The Jaded Slave

The Jaded Slave.

Lost time. Wasted time. Time is money. Time is the most valuable commodity. Procrastination is the thief of time. Enjoy every single second of life. This is no dress rehearsal. Live life to the full. Time waits for no man.
Every morning when I wake, these phrases fizz in the atmosphere around me and float along with the motes of dust that migrate in the stuffy air conditioned cubicle of my bedroom.
I am barely awake. It’s nine am. I hear hollers in Tagalog outside from the Filipino labourers paid five dollars a day to bid us good morning and unblock our expensively rented toilets. This is the compound, where other rum faced, overweight Europeans on the best salaries of their lives sit and quietly curse Islam, and Saudi drivers, and the gargantuan cockroaches lurking stealthily in their cupboards. Most of all, they curse the humidity and the absence of real alcohol.
There is pressure inside my head. The gravity of age has slackened the skin under my baggy eyes and stress has scored lines onto my brow. Altogether, with the sagging flesh under my cheeks, my face is doing a passable impersonation of a decrepit rhinoceros. It has been another night of insomnia where I couldn’t have bought two hours of sleep at any price, or stolen it from other less highly strung individuals who possess the enviable talent of falling asleep instantly.

There are so many causes competing for the credit of keeping me permanently awake: there is the tyrannical director of our organisation with meatloaf for brains, our organisation that has no organisation—only a hunger for profit—paperwork and administration so immense it seems to fill rooms, days and nights, and the forty degree plus sweaty days and nights making one live in a sauna. There are lessons and aims and targets impossible to reach, uneatable food and no time to eat anyway, industrial scale consumption of coffee (nine cups per day minimum), the ghostly amplified wailing of the mosque minarets before dawn and a dachshund in the villa next to mine so aggressive it must be on steroids that is allowed to bark at will long into the night. Last but not least, there’s the oppressive, suffocating heat that smothers your breath and reaches into your sinuses and makes them weep.

I get up and immediately boot up my Sony Vaio laptop that I interact with more than any human outside working hours. Earlier in the decade, when the relatively new internet was just starting to coil its tentacles around our minds and hijack our attention, I didn’t bother counting the hours I spent online. Let’s go further back. Twenty three years ago. 1988. No Internet. No iPhones. No mobiles, Blackberries, Facebook, Twitter, social networking sites, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto or other sinister electronic parasites sucking up our time. No insidious, addictive entrapments and twelve hour sittings in front of a computer screen and definitely no cookies following me around my Internet strolls like dog **** determined to stick to the soles of my shoes. No addictions to icons, to software or virtual conversations.
The only spam in 1988 was edible and had nutritional value. The only cookies had chocolate embedded chips that dissolved divinely under your tongue and could be wolfed down while your youthful metabolism kept you blissfully immune from obesity. Those were the slowed down days where weeks lasted months and months seemed to be stretched by a serene absence of pressure on a young man’s life. Time didn’t matter. There was a surplus of years back then, unlike now and beyond now when time will become an increasingly indivisible, unstoppable force ploughing forward into my middle age like an express train that won’t stop at any more stations. My mind is guilty of hosting orgies of morbidity late at night with my head on the pillow and the final stop on the above mentioned railway line an image of myself at eighty on a Zimmer frame—on bad nights there’s a colostomy bag included—in a cold room with a dismal shelf empty of life achievements.
I make my first cup of Nescafe instant for the day and sit down on the sofa to savour it. I have a small, but profound epiphany. I realize how massively indebted I am to coffee. It occurs to me how she has rescued and refreshed me and jump started my synapses so that I can function as an English language teacher on almost no sleep. I’ve achieved one hour of sleep for the thirteen hours of work in front of me.
“That ratio’s going to put you in a coffin before forty-five”, I say ruefully as I drain the last drop of caffeine. Suddenly I hear the familiar, unpleasant rasping yelp of Boris the demonic dachshund next door murdering our peace. I pick up the remote and turn on the television to muffle the unbearable sound, but this is counterproductive because the first thing I get is a video from the music channel featuring a jumping, gyrating, tattooed thug who can’t sing but does a lot of posturing to a well hijacked baseline and lyrics consisting of yeah yeah you are mine baby. I sigh wistfully. I suddenly wish pop music had stopped at the end of the cold war. Billy Joel. Michael Jackson. Duran Duran. ABC. Genesis. Blondie. Queen. The Specials. Earth Wind & Fire, Simple Minds. Level 42, Roxy Music. The Human League. I consider how Shakespeare has produced the greatest English literary language, and how Pele’s 1970 Brazil served up football that will never be bettered and think ( in my Generation X opinion) that these magnificent artists have given us music that is good enough to last forever.
Now, in place of these superb analogue singers, with their gorgeous Prophet 5 chords and memorable choruses, we have grotesquely untalented digital narcissists dumping lyrical junk in the landfill of creativity that is MTV. Or worse, we have the attention hungry refugees of reality television with ‘big personalities’ vomiting into our eardrums, and remarketed X Factor failures singing **** awful ballads live on the stage of musical oblivion. I want to write pleas to modern producers to stop this aural terrorism, and letters to MPs suggesting a bill to outlaw the production of any more pop music. However, I just don’t have the time.

