Pork

“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?”

“A dishdasha.”

“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?”

I hesitated.

“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.”

“Many religions?”

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.”

I paused.

“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

 

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About Don Stoll

Don and his wife, Marianne Kent-Stoll, are co-founders of the Karimu International Help Foundation. They established Karimu in 2008 at the request of the people of Dareda Kati Village, in the Manyara Region of northeastern Tanzania. Karimu is devoted to working with the residents of Dareda Kati in order to satisfy their development needs, as defined by the villagers themselves.
This entry was posted in Africa, development, poverty, Tanzania, volunteering. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Pork

  1. Joan Rippe says:

    Hi Don! Thanks, I enjoyed reading that story. A lot.

    I am contemplating similar things here in Eugene, Oregon. I’m teaching English to a group of South Koreans. Most are 30-something and most are well-educated, here for a year “on sabbatical” (which seems to mean playing a lot of golf) from teaching jobs or government work. They are very gracious and, as willing adults, very eager to learn English. Yet, from time to time, we surprise one another.

    I began our conversation class yesterday with an internet joke. We had previously discussed the strengths of different cultures and noted that the strength of Americans is often our creativity, our inventiveness, and our ability to think outside the box. In yesterday’s class I presented this conversation-starter:

    You drive past a bus stop and you see three people waiting for the bus. First, an elderly woman who looks as though she might die at any moment. Second, an old friend who once did you a favor, and this would be a good opportunity to pay him back. Third, the man (or woman) of your dreams, who you may never see again. Your car can hold only one passenger. Who will you pick up?

    I hinted that they should think outside the box. They all voted for the elderly woman, which I imagine says something about the values in Korea.

    I then divulged the answer: You give your car keys to the man who did you a favor, and he drives the elderly woman to the hospital. You stay at the bus stop with your perfect lover.

    Such an explosion! But you said to pick ONE, they said. And that was true. But I also asked them to think outside the box. They were extremely attentive as I talked about grading papers in America. Sometimes there are correct answers, I explained, only one answer, often in mathematics or sciences. But when we write essays, perhaps in social science classes or literature classes, it is generally accepted that it doesn’t matter what our answer is, as long as we write about it well and support our claims. Wow! That spun their heads. They say that in their classes, they are always looking for the one right answer.

    From there, a discussion ensued of the 1950’s and 1960’s in which I was raised, a culture of respect for authority–parents, teachers, doctors, the pope, adults. And a discussion of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War that changed all that. Finally, they got to learn about the bumper sticker of an entire generation (after we finished working out just what exactly a bumper sticker is): QUESTION AUTHORITY.

    I confess I loved seeing the amazement on their faces. They soaked it in. And then one of my students, a university professor of Korean literature, volunteered a story of his own. An economics student at his university answered a question on an economics exam, “What is currency?” by taping the Korean equivalent of a dollar bill in the space provided for the answer. The student received an “A” on his exam, and later went back to the professor to argue down his own grade. He was unsuccessful. The student had felt embarrassed at being flippant, whereas the professor had appreciated the creative answer.

    I wonder how these young men in Oman will solve grave social and political questions with such habitually limited critical thinking skills.

    Just curious–when do you return stateside?

    Keep up the good work, and give my love to Marianne.

    Joan

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