The alarm rings at 5:50 A.M. In the winter, the sun rises around 7:00 A.M. and sets around 6:00 P.M. With two of us and two bathrooms, the morning preparations are smooth and quiet. We leave for work around 7:15. The sun has just risen and already the sounds of construction are everywhere. In a two-block radius from our apartment, there are at least four separate pipeline projects in progress, road construction along the main thoroughfare, four villas being erected, several small shop renovations underway, and a noisy throng of diesel school buses honking and growling their way through the district. Hundreds of Indian laborers mill about these jobs sights, some carrying shovels, others driving immense front-end loaders, and some simply standing. This being their winter, they look cold, some of them with their heads wrapped grotesquely in over-sized turbans, a few in World War II leather helmets. To a man, they look miserable.
We depart for work in our freshly-washed sport utility van (100 dirhams a month to have it washed down every morning except Friday). The noise and activity at this early hour scatters any early morning lethargy.
As the crow flies, it is probably no more than three kilometers from our flat in Al Qusais to Dubai Men’s College. Through the miracle of Dubai road construction , the commute is extended to six-plus kilometers with no less than 12 separate 90 degree turns – and that’s the quick way – and doesn’t include the 4 turns required to exit the flat parking lot.
Getting to work around 7:30, we have a wide selection of parking spots. By 7:50, the choices are few. The students are quite casual about parking preferences and will leave their vehicles almost anywhere they believe it will not be run over. Westerners would quickly rule out parking in a location the average Arab student sees as a perfect place to abandon a vehicle. Parking is free and unregulated and no one would ever argue this fact.
By 7:55, in our building, the halls are filled with young men dressed in white, a miasma of after shave lotions suspended in the air. We console ourselves knowing it is preferable to the alternative. Classes begin at eight but almost all suffer from chronic latecomers and the teaching task to bring them to prompt attendance is unrelenting and, ultimately, unsuccessful. The west’s preoccupation with the clock does not, it seem, appeal to our Arab students. Technically, a student can be dismissed for repeated lateness but the reality is that no one wants to take the issue that far. We settle for endless threats. The problem is one of the more interesting clashes between western and arab cultures.
The students, with rare exceptions, are friendly and polite and attentive. They are a pleasure to teach. At our level, English proficiency is a major problem and we devise many ways to make ourselves understood in areas of math and computers. The course material itself is quite basic – fractions, percentages, decimals, simple expressions, etc, learning to type and navigate through Windows and Word. Most of the students have studied these math concepts in high school and most have some computer literacy. So it’s the English version we are teaching and we walk a fine line between boring them with concepts they know well and getting them to learn it all over again in English. It is an ongoing source of strain in the system, the problem of training in English. Instructors must guard against assuming any word or sentence is clear.
Class schedules for instructors are scattered throughout the day, the last class ending at 7:30. Interim periods are occupied marking papers and doing class preparation. Instructors are expected to attend the school for a minimum of 8 hours a day and few violate this expectation.
Dubai Men’s College consists of three buildings (soon to be four) and the only non-class, non administrative provision made is for a cafeteria. There are no athletic facilities or fine arts facilities. DMC is here to teach core subjects – Business and Technical. The cafeteria serves hot lunches and provides a Dubai specialty – creative pricing. No one appears to know how or why an item is priced the way it is and the students, in particular, resent the pricing. Which is odd, given that most of them have more money than their instructors, and are surrounded by the accoutrements of the wealthy – expensive watches and jewellry, luxury vehicles, and ongoing bafflement over the word ‘economy’. Yet something about the cafeteria rankles.
The work day is long and the paperwork substantial. Coming from a business background, I do not know whether or not this is a phenomena of the UAE or not but there is little trust in the computer. Everywhere one conducts business in this country there is a heavy dependence upon the piece of paper. The school insists upon endless reports and convoluted file maintenance of teaching and student records. Literally nothing is discarded. Of course, this may stem from the near-paranoia of working for a single master who may or may not at any given time be making his intentions clear – OR is making his intentions clear only to have them mangled and muddled by a something less than stellar, senior administrative staff. Finger pointing in either direction is not uncommon. In any case, job security is non-existent and may go some way to explain the surfeit of paper.
When we arrive home in the evening, dinner is a functional affair, usually involving some sort of take-away food. We catch up on our e-mail, read, or watch television and then off to bed.