I entered my Basic English Conversation classroom, that ironically doubled as the designated prayer room, one afternoon and was struck by a sudden and blatant juxtaposition. My jaw dropped as I struggled to decide if I was horrified and offended, shocked and amused, or just eternally happy that I lived and worked in a city that allowed this very scene to take place. This particular class was unusually small, it had just three students on the attendance. Two female students were already in the class sitting side by side blissfully oblivious to how they looked.

On the left sat my 20-year-old Japanese student, Yuka. She wore a long black veil with a white trim on her head, her long black hair sticking out in tangles. She wore extremely pale face makeup with dark black eyeliner and fake red blood dripping from her right cheek. She was wearing a tight black dress with a square white collar and a thick black gothic style cross hung around her neck. Her dress ended dangerously high on her long, slim legs, on which she wore ripped fishnet stockings. Her black platform high heels completed her costume. She was a sexy dead nun for Halloween this year, naturally.

Beside her sat my 25-year-old Saudi Arabian student, Fatimah. She wore a long black niqab that covered her entire body. I could only see her hands and her big brown eyes, underneath her thick glasses through a small slit in the fabric. She wasn’t wearing a Halloween costume, this is how she dressed every single day.

The two girls sat huddled together sharing a piece of chocolate cake that they had purchased at the grocery store next door. It always amazed me how my international students managed to become such good friends despite their minimal English skills. I sat at my desk, in awe of the fact that neither of them was the least bit concerned with the other’s outfit. I was certain that on many levels, they did not understand each other, but here in my classroom, thousands of miles away from their homes, it did not matter. It was wonderful.

The girls greeted me and complimented my own outfit. I was dressed in a green t-shirt, and green tights with a turtle shell on my back. My favourite part of the ensemble was my bright green lipstick. I wore a white headband on my head and athletic shorts over my tights. I was the tortoise for Halloween, this year. Later, I would be competing in a race with the hare. He was so smug, he was certain he would win, but I had a good feeling that if I tried hard enough, slow and steadily, I could win the race.

My third student entered the class characteristically late. He was a 15-year-old also from Saudi Arabia, Samer. A lot of teachers complained about his study skills and lack of manners, but I had never had a problem with him. I rather liked him, I thought he was interesting. He stopped short halfway upon entering the class and glanced back and forth between me and Yuka, a goofy smile plastered across his face.ย  His English level was very low, but he never let that stop him from talking. “Teacher, Halloween.”

“You’re right.” I nodded. “It is Halloween!”

Samer walked over to examine Yuka’s costume more closely. He pointed to her neck. “Teacher, cross?”

I nodded again. Yuka added, “nun.”

“Nun,” Samer repeated slowly. He put his bag down a few seats away from the girls and pulled out his iPhone. He showed the three of us a video. It appeared he had taken it inside of a Catholic church, during a mass. He said, “church.”

“Yeah,” I concurred. “When did you go there?”

“Home stay family take me,” Samer explained. “Very, very nice.”

“Very beautiful,” Fatimah agreed, her eyes still glued to the video. “I want visit church. Teacher, I can go?”

I hesitated, thinking back to my Catholic upbringing. Eventually I nodded. “Yes. Everyone can go to church. You don’t have to be Christian.”

“Teacher, who…” Samer asked, sticking his arms out straight on both sides. He turned his head to one side, closed his eyes and stuck his tongue out of his mouth to show he was dead. I’m not very religious, but I had to consciously decide not to take offense. He was a young teenager from rural Saudi Arabia, it wasn’t that shocking that he didn’t know who Jesus was.

I glanced at the pile of handouts on my desk. The lesson plan I had prepared for the class was about ordering food. Somehow, this seemed much more important. I stood up and wrote on the whiteboard. “That’s Jesus.”

“Jesus,” Samer repeated in acknowledgement. Fatimah nodded, and Yuka quickly wrote the name down in her notebook. Samer wasn’t satisfied. “But WHO Jesus?”

“Jesus is the son of God.” I said automatically, immediately regretting it when I heard it out loud. Could I actually say that in a classroom? I walked over to the classroom door, stuck my head out into the hallway and glanced around anxiously. Nobody was in sight. I closed the door behind me firmly when I walked back in. I didn’t want anyone to hear me talking and incorrectly assume I was preaching Christianity in the Muslim prayer room.

“God?” Samer asked.

“Allah. God is Allah,” I said naively simplistically.

“No,” Samer shook his head. “Allah, no have son.”

Shit. He was right. I glanced awkwardly at Fatimah to make sure I hadn’t offended her. She watched me curiously. She wanted an answer too. I wasn’t sure I could actually give one. I tried my best to be politically correct. “In your religion, Allah doesn’t have a son. In my religion, he does.”

“Religion..” Samer repeated uncertainly. “What is religion?”

Fatimah said a word in Arabic to him, and he looked just as confused. “What is?”

“Well, there are many religions.” I said slowly, realizing quickly that we were at a fundamental knowledge gap that would certainly impede our ability to discuss this properly. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I was not actually equipped to teach the concept of religion before I announced, “religions are like different stories.”

