7 Innocuous Topics That Are Taboo in a Saudi ELT Classroom

There are some things that are quite known about living and working in Saudi Arabia. No drugs, no alcohol, no mixing of the sexes, everything shutting down for prayer 5 times a day. These things, with time, we get used to as a matter of routine. But there are a few things that I had never thought were up for negotiation. I’ve compiled a list of 7 surprising things I’ve encountered over the past 2 years of teaching in the Kingdom.


1. Names

Even a simple question like “What’s your name” may elicit a complicated response. For a native speaker, it comes out as a long string of syllables: “Abulsalamalotaibi.” Which led to a lot of instances of me saying “I’m sorry?” Students usually say their full name (first and tribal) when meeting for the first time, instead of just their first name, which is what we expect. With time, finding the junctures becomes easier and something like Abulsalamalotaibi becomes  Abdulsalam Al-Otaibi. In addition to their first name, most Saudis include their father’s name (patronymic) as well as their tribal or family name. This doesn’t follow the ‘traditional’ first name/last name framework. What complicates things further is that men with children may also be known as “father of [son’s name]” in Arabic. It’s important to know that most Saudis are fiercely proud of their tribal filiations and will most likely be able to tell you the history of their tribe and associated stereotypes.

On the topic of names, it’s also taboo to ask for the names of female relatives–particularly that of the student’s mother or sister. We’ve done several “Family Tree” type exercises and students will sometimes leave these blank. I always give them the option of using a pseudonym if they don’t feel comfortable sharing.


2. Addresses

This was interesting. In the books we use as part of our curriculum, one of the assignments asks students to write a business card with their name, job title, address, etc. I noticed after some time, the students would leave the address section blank. At first, I was curious. Everyone has an address. I would ask “where do you live?” and time after time I would get the same vague responses. We would get to the district level of the city but their knowledge would taper off somewhere near the main streets or “cross streets” (intersections). Eventually I stopped asking. It wasn’t until about a year in, a friend told me: the houses and families came first, and then came the roads. It would seem that the region developed so quickly, roads and through-fares were more of an afterthought, a means rather than an end in themselves as is often the case in the Anglophone world. I think for me (and most materials & coursebook writers), the roads always come first then the houses, so it would be unthinkable for a building or house to not occupy a specific space and number on a road.


3. Birthdays

Birthdays are a tricky subject as well. Many times, “how old are you?” takes longer than it really should. In Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam, celebrating birthdays is frowned upon. Therefore, many students go by the year they were born for their age, but they struggle to recall the exact date (mind you they use the Hijiri as well as the Gregorian Calender). Things are changing, however, and more students are aware of their birthdays, but you won’t find any birthday parties at school. Not in public at least.


4. Holidays (in general)

On top of birthdays, celebrating, well, anything, is generally frowned upon as well for religious reasons. That means most British and American holidays are off-limits. I remember last year, I wanted to celebrate my favourite holiday, Thanksgiving. Even though it’s secular and mainly focused on generally universal themes of family, friendship, and mindfulness, we weren’t allowed to do anything about it. At the last minute, we were given permission to put on a programme for it, but we had to change the name to “Day of Giving Thanks” and play down the whole “holiday” part of it. The same goes for New Years, Valentine’s Day, and of course anything Christian, like Easter and Christmas.


5. Music

Also frowned upon is music. This includes background jingles. This, of course, doesn’t apply to all students. You can find music on the radio, TV, or the internet and it’s not uncommon to see students plugged into their iphones, bobbing along to some tunes. However, there have been several instances where students complain or walk out if they hear music during a video or audio recording. It’s not usually the singing, but the accompaniment that causes the most offence. In any case, I’ve been advised not to include any music in my lessons.


6. Faces

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Showing faces (particularly of women) whether in pictures or on video is also controversial. Outside of the classroom, women are encouraged to cover their faces while in public. Things are a bit more liberal on the East (Khobar) and West (Jeddah) coasts and you’ll find women only wearing a hijab (or no covering if they aren’t Saudi). Take a look at the pictures. One is from the book we use as part of our curriculum. The other is from a shopping mall. When using pictures with people, it’s good to use some discretion.


7. Academic Integrity

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Not really a taboo but cheating is a widespread and generally tolerated (if not expected) practice in many Saudi schools. It’s been a challenge in my current job to instill a sense of integrity and get my students to stop copying answers from the back of the book. There have been many times when a student has written “Student answers”  or “model answer” during topic writing exercises. At the very least, I try to tell them if they’re going to cheat, at least do it well and don’t get caught doing it!

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That being said, attitudes are changing rapidly, especially as the younger generation gains more exposure to the rest of the world via social media. Many students are quite relaxed about most of the taboos and are gaining an awareness of outside practices. Still, I’ve been caught off guard by some of my more liberal students who listen to hip-hop, but will quickly turn the page of their book if there’s a picture of an uncovered girl there.

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3 thoughts on “7 Innocuous Topics That Are Taboo in a Saudi ELT Classroom

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