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Postcards from the Gulf

Day 1:  Dubai

November 6, 2014

Salt Lake valley from 10,000 feet
The flight to Dubai was long. I left Salt Lake City at 10 am our and arrived in Dubai at 8 pm local time. That's 10am mountain time. I was traveling for 24 hours, in other words. The flight from DC to Dubai took 12 hours. I had no idea airplanes could fly so far for so long. We flew over Syria and the disputed areas in Iraq. I thought about surface-to-air missiles and the horrible fate of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 the whole time.
When I arrived at the Dubai airport, I made it through passport control with an very entertainingly official passport agent, who loved his stamps, and could shuffle through a passport with precision. He found page seven of my passport with alacrity. His shuffling of a passport would put a Vegas black jack dealer to shame. He clearly enjoyed his job, and was extra happy to provide my visa stamp. I learned later that passport control jobs are a job of honor for young male United Arab Emirates (UAE) citizens and that they are paid extraordinarily well. It is like being the prince of the border.  I later learned that stamps are very important here in the Gulf, and that to get any kind of rubber stamp, you need to have government approval.  The wielder of a stamp is automatically an important official, in other words.
Burj Khalifa
After being processed, and slogging through corridor after corridor with my giant suitcase, I was met by my driver. Yes, I had a driver. Tahir from Pakistan was happy to tell me about all the building action in Dubai and apologize for the recent downturn in temperatures. It was only 87 with 350% humidity when I arrived, after all.
Tahir took me to the Shangri-La hotel, and I had a room that looks out on the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

Nothing special, that.

The next day, I had a chance to have lunch with the Middle East/North Africa Writing Center Alliance Executive Board and we talked about a wide range of topics including working with NNS writers in writing center environments. Given that we have many Arabic native speakers coming to the SWC, I'm planning on attending several sessions related to that topic.
MENAWCA Executive Board
Dubai is a bit like Vegas, but with a lot more money (yes, that is possible). There is the same expendable attitude around here, and expressions of obvious wealth. I was amused that spiffed up Pick-ups replete with spot lights and bed covers were parked proudly next to Lamborghini's in the hotel parking lot. They each had their place of honor. It reminded me of home.

One thing I learned about the Emirates, is that most settlements are of very recent origin.  The Emirates only came into existence as a country in the early 70s, and they only started concerted building efforts after they started selling their oil in the early 60s.  The Emirati people were Bedouin nomads before that--wandering the desert with a long rich oral history tradition.  Much was made of that legacy by the local teachers I met along the way.  The sudden-found wealth, and the lack of literacy in Arabic lead to teaching challenges all the way around.
Nevertheless, everyone speaks English in Dubai and everything is in English, given the multi-national nature of the city. There was, however, some weird racism playing out. I noted on several occasions people who are Chinese, South East Asian, or Indian being scowled for not deferring to the Arabic person who does the scowling, yet I'm always greeted with automatic deference and cheerfulness. It is very confusing, to say the least. If there was any need for evidence of white privilege, in other words, I have it.
A more human-scale view of Dubai
That said, I will say that I met many people at the hotel from the various Arabian countries of all stripes. Like most humans, we just want to get along, I suppose. I say that because I don't want you to get the wrong impression that Arabians may be racist. I think the problem is that outsiders don't conform to their social norms and when the outsider doesn't, it upsets the boat. As a white, middle-aged man, I'm given a special card due to hundreds of years of colonization, but even that has its limits if I decided to be particularly boorish. I don't think, however, that I would face the same legal response as a poor Pakistani who came to the UAE to work.
Just saying.
I met a nice couple on the elevator back to my outlandishly comfortable room with the Burj Khalifa view. They were from Saudi Arabia and were expecting their first child. He was dressed as a Saudi prince and she was in full veil. I offered my congratulations, as did the elderly and scholarly looking man who said he was from Iraq. The elderly man asked me where I was from after the expectant couple exited the elevator.
"I'm from the United States," I said.
"Oh, were in you the army?" he asked. I did pause a bit, uncertain and kind of sad that our country is only represented by its military in Arabic countries. "No! No!" I said, and then felt bad that I was somehow shaming people who have served in the military.
He sighed and said "good" and wished me a good night and said "We'll see each other around."
In a hotel like this, I doubted it, but the notion is nice.
Tomorrow I give the keynote of the Middle Eastern North African Writing Center Alliance Conference.

