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.
It was the winter of 2001 and I’d just finished an uneventful evening’s classes at The Language Institute. Gathering up my books and more than ready to head home, I hadn’t noticed Mona shuffling over.
‘‘Mr Lie-ton… my husband would like to speak to you’’.
‘‘Oh?’’ I replied, the last of my students trooping off towards a squadron of waiting jeeps. Surely I hadn’t said anything even vaguely flirty? Been culturally insensitive? Or perhaps I was in for a weekly lecture on the benefits of converting to Islam?
‘‘He is here. Will speak to you now’’.
She hadn’t even finished talking and he was drifting into the room like an apparition, floating wordlessly over to my desk. Mona took several steps back, looking down at the floor as he stopped to face me with a pair of cold, humorless eyes.
‘‘As-salamu alaykum’’ I offered cautiously as he looked me up and down. “Wa alaykumu as-salam’’ he responded in a commanding voice as thick as old leather.
‘‘My wife tell me you good teacher. And good man, kind man’’ he said, hands clasped behind his back. So I was a good teacher? Well, that wasn’t so bad. I would have felt relieved had the look on his face not completely betrayed the words he’d just spoken. Far from being pleased, he looked as though he wanted to kill me.
‘‘Thank you’’ I responded, managing a smile as he continued to glare. ‘‘I think you are perfect teacher for my son Saadi. His English not good enough, must improve. You will come to my home and teach him, two times a week. Monday morning, Wednesday morning. Each time two hours’’.
He paused for a moment to scratch his beard. ‘‘I will pay you 350 Riyals an hour. You will be pick up from your home. You will be take back to your home when finish’’. I merely stood nodding throughout his speech like a poorly controlled puppet, wondering if at any point my agreement would be necessary.
‘‘Ok…’’ I said eventually after he’d stopped talking and resumed the staring. There was a further lull in proceedings before he cleared this throat. ‘‘You start this Wednesday’’. I nodded yes and with a handshake that almost broke two of my fingers he bid me farewell and strode out of the classroom, Mona scurrying subserviently in his wake.
When Wednesday rolled around I was amazed to see a pristine white limousine pull up outside my place. Refusing to believe it was for me, I just stood there eyeing it dumbly until a young Indian man stepped out and ushered me over with an open palm.
‘‘Mr. teacher sir’’ he said, opening the back door, then gently closing it after I’d clambered in. It was only during the ride over that I learned where Mr. & Mrs. Mona actually resided; in the nearby city of Al Wakrah just fourteen kilometers outside Doha.
Our brisk journey concluded in front of a walled mansion at the end of a dusty nondescript street somewhere in the outskirts. The driver, (whose name I would never discover in the months I worked for the Monas) led me through a long wide garden, stuffed full of plants, flowers, bushes and rows of home-grown vegetables. Further on a grizzly old dog slept peacefully under a large palm tree by a small pond.
At the house itself I noticed a sliding door had been left open in anticipation of my arrival. And so I was led into a vast shadowy study where I took a seat at a gargantuan wooden desk. Muddy mahogany, thick clawed table legs, it was the only room I would ever see.
A few minutes later the oaken door swung open and in walked Saadi, a tiny robed boy with black floppy hair that hung over a pair of big brown eyes. As he took the seat next to me I could immediately see he was handsome. A little Qatari prince, heartbreaker in the making. But he’d also inherited his father’s serious demeanor. Unsmiling, direct, seemingly joyless.
‘‘Every lesson we read this’’ he stated, producing a tatty children’s book from his schoolbag. ‘‘Father says I must be perfect. No mistakes’’.
Already marveling at his English, (he could have been no more than eight years old), I received the book from him and regarded it dubiously. ‘‘The Little Pronghorn’’. What the hell was a pronghorn? From the looks of the cover it was some kind of beefed-up deer or antelope.
Our first read through lasted around fifteen minutes and in truth I found the whole thing pretty dull. It went something like this: Child pronghorn wants to be a brave leader like his father. Proceeds to learn important life lessons from said father whilst avoiding becoming lion chow. In the end, everyone’s a winner. The only thing missing was an Elton John warbled soundtrack.
As far as Saadi was concerned it was tricky for me to identify what, if anything, he was doing wrong. The kid had clearly been forced to read this drivel a thousand times over, to the point where he knew most of it by heart. In the end the only thing I could think of was to try and make him a bit more expressive. To introduce a greater sense of theatrical ebb and flow. Maybe even coax the kid into cracking a smile.
After an hour we were both pronghorned-out so we switched over to some word games designed to practice comparative adjectives; even though I now realized they would be way too easy for him. It was also on the hour mark that the family maid came in with a silver tray of snacks and a piping hot cup of freshly brewed coffee. As the weeks passed I came to greatly anticipate her half-time arrivals. A round of crust-free egg mayonnaise sandwiches or perhaps some crispy Indian-style samosas. One week it was a doorstep wedge of homemade walnut cake. Whatever she brought me it was always delicious and I never left a crumb.
It didn’t take long for Saadi and I to settle into a routine. We’d do The Little Pronghorn to death and then move on to stuff of my own choosing. Word games, writing activities, listening exercises and grammar tests that my young student was always quick to master. As far as I could tell he experienced no sense of triumph from the successes of language learning. Nor did he betray a flicker of disappointment on the rare occasions he made a mistake.
Before too long I abandoned my attempts to befriend him or build up any kind of camaraderie. For he was impenetrable, a kind of Stepford child programmed to be practical, polite and dutiful. Back at T.L.I. Mona never once asked how the lessons were going. So I didn’t mention it either and just continued to jump in the limo, eat their food and take the money.
Friends of mine were green with envy, describing it as the private job that was ‘‘too good to be true’’. Ultimately they were right. I’d been teaching Saadi for around three months when one day, after class, Mona dropped a brown envelope on my desk and scuttled out before I knew what had happened. Instinctively I realized the game was up, even before I’d opened the envelope and read the typed letter inside.
‘‘Dear Mr. Leighton, Thank you for your recent efforts with Saadi. Last week he performed The Little Pronghorn at his school’s English competition. He won first prize so we are all very pleased. As such we no longer require your services. Please accept my apologies for the sudden nature of this news but I’m sure the enclosed bundle will more than make up for any inconvenience’’.
Delving further into the envelope, I pulled out a bulging wad of notes, two thousand Riyals in total bound together by an elastic band. Sitting down to re-read the letter again I could only conclude that yes, it definitely made up for any inconvenience!
Some years later I was sick in bed with the flu, one half-open eye on a nature program on TV. I remember being right on the edge of sleep when the focus suddenly switched from some breed of endangered gorilla to the plight of the North American pronghorn. The pronghorn!? It was the first time I’d heard or even thought of the word since my final read through with Saadi.
In an instant I was fully awake and propped up against my pillow, lost in a flood of cascading memories. Among them Mr. Mona’s cutting glare in the silence of the dusty classroom. The unblemished whiteness of Saadi’s robe as he marched into the study. The smell of coffee as glorious rays of afternoon sunshine danced in sharp angles off the silver tray.
‘‘The little pronghorn looked up at his father…’’ said Saadi , finger hovering across the page. ‘‘… wishing that one day he would be just as brave… just as strong… just as fearless’’.
‘The Little Pronghorn’ is the sixth chapter of my short story series The Qatar Collection.