I get up and shower. A tasteless, crumbling croissant dives into my guts. A second coffee helps its descent. I watch Sky television news piped in especially for British expatriates and listen to stories that are almost indistinguishable from the ones the day before and the day before. The charisma vampires have sucked the anchors dry. Drained them of personality completely. The stories are even staler than the presenters: Greece refuses EU bailout. Murdoch attends phone hacking scandal. Carlos Tevez goes AWOL on City. X Factor brat deported/kicked off show/slates Cowell, British soldier number six hundred killed in Afghanistan. It’s Groundhog Day, served up with the additional suffering of thirteen hours of sweatshop English teaching to look forward to.
Before I walk out of the door I glance in the mirror and recoil at the ominous new shoots of silver sprouting from my temples, but I don’t have time to worry about middle age hanging up his signs because I have work commitments.
When I catch my morning taxi to the office, I try not to do it directly outside the compound gates and give the drivers a licence to grossly overcharge me. These vultures think all Caucasians coming out of these gates are millionaires willing to redistribute some of their wealth and they honk their horns for our business. The driver who stops is from Pakistan and gives me the familiar there is too much traffic line to justify the westerner triple rate. He must have debts, or twenty mouths in Karachi to feed by Western Union. I reply that the traffic is always bad in Jeddah and that I have no control over this factor.
He agrees on twenty riyals and I get into the car. On the way to work he shares his desire to live in Great Britain with me, but I do not want to encourage this conversation and stay silent. I close my eyes and only half feign premature exhaustion. No ad hoc UK visa consultations. No discussions on cricket, religion or the Premier League. I want my twenty riyals worth of silence. And I get it.
******
“Ahem! Saeed. Saeed, would you mind! This is not the first time today either!”
I am in class and close to losing my patience with a barely conscious boy of sixteen addicted to having vapid mobile phone conversations while class is in progress. Unfortunately, he’s already a fully formed zombie who can’t be saved. Belatedly, his bony fingers silence his Blackberry’s disruptive voice.
I’m sick again. The classroom air conditioning, germ circulating traitor that it is, is taking its toll on my immune system once more. I can feel nasty forces gathering in my chest and dread yet another night of coughing, wheezing, insomniac hell ahead.
I look at Saeed. I look at other faces in the room, most of which are blank of expression. There are seventeen minds on other things and in other places. Possibly on dirty weekends in Beirut where forbidden wet dreams can be fed, or possibly on the evening PlayStation schedules they’ll complete instead of homework.
Here is a room of young men allegedly serious about learning English, but who can seldom remember workbooks, pencils or what days of the week lessons are held. The lesson feels like an elaborate illusion. For these students, with our fees, it isn’t a cheap one. Some of them are boys scarcely seventeen and they glance longingly at the clock, or caress their iPhones as if these forms of technology are shields against dirty words like effort and application.

