Friday, May 31, 2013

How are Americans different from Qataris?

Al Resala School: inside gate
 
I sit at a rectangular table in a secondary school classroom with ten 16- and 17- year old Qatari girls (Yemen, Libya, Syria also represented).  We're all surprised:  me, as I had no idea what to expect when I was invited to help the students and teachers with English in exchange for Arabic conversation; them because it's "ditch day," youm al masHoob, the last day before final exams.  Only 1/3 of the students is in attendance.  Students do not expect lesson plans or lectures, just a day to read, study, think.
 
The girls did not expect to work this day, and they especially don't expect to work with me.
 
American high schools have ditch day too, I say.
 
"Every Thursday is youm al masHoob here," says Bint al Jameela (the beautiful girl). "You're cute."
 
Each girl speaks local dialect and classical Arabic (fusHa).  All understand colloquial American English.
 
"Last year lessons were taught in English," says Bint al Jameela 2.  "This year everything is in Arabic."  She laughs.  "Plus, we watch Oprah, Dr. Phil, American Idol and listen to American music at home."
 
The building is a familiar structure - two stories of classrooms arranged around a large open common space, tucked behind a high stone wall, secured by thick steel gates.  Girls stand, sit, lean in hallways.  Teachers wear dresses/jackets/loose pants and abaya/sheyla - or not - and walk among students while carrying open laptops.
 
front gate
 
Inside the building students are casually dressed and (generally) do not cover.
 
"What does your name mean?" asks Bint al Jameela 3.
 
I shrug.
 
"You mean it's just a pretty sound?"  She shakes her head, takes me on a tour around the table:  Noor means light.  Ashwaq is a deep, enduring kind of love.  Miriam comes from the Bible as well as the Koran.  Jooahar is a precious jewel and Loolooah means pearl.
 
"Why do you want to speak Arabic?" "Where are you from?" "How old are you?" "What's your phone number?" "Will you go out with us?" "Come to my sister's wedding!"
 
Bint al Jameela 4 takes my picture on her ipad, plays music.  "This artist sings in fusHa," she says.  "It's good for you to listen."
 
We talk about where they'll travel when school is out.  They tell me about Ramadan, which begins (around) July 9, and Islam.  They tease one another, make jokes, laugh, correct my Arabic, and offer instruction:
 
  • the little dots above and below Arabic letters are called nota (fusHa) or nikita (local dialect).
  • the word for "architect" is a combination of the word for "engineer" and the word for "building": mohandis ma'maahree
  • YathHak: to laugh
  • saHr: magic
  • sahr: easy
  • SaHeeH: correct
  • raaHah: break (ie, what the teacher is getting while her students are busy with me)
 
We talk about culture, geography, family, boys.  What will you do after you graduate? I ask. Do you drive?  Do you cover completely?
 
I share a photo of my babies.  They are entranced by Katie's dimples, Kimber's smile.  And (ahem), "how old is your son?"
 
my kids
 
The girls are intelligent, well-travelled, motivated, interesting, interested, curious, beautiful.  They are teenagers - and are like teenagers everywhere.  Ma sha allah (God be praised).
 
Bint al Jameela taps my shoulder.  "How are Americans and Qataris different?" she says.
 
I look around the room.  Dark hair, skin, eyes.  Laughter, conversation, agreement, disagreement, interest, intrigue, the quiet one, the outgoing one.
 
"People are people no matter where you live," I say.  "It's just the packaging that's different."
 
Ma sha allah.
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