In the summer of 2001 I boarded a near-empty Qatar Airways flight to Doha. Reuniting with my family who’d recently moved there for my father’s new job, it was my first time living abroad.
I’d been kicking around Doha for a good six to seven weeks by the time I finally decided my life needed some purpose. Not that lounging around the pool or making my umpteenth visit to the markets wasn’t pleasant. But I was starting to get fidgety and funds had begun to run low.
Taking inspiration from an old school friend who’d recently come to Doha to teach, I decided to enroll in a TEFL course (Teaching English as a foreign Language) at The British Council. This, I’d been told, would be my key to the world! A chance to make Qatar the first of many international adventures.
I remember being nervous during my interview for a place on the course. Luckily the lady I spoke to was a friendly mumsy type called Laura. She asked me to spell a few tricky words, correct the mistakes in a short text about penguins. Then came some silly questions about what makes a good teacher. ‘‘Oh yes…’’ I said as Laura smiled back at me plainly, ‘‘…I think patience is very important’’.
Strip away the bullshit and what it really came down to was a) Did I have the required fee for the course? And b) Could I transfer said money immediately? Thankfully the answer to both of these questions was yes, so I was in.
My fellow participants were a mostly unassuming bunch whom I never really connected with. There was Mora, a Scottish housewife from Aberdeen. A retired New Zealander called Anne. A bookish Pakistani student by the name of Asma and an eccentric Englishman Percy, who looked a bit like Robbie Coltrane.
Then there was Abdul the lone Qatari, who stood out right from the off. Young, cocky and stinking rich, he oozed an often child-like energy that irritated the others, but which I found both entertaining and intriguing. To me he was the only local who managed to look genuinely cool in his traditional white robes. He was also unwittingly funny, mostly due to his bad English. And of course he represented an opportunity for a window into Qatari culture.
It soon became clear that Abdul had little interest in the theory side of the course. During Laura’s daily lectures, while the rest of us scribbled away in our notebooks, he’d stare out the window or play a hand-held video game behind his mountain of books. One time he even sat whistling to himself, tapping his fingers on the desk for good measure. The rest of the crew shot him disdainful looks, a few exaggerated sighs, but he didn’t seem to notice or care. Laura meanwhile, in the middle of talking about the differences between this and that tense, didn’t bat so much as an eyelid. At the end of the day I guess Abdul’s money was as good as anyone’s.
But when the time came for us to give demo classes to real-life volunteers he sprang to life as if the host of a particularly manic TV show for kids! In fact watching his lessons had to be seen to be believed. There was dancing, flirting, animal noises, singing and occasional juggling. He also drew impressive cartoons on the whiteboard to bring the target language to life. All the while there was his English, at times so inaccurate and confusing I could only wince at the back of the room as it spilled forth like a band of drunks falling out of a taxi.
At the end of each day Abdul would give me a lift home in his 4×4, a capacious vehicle roughly the size of a small European country. During these journeys I was able to peel away his cartoon exterior and get to the man behind the circus act. One of the first things I discovered was that he was married!
‘‘Not my choose’’ he explained. ‘‘Father say… Abdul do’’. For the first time since we’d met he became deadly serious, explaining how his wife was a cousin, a lady who was ‘‘OK at the cooking’’ but ‘‘bad at the sex’’. Soon, he confirmed, ‘‘Father is wanting children’’, a prospect that seemed to fill Abdul with dread. ‘‘No avoid’’ he mumbled with a regretful shake of the head. ‘‘Like sun come up, baby must be’’.
Nevertheless Abdul seemed to be doing an excellent job at postponing things. ‘‘I stay busy’’ he explained, brightening up with a smile and a wink. Between the token part time desk job he held at his father’s bank and the newfound distraction of the TEFL course, Abdul admitted he barely saw his wife. ‘‘Maybe little Abdul come in summer’’ he conceded, chewing his lip as he did the mental arithmetic.
‘‘Later than summer and there will be….’’ He paused, struggling for the right word. With only one hand on the steering wheel and scarcely half an eye on the road, Abdul consulted a pocket dictionary on the dashboard. ‘‘Friction!’’ he said finally, eyes dilated. ‘‘Many friction!’’. And by the look of his expression, friction was something one did not want to experience with Abdul’s father.
There were frequent drives like this throughout the course. Over the weeks I learned that he had a mistress in Bahrain, a family friend who came over once a month. Booking into a hotel for the night, she’d become accustomed to enjoying an Abdul demo lesson all of her very own. I also discovered that he yearned to one day experience snow. Had no concept whatsoever of vegetarianism or homosexuality. How he loved western movies, even though he often struggled to follow the plot.
‘‘Can you tell me good movie?’’ he asked one day, as we sat gorging on an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner, his treat. ‘‘Then I will buying and you come my home for watching’’. Having gotten a feel for his taste in movies, (‘‘No boring, big blood, many violence’’), I settled on Pulp Fiction and we agreed a date for the viewing.
On the night of the showing he picked me up from my place and drove me out to his mansion in the outskirts of the city. Leading me into an ornate high-ceilinged living room, I was met by an amazing spread of dishes. There was grilled meat, steamed vegetables, bowls of spicy yellow rice and plates of crispy seasoned bread. After we’d worked through all that he scooted off to the kitchen, returning with a volcanic bowl of M&M’s and several family-size packs of Doritos. There was no sign of his wife (‘‘She must staying in the up room’’) or indeed his dictatorial father (‘‘Go business outside country’’).
Abdul enjoyed the movie a lot, becoming especially animated during the scene where Butch, played by Bruce Willis, slices up his would-be-rapist Zed with an impressive samurai sword.‘‘I have this!!!’’ exclaimed Abdul, hitting pause on the remote. Jumping up from the sofa and disappearing from the room, he returned a few minutes later wielding two intimidating swords. Apparently they were the real deal, purchased while on holiday in Japan a few years prior for a princely sum. Encouraging me to hold one, we carried out a short spell of jousting, the room echoing with the metallic clang of clashing steel. It certainly wasn’t your average movie night!
On November the fourteenth 2001 Abdul and I sat through our final lecture. Shortly after we performed one last demo class in front of a stiff-looking examiner with a wooden clipboard and a pair of equally leaden spectacles. At the end of the day, accompanied by lemonade and finger food, we were all awarded our TEFL certificates and congratulated on becoming educators.
Having already lined up a job through a local college, I was very much looking forward to getting stuck into my new profession. But when I asked Abdul where he was thinking of teaching, his reply came in the form of a sardonic laugh.‘‘Father say no teaching’’ he expanded. ‘‘Only hobby for kill time. He say this job is for womens before baby come’’.
We skidded to a flamboyant halt outside my villa door and I jumped out of Abdul’s jeep one last time. ‘‘No friction’’ he said with a wry smile as we shook hands. With a typically cartoonish salute he bid me farewell, revved up the engine and sped off towards an inescapable future.