I rap my knuckles on the non-electronic whiteboard I frequently have to use when the software on our so-called interactive ‘smart boards’ has tantrums and refuses to play ball. The students don’t seem to mind these malfunctions. In fact they seem to find the squiggly writing that randomly appears from nowhere and the objectionable icons that suddenly appear on the screen and cause the program to seize up amusing. Not me though. I’m infected with the western world’s productivity fixation that’s got us imitating the working hours of early 19th century factory workers, but without the benefit of cheap gin. We cannot waste a second, but when I apologise for delays the students just say, “Take your time” as if time is actually as plentiful as the country’s oil. Anyway, time isn’t one of my commodities.
I have written a message on the ordinary whiteboard.
PLEASE PUT MR BLACKBERRY AND MR IPHONE TO SLEEP
It has had no impact on the students’ etiquette with these damnable devices. The chimes and bleeps continue to sabotage my attempts to clarify verb tenses to customers who are still awake. The wretched ring tones continue to violate lessons.
There it goes again. Saeed grins and it irritates me. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out another phone—most of the young men have at least three—that he forgot to turn to vibration. The young men sitting beside him wearing their English Premier League football team shirts three seasons out of date giggle like twelve year olds hearing swear words on risqué 1980s television shows. I am just about to remonstrate with Saeed when the ubiquitous guitar melody tone of another phone adds its contribution to the on-going electronic attack on the progress of the lesson. More laughter. I abandon my initial impulse to get angry and just roll my eyes in exasperation, which is a western gesture the students can never interpret anyway. All my actions bear the curse of demeaning futility.
“Teacher. Break!”
Tawfiq, an unemployed eighteen year old from Jeddah who is proud of the ten hour shifts he puts in in front of the Xbox console, points to his watch. The Chelsea shirt he is wearing deceives me momentarily and gives me hope that time can actually stand still. On it, Michael Ballack is still playing for the team and we are in 2005. But alas no, there is no refuge from years that need to expire.
We have agreed on a ten minute break after one hour of class. The trouble is, some of the students simply don’t come back and I know today will be no different. Ittihad, the professional football club of Jeddah is playing Riyadh rival Hilal tonight and there is a not so wisely positioned television set in the cafeteria almost certain to lure them away. I do not kid myself that my underprepared, sloppy piece of teaching tonight can possibly compete against this event for my students’ spasmodic spans of attention. Working thirteen hours on near zero sleep has made me intoxicated with fatigue. Coffee and energy drinks have carried me this far. Their amphetamine powers have made remembering my lesson plan possible, but soon the synapses stimulating forces fade and my cognition falters. I have forgotten the students’ names eight times. In this state of heightened exhaustion I feel slightly stoned, but the trip isn’t remotely euphoric.

As the lads leave the room I look out into the Arabian blackness beyond the window, at the perpetual blurring motion of cheaply fuelled Porsche Cayennes rocketing past on the overpass, at the enigmatic ‘Four Shebab’ café across King Abdullah Road that has never had a customer, and at the shadowy silhouettes of the Somali women in their filthy abbaya rags scavenging for plastic bottles in the skip across the highway. A meteor of depression smashes through the window and flattens me. I’m lucky this rock is only a metaphor, because if it was anything more tangible our stingy, bean counting gargoyle of a director would undoubtedly hold me responsible for the damages and deduct a month of my salary. I am suddenly holding myself on trial for wasting my life, but there isn’t time to get too morosely introspective because the lesson will start again, or not start again soon and my role as master of ceremonies in this **** of futility must continue – for professionalism’s sake at least.

