Aunt Alice in Arabia – Encouraging Good Writing Topics in an Arabic Classroom

April 12, 1990

It’s difficult as a teacher to get students to write interesting compositions.  Over the years, I’ve invented bizarre topics to force my students to think.  However, transplanting American topics to the Gulf just doesn’t work culturally.

Gulf students are more private than Americans and don’t indulge in discussing the same topics which pre-occupy Westerners:  for example, families.

I blush.  High school and college nights were an endless dissection of my parents’ bizarre behavior and my six sisters’ endless cruelty and misunderstanding.  Even to this day, confidences both direct and dreadful escape my lips about my family.

Religion is another private topic which students both here in the Gulf and back home have difficulty expressing their feelings. Religion, now that I’m nearly 40 years old, has become blasé and basic.  It takes a lot of living before anyone can write something worthwhile about religion and my students are just too young.

Nor can I encourage students to delve deeply into their hearts and reveal all.  That contrasts completely with the Arabic need for privacy.

What’s left?  Food, traditions, henna, hawking, cars, foreign holidays, desert picnics….  These external things quickly become boring. The worst topic is a family holiday, usually evoked by a suggestion like, “Write about Ramadan.”

I’ve finally adapted an idea that worked well in the States:  A FIRST TIME. Of course, Arabic first times are quite different from American, but the ingenuity, the surprise, the self-exploration and the jewel of insight are the same. I’ve gotten first times:  I was 10 and my older brother gave me a driving lesson and beat me up because I did it wrong.  I flew over the Himalayas and it looked like a mountain was wearing a ghurtra but it was the snow.  I hurt my brother and he’s still mad at me but Allah isn’t.  I didn’t know how to wear an abeyah and didn’t want to but now I feel like a woman when I wear one.

A first time, at any age, is memorable. A 71-year-old woman at a health club recently confided it was her first time at a health club!