Saturday, January 05, 2013

How to Survive Saudi

Man, I was in Saudi for THREE years, which makes it the second longest period of time that I've been employed anywhere. (Apart from nine years in Russia, I don't think I've ever worked anywhere else longer than a year. And of course we should recall that with all my holiday time, I was only actually IN Saudi Arabia for something like 27 months.)

So you'd think I'd have a bit more to say about it.

But in fact I don't! The time flew by painlessly and easily.

So maybe THAT'S what I need to talk about, being as most people find Saudi and the Middle East in general pretty agonizing and a lot of people either quit, get fired, or lose their minds and then lose their jobs.

(I can say that most of these are just good advice for language school jobs in general, of course.)

1) AVOID OFFICE POLITICS -- I recommend this practically anywhere, but it's absolutely vital in Saudi.

Most teachers in Saudi are unhappily sober (or drunk on home-made prison wine), past middle age, and generally not too fond of the place they are in their lives, and quite often are wallowing in hateful bitterness. In a heartbeat, they will take this out on fellow teachers, since they often can't abuse the students as much as they'd like.

So simply avoid it. Do not concern yourself with other teachers and their bizarre unpleasant behavior. If it is directed at you, make yourself scarce and stay away from that teacher. If it's a manager, you have a bit more of a problem; but generally you just need to wait, although it might be months, because such people tend to annoy their superiors enough that they'll get fired fairly quickly.

There's probably a staff lounge where teachers will sit around and snipe at each other -- stay away from it.

2) DON'T WRITE ANGRY LETTERS -- My experience was that angry letters, which I always recommended as a great weapon in Asia, are NOT appreciated in Saudi Arabia. (Perhaps because the Saudi managers don't fully understand them, or perhaps they're considered a bit too subtle and conniving of a way to cause a fuss.)

Having little else to do, some teachers where I worked wrote them frequently, complaining about coursebooks, students, other teachers, etc, and the correlation between number of angry letters written and contracts not renewed seemed to be very high.

So if there's some official channel to complain, you can try it. Speak politely with somebody, if you MUST. But my advice? Just grin and bear it.

3) SET A FINANCIAL GOAL AND STICK TO IT -- Choose a goal of how much money you want to save, and work actively towards that goal.

Don't just decide "some money" or "a bunch of money" -- choose a number, and every month when you get your salary, sit down and write down how much money you've got and keep your goal in mind. Otherwise, you'll waste it on stupid shit. (Guys were buying all kinds of useless shit they didn't need -- primarily electronics and clothing.)

Alternately, set a time goal -- three years, five years, and stick with it. IF YOU FIND YOURSELF SAYING "JUST ONE MORE YEAR" more than once or twice, take stock of your life and realize you have a problem.

4) DON'T DRINK AND TAKE DRUGS -- I'm sure this will be a controversial one, because plenty of people do this there, and it's probably okay within reason, but my question is just, WHY?

If you want to do that shit, why did you go to Saudi Arabia? The cost / fuss of getting alcohol versus the salary is probably not a reasonable work / alcohol balance. Why should you move to the desert and drink fucking home-made prison wine, when you could be easily drinking the real thing (and having a ball) in Brazil or China or Russia? Why go to Saudi to save money, when you're spending half your salary getting to Bahrain or Dubai every weekend, or on $100 bottles of whiskey?

Because believe me -- you will noticeably stink of the stuff, and while most of your students will laugh about it, SOMEBODY is going to rat on you -- maybe just another teacher.

5) DON'T TALK ABOUT SEX, DRINK, DRUGS OR WHATEVER WITH THE STUDENTS -- Students might lead you onto these topics, but as above, it only takes one or two rats in a class full of students who love you, and by all accounts -- they are always there. There probably won't be immediate fuss on that one, but when contracts come up for renewal, somebody will remember.

Students may offer to sell you hashish or whatever; think twice.

6) PARTICULARLY WATCH YOUR ASS IN THE FIRST THREE MONTHS -- Contractually, you probably have a three month period at the beginning where you can easily be fired; after that time, your superiors will probably be hesitant to fire you, because they might have problems with their superiors.

In the first three months, if you get let go, you probably won't get your outward ticket paid for. It will be written down as you leaving voluntarily, in most cases, in any event.

In general, instead of being fired instantly, generally your contract will just not be renewed, or perhaps cancelled before the holiday. Since visas are such a major ordeal in Saudi, and generally speaking, there's such a shortage of teachers, that's an advantage for you. Being a bad teacher usually doesn't matter as much as annoying your superiors, in my experience.

There's the off chance that if they don't like you, they'll just make you so fucking miserable that you'll leave voluntarily; given the complicated situation with exit visas, though, that's less likely.

This next one is good advice for anybody, not just English teachers:

7) DON'T DEFINE YOURSELF BY COMPLAINING -- A particular danger of the English teacher as he / she / it gets older is to continue working in the shittiest jobs possible, and suffering under the worst conditions imaginable, just because they've become so very used to suffering and complaining about their lives that it becomes their only method of communicating.  (Please God deliver me from this fate.)

It's particularly sad in Saud, where you have people with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, cursing every aspect of their lives there, but continually insisting they need to stay "one more year" just because they know that they have nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, or that the enforced sobriety in Saudi is the only thing keeping them from drinking themselves into an early grave.

8) YOU WILL NEED A SOLITARY PROJECT OR PROJECTS -- It was easy with me; I had a lot of stuff I wanted to do, that drunken ass-chasing had always kept me from doing. You'll probably have a lot of free time in Saudi, so you're going to need ways to fill it.

Some of it was practical -- day trading, working on book projects -- some of it was rather whimsical, like learning about parkour, kungfu, and disaster survival.