“Eeehh! You listen me OK? No you a very eekspensive You a leezen me now to no talking same price.”
Jesus from Zaragoza, the only European in the class, is getting increasingly agitated on the phone in the hallway. Jesus is a manager in an elevator manufacturer in Jeddah. I have made puns worthy of nineteen seventies seaside hotel comedians about the standard of his spoken English going up and down and he has actually laughed at my dreary word play. This is impressive listening ability for such a low level student, but what is even more impressive is the effect of exasperation on his fluency and pronunciation when suppliers are trying to overcharge him or subordinates at the factory are refusing to cooperate.
Only some of the students return and we start again. Nobody wants to volunteer, speak, or put language onto the whiteboard except Jesus and a keen young boy called Abdullah. The bleeping sounds continue as the digital junkies get their fix— in my classroom. The downward gaze is the clue. You can almost hear the thumbs working themselves into a texting frenzy under the desks as the ‘crack berries’ work as their surrogate brain— except they can’t help them learn English. In Saudi Arabia, chemical narcotics smugglers are beheaded in town squares, but the ‘digital cocaine’ dealers are absolutely welcome and their product flies off discount display stands in retail stores and game shops. Hippies, the dinosaur generation, ‘tuned in’. These boys are plugged-in permanently to a mind wasting consciousness as infectious as malaria and carried by the vector of SIM cards.
An overpowering claustrophobia seeps out with the rotten air filtering through the sub-standard air conditioning system our director is too cheap to get fixed properly. It enters my mouth and nostrils and creates a vile combination of nausea and foreboding. More noisy Blackberry bleeps. I feel entombed in a twenty first century nightmare profoundly worse than Aldus Huxley’s visions. I am getting carried away with negativity and perhaps this is insomnia, overwork and too much coffee calling doomsday hour at 10.25pm on Tuesday in Jeddah but there’s no stopping the flow of these apocalyptic ideas. I see a grand human race mind manipulation program at work and feel afraid because I am the only person who can perceive it. The paranoia gets worse as I forget to hand out the worksheets. My students aren’t humans anymore but full time SMS servers programmed only to receive, interpret and send on dastardly instructions from an alien mother ship orbiting the earth. When the students continue to excuse themselves every five minutes to answer their mobiles, I am convinced they are going out to orchestrate a conspiracy to get me onto their ghastly wavelength. Any moment now I’ll have a Blackberry thrust into my hands and I’ll be snared by the digital mind trap. I’ll be obliged to do nothing but grin vacantly all day sending expensive, high tech smoke signals saying nothing. And that will be it. Game over. The body-snatchers? Oh no, the science fiction’s evolved a bit, old son. I have never felt such an overpowering desire to get out of a room.
After I dismiss the class, gather my books and materials and shut down the malfunctioning whiteboard, I race out into the corridor. I’m close to the security door when I see Mohammed and sense another gigantic rock of despair plummeting from space. This is a disaster. I’ve been ambushed by him again. Mohammed was loitering around the teaching centre the day before waiting for an opportunity to accost me. His desperation to achieve the IELTS English exam band 6.5 score that will make it possible to trade his Bangladeshi passport for an Australian one has made the poor wretch slightly demented. He’s started stalking me around Jeddah because I am an examiner for this test. His bull-headed belief that my words and actions can take over his English and steer it smoothly through the exam has produced this behaviour. He’s not all there, is Mohammed. He’s a sad and desperate victim of English. The language will never be on friendly terms with this man—ever. He came in the other evening when I was pinned down by eight non-stop hours of interviewing of new students. He just arrived demanding the keys to my time and seemed to believe it was possible for me to simply abandon the tasks I was working on, walk out of the teaching centre and start constructing his personalised blueprint for IELTS band score of 6.5 at that very moment. It would have been an utterly futile project anyhow because he was as close to unteachable as it got. Meaningful communication was impossible with him. When he approached you, he didn’t talk. He fired a torrent of barely intelligible words at you and showed no interest in following the conventions of logical conversation.
“Hello Mohammed”, I say. I am so exhausted the words plummet from my mouth as heavy as rocks and crash to the ground. I’m getting the light-headed, twilight zone feeling again.
“Why are you here?”
As if I don’t know.
“Hello sir! Hello sir! I be Mohammed Bangladesh nation! I got skills assessment Australian embassy. I must to get band score 6.51!”
He gets in the elevator and follows me out through the front door, all the while obsequiously offering to carry my bag. He tells me he needs band score 6.5 again and the broken record turns on the stylus. When he had been in classes at our language centre, his fellow students had given him a wide berth in speaking activities because instead of cooperating with his colleagues to construct meaningful conversations, he churned out this statement like a parrot until his classmates lost their patience.
I open the door and a hot, moist wall of air hits us. It’s at least over forty degrees tonight. My rumbling stomach and dog tired head want to take matters into their own hands and physically get Mohammed out of my way. My desire to be alone with any version of food in front of me is strongly in opposition to Mohammed’s desperate, misguided hunger for my time, but I feel pity for him. He works in catering for Saudi Airlines. My imagination tries to put him in Melbourne kitchens scrubbing pots with his dopy grin and pidgin English growing an Australian attitude, but it’s not going to happen. His English will be his curse and gaoler and the cork outback hat his dreams have selected will never sit on his head. I wish I could find the magic syringe of fluent, accurate English that I could inject him with to deliver his dream.
“Wait here Mohammed, I need to go back upstairs and get something”, I say untruthfully.
I make my cruel, but necessary escape by a back entrance to the building and jog down the long road littered with the filthy corpses of abandoned cars. Saudis just leave them, perhaps as they leave old camels, and I look at their flat tyres, rusty grilles and dirty windows and I see the perfect metaphor for my own condition.
I reach Jeddah’s branch of Subway where I get a BLT with fake bacon. The processed cheese and stale bread do their best to sate my needs. I am by now so tired I find myself dropping off in front of the censored Jackie Chan film playing in the restaurant on the HD television to keep the wheat chomping lines of men entertained. It’s time to get home.
I hail a taxi and wearily go through price negotiations, which aren’t easy because the driver has graduated from Greedy Arsehole academy. We settle on twenty riyals. On the way back, I can’t enjoy highway silence because he keeps bothering me with the usual set menu of nosy enquiries. He gets presumptuous and asks me how much I earn and I tell him I have a confidentiality clause in my contract that prevents my telling him. As usual, I get the diaspora report. Uncle in London. Brother in Manchester. He’s desperate to become another future UK immigration statistic for politicians to pick up and throw like a dart. How can he get UK visa? England is very nice.
I get home and turn the air conditioning on. My heavy head rests on the pillow and the mouldy air says hello to my nostrils.
The End
Andronicus71 Andronicus71
41-45, M
May 6, 2012