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Category Archives: Travelogue
I’m pleased to report that I arrived safely into Ha’il on Tuesday, the 28th of August. The trip was about 220 miles (from Sakaka), made in a pick-up truck packed with all my furniture. It took about four hours in total, and the truck didn’t have any air-conditioning, so needless to say it wasn’t the most comfortable of journeys through the scorching Saudi desert! As you can imagine, I’ve been quite busy settling in since my arrival, unpacking all my stuff and installing my furniture into my new apartment, which is situated on the compound provided for the teachers.
The very next day after arriving, I started work! Still with the same company, Al-Khaleej Training & Education, I’m now positioned at the University of Ha’il, teaching English to students of the university’s Preparatory Year. My first day at the university was pretty busy. I was given a quick tour of the campus and introduced to the head of the English department and then the Dean of the Preparatory Year. Before long I was assigned to help invigilate the placement exams, which were held in a huge auditorium, and then helped with the marking.
Actual teaching began on Sunday, the 2nd of September and it’s been going very well so far. The students here are much the same as those I taught at Al-Jouf University, so there haven’t been any real surprises. I have been very impressed, however, with the relatively high level of organisation here (for Saudi Arabia, that is!). For example, there is a clear support structure in place, so that you know who your first port of call is in case of any questions or concerns. There are also various committees in place, such as the Exam Committee, Social Committee and even a Welcoming Committee, whose chairman introduced himself to me and was extremely helpful. Later, a meeting was held for all new teachers, during which we had the opportunity to ask more about the system and procedures here.
At the moment I have about 30 students in each of my two classes. Because this is the Preparatory Year, most students are aged 19, and once they pass the Preparatory Year, which includes Maths and Study Skills in addition to English Language, they then go on to specialise in their various fields. Medicine, for example, is taught largely in English and utilizes English textbooks, so a good command of the language is essential. It’s always a little scary when you ask Preparatory Year students what they want to be and they answer; “I am want be doctor in future”. I just hope I never have to make a trip to the hospital!
The teaching hours are quite comfortable; each teacher has four 50-minute classes a day. Mine begin at 8:00am, with a two-hour break for lunch, then finish at 2:00pm, at which point I’m free to go home! Our company provides a bus to and from the compound, which is only 20 minutes door to door. So we don’t have to leave the compound in the mornings until 7:30am and then get back at around 2:30pm – not bad at all, really!
After living and working in Sakaka for a year, it’s impossible not to compare it to Ha’il, which is significantly larger. The compound is not as isolated as the one in Sakaka, but is still on the outskirts of the city. Within about 20 minutes, by bus or taxi, you can reach the centre of Ha’il, where there are all kinds of shops, restaurants and malls. So far I have seen McDonald’s, Subway, Pizza Hut, Little Caesar’s Pizza, Domino’s Pizza, Baskin Robbins, an Indian place called “Spiceland”, as well as Arab fast-food places, such as “Harfy”, “Kudu” and “Marky”. Like in Riyadh, when you order a Big Mac at a McDonald’s here, they ask you if you want the beef Big Mac or the chicken one! Granted I’ve been out of the real world for sometime now, so they might have chicken Big Macs in the US and UK, too, but I’ve never seen them! Do they have chicken Big Macs in the US and UK now? Be sure to leave a comment if you’ve tried it before! Here they also have the large supermarket chain, Panda, including a couple Hyper-Pandas, which rival the likes of Walmart in the US! These humungous stores have pretty much everything – and not just Middle Eastern products, but also British and American.
The compound is also much larger than the one in Sakaka, with about 100 apartments of various kinds and sizes. Most are single-occupancy, like mine, but there are also some designed for those teachers with families. In the middle is even a playground for kids, which is like a giant sandbox! So both male and female teachers live on the compound, and since it’s surrounded by high walls, women can walk freely about without having to wear the abaya or niqaab. At the same time, however, there are both Muslims and non-Muslims living here, so there is also a small mosque on the compound.
There is plenty of space to walk around and get some exercise; in fact, I brought my bike with me all the way from Sakaka with the rest of my stuff, so I’ve been enjoying riding about the place. There’s not a lot of grass on the compound, but there are plenty of trees and small bushes surrounding a lot of the housing, some with colourful blossoms, which add some welcome colour to the otherwise rocky landscape. There is some wildlife, too; cats, of course! You see them everywhere on the compound!
Although the compound has not one, but two swimming pools, both are empty! There is no sign of anyone planning to fill them, which is a real shame, especially with this heat. There’s also a huge building that was recently built to house a gym, but again, this has been left empty. Apparently, the workers rushed the job and the building has been deemed structurally unsound and unfit for use. It’s hard though to know if this is not simply an excuse to avoid having to fork out for some gym equipment and pay for pool maintenance. In much the same (disheartening) spirit, there is an outdoor tennis court and basketball court, both of which are in complete disrepair and have clearly been neglected for some time. Several teachers have their own car; so some go into town to use a gym instead. The sports clubs in town have swimming pools and even Jacuzzis and saunas. I heard from one teacher that his membership costs about 300 Saudi Riyals a month ($75), which I suppose is not too bad, as long as you make full use of your membership.
