driver take us) as the sun’s rays bake us beneath our black abayas. After ordering my mango/passion fruit smoothie I follow the other new hire upstairs to the “women’s section”. Both of us trip on our robes on the way up.

I’ve only been here one day and I already find myself debating whether I want to do a certain activity based on whether I need to put on the abaya. YIKES. Steve and I pride ourselves in getting to know and enjoying our host country by immersing ourselves in local tradition and discovering local history, culture, and sites. In order to do this here, I will need to embrace wearing the abaya. I’m going to have to get my mind around this one! There is comfort in observing my western colleagues, already living in Saudi Arabia for over a year, at ease and comfort in their abayas. Maybe it won’t be so bad!

And no, it is not required to wear the abaya while on site at the school. At least while teaching, this burden of apparel will not be mine!