Day 2:  Dubai

November 7, 2014

Keynote address with funny cat video
So today was the big day for me at the Middle East North African Writing Center Alliance (MENAWCA or MENA). About a year Molly McHarg, president of MENAWCA, asked me to deliver the keynote for the fourth biennial conference in Dubai. At first I was a bit taken aback. I've been asked to give a couple of keynotes before, but none so far away. Their theme was "Sustaining Writing and Writing Centers in the Middle East and North Africa." I spent a long time thinking about the keynote, trying to decide what to set the right tone. In the end, I decided to run with my own "origin story", and how I worked to sustain a fledgling writing center where I had little contact with other writing center professionals, and really didn't know that much about writing center work. Of course, in the good spirit of writing centers, I did it collaboratively with the help and wisdom of writing center colleagues from around the world. I then went on to talk about what I think we need to do to sustain writing centers in the future.
I hope it went over well. The students in attendance were enthused, and I've never had so many selfies taken with me in my life. What makes that more amusing, is that the selfies will most generally only be seen by the taker and other close friends, given the prohibitions on women be photographed--especially with strange men.
MENAWCA President Molly McHarg and Barb Toth
I also had the opportunity to catch up with Barb Toth, who is teaching at the Princess Noora University in Saudi Arabia.
I am very honored to have been given this opportunity, and attended many great sessions. It was great to learn about the writing center research that is going on in the region.
Thanks again to all the MENAWCA folks who have given me such a warm welcome and allowed me to join their conference. Special thanks for Molly McHarg and Jodi Lefort!
Tomorrow I get to just attend sessions. I'm then headed off to Abu Dhabi where I will lead some workshops at the Advanced Education Institute of the UAE.

Day 3:  Dubai, Sharjah, & Abu Dhabi

November 9, 2014

Jodi Lefort presents on starting a writing center
The MENAWCA conference wrapped up today. I went to a session conducted by three Saudi women about plagiarism and Saudi students. I've asked them to email me their PowerPoint and any notes. It was good to hear about the issue from natives of a culture, instead of from outsiders attempting to interpret actions and behaviors. There are cultural roots to the prevalence of plagiarism among Saudi students that include a heavy emphasis on memorization (and a remarkable ability to memorize large chunks of text word-for-word) as well as a communal mentality that leads to helping each other out, even if that helping may deter the learning of the person being helped.
I also had a chance at today to learn more about individual writing center contexts, as well as further discuss some ideas proposed the day before. I'm looking forward to working on some projects with MENAWCA folks in the future.
Medieval and Renaissance books on Arabia
After the conference concluded, my State Department contacts and I went to the Sharjah International Book Fair and spent a few hours browsing the thousands of books.  The fair was probably the biggest book fair I've ever attended, including several book fairs in New York City.  The Emir of Sharjah, Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi is making a concerted effort to promote intellectualism, literacy, and literary arts in the Emirates. He is a playwright and author himself, but holds doctorates in history and political geography.  He stated in an article in an Emirati newspaper I glanced at that not everything is about science and engineering.  It would seem, however, that most of the students in higher ed here are pursuing STEM degrees.  
One of my State Department companions left to return to Bahrain but my other State Department colleague, who is from Bahrain, accompanied me on the hour road trip to Abu Dhabi. She was elated to learn from our driver that Saudi women have finally been allowed to drive in the country: between the hours of 8 in the morning and 5 in the afternoon, and only should drive in case of an emergency. To which she scoffed: "'Ladies, please only have emergencies between the hours of 8 and 5.'"
Optimistically, my traveling companion parted ways with me at her hotel as I was being put up by the University I was visiting in a separate hotel.  She sent me on my way with the driver who spoke no English. I speak no Arabic. You see where this is is going.
I was dropped at my hotel which, of course, turned out not to be my hotel, but a distant relative. Lucky for me, this must happen frequently, as the clerk knew who to call, and Mr. Patel, the energetic 60-something-year old bellhop grabbed my bag and ran out to the busy street to hail a cab. After nearly being run over 3 times, Mr. Patel managed to hail me a cab. I thank Mr. Patel for risking life and limb for me, and refusing to accept a tip.
The cab driver laughed when I told him I was dropped at the wrong hotel by a driver from Dubai. "Those Dubai people know nothing of Abu Dhabi!" He exclaimed and then proceeded to drop me off at another wrong hotel.
Luckily, this time, the right hotel was just 2 doors down. It had the same name as the second and first wrong hotel. I've been told that it is rather common practice for completely distinct businesses to share a common name.

