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I felt great relief when the offer came, a big relief from the boredom, the rat race, the intrigue among self-promoting academics. And the tension at work had been spilling over into my family life.

I tried not to dislike Ahmed Al Sheikh when he walked into the classroom half a minute after I did, his snow-white silk thobe swaying lightly with each footstep, his egal placed properly on his head, its front edge forming an M just above his forehead. He came in with a swagger bordering on hubris. Al Sheikh put his right hand to his chest as a sign of greeting to me, mumbling “Salaam Aleykum” under his breath. I was standing in front of thirty-some students, all of whom were likewise dressed in white thobe, and I returned the gesture. “And peace to you too,” I said. I had on a shirt and tie; this was the first week of my calculus class at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

When I had my interviews, first in Seattle and then in Houston, I had been told that I would be teaching three classes of fairly good students who were all on some form of scholarship or subsidy, Thanks to the petro dollars flowing into the Kingdom, I thought. This is great, I said to myself. Good students, tax-free pay, free air-conditioned housing and free utilities. I needed only worry about my long distance calls, local transportation and the dirt-cheap gas. I also got free return trips to Canada for my wife, two kids and myself every summer beginning at Ramadan. I signed a two-year contract and took a leave of absence from my position at the University of Regina.

I’m still not sure why I took the job. I know it wasn’t just the financial gain. I felt great relief when the offer came, a big relief from the boredom, the rat race, the intrigue among self-promoting academics. And the tension at work had been spilling over into my family life. With the relief came an exhilaration that I could finally travel to the esoteric and mysterious Middle East.

It did not take long before I noticed that although they were all clothed in white thobe (was it a dress code?) some of my students tend to throw their weight around. Al Sheikh was one such student and his behaviour had been nurtured through years of indulgence. His father was a cousin twice removed from Prince Abdullah. After finishing high school, Al Sheikh was handed the ownership of a five-star Marriott Hotel in Al Khobar overlooking the Gulf. Despite his youth, the hotel carried on quite well under his American manager, British accountant, Belgian maitre d’ and Filipino chefs. He used to live under his father’s roof but had moved to the hotel, to a large suite lined with books and computer paraphernalia. He was taking business administration at his father’s behest.

He picked his buddies carefully and Mahmoud Rashid was his constant companion. Both Sunnis with a common interest in soccer, they had been together since high school. Rashid came from a middle class family; his father, a graduate of Purdue University, was among the few Saudi engineers in Aramco, the Arab-American Oil Company next door to the university. Rashid had one of the richest scholarships at King Fahd, having been a top-notch student and soccer team co-captain in high school. He was smart all right—I could tell from the questions he asked in class.

After six weeks of lectures, I gave them their first midterm exam. They were quite fidgety, not knowing what sort of problems this new Filipino-Canadian professor would give, and considering that the midterm counted heavily. I had told them that their final grades would be based on two midterms and the final exam. “Sir, can we have a review period before the midterm?” one student asked and I graciously obliged.

Jameah Betrol, as King Fahd University was colloquially called, sat on the sandy hill of Jabl Ur. The campus was designed and constructed by international architectural and engineering firms and incorporated Islamic ideas: wide open spaces for prayer times, orientation towards Mecca, strategic location of minarets, appearance of the crescent moon at various places. Beige-coloured concrete buildings surrounded an open quadrangle crisscrossed by wide walks. The campus reminded me of an upscale American university; Stanford in Palo Alto came to mind, but with less trees and flowering plants. My office and classroom were in the sprawling Science Building. Somehow, the room assigned to my class held no more than forty students. Even at exam time, the students sat next to each other and they could see each other’s work by simply glancing over.

And so at the first midterm exam, I sat at the head table and watched them like I did back home in Canada, i.e., like a hawk. Any movement of a head towards a neighbour’s paper attracted my attention. Such a movement in the third row called my attention to Al Sheikh, who was watching what his neighbour Rashid was writing. I cleared my throat to let him know of my presence. When I couldn’t get him to concentrate on his own work, I walked to the third row and stood by him. It was impossible; Al Sheikh was intent on perpetrating what I regarded as gross violation of university regulations. What was I to do? Should I take his paper and tell him that the exam was over for him? I didn’t. I went back to my table and waited for the end of the exam hour.

When Al Sheikh handed in his paper, I pointedly asked him to see me in my office immediately afterwards. I was careful not to suggest dishonesty; I really didn’t know how the Arabs might react to adversity or hint of humiliation. I collected the rest of the exam papers and hurriedly went to my office. I sat at my desk and waited patiently for Al Sheikh, who I was sure was taking his time to saunter leisurely to my office.

“Sorry, sir. I just have to know the solutions before I lose interest. I assure you I can do better next time. Inshallah.”

“Al Sheikh,” I said when he came, “You were cheating during the exam and for that violation, I have to report you to Dean Moajid. I’m afraid your study here may be discontinued for this misconduct.”

“Sir, I was not cheating.”

“Yes, you were. You were copying from Rashid, who was seated next to you.”

“I was not, sir.”

“I saw you looking at his paper and I even stood by you for a while.”

 “I agree, sir. I was looking but I wasn’t copying. You can compare our papers if you like.”

“Indeed, I will,” I said and I quickly shuffled through the exam papers to look for theirs. I found them and compared them page after page. The exam posed four problems on different topics we had covered. To my amazement, Al Sheikh had answered the first one quite correctly but it differed a bit from Rashid’s solution. He had made a start at the second problem but didn’t quite finish. The rest, he hadn’t even tried.

“So what were you doing looking at Rashid’s paper for a good half-hour?”

“Sir, I just want to know how he solved those problems. I have no idea at all. I have no intention of copying his solutions and claiming them to be mine.”

“All right, then,” I said. “Looking at your paper here, I’d say you still fail. I suggest that next time, you hand in your paper and wait for the answers at our next session.”

“Sorry, sir. I just have to know the solutions before I lose interest. I assure you I can do better next time. Inshallah.” he said, shrugging his shoulders and leaving my office with his irritating swagger.

I really tried not to dislike this fellow. God willing! Inshallah!

© Eusebio L. Koh

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by Eusebio L. Koh

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