Just another manic Monday

Some would tell you that teaching English as a foreign language is about education. These people are at best cute little delusional souls working for the British Council, at worst they’re lying to you (as the BC is shut because of the situation it’s probably the latter.) English teaching actually lives at the corner of employment hell where the service industry meets entertainment and exploitation of foreign labour (I admit, I’m several rungs up from Morecombe bay cockle pickers but listen to my Middle Class tale of wow anyway goddamit). My predecessor impressed on me that the key part of my job is insuring that I, rather than my boss, handle all the money and keep all the records. It’s the only way to guarantee I get paid. I failed and my boss, Al Moder, is bukraing (This is a new verb, derived from the Ameya word for tomorrow). Other English teacher’s reckon that their bosses habitually telling them things that are not true is a result of a lax view of lying in the Quran. I’m not quite sure what the Quranic line on lying is, but either way I recon its because the bosses hope the problem will have gone away by tomorrow. Besides, my boss isn’t a Muslim.


Highlights so far involve Al Moder asking one of my friends if she’d take one of my classes from me. She said she we were friends and that she isn’t a job stealer, or at least not when mates are involved. Al Moder then tried to arrange for her to have it without either of us noticing. Being friends we worked out what was occurring almost instantly, and went into ask him what he was playing at.


‘I just hoped you wouldn’t talk about it,’ he said, with the air of a child who has just been told Father Christmas isn’t real. (My predecessor would say that this is just another example of the Arab failure to realise the future will come. Sometimes it’s hard to stick to my liberal guns and disagree with him).


Al Moder wasn’t put off though. He gave the group a weeks holiday (but didn’t tell me about it) while coming up with plan B. This was basically plan A, to see if it would work a second time. It didn’t.


My boss also has an annoying habit of telling me I have a second class when I think I’m finished for the evening. I know Gunter Wallraff won’t be writing about me any time soon, but it’s still annoying, as is the way he talks my students about me in deep Ameya he thinks I can’t understand. He’s right.


The students themselves also know what they want from English classes. They like writing on the board and will sulk if they don’t get it. No matter that the word is ‘rain forest’ and it’s written, big and bold, in the book.


They also insist on doing reading aloud. Teachers hate this, texts always have far too many new words, the whole things time consuming and the debate about on the spot pronunciation correction rages. None the less those of us that want to keep our cowboy jobs have to do it. The books I’m using have kinda ‘multicultural,’ readings. It just highlights how limited my students horizons are. Have they been to Rome? Do they know how to dance the Tango? Have they eaten sushi? Where did they last go on holiday? No, no, no, and to their village, same as always. Five of my students have been outside of Syria, two of them went to Lebanon, 45 minutes away, and one worked in the gulf.


Unsurprisingly students don’t like failing. From my shitty little Mahad to the dizzying heights of the British Council, students complain to the administration if they’ve been failed. The humblest institute to the most prestigious will ‘pass’ their students if nagged enough. Pretty galling as they’d all pass if they did the work. One of my friends quit the BC after a student was bumped up.


On the whole students don’t like work. My students don’t do their homework, I just teach them the same words class in, class out (Fucking Feraz has put pen to paper once. Someone wrote the link for a funny U Tube video on the board.). The American Language Centre courses are really long, removing the need for independent study.


Students also don’t like not understanding the class. If a student doesn’t understand it’s the teachers fault, never a consequence of having ‘passed’ because they told the administration they’d quit if they were failed. Any student in this position should complain to the administration about the teacher. Cowboys will then be replaced if possible.


Strangely students are on the whole less fussed about being able to talk the language than they are about completing books. Having finished Interchange 2b (although not being able to actually talk English) is infinitely superior to talking English but only having done interchange 1B. As you repeat ‘I. Want. A. Damascus. Map,’ to a blank faced Syrian tourism official, rest assured they’ll have completed Touchstone 3 and know far more about the present perfect than you do*.


For some reason none of this dampens my enthusiasm for teaching. Despite explaining what Margaritas are to bemused Syrians and despite getting down on my knees (literally, they like funny foreigners) to beg them to do their homework I love my students very much. I sympathize with there laziness and the three who work warm my heart. Despite fighting my boss for money and despite erratic working hours I do actually enjoy my work.


*When my friend was here we met a site guide who spoke very little English. He got us all to leap over a huge gap in a castle, cheerfully explaining in Arabic that many tourists do this but only one has ever fallen, and he was Japanese.


Weather and Revolution

‘The French Revolution started in an El Nino year,’ as the geography kids at uni pointed out to annoy the politics students, and for the whole time I’ve been in Damascus the weather has been wrong. Autumn was too hot and too dry, now the weather is just crazy. While mosquitoes are heralding the arrival of summer, midnight saw a friend and I sitting on his balcony in tee shirts watching the rain. ‘It is a blessing from God on the people of Darra’ someone told me yesterday. Last Friday (the 29th) there was a major storm in Damascus, with hail and thunder. I can’t help thinking this helps explain why it was a bit quieter than the one before.