As soon as I heard it out loud, I cringed. No, that wasn’t right. I could not just reduce Islam and Christianity to different “stories” regardless of how I felt about them personally. That wasn’t fair. But limited vocabulary and comprehension was making a balanced conversation about theology extremely difficult. Maybe I should have stuck to teaching them how to order food. Damnit.

“Not stories,” I corrected myself. “Different people believe different things. Muslim people believe in Allah. Christian people believe in God.”

Samer seemed to grasp that well enough. He asked, “teacher, you like Allah, or God?”

I wanted to tell him, I didn’t feel a deep spiritual connection to any religion. That I was raised Catholic, and that while it had definitely affected my life, I didn’t feel connected with the religion enough to really call myself Catholic. I didn’t really agree with most of the teachings of the Catholic church, but I did really appreciate what I had learned. But I couldn’t do that. He wouldn’t get it. I also didn’t want him to judge me for it. So I said simply, “God.”

“Yuka, you Allah, or God?”

“In Japan, no religion,” Yuka said without any of my fears.

“Another?” Fatimah asked. Both her and Samer were looking at Yuka with intrigued curiosity.

“None. No religion.” Yuka shook her head firmly. She turned to Fatimah and asked, “I heard in Saudi Arabia religion, women no can drive car. Is it true?”

Samer nodded and Fatimah clarified, “yes, it is true. But it is not religion, it is country law. But most women, don’t want drive car.”

“Don’t want?” Yuka asked raising her eyebrows. “I want. I want buy red Japan car.”

“I have!” Fatimah exclaimed excited. She pulled out her cellphone and showed us a picture of a shiny red BMW. “Is my car. My father buy for me.”

Now I was the one confused. “If you can’t drive, how do you have a car?”

“I have driver.”

“I wish,” I sighed truthfully, thinking about the 2 hour drive to Tolbon that I would have to do soon. I hate driving so much.

“Teacher, you come Saudi Arabia, you live like Princess!” Fatimah said, her eyes lighting up, as most students’ do when they think of their home countries.

I asked her warily, “if I go to Saudi Arabia, do I have to dress like you?”

Fatimah laughed. She honestly laughed out loud at my question. I wondered if I sounded culturally insensitive. She explained, “no. You are not Muslim.”

“But…” I began, choosing my words quite carefully. I wanted to ask about the horror stories I’d heard about Western women in the Middle East who had been harassed, spit at and beaten for not wearing the headscarves. Were those just stereotypes? “Would people be nice to me in Saudi Arabia, if I’m not Muslim?”

I watched Fatimah’s eyes cloud over, as she took her turn figuring out what to say. “In Saudi, many people no like not Muslim woman.”

I shuddered. I knew it! It was true! I would never, ever visit Saudi Arabia. It was so unjust over there. I sat on my moral Canadian high horse, thinking about how much more civil my country was than hers, until Fatimah knocked me back down. She helped put things in perspective by declaring, “it is same, in Canada.”

What. I tried not to make a face. Of course it wasn’t. Canada was the land of the free. Canada was so nice and accepting of everyone. Canada was the reason why she was walking around in her niqab without a care. Wasn’t it? I asked her curiously, “how?”

“Last week, I go Rogers store with my brother. He talk to worker, and I wait, and look at iPhone. Two Canadian men in suit come into the store,” she began. I could already hear emotion rising in her voice. I could already guess where this story was going. My heart sunk, worried about what she would say next. “Man look at me and say to other man, ‘I don’t like this woman.'”

“I’m sorry,” I told her, relieved that her story hadn’t been as bad as it could have been. A couple of months ago another one of our Muslim students had had her hijab pulled off in broad daylight on Olde street! Canadian reality was starting to set in. We weren’t perfect here either. “What did you say to him, Fatimah?”

“Nothing,” Fatimah admitted, which shocked me a bit. She was very outgoing, highly intelligent and undoubtedly enlightened. “I cannot talk to him. I was so so sad. I go home and cry. I am so scared. I don’t want to go outside, no more.”

“I’m so, so sorry,” I said more earnestly this time. My heart broke for her, having to be scared of where she lived. It wasn’t Muslims doing that to her, or her religion oppressing her. It was Canadians thinking they had the right to comment about her, right in front of her. Who does that?

“It’s okay,” Fatimah reassured me in a loving, motherly tone. “Maybe, you go Saudi Arabia, some Muslim men don’t like you. Maybe you feel same way. Not everyone in one country the same.”

She was right though. It was the same in Canada. And two wrongs don’t make a right.

2014

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7 thoughts on “The Conversation

  1. Two wrongs definitely don’t make a right. I’m so glad in South Africa we have a sort of balance. You can go out in niqaab and no one will say a thing (except mayb ask if you’re married ๐Ÿ‘Ž) and then you can go out in a mini dress and no one will bat an eyelash…

    The driving ban for women is lifted now I think…

    Interesting post๐ŸŒธ

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think the new prince in Saudi is trying to change things, from what I’ve heard from my students.

      Interesting to hear about South Africa too!

      Thanks for dropping by again ๐Ÿ™‚

      Like

  2. I am an ESL teacher for students in South America & China and have been a missionary in South America. It blows my mind the things I read about and hear as I learn more about these people and their cultures. I know that these conversations will live deep within you, and while I have been disappointed by “organized religion”, I trust God. I know he has you with these students for moments such as these. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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