A Personal Account of Arab Violence
In an unrecorded incident, an American teacher at a Saudi royal military academy was assaulted by his students, held against the classroom wall by a few so the rest could smuggle a vital exam paper out of the room.
The teacher immediately alerted the Arab military administration that the paper had been stolen and that he had been assaulted, whereupon the Saudi officer asked the American teacher, "Why did you allow this?"
The American, thinking the Saudi officer did not understand, repeated that he had been physically held against the wall by a crowd of young men while others rushed the exam paper out of the room, that he could not be expected to overpower a group of young Arab men.
The Saudi officer responded, "I know exactly what I'm saying; I have lived in your country several years and speak English accurately. I am asking, how could you allow your students to think you were weak enough to allow such a thing? It is part of your responsibility to establish discipline in the classroom -- you have not been doing your job."
The American was incensed. His job was to teach; it was the job of resident Saudi military personnel to provide discipline. He had been very successful in California community colleges, adapting pedagogic technique to Asian and Latin cultures -- why couldn't these brutal Arabs understand?
Asked to remain in the administrative office while military personnel retrieved the exam, the American reviewed his financial status and took a deep breath. Perhaps he needed to learn something of Arab culture.
That afternoon, another Saudi military officer, a very congenial man who also spoke near-native English but looked like an Arab Yosemite Sam, told the American teacher, "Sir, you are a very nice man."
"Thank you," said the American.
"This is not a compliment" said the Arab. "In America, it is good to be a very nice man, but here, with these young men, when you are very nice, you are not a man. They want to respect their teacher, but if their teacher is not strong, they will push him out of the way and find someone who is.
"What you call the Old Testament says that the people 'loved and feared' their God, yes? This is not a misinterpretation.
"If your students think you are not a man, your reputation will spread through the Academy, and soon no students will respect you or listen to you, and your time here in Arabia will be wasted."
"What should I do?" asked the American.
The Saudi officer stuck out his right foot and said, "You must find the biggest troublemaker in your class and squash him," twisting his foot back and forth on the floor, "like a bug."
The American teacher went back to his quarters and studied his face in the mirror. "What weakness do they see? Am I incapable of this? What must I change, or learn, to be successful here?" He thought of his student loan; other debts; and this massive, unexpected professional challenge to his vaunted cultural adaptability.
Within days, that biggest troublemaker challenged the American as he entered the classroom. "You --next time I see you in town, I will crush you with my Chevrolet Caprice." The rest of the class watched to see the American's reaction.
The American, startled, stopped in the doorway to appreciate the challenge, then calmly said, "Thank you. Open your books to page sixty-two." The tension broke instantly, and in that moment of clarity, everyone saw each other unmasked -- as equals with one common goal: language-learning.
Just for a moment, he stood there in silence. It was a moment that would have lost its poignancy if they'd taken time to comment on their feelings. If there'd been time, he would have said, "Thank you for finally forcing me to show some backbone," and his students would have replied, "Fine -- you can now be our teacher, as you have passed our test of masculine strength."
Everyone in the room knew that speech would lessen the impact, so, after a pause to smile and appreciate the profundity of the event, the students opened their books to the appropriate page, and the teacher began his lesson. From that moment on, they addressed the American as "my teacher," a title, and the American began learning the depth and strength of Arab culture.
A year later he was the classroom control and discipline specialist at that Royal academy, and the students would lean out the windows of their cars when they saw him in the Arab town and cry out, "Hello, Mr. Big Chief!" He was learning lessons in life not available in any books. All his debts were paid; he was accruing a nice retirement -- but he stayed in Arabia mainly to grow stronger and to spread the language skills that promote communication and peace.
Only a few other Westerners could appreciate the blessings of that life threat and his response; most were incensed that he had not run from the classroom and brought charges against the student. They could not see the value of the saying that life is meaningless if you don't occasionally put it on the line.
There is great value in America's involvement in the Middle East, far beyond the need for oil. We also have a need for peace, which can be furthered by communication and understanding -- such as relations among the Western democracies demonstrate. There is no need for butchery.
Today, back home, when the American sees dead Arab and American youths on TV, his heart cringes. All around him -- in his small-town church, in the media -- he sees the gulf between the two great cultures widening, national spokesmen sowing seeds of religious war to promote their careers.