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.
My first English teaching job came at a run-down old school called The Language Institute. The facilities were basic, the materials outdated and dreary, while the students were a right bunch of characters who quickly helped me develop as a teacher.
My all-male classes were incredibly challenging, albeit for very different reasons. First were my intermediate guys, a depressing combination of tardy, lazy, disinterested and unnecessarily wealthy. Then there was the elementary circle, a collection of sullen-looking men who behaved as if violence had been threatened against their loved ones should they ever attempt to produce an English sentence.
The situation would have been miserable had it not been for my one wondrous class of Qatari ladies! There were around a dozen of them, a group of housewives who were clearly delighted to escape their marital duties for a few hours a week. They boasted everything their male counterparts lacked: genuine interest, alertness and charm. A fascination for the English language coupled with a curiosity for their young instructor.
Entering the classroom for our first meeting, I was startled to encounter three rows of veiled women. A silent assembly of black robes, expectant eyes and clutched pencils. It was as if I’d stumbled upon a room of crack Ninjas. Shit I thought, shooting them a skittish smile. How am I gonna remember who’s who? And yet despite this cagey panoramic I knew it was all going to be fine the moment Mona (second row, deep voice, red shoes) opened her mouth to welcome me to her country. From there the hour flew by in an invigorating breeze of warm laughter, diligent pair work and earnest questions.
Fatima: (Back row, purple bag, sparkling green eyes). ‘‘Mr. Lie-ton… irregular verbs makes me sad. Why not all finish in ed? Much easy’’.
Kazima: (Second row, far left, Winnie The Pooh pencil case). ‘‘Mr. Lie-ton… what is difference between jumper and sweater?’’
Aliyah: (Front row, giant mobile phone, unpleasant body odor). ‘‘Mr. Lie-ton… big become bigger but gooder not possible?’’
No matter what my answer or how sloppy my explanation they lapped it up like cats to a saucer of cream, hanging on my every word. Some lessons I literally felt like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, only just stopping myself from making them call me ‘‘O captain, my captain!’’.
‘‘Mr. Lie-ton… your lesson so fun. I like it too much!’’ cooed Subha (Third row, white gloves, unusually tall). ‘‘I tell my husband… Mr-Lie-ton’s class… I like it too much!’’
At the beginning of each session I’d gratefully accept the gifts they left at my desk. Freshly baked Arabic bread sprinkled with thyme. Rice-stuffed vine leaves, bulging bags of thick crunchy almonds.
‘‘Mr Lie-ton… Qatar food so delicier.. I like it too much!’’ said Aeshi (Back row, persistent cough).
‘‘My ladies’’ as I’d come to call them were all devoted wives and mothers who’d never driven a car, held a job or indeed left The Middle East. As such they were openly inquisitive about the mysterious ways of western culture.
‘‘Do you drinks alcohol?’’ asked Mona, emitting a high-pitched giggle. ‘‘How it makes you feel? Do you like it too much?’’
‘‘Is it true womens can wear anything?!?’’ asked Subha, leaning forward, eyes wide.
‘‘Why so many people divorcing?’’ enquired Aliyah, sounding genuinely troubled. ‘‘Is American problem?’ Movie star go through many wife’’.
It was a few months into the semester when our idyllic little bubble burst with the arrival of a new student. When Lela first strode into the room I could have sworn I heard a collective gasp from my faithful disciples. Here was a woman in her mid-twenties, much younger than them. A lady who wore jeans and strutted around veil-free. To add insult to injury, her English was better than theirs. Even I raised an eyebrow, a face in my classroom? How dare she!
Dumpy and plain-looking, Lela spoke with a bristling confidence, had visited several European countries and didn’t like anything ‘‘too much’’. From the moment she introduced herself by shaking my hand (physical contact!?!) she made a dozen enemies and I instantly knew my perfect little group had been blighted, a blood-red stain on the whitest of tablecloths. Instead of settling down in the free space next to Mona, Lela proceeded to relocate first the wooden desk and then its accompanying chair to the front row. And there she settled directly opposite me alongside a clearly disgruntled Aliyah. I tried to carry on as normal but everything had changed. Lela was the first to answer every question (‘‘Line three Mr. Leighton, London is the capital of England’’) and was even brazen enough to correct the others in my place. (‘‘Taught is participle of teach not teached! Irregular verb, teach, taught taught’’).
One day Lela added to the daily food deposit on my desk by presenting me with a colossal home-baked chocolate cake, my name crowning the top in flowery gold-colored icing. An unbearable silence filled the room as she cut me a piece, insisting I try it right there and then. It was heavenly, although I tried to contain my enthusiasm as best I could. For a moment I was fearful the others might suddenly set upon her with bared claws, a pack of bloodthirsty robed wolves. But they just sat there quietly like waxworks. Subha shifting uncomfortably in her seat, a murderous glint in the eyes of Mona. A kind of subdued snorting sound from Aeshi.
At the end of the lesson Lela hung back as the others filed out into the warm evening air. She walked straight over to me as I gathered up my stuff, her eyes fixed on mine. A businesslike smile broke out across her pudgy face. ‘‘Mr. Leighton, you know most women in Doha very traditional’’ she said, cool as a cucumber. ‘‘But my father half Australian… family is relaxed. I can date and marry man of my choice. No problem’’.
Her words washed over me vaguely as if through a filter. I found myself looking back at her blankly until I realized she was waiting for a response. ‘‘Oh…’’ I remarked with a forced smile, half an eye on the door. ‘‘You must be happy to have so much… freedom’’.
She produced a witch-like cackle before suggesting we exchange phone numbers, which, in my increasingly paralyzed state I foolishly agreed to. The subsequent text messages came daily. Sometimes two, more often three, usually four. Did I want to accompany her to City Center Mall? Take a stroll through Al Bidda Park? Was I interested in meeting her father? My excuses, though poorly worded and lacking in imagination were at least consistent. And yet it took a good three weeks before Lela finally took the hint.
First her food donations became less ostentatious. Cakes became cookies, then downgraded to days-old-bread. Soon after it was nothing but a curt smile, followed by a dip in her previously unblemished attendance rate. ‘‘Lela not coming again Mr. Lie-ton?’’ asked Mona with wide happy eyes, cheerfully tapping her trusty red shoes on the floor.
Within a couple of weeks Lela had stopped coming altogether and harmony was restored among my harem. There was a reenergized swish in their step as they arrived for class and carefree laughter once again filled the room as one by one they let their guard down. One day a few months later, with Lela’s name now nothing but a distant memory, Subha swung by my desk at the end of class.
‘‘Mr Lie-ton…’’ she said, arms wrapped protectively around her course books ‘‘…I heard Lela is get marry’’.
‘‘Oh really?’’ I replied with a strange sensation of surprised and not at all surprised.
‘‘Yes!’’ she cooed, drumming a gloved finger on my desk. ‘‘She will marry American teacher, man from other school’’.
‘‘I think this is her dream. She like foreign man too much’’.
Subha laughed, turned on her heels and skipped out of the classroom. Standing there for a minute or two I couldn’t help but wonder how Lela had managed to pull it off in such a short space of time. Who was this American? What was in it for him? And what kind of future lay in store for them both?
Sadly these questions were destined to remain unanswered as I never heard of Lela nor her would-be-husband again. Quite possibly things unraveled rapidly. Or maybe they lived happily ever after. Either way there was one thing of which I could be certain. The anonymous American would at least get to enjoy an amazing chocolate cake along the way.