“Teacher, You Like Coffee?” A True Story from Arabia

Arabian coffee pot sketch

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Imagine yourself, a qualified professional teacher who is accustomed to a certain level of, what, decorum? in the classroom. Now, imagine that you arrive at your new job, and you find that all of your expectations are…going out the window. Along with the students. But the story about kids going out windows is for another day. Today’s true story from the United Arab Emirates is about coffee. Bitter Arabian coffee.

It’s my first year in the UAE. I have horrible classes composed of students who don’t care about learning English. On a good day, I am learning to expect about five minutes of quiet at the beginning of class before kids start chattering in their native language.  This particular class I’m with today is really something. To illustrate how little they care about my class (or academics in general), let me relate a story. One day the Texan vice-principal, himself new to the UAE, popped in for an unscheduled observation. Students usually pretended to be, well, normal, with reasonable attention spans when an administrator entered. This day, not so much. Despite the VP’s presence, the kids claimed they’d lost all of the work they were supposed to finish in class today (likely they’d tossed it in the trash), and instead of doing anything resembling studying, they just talked amongst themselves. As far as observations go, it was a disaster. The VP consoled me with a shake of his head at the end of the period and the acknowledgement, “They’re a tough group.” So there you have it. This class doesn’t care.

By now I’ve learned to take up their work every single day and return it to them at the beginning of class so they couldn’t “accidentally” misplace it. I’ve just finished calling role and handing out their work, and I am doing the usual teacher thing of going over the agenda before we dive into our assignment, when one of the kids near the front, a tall, skinny kid named Ahmed, with a mousy mustache suddenly pipes up, “Teacher, you like Arabic coffee? You like?”

No, I really don’t. I like lattes and stuff like that, the sort of thing that has so much milk in it you’d be forgiven for hardly knowing it’s coffee at all. But I’m not fond of the way it’s made here, always very strong, sometimes extremely sweet. See, my Arab colleagues brew it, and frequently invite me to join them for a cup. I accept it so I can get to know them, not because I like the stuff. Anyhow, to shut the kid up so that I can move on with my keenly inspiring lesson, I say, “Yes.” That’s right, I lie, and lying is never a good idea.

As soon as I reply, Ahmed sprouts a giant grin on his face, stands up, says something to his friends, and the next thing I know, he’s scooped a big insulated bag out from under his desk. Inside this cooler there is a tall pot of coffee, complete with the long, curving Arabian spout (it’s commonly referred to as dallah). Practically every other student has gotten up and gathered around, and they usher me over to this boy’s desk. Oh, brother. I realize what I’m in for. The sooner we can get this over with, the sooner I can carry on with trying to convince them to apply themselves to their lessons. So here we are, and Ahmed is happily getting out little paper coffee cups, complete with cute foldable handles, and in a second, I’m holding a cup of steaming, bitter, brown liquid. Perfect.

Arabian coffee pot sketch

“Uh,” I say, “Thanks.”

I take a sip. It’s not vile; it’s a bit weaker than some I’ve tried. But it’s not delicious.

“Good, Teacher? Good?” Ahmed is beaming at me, and his classmates are all asking the same question. Well, what the heck, I’ve already lied once.

“This is…uh…yeah, it’s good,” I say, and in reply they bob their heads happily, raise thumbs up, and sip from the cups that Ahmed poured for them.

Then Ahmed refills my cup. Great kid, really. I should have learned my lesson about lying already.

I can’t help it. I smile with the kids, and underneath feeling like a complete failure of a teacher, I notice a certain warmth toward these youth. They are, after all, sharing something they really enjoy with me. They love drinking coffee in the majlis, and in a way, I’m experiencing that with them. They’re clearly proud of this moment, and later, I think I might look back on it fondly, too.

For now, though, I’m choking down the second cup of coffee, wondering how I will ever get them refocused on the lesson we’re supposed to be doing. Oh, well. Maybe building relationships with these kids is more important than covering certain standards and materials.

Would You Like to Get a Dallah?

A true story about teaching in the UAE
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  1. Pamela Spitzer
    June 24, 2018

    This made me smile….and cringe at the same time.
    Cringe: not the way I’d want my class, either. What? They’re not “eager to learn English?” Out of control “tough class?” So sorry!
    Smile: yes, definitely you gained points by drinking coffee with your students. That bonding was very important.
    Hang in there! 👍🙂

    1. Shon & Jenia
      June 24, 2018

      Yeah, Pamela, it was a serious challenge. The second year in the UAE was much easier for a number of reasons. The third year was kind of in the middle, but I was ready to move on by then. Hey, the UAE gave me Pj Smalley, though, and the rest is history! -Shon

  2. Very nice article, totally what I wanted to find.

  3. Iron ThundeR
    August 26, 2019

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