Thursday, 22 May 2014



Working in a Moslem country requires the teacher to make a few mental adjustments. One of the many interpretations of the word ‘Islam’ is ‘submission’. You’ll find your students very passive; reluctant to ever contradict, argue, or criticize. Say goodbye to the notion of holding classroom debates; once the first opinion has been voiced, no-one would ever think of contradicting it. This general practice of submissiveness can be a good thing – you seldom see arguments or fist-fights break out in a Moslem country. (In my home country, you’ll see 10 or 12 fist-fights a night at around bar-closing time. In my 20-odd years in Indonesia, I only remember ever seeing three punch-ups.)

Then there’s Ramadan, the fasting month. For 30 days a year, around two billion devout Moslems the world over observe Ramadan as one of the ‘Five Pillars of Islam’. In that month, they don’t eat or drink between sunrise and sunset, nor do they smoke, harbor negative thoughts, or have sex (or even think about having it). One Indonesian Moslem (a doctor) told me that this period of self-restraint was an invaluable boost to physical and mental health. “If you don’t observe Ramadan, that’s like owning a new car and never trying out the brakes. You don’t know whether the brakes, when you really need them, will work or not.”

At Ramadan, Moslems rise early, an hour before sunrise, and gorge themselves on a huge meal to tide them over the 12 hours’ of self-deprivation to follow. Around six pm another huge meal is laid out, and people tune into their radios awaiting the drumbeat that tells them it’s OK to eat and drink again. (Statistics reveal that more food is eaten during Ramadan than at any other time of year.)

Some years ago when I was living in Indonesia, I decided to try fasting for a day, just for the experience. It was a long, long day. I didn’t miss the absence of food so much, although my parched mouth was crying out for water by midday. No, what made the day such a drag for me was the boredom.  Our three meals per day serve to break the day up, and provide us with welcome diversions to occupy our minds. Without those breaks, you get twelve uninterrupted hours of boredom, lethargy, and irritability. And, if you’re a smoker, nicotine-withdrawal symptoms too.

If you’re teaching during Ramadan, steel yourself for a bunch of tired, preoccupied students, and a very long break at around six in the evening when your students break their fast.

Some other considerations to keep in mind when you’re working among Islamic believers. Don’t ever profess to being an atheist – that’ll put you among the lowest of the low in the eyes of your Moslem students. Don’t discuss religion. While that’s what dictates how your students live, work, and think, it isn’t really open for discussion, especially not with a non-believing infidel such as yourself.

Don’t use your left hand to gesture, touch someone, hand over money, or anything else. The left hand is unclean, and reserved for wiping the bum only. Don’t contradict or question anyone’s opinion. Don’t mention stuff like sex before marriage. (The Moslem male hankers after it, and has probably secretly savored it in a local brothel or two, but that’s not something to be talked about or even acknowledged.)

I began my two decades in Indonesia unreservedly admiring the Moslem faith for its culture of tolerance, hospitality and passivity. I ended my time there disillusioned with the religion, because of its dishonesty, duplicity, and hypocrisy. What prompted such a turn-around of opinion? Perhaps the countless instances of doors left to swing back in my face, the small-mindedness, the bald-faced lying, and the all-pervailing dishonesty one faces daily. Certainly because of my experience of Islamic courts as they dealt with my divorce hearings. (“Tell Mr Don that if he were to see fit to pay for the Haj pilgrimage of the honorable chief judge and his wife, then the court’s decision will certainly be in his favor.”) No, I no longer have any patience for the religion or its practitioners. Perhaps I’m wrong about the one true, hallowed religion. Perhaps, when I reach the gates of paradise, I’ll find my promised seventy-two white-clad virgins sporting chastity belts and fenced off in a high-walled compound. Insha’alah. Time will tell.


My new book, EFL minus the B.S. (now available on Amazon) is my take on the English teaching game world-wide. From applying for a job, living overseas, work permits, management and mismanagement, classroom dynamics, teens’ and children’s classes, to sex and the single teacher; all are examined with as much political correctness as a loud fart in a library. 

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