Teaching in the Muslim World
|Camel driver in Mygoma, a suburb near my home in Khartoum North.
Shortly after I arrived in Sudan, one of my favorite male students quietly
passed me a handwritten note, whispering that I should read it later.
After class, I read a charming explanation that because he was Muslim
and I was a woman, he could not shake hands when we met.
“OK?” he asked, embarrassed, the next time we ran across each other.
“OK,” I confirmed, smiling, keeping my hands firmly behind my back and
mortified that he felt the need to explain his actions.
Getting to Know Sudan
|Fruit sellers in Souk el Arabi, the heart of Khartoum.
In Sudan, such mistakes are easy to make. Whenever men meet, they shake
hands with everyone in the room. Whenever, I walked into a room, they nearly
all shook hands with me too. It is a charming custom, and you soon get in the
habit of doing the same. But Khartoum is home to students from all over the Arab
world, and those from Saudi Arabia, in particular, have been raised in a strict
Muslim culture that believes men should not touch women, especially those
outside the family.
Most Sudanese Arabs—in Khartoum anyway--come across as moderate Muslims, and are usually curious about the West and surprisingly comfortable when
discussing politics. They are also very hospitable and friendly to
foreigners, so it is easy to forget that the government or fundamentalist
Muslims may not share the same relaxed attitude.
In addition, at least 19 major ethnic groups live in Sudan, divided into
nearly 600 subgroups, and only 40 percent of them identify themselves as Arabs. In
Khartoum itself, the many students from South Sudan or Darfur (in the far
west of the country) follow Christian or other religions, and far different
customs. Given such a complicated setting, knowing where the boundaries lie can
be very tricky.
An Unfortunate Incident
I thought of these things when I returned to Vancouver last August, and the
Gillian Gibbons affair flared up shortly afterward. Gibbons was the British
teacher who went to Khartoum to teach English to the Sudanese and ended up
in jail for blasphemy as the consequence of allowing her kids to name a teddy bear Mohammed. After an international outcry, she was released after eight days in custody
and flew back to Britain.
I left Khartoum shortly before Gibbons arrived, but passed the school she
taught at regularly, rattling by in a crowded minibus on the way to Souk el
Arabi. Unity High School was hidden almost entirely by high brick walls, with a classy sign noting it was founded in 1902, and the protected air of keeping out the riff-raff.
My primary thought about the teddy bear affair was that Gibbons was very
unlucky. Teaching overseas in different cultures, you are pretty much bound
to make some gaffes unwittingly, and usually students or fellow teachers
correct you laughingly or quietly forgive you.
First Job Teaching in an Islamic Province in China
A first overseas teaching gig took me to Urumqi in China¹s remote
northwestern province of Xinjiang. Most of the kids at the language school
were Han Chinese—the largest ethnic group in the world--and what we in the
West think of as Chinese. But in Xinjiang, at least half the population is Uyghur (pronounced Wee-gur in English), and the school also had Uyghur kids.
These people are Muslim, speaking a language more in common with Turkish
than anything else, writing in Arabic script, praying to Allah, the men
wearing traditional skull caps and the women, shawls.
In many ways, I was more careful to avoid talking about religion in China
than in Sudan. Most foreigners working in China know that discussing
religion is a sensitive issue with Chinese authorities. Our teaching
contract even stated that discussions about religion and politics should be
avoided unless specifically requested by students. The fact that many
missionaries disguised as teachers work in China made me even more
determined not to discuss religion.
Occasionally, religion was difficult to ignore, however. One day, I was
teaching from a textbook that included a picture of an English church.
Baffled, one of my Han Chinese students asked: “What is a church?”
We were living in a city full of mosques, used by the Uyghurs, and there was
even a Catholic church in Urumqi. But the Han Chinese appeared to have no
concept of religion at all.
I carefully defined a church and a mosque, wrote up a list of the world¹s
major religions, and added the countries where each religion tended to be
practiced. I never had any comeback from either kids or parents.
An Unwitting Faux Pas in Sudan
In Khartoum, I was in Muslim territory again, but this time teaching adults
only and in a country where the government enforced Sharia (Muslim) law. A
very different feeling. Alcohol was banned, live entertainment virtually
non-existent, and my women students were divided about whether it was even
acceptable for them to go to the movies with family members.
Apart from trying to shake hands when it was not always welcome, I made other
cultural gaffes. I had seen female office staff playing solitaire on the
computer. One of our teaching textbooks covered entertainment, so I took a
pack of cards in to class and proceeded to teach students the English words
for hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds, explaining the meanings, and getting
the students practice their numbers.
“Do you play cards?” I asked Rana, one of the women.
“Women are not allowed to play cards in public,” she told me. “It is OK to
play on the computer, but not with people. Only for men.”
How would I have guessed that? Needless to say, I quietly dropped
the cards from my box of teaching tricks.
Perceptions and Misperceptions
|Street scene in Souk el Arabi, near the school.
