Sunday, October 10, 2010

The ears have it

Here teacher.
Here sir.
Good afternoon Mister V.

As I continued to read the afternoon roll of Saudi students, through the various Abduls, Alis and Mohammeds, the noise level in the classroom of 30 variously interested English language learners continued to rise.

Having read the roster list thrice already that day for my other classes, I could feel my voice starting to get scratchy and a little hoarse as I raised my volume to reach over the din. And we hadn't even gotten into the annoying business of gerunds and past continuous tense.

Then it occurred to me. They're teaching me. And what they were teaching is that their attendance meant more to me than to them.

Which is patently untrue.

Whether a particular Khalid or Majed was in class that particular period really made no substantive difference to me. It was just a check mark (present) or a zero (absent) and a possible argument later in the week when they'd come to my office to ask for help (student code for "Please don't mark me absent"). They wouldn't win the argument.

The fact is, an absence means a lot more to Hussam than to me. Once he goes over the rather generous allowance of absences he is afforded in order to keep earning his stipend, it's all over for him.

So why was I shouting to be heard over the pre-gerund clamor?

I tried a little experiment. I started lowering my voice...

Here, Mister V.
Right here teacher.

I lowered it further...


By the end of the alphabet I was practically whispering. No kidding. My voice was low enough that I could barely hear myself!

Without a noise meter I couldn't say whether the ambient noise had gone down. If so, I don't think it was by much. But some of these 21- and 22-year-olds were sitting in the very back row of the room and they could hear me just as well as if the room had one of those acoustic domes where you can hear someone whisper from 30 meters.

It was eerie. A face--Muadh, Nasser, Omar--would pop up from behind a screen of students saying "Here Mister V!"

From this I draw two conclusions:

1) Never underestimate the ability of young-eared Saudis to hear at a distance.
2) People hear what they need to hear.

It's nice to get a lesson from the students.

If only we have ears to hear it.


  1. Hey Jim, this is really insightful. Of course I like all your stuff, but teachers and parents everywhere should heed your lesson. On top of that I like your subtle allusion to scripture although my guess is that not everyone will get it.

  2. interesting blog! I'm saudi young man who study in Canada. I like to read and listen to westerners' experiences back home! I was wondering if u have ever been to other saudi cities and what differences you notice in people's lifestyle and behavior ( for example, Riyadh and Alkhobar if u been there ! )

  3. Hi Anon,
    Interestingly, I am sitting in a kitchen in southern Ontario, Canada even as I read your comment on the blog. I have been to Jeddah for several days but have only passed through some cities to the north of Riyadh so I'm not sure I'm qualified to say much (not that such trifling objections have stopped me in the past).

    I guess part of the value of not being immersed in the culture of a region is the fresh impressions one brings. And that's what I had originally hoped to bring to this blog. I look back at some early postings and realize how much I now take for granted so many aspects of daily life in KSA that seemed so strange at first -- stray cats, people parking at crazy angles wherever the car happens to stop, no useable sidewalks, men-only congregating in coffee shops, all-concrete and tile construction of buildings, incessant honking of horns.

    Do you have any suggestions of other towns I should make a point of visiting to get a different perspective from Riyadh and Jeddah? I have to say that although everyone says those two cities are very different, I could not tell much difference to my casual observation other than weather and the fact that Jeddah has one-way streets.

  4. I suggest going to Al Khober in the eastern province ( AlKhobar- Dammam- Daharan which includes Aramco enormous complex) I believe if you spend some time in these integrated towns. I mean - as native Saudi - I see the difference even in people from Riyadh who move to Alkhobar or Dammam.Although the inhabitant of these city were influenced by westerners due to oil company presence in the region since the 30s, you can observe the Saudi ( traditions and modern forms ) way of life in these cities but I think you will notice some differnce between these cities on one hand , and Riyadh and Jeddah on the other.

    The thing I noticed that many people who visit or work in Saudi Arabia have this assumption ( you can have a taste of the Saudi experience if you visited Jeddah or Riyadh )

    I think people are missing out the chances of discovering the other major cities ( Alkhobar , Dharan , Dammam ) and also the suburbs of Saudi.

    I hope you enjoy your time and get the most of Arabia's experience.

    Salam :)


  5. Hamad: I will definitely plan to visit all three of those cities, possibly with one of my Saudi friends who likes to travel. At the risk of sounding like a complete newbie, are there any "must see" things in each of these cities? I have a number of students who drive in every week from Dammam so I can ask them...but I anticipate that they'll just say "relax, drink a coffee or tea and hang out with the family."

  6. ok check this out:

    NOTE: " singles " are allowed to malls in these cities unlike Riyadh and Jeddah ! how surprising is this ? :p

    let us start with Alkhobar ( my hometown )

    (1) you must go to " Corniche" Alkhobar waterfront , very nice modernized place to hang out there. coffee shops , restaurants and nice view of the gulf shore. ( people from every class go there)
    (2) Also u must go to northern kohbar ( busy shops very authentic and full of life ) the most important street ( the oldest one 2 lots of foreigner ( and locals as well 2 ) like to at least check this street out once when they come to the city. ( mostly visitors and lower middle class locals go to shop there )
    (3) check out Alrashed mall if you are a big fan of malls. ( it is one of the largest malls in the GCC countries )

    (4) Also if you have Saudi friends ask them to check with thier buddies in these cities if they have a membership in Sunset beach resort ( my family has one but im in Halifax now! ) , if you could get into this resort , its a very nice and chill place , clean beaches , kick-ass shishas ( if u smoke ) and nice view but it is a bit expensive (for me at least ) " higher middle class and rich folks go there"
    (5)Also one more thing in Khobar u must go to, is the Traditional village restaurants in Alkhobar in the 10th street , close to the rashed mall ( i hope u firned do not mix up between different 10th streets! ) this restarant has number of dining rooms each one represent a region in the country or in the other GCC countries. There is many traditional stuff in front of the place and nice little semi-traditional shops 2.

    Check out Half-moon beach ( very local and visitors from other cities like it 2 ) , ( it's not the best beach in the world tho )

    Warning!! if you visit Alkhobar in a national vacation, you will see the city full of Riyadh folks ! Therefore, I recommend visiting the city in a regular weekend.

    Dammam, and Jubail ( 80 km from Dammam )

    it's not only about Dammam its self but you must visit the old sites around the city ( like the pearl hunters sites in Jubail )

    I am really not expert on Damamm even though its Alkhobar sister city. but you should go to Dammam's waterfront 2 , if you smoke shisha ( you should go to Aldewaniya caffe or Alomam ) . And I guess I will have to get back to you about Dammam later , I just realized I don't know much about it. Regarding Jubail , it is a very clean city and organized and has some interesting historical sites on the gulf shore.


    you should visit KFUPM campus since it's the country's leading university and Aramco's complex 2 ( since it's the reason for developing this small town )

    I believe you will see Saudi differently after vising the part of the country. People are more open over there and since they are close to other GCC countries so you can taste gulf traditions within these cities. IF you happen to go in winter time , you should visit the nearby deserts villages ( very charming in the winter , no joke )

    I would be more than happy to guide you over there if I was there. Maybe one day in the future



  7. Thanks very much Hamad. I see you're writing from Halifax--I was wondering who that was since it shows up on my blog statistics, but of course I have no way of knowing who anyone is simply from the stats.