There is, however, a small “recreational room”. It’s a very simple space, which residents use for various things. Last night, in fact, we had a pot-luck social there, which was quite successful – and people seemed to like my chicken Korma with rice! Sometimes they host a “movie-night” there, using a projector and speakers to give it the feel of a cinema. Even the inside walls are decorated with movie posters. There is also an old ping-pong table and a small library of books – of all kinds – which are freely available for residents to borrow. In the past there have also been Arabic classes and even dance classes offered there, but how the space is used is all dependent on the residents that year and what they are interested in.
One thing I particularly love about the compound is the striking scenery! Engulfing the compound on three sides and overlooking the housing are these tall, boulder-rock hills. Almost as if brooding, these dark hills quietly watch on as they jut upwards, silhouetted against the clear skies. When I first saw them, they seemed unreal, like something out of a Hollywood film set or the constructed landscape of a Disney park. So, however much the compound may look like a prison from the outside, with its high walls and copious security, there is a lot to be said for the beauty that can be seen from within its walls. I have included some photos in the previous post below. Enjoy!
A video taken from the rooftop of the PYP (Preparatory Year Program) building at Al-Jouf University, Sakaka, Saudi Arabia.
Graffiti is, of course, a common sight in the West, but what about graffiti in the Middle East? Have you ever wondered what locals in Saudi Arabia feel compelled to spray paint on their walls? Here is just a sample of the kinds of things you’ll find written. These were taken from Sakaka, a small and relatively more conservative city in northern Saudi Arabia, where I have been living for the past 8 and a half months. Click on a thumbnail to open a slideshow of the graffiti with my notes included. I hope you find them interesting!
As members of staff and faculty, we were invited to attend Al-Jouf University’s graduation ceremony on the 15th of May, 2012. We were representing the university’s Preparatory Year Program (السنة التحضرية). Since our students are all in their first year, none of them were actually graduating, but some of our students were participating in the ceremony as members of Al-Jouf University Boy Scouts. Here is a video of the Scouts practising their routine:
The ceremony was held at the new university campus, located near Al-Jouf airport. The brand new campus is still a massive construction project, which looks more like a small city in the making than a university it’s so huge!
In attendance at the ceremony were all the bigwigs, including the university president, the deans and even a guest appearance from the prince of Al-Jouf himself! Both the president and the amir gave speeches congratulating the graduates.
After the ceremony had finished and the crowds of students made their way outside we managed to get a rare sample of a traditional Saudi dance, called the “Daha” (الدحة), which some students broke into spontaneously in their celebration. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to get a video of the dance, but here is an example of a typical “Daha”:
Here are some photos from the evening, which include several of my colleagues and fellow teachers. Click on a thumbnail to open the slideshow.
The company I am currently working for, Al-Khaleej Training & Education, has a number of teaching projects across Saudi Arabia, including one in the north-westerly city of Tabuk. Myself and nine other teachers thought we would pay Tabuk a visit and see what life was like over there. The trip took about four hours by taxi, which included various stops along the way to use the bathroom, get snacks and also take some photos – like a group shot in front of some camels we noticed at one petrol station!
We took two taxis in total, driven by Saudis, who – entirely unprompted – decided to request the local police to accompany us for the journey. There was nothing wrong, they simply wanted to give us the best service possible, which in their minds meant treating us like celebrities or diplomats! So for the whole way there and the whole way back we had a police escort! One car in front and one behind – with their red and blue lights beaming – and all of us going at ridiculous speeds, sometimes with only a few feet between us! As designated Arabic interpreter for the trip, it was part of my job to repeatedly remind the crazy Saudi drivers to slow down!
Finally, having arrived in one piece (alhamdulilah!), the teachers in Tabuk were extremely welcoming, letting us stay with them for the weekend at their compound – and boy is it a nice place! The contrast between the compound in Tabuk and what we have in Sakaka is astounding! Not only did they have a central social area, which included a bar, pool table, lounge area, cafeteria, two saunas and a large communal swimming pool with two jacuzzis, they also had a tennis court and fully equipped gym! All of this within a nicely kept, clean and secure compound, with trees and small flower gardens dotted about.
It was a lot of fun meeting the other teachers, relaxing by the pool and swapping stories. We played some pool volleyball – Sakaka vs. Tabuk! I can’t remember exactly who won in the end… but let’s just say Sakaka! Our guests also put on plenty of food and drink for us, including some very nice pizza from Little Caesars! We played charades and other group games and later even did some dancing!
Before leaving Tabuk, we had to stop at McDonald’s, seeing as that is one more thing Sakaka doesn’t have! It was so good! At one point I had even considered biking it all the way to Tabuk just for a Big Mac – I figured it would only take me 26 hours to get there from Sakaka! So you can imagine I especially enjoyed that part of the trip, before we headed back to our small little town in Al-Jouf.