Posted on July 12, 2011 - by mira
“Teacher Mira,” he said, “mann alamani harfan, kuntu lahu abdan.”
I stared at him.
It was during my brief stint in running a home-based graphic design business in Sanaa. I needed help with my accounting, so I reached out to a former student who was an accountant and asked him if he knew anyone who could keep my finances in order. It would be once a month and I’d pay that person for their time. He said he would do it, but adamantly refused to be compensated.
I knew by then that Yemenis were very generous. Their parting words were always, “Ayya khidma?” which they would translate as “any favor?” or “any service?” So I didn’t want him to feel under any obligation or too embarrassed to agree on a fee.
I also knew by then how much Yemenis valued learning, something I hadn’t realized when I first moved to Yemen. I hadn’t planned on having a career in teaching. I always thought that I’d use teaching as a tool to travel around the world to learn about new cultures and tell their stories.
But teaching in Yemen was different. Because I didn’t want to be a traditional teacher, I thought about teachers who’d inspired me, in the classroom and in life. I wanted to be like them with my own students. I soon discovered that students in Yemen were very motivated to learn English. Unlike in many countries where English is a requirement that students often have to endure, Yemenis saw English as a valuable skill that could open up many opportunities for them. And the market for English language institutes was growing so fast, that there would be as many as 105 English language institutes in Sanaa alone during my time in Yemen. Most were no more than small “boutiques”, but that number is an indication of the high demand across the social spectrum.
“I can’t afford to study at the big institutes,” a young taxi driver once told me – one of the many conversations I’d have over the years with Yemeni taxi drivers, from learning English to Yemen’s youth revolution of 2011. “So I’m starting by studying in a small one until I build my English, and then I’m planning to take the higher courses in a more reputable institute once I’ve saved enough money.”
The three top language schools in Sanaa had from around 700 up to 3,000 students or more each term, and they weren’t cheap. Each five-week term cost over 100 dollars. If you think about more than a third of Yemen’s population living on two dollars a day or less, you get an idea about how expensive learning English is, and how important it is for the students who invest in it.
Besides the prestige associated with English, some students signed up for classes because raises or promotions in their companies were based on the TOEFL score (an international test of English proficiency); others because they wanted to study or work abroad. Still others wanted to read books or understand movies and pop songs, and they saw these reasons as no less important than the other two, because of their desire to learn more about – and more from – American culture.
I pressed my former student, the accountant, on paying him for helping me out, and this back-and-forth went on for a while. He finally said:
“Teacher Mira, we have a saying: Mann alamani harfan, kuntu lahu abdan.” The one who teaches me one letter, I am to him a slave. In other words, a student felt forever indebted to someone who teaches them something.
I didn’t know what to say. I smiled and told him I was just doing my job. He shook his head and wouldn’t hear another word of it.
I was forever in his debt. Little did I know before I went to Yemen, not that I had something to teach, but rather how much Yemen had to teach me.
Like Love. Who would have thought that Yemenis would openly talk about love in class? Certainly not me, and not until I met Amal and Najeeb.
Read more posts in the series: Yemen Journey: A personal narrative of my life in Yemen
Stay tuned for the rest of the story. This is a new series on my life in Yemen. Send me your questions or share your thoughts in the comments; I’d love to read them. What is your impression of Yemen? Would you be interested in visiting it?
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