It was the third month of my stay in Riyadh in 1992 that I had to face a ticklish situation. My assignment was framing of curriculum and courses of study at three levels of E.S.L. (Teaching of English as a Second Language), and I had been given an independent office in the College of Technology where I sat and worked.
To judge the efficacy of our planning packet, I taught three classes a week in the College. These were all male students, senior working employees in various Government offices, some in their twenties and thirties, placed at three levels of proficiency in English. It gave me a first-hand evaluation of the efficacy of what I had framed as a package and I took extra care to cultivate my students at a personal level. They were all – or nearly all – from the outer fringes of the ruling family or its affiliates. I had made it a point to learn the basics of spoken Arabic. However, I could out-do many an Arab student in classical nuances of the language as it had been in the hoary past of this desert peninsula.
I had a rented house within a couple of miles of the College and its Work Centre. Having furnished it as well as I could, I waited for the arrival of my wife from Washington D.C. Once she came, we cultivated the Indian and Pakistani compatriots’ families and tried to call our house a halfway home, entertaining friends on off days.
A couple of months later, one of my students asked my permission to come over to my house. A lanky youth in his early twenties, he was reputed to be from a very wealthy Saudi family. My lifelong experience has been to discourage my students from taking the liberty to come as visitors to my house, but he insisted that the nature of his purpose was such that he couldn’t divulge it in my office, I told him that he was welcome that evening or the next evening.
When the bell rang and I opened the door, I found him standing at my threshold fidgeting and unsure of himself. He had parked his car at the curb. I said, “Please come in, Rauf. Don’t stand outside. It is rather hot.” He hesitated and then blurted out, “My mother has come with me, Sir. She is in the car. She wants to talk to you.” “O.K.,” I said, “I am going to call my wife out who will herself go and bring her from the car.”
My wife brought the lady inside the house. Clad fully in Abaya (an Arab veil that covered the lady from head to her toes, mostly black in colour) she walked in with sure steps. It was when she lifted the headcover that I was flabbergasted. I found that she was a white woman. Thirty or even younger, she was naturally not Rauf’s real mother. Finding me rather perplexed Rauf told me in halting English. “Mother is a Bosnian Muslim. She wants to learn English. My father is no more. I am the Head of the family now.”
It was thus that I got a new student, private tuition for a handsome fee. The young lady was married to Rauf’s father in London where her family had come as hapless refugees from the Balkans. Thirty years her senior, he had paid a handsome fee to her parents and had thus brought her in the Kingdom as a legally wedded wife, the fourth one at the moment. I never could actually find out as to how many women some Saudi sheiks married during a single lifetime. Divorcing the previous ones by paying the ‘Mehr money settled at the time of marriage, they normally got a new wife every third or fourth year.
Sheba was her name. Girlish of nature, no sooner than she became accustomed to coming to the house, she became friendly with my wife and started calling her Ummi which, she told us, meant an aunt, a mother’s sister in the Bosnian language. With me, however, she was formal and respectful, addressing me as Sir or Doctor or Professor. I had no idea of the dialects spoken in the Balkans but my knowledge of Turkish, elementary though it was, stood me in good stead as many words in her mother tongue and Turkish were common.
Since women were not legally allowed to travel in a car alone with a stranger or go visiting without a male escort, Rauf brought her to our place. Leaving her there, he would go for an hour or so and then came back to drive her home. They looked happy and contented going back together and once my wife did say to me. “Don’t they look like two happy children, playing together and not a Mother and a Son?” I nodded in agreement for I had also noticed it.
Sheba, I taught for well near three months. All told about 30 sessions, I took the help of audio-visual equipment I had with me and gave her ready-made tapes of spoken English in relation to Arabic and Turkish languages. By the end of this period, I found that she had fairly learned to pronounce words, more in the drawl of an Eastern European than either the clipped British speech or the American accent. It was now easy for her to speak English (the basic 150 utterances I had devised for the beginners’ course in the Institute) – and one day, when I gave a test to both of them, Rauf and Sheba, I found that Sheba was better in unhindered spoken English. Rauf still could not pronounce P and like all Arabs would substitute it with B, but Sheba could do it in the most natural way. She could pronounce Pakistan while Rauf would always say Bakistan. On the last day, she gave my wife a diamond ring as a parting gift. (Unlucky it was that my wife lost it in the lavatory of the plane when she flew back to USA.).
Since my contractual term was expiring, a week before the final date, my wife went to India to visit her relatives before flying to the USA while I stayed back for straightening up a few matters. It was like an electric shock, certainly pleasant when Rauf phoned and said that he would like me to be present at a small gathering of his friends and teachers from the College. “I’m getting married to Sheba,” he just added.
I was taken aback. Tongue-tied for a few moments I really felt happy for both of them. The young widow, almost his age, married to his aged father for money, she was now properly ‘settled’. I would have loved to go and meet the couple, but unfortunately, I was flying back to the USA the same morning and could not do it. So I offered my best wishes and asked him to convey my message to Sheba also. I don’t know why, but I asked him to send a photograph of himself and Sheba dressed in their wedding fineries. He said he would do it.
I don’t know why but he never kept that promise.
I had a little knot of doubt in my mind and I checked with an Indian Muslim friend after I finally came back to the USA. He was rather doubtful for a few minutes on the subject but finally nodded and said, “The Deobandi sect in India would also allow such a marriage.”