But all was well. I checked into the residence, and have a kitchen, a sitting room, a bedroom and two bathrooms. I, of course, have no need to two bathrooms or a kitchen, but it will do.
The Shangri-La spoiled me for future hotels
My hotel has no view, nor fresh fruit, slippers, coffee service or mini bar, but does have bottled water. The Shangri-La has spoiled all future hotel stays for me.
So tomorrow I conduct two workshops. It is still uncertain that I will actually be picked up from the hotel or not. That seems to be kind of how things go around here: kind of seat of your pants. Like the driving.
Don't get me started on the driving.

Day 4: Abu Dhabi

November 10, 2014

UAE Advanced Education College students
Today I had to apply the excellent writing center technique of thinking fast on your feet and being willing to scrap plans at a moment's notice. Basically the workshop I was doing with students wasn't going very well. because of the language proficiency of the students involved and their interest level in the subject. I was also picked up late from the hotel, and had to get everything together rather quickly.  I don't like to make excuses, but it was a bit unnerving to be put into this situation in such a haphazard way.

Sheikh Zayed scarf

I conducted the workshop again today, and am going with a completely different method of delivery that will meet students at what they were doing best: talking to each other.
The workshop I had with faculty later on in the day went very well, however, and I was happy to have a long conversation about genre theory and genre pedagogy with folks who have a great deal of experience applying genre theory through English for Specific Purposes.
I will note, MENAWCA colleagues, that the folks over here at the Advanced Education College are very interested in starting a writing center! I'll give them some of your contact information.
I'm kind of bushed, so that's it for today. I did get a rocking scarf out of the whole deal.

Day 5:  Abu Dhabi & Bahrain

November 11, 2014

Today I finished up in Abu Dhabi at the Advanced Education College. The students in the workshop this morning were very involved and seemed to be paying more attention. This was, no doubt, because I broke them up into groups far earlier and had them do some active, engaged learning. I was told by the teachers at the College that the students tend to have short attention spans for lecture, and that makes sense given that they are English-language-learners.
Students at the UAE Advanced Education College
There was one interesting cultural moment, however, as there were men in the group this time, and, as I was informed, the men usually sit in the front at the behest of the women in the room. This time, however, the men wanted to sit in the back. There were a series of out-of-the-room negotiations with the women leaders in the group, and they insisted that the men resume their traditional placement in the front. So much for bucking the system, guys.
After the session, my Bahraini guide and I bid farewell to the AEC faculty who had kindly hosted us for the past two days, and we headed back to her hotel to collect her belongings. She had wanted to visit the Sheikh Zayed Mosque since we passed it on the way in to Abu Dhabi, but also wanted to save some trips, so we caught it on the way to airport. This gave us a bit of time to kill, so we sat in the luxurious lobby of her hotel and talked religion and politics while listening to a woman play a variety of pop tunes on dulcimer-like traditional Thai instrument.