Nonetheless, I can't really remember thinking I was bored. I like to read and watch movies, of course, and had a big backlog of those to engage me. I had the beach there; there are a lot of opportunities for water sports and SCUBA diving, that kind of thing, in the Middle East.

So you'll need something to occupy your time; and probably occupy your time by yourself. if you can't fully amuse yourself with solitary pursuits, you are probably going to have some serious problems there.

9) TAKE THE OPPORTUNITY TO GET IN SHAPE -- You have a golden opportunity in Saudi to lose weight, sober up, get plenty of rest, and get your fucking head straight. Get an exercise program going. If you're lucky there will be a full gym in your compound or campus or whatever. If not, do yoga, P90X, jog, or do prison workouts, or pilates. Youtube can open the door for you -- you need to walk through it.

10) SPANK IT REGULARLY AND TAKE ADVANTAGE OF WHORES ON THE HOLIDAYS IF YOU DON'T HAVE A GIRLFRIEND / WIFE  -- This is probably the golden age of masturbation, with the incredibly easy availability of porn. It's a life-saver out there in the desert. Obviously the big porn streaming sites are blocked in Saudi so you'll need to bring a lot with you. Hide it in a file maked "instructional videos."

To avoid creeping general alienation and asexuality, make an effort to keep in touch with the opposite sex, if there aren't any around where you live. Visit whores on the holidays, if nothing else.

Of course, the Internet is a big portal into the regular world; how teachers survived in Saudi before it came along, I wouldn't want to even speculate.


go banana said...

really good advice ETX. thanks for sharing your wisdom.

Anonymous said...

Dear ETX,

I enjoyed what you wrote about complaining. I have been working for over three decades. I have always had complainers around me, but over the past ten years or so, it seems to have intensified. I think globalization and instant communication have had much to do with the way things have changed at work. The days of job security are long gone. I think people are really stressed out these days. Times are tough and the nature of money is uncertain. Workers are now completely expendable. ESL teachers are a dime a dozen, and can be replaced without second thought! I see younger people saddled with huge debts from school and wonder what the fuck were they thinking? People in debt love to complain, because they are slaves. Older people complain, because they are bitter and full of regrets.

I also enjoyed the blurb on office politics. I rarely hang with other teachers and stay away from cliques. As a musician, I find it easy to make friends around music. I think it is important to be polite and mind ones own business while at work. I keep my conversation light and easy around workers, and never gossip. The key is to accept what "Is" joyfully, and bug out if the situation is overly toxic.

Lastly, money in the bank is not everything...

"Happiness is your nature.
It is not wrong to desire it.
What is wrong is seeking it outside, when it is inside."

Sri Ramana Maharshi

English Teacher X said...

money isn't everything. but it certainly stops you worrying about money.

Anonymous said...

"It's not what you make, it's what you spend."

Anonymous said...

"the golden age of porn" - classic.
That will be chapter 1 in the first edition of the "History of the 21st Century".
The last chapter might be "The effects of a male dominated China and the rise of the American mail order bride".

Good advice in general, haven't taught in 10 years but would try to do it that way if i ever returned to the gig.

Another classic line "stay one more year just because they know that they have nothing else to do ..... Saudi is the only thing keeping them from drinking themselves into an early grave."

You really should expand your topics and try a work of fiction, it might be properly good

Anonymous said...

Yo, good comments. I've been in Jubail for 3 years and agree that time has flown, especially when I think back when I was sitting in Bahrain for a month waiting for a visa with a line of whores knocking on my door. But now I'm getting seriously bored of it all and am impatiently waiting for the June escape route (I had to extend my contract by 5 months to align with the department end of contract schedule. Aaaagh!) Still, one more holiday to fit in. Holidays are the real life saver here.

Re. colleagues - yeah, if you feel the slightest antipathy, avoid them like the plague. A guy where I work realized early on that I had no interest in his varied 'problems'and has tried to make trouble for me ever since. He's gonna get a big surprise when I do go. In 3 years I've met one guy who I'd define as regular but I'm in a small department at RC.

Get fit is the best advice - I've cycled and run round the area so much I know almost every path and have primed myself to get up early and pound the peaceful streets at 5am.

One piece of advice you missed was - don't drive. Let someone else take the strain.

Brendan Monroe said...

Hilarious!! Though I have two years of teaching experience in Europe, I have never taught English in Saudi though I always feel the urge in the same way... screams of "money, money money!" Good words.

David Wilbanks said...

I'm sure I'll end up back there one of these days. I've never taught there, but I grew up on a compound owned by an oil company with other expats, and I have some advice on drinking in Saudi. Find some engineers. As it turns out, building a highly efficient still is child's play for a bunch of experienced engineers. I've heard some bad things about Sidiki from teachers, but all the stuff we drank was excellent.

Sure, it was strong, and needed to be diluted (you could also add it to non-alcoholic beer), but it was pure ethyl alcohol; not methylated crap that'll result in blindness or a least a wicked hangover. In fact, you don't get much of a hangover with pure ethyl alcohol. You might still be drunk in the morning, but it doesn't give you the extra symptoms that small amounts of methyl alcohol and ethers in lower-end booze will give you.

Also, there used to be a pamphlet called "The Blue Flame," given to expats (my parents got one in the late 70s the first time they were there), with detailed directions for making an array of stills (one used a soldering iron as a heat source and could be concealed inside a drawer), and how to make Sidiki taste like other booze (add water for vodka, age it in a bottle of charred oak-chips for whiskey, etc.) It's probably available online somewhere.

Obviously this may or may not be an incredibly dangerous idea, depending on your living conditions (we were on a company compound occupied almost exclusively by expats, so it was pretty safe as long as you were discreet.) But at least trying to befriend some expat engineers might be a worthwhile strategy...if you really want to drink without wasting a ton of cash or risking blindness.