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.
‘‘This is your classroom’’ said Jamla, switching on the light. It flickered dubiously for a bit before finally illuminating the room, revealing merely the latest in a long string of anticlimaxes.
Like everything else during my tour of The Language Institute, the room was less than inspiring. Dingy, run down and with a dank smell I couldn’t quite identify, I tried to picture it as a place my students could one day be excited about coming to. But it was a tough sell.
Faded posters advertising French coastal towns adorned the peeling walls. Three rows of elephantine wooden desks and chairs looked like they’d been transposed from a Dickensian orphanage. My own table, set in front of Planet Earth’s oldest blackboard, resembled a dusty old grand piano. I set my books down on it and the whole thing slid to one side with a dull thud.
‘‘Someone will fix’’ said Jamla sternly from behind her veil. “I will be in my office Mr. Lie-ton. Enjoy your first day at T.L.I’’. Turning on her heels, she swished out of the room, her black abayha trailing behind her.
Standing alone in my new surroundings, the fear truly began to kick in. In just under an hour I’d be giving my first class as an English teacher, only a few weeks after getting my TEFL certificate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, landing a job at this poor excuse of a school had been a piece of cake. But since signing on the dotted line I’d received no brief nor training; not a word on any cultural sensitivities I might face as an instructor in an Islamic environment.
As far as the curriculum went, I was to work from an outdated course book called Headway. Any supporting materials, Jamla informed me, could be obtained from T.L.I’s joke of a library, a depressing chamber that for some unknown reason was always kept locked.
In order to get in there you had to ask an old man called Mr. Ibrahim to open it. Thankfully he was stationed right outside the door where he sat rotting in a padded chair. Other than locking and unlocking the door, Mr. Ibrahim had no further responsibilities and in the six months I worked there I never once saw him do anything in that chair other than sit. I often wondered if it ever occurred to him to read a book, do a crossword, learn a new skill, maybe even smile once in a while. If such thoughts ever manifested themselves he certainly never acted on them.
Then again such frivolities were probably forbidden by Jamla, T.L.I’s strict headmistress; a woman who seemed to have modelled herself on Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Once inside the library it rapidly became clear there wasn’t actually anything worth guarding. There may have been hundreds of books but most of them were in tatters, had pages missing or were just downright irrelevant. For every fifty titles such as The Art of Sewing or Historical Stamps of Oman, you might stumble across a book of grammar exercises or a vocab pack about transport. It was slim pickings.
My first class was an all-male group of Qatari men, three thirty somethings who had clerical jobs at QAPCO, Doha’s heavyweight petrochemical company. Ridiculously wealthy through old money, they worked part-time just to have something to do, with the English lessons being part of the deal. I later learned that regularly attending my classes was a prerequisite for receiving their monthly salaries. But of course I was oblivious to all this on that first day.
The first of my charges to arrive was Huzam, a fearsome looking man with the build of a heavyweight boxer. He neither greeted nor looked at me as he sauntered in fifteen minutes late. Slumping into one of the chairs, as far away from me as possible, he whipped out his mobile phone and began texting someone while I sat watching him like an idiot. Soaking up as much negative silence as I could bear, I finally caved in and introduced myself before attempting some small talk. But Huzam was not in a communicative mood and all I got back were one word answers.
Thankfully the next to arrive was Saleh, a fresh-faced young man with a friendly smile. ‘‘Teacher, nice to meet you’’ he said, shaking my hand. Dawdling over to Huzam, Saleh sat down while I attempted to get the class started with an introductory exercise. “No start until everyone here!’’ barked Huzam, his tone suggesting the matter was not up for discussion. I was about to point out that we were already twenty minutes into a two hour session when my third pupil entered, a bespectacled, scholarly looking gentleman called Issa. “Sorry for late’’ he said quietly, selecting a desk away from the other two. ‘‘Traffic very bad’’. Adjusting his headdress, he pulled a string of wooden beads from his robe, closed his eyes and sat there massaging them silently through his long fingers.
Writing my name on the blackboard, I reintroduced myself before explaining the rules of a warm-up game designed to break the ice and produce some getting to know you language. ‘‘Teacher, why are you so young?’’ asked Huzam with a suspicious glare, ‘‘teacher should be older’’. Ignoring the sinking feeling that had lodged itself deep into the pit of my stomach, I pushed on, asking Saleh to kick things off with an intro and a few sentences on why he wanted to learn English. ‘‘I am Saleh, I am 33 years. I am working for QAPCO’’. Shooting Huzam a cheeky side glance, he grinned a silly grin before turning back to me. ‘‘Teacher… I don’t want learn English, I must learn English or lose money’’.
With no idea how to respond I just sat there for a bit in the ensuing silence weighing up my next move. ‘‘Issa….’’ I prodded, standing up from my desk, ‘‘is it the same for you? Do you want to learn English? Or not really?’’. ‘‘I don’t care’’ he said matter-of-factly, opening his eyes and setting the beads down on the table. ‘‘English is ok, my English is ok, don’t really need better’’. He raised a hand, motioning slowly around the classroom, ‘‘But I like it here, more quiet than office’’.
We struggled on like this for another ten minutes or so when suddenly the air was filled with the booming high-pitched shrieks of Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. Huzam, Saleh and Issa were up and out of their chairs in the blink of an eye and before I knew what was going on I’d been abandoned. They could have literally left puffs of cartoon smoke in their wake.
Opening a window, I stood listening as the call continued to boom out across T.L.I’s inner courtyard, emanating from a number of rusty loudspeakers. Students streamed out of the classrooms, hurrying towards the school’s small mosque. It was over half an hour before my guys returned and when they did they were even less interested in the lesson than before.
‘‘Teacher, book boring. Let’s stop’’.
‘‘Teacher, do you religion?’’
‘‘Teacher, why womens in America dress like whore?’’
‘‘Teacher, I must leaving early. Meeting with doctor…’’.
After what seemed like an age the class dragged to an end and I felt a sweeping wave of relief wash over me as they quietly filed out. But with only a ten minute break before my next group, there wasn’t much time to reflect. The second bunch of students was a whole different kettle of fish. An elementary class, they could barely string a sentence together between the five of them. And so the two hours crept painstakingly by in droplets of one word answers, vacant expressions and a comically loud fart that echoed around the room as if it were stuck in a pinball machine.
‘‘How was your first day?’’ came a friendly voice from across the room. Recovering in T.L.I’s shabby teacher’s room, I’d collapsed into an old armchair like some kind of trauma victim. The voice belonged to a pretty, dark-haired English girl called Emma, one of my fellow T.L.I teachers. Apparently I looked so fried that an answer to her question wasn’t deemed necessary. ‘‘Ha … I know the feeling’’ she said, ‘‘I remember my first day here. Don’t worry, it WILL get better’’.
My first day as an English teacher had been a baptism of fire. Little did I know it then but Emma was right, things would improve. And as we sat there chatting, I was also unaware that I’d just met someone who would turn out to be one of the great friends of my life.
‘Baptism Of Fire’ is the fourth chapter of my short story series The Qatar Collection.