Our male and female college students do not look at or speak to each other as they pass in the corridors. If they associate off campus, they must exercise creativity: the male students move freely around town, while chaperones escort the young women everywhere they go. This means just the college itself, their off-campus dormitories, and a tiny handful of shops. Buses transport them from the dormitories to the college in the morning and then back to the dormitories as soon as classes end.
Once a week the chaperones accompany the women students to a supermarket so they can buy groceries, but the food doesn’t get cooked because the dorm apartments have no stoves. For hot food they depend on the few restaurants in town that deliver. Their favorite, Zaki’s Fried Chicken, which calls itself ZFC and displays an imitation of the KFC logo, gives them a choice between fried chicken and roast chicken. Less often the buses take them to shop for clothes or to have their hair or nails done, yet the chaperones agree to such a journey only as a last resort; they will make every effort to bring the clothier or hairdresser or manicurist to the students.
Though even the rural villages do not impose such a strict regimen of gender segregation, it probably comes as a greater shock to the more worldly young women from Muscat or from any of Oman’s few other true cities. The class in which I was recently asked to substitute by a Canadian colleague, Jennifer, happens to include mainly city women, plus a relatively studious group of boys.
“So their English is pretty good,” she assured me. “But you won’t need to do much, anyway: just keep them on task while they work on their presentations for next week.”
In class as elsewhere on campus, the genders separate themselves from one another, exchanging neither words nor glances from opposite sides of the room. In Jennifer’s classroom, one of the smallest on campus, the front row of students’ desks was jammed up against the teacher’s lectern. To the right of the lectern, a chair had been placed for the teacher to use. Since I didn’t want to make myself conspicuous, I sat without moving it, even though that put me as close to the young women in the front row as if I were at the dinner table with them. The students had their assignment, however, and I had a book to read, so I thought we could ignore each other.
But the restlessness I had thought I might see among the boys came from the opposite side. The young women couldn’t ignore the novelty of a male teacher—even one three times their age—as a replacement for Jennifer. Finally, the whispers and laughter solidified into a question asked by the student sitting directly in front of me.
“You are married to Miss Marianne, teacher?”
“Yes, for many, many years—since long before you were born.”
“Miss Marianne is very pretty, teacher.”
More whispers and laughter.
“And you have four children together, I think?”
Maybe I needed to emphasize my age.
“Four children who are all grown up, all adults. That is why I have gray hair. And Miss Marianne and I we think we might get a grandchild next year.”
“But you are not a grandfather yet, teacher.”
I decided to call attention to my professional status.
“I’m not a grandfather yet, but I am a teacher. I can give you help with your presentations for Miss Jennifer, if you need it.”
A student in the second row raised her hand.
“I tell you about mine, teacher.”
Although the whispering and laughing intensified, the boys seemed oblivious. But in the parallel universe limited to the young women’s side of the classroom, I wondered what I had gotten into.
“What is your name?”
“My name is Samar, teacher.”
She had already begun to remove her headscarf on the pretext of need to run a comb through her hair. I had occasionally glimpsed a lock of hair when other students did the same thing. Except that Samar’s scarf came all the way off to reveal a dazzling swirl of braids that had no need of—and left no room for—a comb. The comb nevertheless served a purpose: she dropped it on the floor in front of her desk and, bending forward to pick it up, revealed the portal to the great divide between her breasts under her abaya. As the boys maintained silence, the women students battled to hold back their laughter. Samar feigned concentration on the retying of her headscarf before she finally looked me in the eye and spoke.
“I will do presentation on body language, teacher.”
The other young women no longer tried not to laugh and I no longer tried to sub Jennifer’s class. I excused myself and had the good luck, right outside the room, to run into another Canadian teacher. Leah said she didn’t mind taking over for me, so I left her to it.—Don Stoll