The weather, The Situation and the filming have all impacted on the recent big event in my life; I had four of my friends here to visit. Needless to say we had an amazing time and in true ‘friend kitties’ style we packed in way more than was humanly possible. A highlight was, as always Palmyra. My guests and I played ‘spot the Bagdad road sign’ en route, but we soon spotted more than that.


‘Look, look. Men with guns. Do you think it’s because of the situation?’


‘Narr,’ I said, doing my best experienced, expat twat impression. ‘There’s nothing unusual about men with AKs, ahlan w sahlan.’


Soon though I really looked a twat as we were stopped, not only by the ubiquitous men with guns, but by a jeep with a roof mounted gun dangling cartridge belts. This kind of weaponry is not normal and a quarter of the bus pressed over to see it.


Eventually we arrived. The ruins spread across the desert next to the modern city, Tadmor, overlooked by an Arab castle perched on an extinct volcano. That castle is exactly where we found ourselves after midday prayers on Friday the 22nd. One of my friends had conveniently won a pair of binoculars, through which we had an excellent view of a disturbance in town. There were lots of men (the numbers fluctuated) outside a mosque and cars parked in the middle of the road every ten meters or so along the street. Having seen people being kettled in a mosque in Damascus I’m almost certain what we saw from the castle was a mosque where people had planned to protest being stopped from leaving. Certainly in Damascus which mosques have the potential to be trouble epicentres are known by both wanna be protesters and security. These mosques have undercover men at prayer and outside them, just in case. It seems reasonable to assume that Tadmor is the same. I know that I witnessed people being kettled in Damascus for a fact. I knew the guy who organised the protest, I know he disappeared for a week and a half, and that reappeared vowing never to do anything similar again.


That evening we picnicked among the ruins, watching the (impressive) lightning from a distant storm. We were accosted by a couple of Bedouin who insisted teaching my friends Dabke, a traditional kind of dance. Phones that make music are a public menace, I’m telling you. They particularly enjoyed music with pro government lyrics, and then showed us pictures of cute babies, including the president’s kids! I challenge you to find two early twenties British males with photos of random children on their phones, but there are certainly genuine supporters of the government in Syria.


That evening the atmosphere in town was tense, to say the least. We checked the news and while friends in the capital (which was practically locked down according to them) later told me they’d heard rumours of trouble in Tadmor the Al Jazeera blog hadn’t got anything about it. Some backpackers (who I took an Instant, but rational dislike of. Despite being Aussies they used the French and Italian names for Damascus, rather than the English or Arabic) told us that they’d seen something on Thursday, which also didn’t make the news.


The film crew eventually hunted me down to Tadmor, and taxied all 5 of us to Aleppo. If anyone ever offers you a part, big or small, in an Arabic series, just say no. I think that’s quite enough for one post.


No one can get that worked up about Osama Bin Ladin’s death. The general consensus is that he became an irrelevance years ago, possibly on 9:12.


The situation

Other countries have uprisings, revolutions. In Syria we have ‘The Situation.’ It’s hard to believe that when the most neutral term we could think of emerged as the title to the events unfolding here it had a subversive, dangerous shimmer to it. But when ‘The Situation’ was christened that talking about it was dangerous and subversive. As far as Al Watan and the Syrian Arab News Agency were concerned there was no situation, it was all lies spread by Syria’s enemies. Now people, pro or anti, can talk openly about the impact of ‘The Situation’ on their lives, enjoying the terms neutrality.


And the situation is impacting. The foreigners who’ve most recently extended their residency permits, myself included, only got 2 weeks, not a month. Not a happy thought. I’ve been filming a Syrian TV series in Aleppo. Filming has been delayed on a couple of occasions as permission to film outside hasn’t been forthcoming because of the situation. The government doesn’t want any cameras anywhere they can catch anything they shouldn’t and even in sedate Aleppo they’re scared this could happen. Rumour has it that some BBC camera men were arrested (though the bee hasn’t reported this) and that the only cameras larger than the ones built into a mobile phone are in government hands. Our camera men didn’t like the idea of being near a protest with their kit any more than the government did. In the end the president himself gave the crew a widow to film in. Once they had it was long (though badly organized, frustrating) days all round, getting as much down on celluloid as possible before he changed his mind. Actors were unhappy about going back to their home countries by road, and after filming finished in the evening we were allowed (but didn’t take) an extra night in a four star hotel so as not to have to travel home at night and they couriered us home in a taxi. The biggest impact though, is that people are talking about it. Discussing what will happen and what the government should do is unheard of hear, but its happening. While we were filming I heard people who don’t believe anything until the state news services have said it’s true and people who don’t believe anything until those same news services have denied it arguing, good naturedly, about the situation. While it’s called that because people were scared to call it anything else they are not scared anymore. The situation was also so named because people wanted reform and didn’t know what the outcome would be. No one wants reform anymore, the protester want a revolution. And most of them think they know what the out come will be now.