Grand Mosque of Sheikhy Zayed
The Grand Mosque is a bit of a pastiche of Islamic architecture, but is rather impressive. One feature I could not record is the simple tomb of Sheikh Zayed, the father of and founder of United Arab Emirates, since photography was prohibited. The late Sheikh is buried in sand, like his Bedouin forefathers--pretty interesting given the guy has a scarf of himself.
We then headed to Bahrain, and I was momentarily delayed at the border, but once visa fees were paid, and my educational presence was acknowledged, I was free to enter the county.  I was later told that I was delayed to ensure that I was not a journalist who would write about the political situation in Bahrain.  As I later learned, the political situation in Bahrain has been little-publicized in the Western media, but has had protests on the scale of other Arab Spring uprisings.  There were mass protests, mainly by the Shia minority.  These protests lead to a crackdown on gatherings, the destruction of the Pearl Roundabout where they gathered, and the recall of a bank note that featured the Pearl Roundabout on it.  My informant told me that the border police no doubt Googled me before letting me in.  So, in writing this, I will most likely be unable to return to Bahrain.

The Premier of Bahrain, the King's Uncle
After processing, I was on my way and met a very kindly man, who took me to the hotel. My driver liked to talk business and was rather despondent about the state of the Bahraini economy. Not wanting to be a bad guest, I neither agreed nor disagreed with him and his assessment of government policy of Dubai (positive) and skepticism of Bahrain.

I did note that along the way there were many images of who I would later learn was the Premier of Bahrain.  He is the current King's uncle and holds the real power.  An interesting side note is that Bahrain is only recently a kingdom.  As I was told, the current king one day woke up and declared himself as such.  It is interesting to note, however, that there are very few images of the king or the crown prince on display. The vast majority are of his uncle, the Premier.
Tomorrow I'm off to the Bahrain Teacher's College to lead some workshops on planning for and enacting peer response groups.

Day 6:  Bahrain

November 12, 2014

Yesterday, I had a long day working with faculty and students at the Bahrain Teacher's College (part of the University of Bahrain) and later with English teachers from area high schools.
The Bahrain Teacher College faculty and students were very interested in what I had to say about facilitating and participating in peer review groups. They are also very receptive to starting a writing center.  The director of the program Starr Ackley, originally worked as a faculty member of the College of Idaho in the states, and set up learning communities there, so she is well-aware of collaborative learning models and practices.
Talking with local teachers
Talking with the high school teachers later in the afternoon was very productive, and I enjoyed a long conversation with them about why students don't read writing assignments, and how we can better engage them. This evening, I will once again lead a discussion with them on crafting effective written responses to student writers.
Things here in Bahrain are a lot different than in the Emirates. There isn't as much unbridled development, and there seems to be more of an academic and educational tradition. This morning I worked with high school students at the Modern Academy, and area school that ranges from elementary to high school. The students were very serious, and engaged in the session on peer response. They will all be going on to universities, and were pursing a variety of interests.
I've not had much a chance to do much else but these workshops, ride the elevator at the hotel, and try to figure out what time zone I am in. Thus, I find myself sleeping at odd hours still.


Today would have also been my sister's sixtieth birthday.  She died in late August.  I dedicated the keynote address to her, although I didn't announce that at the conference.

Tomorrow I meet the US ambassador, conduct a workshop at a local high school, meet one last time with the area high school teachers, and then catch a flight home. A light schedule, in other words.

Day 7:  Bahrain

November 13, 2014

The day started slightly later than all the rest, given that the Regional English Language Office contact was taking me to meet the ambassador, and then on to my final workshop with a high school group.  Getting into the embassy was complicated.  Our car had to be examined, and then my presence had to be confirmed multiple times.  I had to surrender my drivers license to get a "must be escorted" pass.  Since the incident at the border, I was carrying my passport with me at all times, just in case.  I was told, however, that a drivers license would do for embassy security purposes.


Regional English Language Office
The Regional English Language Office seems to occupy an important part of the embassy, since, if I recall correctly, it is right next door to the publicity office.  Yeah, it is propaganda, in other words.  I've had thoughts like that for the entire trip.  What role should the English language play in this region?  Sure, English is the common language of business and science these days, but why is it the responsibility of the State Department to support and spread it?