After about three months of teaching, I was asked to help run an English
club at the language school. The more advanced students were very curious
about how Sudan was perceived in the West. I felt very sad to report that
most people in North America had only heard about Darfur, thought all of
Sudan was a very dangerous place to live, and had a very negative view of
In turn, it was fascinating to hear their perceptions of the West. The
Sudanese view of the U.S., in particular, appeared schizoid to me: They loved watching
American TV shows beamed in by satellite from the Middle East, and many
wanted to live there, enticed by watching soap operas, thrillers and a
supposed world of riches. But at the same time, many thought the U.S. was a
corrupt society, and were especially critical of George W. Bush¹s invasion
The U.S. government brought in trade sanctions against Sudan in 1997, but
while I was there last year, cranked up the pressure on Khartoum, banning 31
Sudanese companies from American and international financial systems.
Discussing these sanctions and the U.S. role in Iraq, two of my students
said they thought the American government was as bad, if not worse, than the
Nazis. Many Sudanese certainly did not trust the U.S., and saw the United
Nations--headquartered in New York--as an extension of the U.S. government. Now that Sudan is the third largest oil producer in Africa, they
also saw the West’s preoccupation with Darfur as both neo-colonial interference
and as a transparent desire for control over potential oilfields.
Ironically, while the West regards Sudan as a very dangerous place to live, some students had similar views about the U.S.
“Chicago is a very dangerous city,” one Sudanese man informed me, in great
seriousness. “U.S. cities are very dangerous to live in, not like in Sudan. We are much safer here.”
“What about Darfur?” I said gently.
“That is different. That is fighting between tribes,” he said firmly.
If we temporarily suspend our thoughts about the tragedy of Darfur, the student had a point--hard though it might be to make anyone in the West understand. The streets of Khartoum did feel safe, and the Sudanese there were so hospitable that it was very difficult to imagine them fighting anyone.
Growing up in England, I felt far more aggression from teenage bikers
gathering outside the Co-op each night in rural Somerset; from Friday night
boozers in Durham City; or while walking home from Tooting Bec underground
station in S.E. London. Since immigrating to Canada, I have also felt the
need to watch my back far more in Vancouver’s downtown eastside than in
Khartoum and its sister cities.
Whether you approve of Sharia law or not, living in a controlled society
based on strict religious tenets is likely to produce less street crime.
For another discussion in the classroom, I had carefully planned a debate about capital
punishment: comparing Canada¹s ban on the death penalty since 1961 with the
situation in the U.S., where the majority of states have capital punishment.
Should the death penalty be abolished, I asked?
I stepped back and waited for a lively discussion to begin.
Instead, baffled silence filled the air. Finally, one of the bolder students
said that of course the death penalty was necessary as a deterrent. All of
the other students agreed. In Sudan, capital punishment is allowed, with death by hanging the most common method. And for them, this was not an interesting debate
because it was so obvious that capital punishment was necessary.
Forced to play devil’s advocate, I quoted statistics showing that the
Canadian murder rate had not increased after the death penalty was
abolished, and neither had the U.S.’s murder rate decreased in states where
executions were allowed. They were supremely unimpressed.
“If there is no death penalty, families will take the law into their own
hands,” one student insisted.
They also told me that in Sudan, if someone is murdered, the family of the
victim decided whether the murderer should suffer the death penalty, pay
compensation, or be pardoned. A practice many victim’s rights groups in
North America might prefer, I would venture.
|Sudanese men in Mygoma, a suburb near my home in Khartoum North.
Life in Khartoum is very hard. Unemployment is high, and those who do have jobs
typically work six days a week. Electricity and transportation costs are very
high relative to income, numerous power cuts plague the city, scorching
heat numbs the brain and the men who work all have huge family responsibilities.
But daily life goes on. Most of my students were in their early 20s and had
a degree. When I asked them about the biggest problem facing Sudan, they
nearly all said: “Unemployment.” Occasionally, a student from Darfur would
say: “Darfur,” but it was primarily their inability to find work that bothered them.
North Americans tend to focus on Darfur, in the far west of Sudan, where
feeding those in refugee camps is undoubtedly an unresolved humanitarian
crisis. But the major fighting and atrocities were carried out four or five
As I write this, the uneasy peace between South Sudan and the Sudanese
government in the north seems very fragile once again and poses a far more
serious threat. The last civil war between the mainly black South Sudan and
the northern Arab government ended with a peace accord in 2005 after twenty
years of fighting. But the unresolved dispute over who owns the lucrative
oil fields on the border near Abyei threatens to plunge the nation into
civil war again.
Sitting safely at home in Canada, it is easy to for us to forget that most of
the people of Sudan just want to carry on an ordinary life without fighting.
Government wishes are not the same as those of their citizens. I can
only think of all the welcoming faces in Khartoum and their willingness to
look at the person in front of them and not just their politics or religion.