“I would buy a woman with forty rial.”
Nasser, the class clown, said that. I had emptied my pockets in order to explain the meanings of “less,” “more,” “a little,” and “a lot.”
“You see? Twenty rial is less, forty rial is more.”
The boys’ heads nodded vigorously.
“One rial is only a little. But maybe you think forty rial is a lot?”
Forty rial comes to just over one hundred dollars. I had put the question to them to avoid implying anything about their economic circumstances. Three or four students answered in unison: “Yes, it’s a lot.”
“Okay. What would you buy with forty rial?”
“An abaya for my mother.”
“Books, teacher, books.”
Then Nasser said his piece and I laughed. Their English is basic and I struggle to make jokes they can understand, so even crude humor is like gold to me. Salim—one of three Salims in a class of fewer than twenty boys—raises his hand.
“What about you, teacher? Would you buy whisky?”
I’ve told them I don’t drink alcohol, and most of them like hearing that. Islamic legal scholars often argue that our rational powers belong no less to the community than they do to us as individuals: people who become irrational from alcohol, or from any other narcotic, therefore harm the community as much as they harm themselves. The ones who believe me seem to assume that my own reason for not drinking must be the same, even though it has never occurred to me that my choice in the matter had anything to do with community. But others, convinced that all Americans drink, simply don’t believe me.
“Beer! You must buy beer, teacher.”
“And pork. You would buy pork!”
A different Salim makes comical snorting noises and, as always happens when someone mentions pigs, everybody laughs.
“Yes,” I say, not wanting to disappoint them. “Yes, I might buy pork.”
I lick my lips and rub my stomach and they laugh again. I’m grateful to pigs not only for their meat, but for the easy humor they provide. My students and I can’t get enough of pigs.
“A dog, teacher. You would buy a dog and bring it into your home!”
“And onto your bed, teacher!”
One student makes barking noises and they all laugh. Muslims consider dogs unclean so, yes, I am also thankful for dogs.
Oman’s government pays many thousands of young people to attend college and study what the government calls “applied sciences”: information technology, business, and communications. Since they must do their college courses in English, the government imports hundreds of teachers from English-speaking countries to prepare the students during their “Foundation” year between secondary school and college. At least for a lot of the boys, maybe most of them, only the government stipend motivates their college attendance.
They’re likable, but different from any students I have taught in the United States. If it’s true that primary and secondary school teachers here stress rote memorization, this has astonishing effects on the boys, who use all their strength to resist expressing their own thoughts. One day they met my request to write a paragraph about what they had done on the weekend by asking me to give examples. Instead I turned to one of my stronger students, a very pious Bedouin boy named Mohammed, and asked about his weekend. With pliers, I pulled out of him the admission that he had visited the beautiful mosque in the market city of Nizwa. Before going to mosque, he added, he had helped his mother and father sell some of their goats. From the paragraphs my boys handed in at the end of class, I learned that they had all gone to the big mosque in Nizwa and they had all helped their parents sell goats.
Another time I asked for a paragraph about their plans for the upcoming weekend, explaining that my wife and I would go to the beach. Half of these unmarried boys wrote that they would go to the beach with their wives.
Though I hear from my wife and other teachers that the young women make much better students, my own experience can’t verify that because I happen to have all boys. Due to the public segregation of Arab men and teenage boys in their white dishdashas from Arab women and teenage girls in their black abayas, male teachers have limited contact with the young women; we can converse with our own women students, but nothing more. With their legs and feet hidden behind the stately abayas, the women students seem to float rather than walk across campus. The impression is heightened by the fact that they never, ever hurry—unlike the boys, who will sometimes pick up their pace if the heat doesn’t weigh on them too heavily. The boys neither talk to nor, as far as I can tell, dare to look at the young women, which may explain the boys’ enthusiasm for women teachers. They have few if any other chances to speak to women not related to them.
I have managed one short exchange with a young woman student who walked into my classroom by mistake. She jumped when she saw me sitting alone, but then composed herself and asked why I had no students.
“It’s Wednesday afternoon.”
The school week runs from Saturday through Wednesday, so Thursday and Friday, the Muslim holy day, make up the weekend.
“Ah, yes, teacher.” She smiled knowingly. “You have just boys? They are tired and they have far to go to reach their villages. They miss their families. And I think Wednesday is a good day for playing football on the beaches.”
Although I expected her to leave, she continued standing just inside the door.
“Excuse me, teacher. You are not Muslim?”
I shook my head.
“Then you are what? Catholic? Yehudi?”
“Not either one of those. I’m not very religious.”
A puzzled expression crossed her face.
“Again excuse me, teacher. It’s not my business. But your family?”
Did she wonder how an irreligious man could hold a family together? Did she think that, lacking religion, I must also have no family? I answered truthfully.
“There are many religions in my family. But some people in my family have no religion, like me.”
Now she looked curious rather than puzzled.
“My wife is Catholic. And my older son married a woman whose father came from Pakistan. He went to university in the United States and converted from Islam to Buddhism. After that, his parents refused to speak to him for several years.”
Her eyes got wide and she brought her hand up quickly to cover her mouth. “That is very bad.”
Not sure how to respond, I waited for her. But she only shook her head back and forth, so I continued.
“Then he and his wife, who had converted from Christianity to Buddhism, started having children. That made everything all right with his parents in Pakistan.”
She dropped her hand. “So the grandchildren brought his family back together?”
“Yes. It’s a happy ending to the story.”
“His parents did a very bad thing, but it’s good that they changed their minds. I think God loves families more than He loves anything else.”
She gave me an earnest look, as if worried that I might disagree.
“You know,” I said finally, “I have only boys for students. You’re the first woman student I’ve spoken to here.”
“My name is Don. What is your name?”
She glanced over her shoulder at the door.
“I enjoyed talking with you, teacher. It was a great pleasure. But I must go now.”
And she floated away.—Don Stoll