 I signed on with the program, of course, so I'm a part of that problem, if it is indeed a problem.  It is, therefore, hypocritical of me to criticize the program.  It also seems awfully ungrateful of me to do so, and I wouldn't want anyone who works for the program or is connected to it to feel like I'm attacking them.  I'm not. I'm just questioning my participation in it, and wondering at its function.  I am all for education;  I'm just not comfortable being a part of a propaganda machine.  I thought about this before I left, but went anyway, since I do believe that writing centers do play an important function in modern education, and my work with colleagues is important.  I do believe, as I mentioned in the keynote address, however, that writing center work can take place in more than just the English language. As a teacher, it was good to talk with other teachers from another part of the world and to learn from their experience, and share my experience.  I tried to work in writing center conversations everywhere I went, since that's what I do.  I suppose that supplants any political worries I may be overplaying here.  There probably is still a role for Western democracies, as well, to work in areas of the world that still don't give individuals a voice in their government.  Is democratic reform happening in the Gulf?  
Certificates are important here

To be succinct: I most likely am very wrong about the purposes and intents of Regional English Language Offices, and would hate for anyone associated with program or teaching English in the Middle East to think what they are doing is somehow wrong.  As I witnessed on this trip, English truly is the world language right now, and helping non-native speakers to learn it is essential if they are to improve their lives.

After signing some certificates of attendance, I left my cell phone behind to meet the ambassador, as cell phones are not allowed in the inner sanctum of embassies.  My meeting with the ambassador was like many meetings I've had with administrators:  some administrators want to do all the talking, and they do.  I tersely answered his questions when he gave me time to do so, but did manage to squeeze in a plug for writing centers.

Next up was the Arabian Pearl Gulf high school.  The students there weren't much interested in what I had to say, I fear, but I did get them doing some activities.  

"We already know this," one smart student said.  Good for her.

Pro-Shia graffiti in the neighborhood near the school
Last up, before I was whisked away to the airport, was my final meeting with the local teachers.  This was another great session, and I talked a lot about fostering peer groups.  They had some really great ideas about how to get peer groups to work in their contexts.  Next to the MENAWCA conference, the conversations I had with theses excellent local teachers were the best thing I did in the Gulf.  I hope that there will be some carry-over, and that the teachers will take up the call to lead such conversations themselves.

The excellent local teachers I worked with

Epilogue

November 15, 2014

Overall, I'm still processing what I think about my trip to the Gulf region.  I really enjoyed attending the MENAWCA conference and learning about writing centers in the Middle East. I also gained a lot of insight into cultural differences that writing centers in this area have to address.  It was also great meeting old friends and making new ones. It was also interesting to be treated like a star or something by students. I'll just leave that with an admiration of the work we all do in writing centers. I've had a follow-up email from Barb Toth on that front:  her Saudi students are advocating even more for an expansion of their writing center, and mentioned to their administrators that my keynote inspired them to ask.

As far as my work in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, I will freely admit that the student workshops were not as successful as the faculty ones.  I'm not a TESOL person, and often felt a little lost while working with the students.  I applied, of course, all my teaching experience to make it useful for them.  Still some groups worked far better than others.  It really was about who was in the group and how responsive they were to what I was talking about.

Faculty workshops
The faculty workshops, however, are a different story.  They all worked very well and I think all participants came away with something they could apply to their teaching.  I also learned a great deal from the participants in the sessions.

Despite my doubts about my purpose during my time in the Gulf, all in all, it was a good trip. If I contributed to their thoughts about teaching, and how to better reach students, then it was all worthwhile.  I wrote right before I left that it seems like I was gone for a month.  Now I am home and it is snowing outside, my sense of a loss of time is even more emphasized.  I'd rather be lost in time while doing such good work, than "lazing around," as one of my colleagues from the afternoon group put it.  "Insha'Allah," as they say.  God willing.

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