Wounded but still functioning

One of Meher's stories sent as e-mail to family last year.

Dear everyone,

I've been meaning to write you all about my class in the boonies, the most interesting mish-mosh of people I have encountered so far. Most of the people are Muslims, many from Pakistan, and some from Iran, Iraq, Somalia and India. Among the Muslims, sitting interspersed and working together are some Chinese, one Serbian and one Chilean. Frankly, two years ago, I wouldn't have believed that a class like this would have held together so well for so long. But, here I am, constantly amazed at the interactions between the most unlikely elements in the class.

We are all immigrants in the class, and all except one are highly educated. Some have worked as professionals in their desh. We've all been wounded in one way or another by our chosen country, by the policies in our adopted desh. Still, we function in the most charming way imaginable.

The most active and vocal person in the class is Sarah (not her true name) who is a Physics/Chemistry/Math teacher. Sarah wears a burqa. Her burqa allows her eyes to see the world and lets everyone see her eyes. She communicates everything with her eyes and voice which is filtered through a layer of cloth. The particular model of the cumbersome cover-all she dons has a slit for the eyes. Fortunately, when no male is in sight, she unpins the part which covers her face and talks to me. Under her mask, I noticed that she is more made up than I am. Her eyebrows are plucked to a thin line, her eyes have kajal, her lips a thin layer of lipstick. For whom does she go to all this trouble? For her husband of course, who is also in the class.

Sarah's husband Abdul (not his real name) joined the class rather reluctantly. He chauffeurs her to the class and when the course started, Sarah pleaded with me to admit him into the class which was already full with a waiting list. "He is a man, he cannot talk to you, you know how it is, but he needs this course" she had said. I felt that Abdul wasn't at all convinced that he NEEDS this class or any class for that matter. Still, I let him join the class at the cost of getting on the shit list of the petulant course coordinator (I am on so many shit lists, one more didn't seem like such a big deal).

In any event, Abdul drives Sarah and another Pakistani lady Tabassum (not her real name) to class. Tabassum joined the class through proper channels. It turns out that Tabassum is renting her basement apartment to Sarah and Abdul. The three of them sit together in the class and cooperate while doing exercises and while brainstorming for essay writing. However, it is Sarah who answers most of the questions and participates most enthusiastically in class discussions. Tabassum smiles most of the time while Abdul stares at his feet or his desk or the board, keeping his eyes ostentatiously off me. Even when he wants to say something to me, he conveys it through Sarah by nudging and whispering to her. I have found that many Pakistani men behave this way towards me, but there are some who make eye contact and talk directly.

Growing up in the Muslim tradition definitely wounds men as much as it does women, in different ways though. I really wish Abdul would just say something to me directly but I imagine that it will take a while.

Meanwhile... things just compel people like Abdul to break out of their shell, and it was so nice to watch this process. But you have to let me gush a little bit so that I can build this scene.

In the class is this young (alas, just 18) woman from Chile. Gabriella or Gabby (not her real name) is cute. She has a gorgeous body and a sweet nature. Gabby is as serious as Sarah in wanting to learn English, passing the TOEFL test, and going to University here. When the course started, Gabby sat with a young man from Iran, Karim (not his real name). I thought that because the two are so close in age, they find it easy to work together. By the second or third week, I began to notice this shit-eating grin on Karim's face. Only then did I realize what an unusual treat it must be for Karim to sit next to a beautiful woman. I am afraid that he hasn't really gotten over this aspect of sitting in a class with men and women and working with Gabby. I wonder if he thinks that he has died and gone to the promised guy heaven and is being served by houries, and has the best one sit right next to him. Some sort of a shock seems to have taken ahold of poor Karim. His English, very poor to begin with, has not improved one bit. I once took him aside, out of the class and talked to him about his progress. I couldn't get through. He was smiling throughout our chat, seemingly unaffected by the things I was saying.

Anyway, when the weather got hot, Gabby started wearing really skimpy clothes. Karim continued sitting next to her. At one point it seemed that Gabby started to sit away from Karim who seemed crestfallen. And we all did our stuff in the sweltering heat. Amid the heat, and the lessons, I had not noticed the growing friendship between Gabby, Sarah and Abdul.

It wasn't until yesterday's class that I became aware of how things had been developing. Yesterday I gave the class a sample test. Most students did part of the test as homework and were able to finish the test one hour before the class ended. Others had not done their homework and had to stay until the end of class to complete the test. Among these was Gabby. She recently joined an English course for getting her high school certification. This course was not only a credit course, but it was also very difficult and even with the progress she made in the TOEFL class, she was struggling, as she informed me when she came to class yesterday. So, after the early birds finished the test, I suggested that the rest stay and finish the test rather than take it home and let it languish. "Especially you, Gabriella, with your English course, you won't find time and I really want you to finish the test, so I can see how you did" I said loud enough for everyone to hear.

It was at this point that Abdul stared meaningfully at Sarah, and both of them looked at Gabby who looked at them in a sort of helpless way. I became aware that I had upset them in some way.

It turned out that Abdul and Sarah had been bringing Gabby to class and dropping her off at her place after the class. So, it meant that they will have to stay until Gabby finished her test. When I understood what was going on, I said, "it's really fine, Gabby can take the rest of the test home, it's not a problem". By this time everything had become far too complicated and I felt guilty for suggesting that Gabby finish the test in the class.

So, anyway, there was this scene in which Abdul, Sarah and Gabby were conferring. You can imagine this scene. Gabby was wearing next to nothing, a small tank top and shorts, her belly button showed. And here was the burqa'd lady and her husband who doesn't look women in the eye talking to each other rather animatedly. It was really moving to see the exchange.

And, I recalled that Sarah (she is in her mid thirties) had told me that she doesn't have children. It seemed that Sarah and Abdul had somehow come to regard Gabby as their own child. There was absolutely NO wincing, flinching on their part as they talked to her ..."No, we will wait till you finish the test, it is absolutely no problem" and so on and on.... they were trying to convince this half-clad nymphet.

It was really nice to watch the scene. I would have never thought that Abdul would even look Gabby in the eye, let alone talk to her. So, I felt this life affirming feeling sweep over me, being a firm believer in the many ways people break the barriers, inhibitions and are able to communicate.

So nice to watch.

On that positive note I'll sign off and go prepare dinner. Let me know what you make of this.

July, 2002


Epilogue A year and a half since I wrote the story...

I do not know what became of the characters. Hopefully Gabby is in a university, Sarah has obtained her teacher's certificate, and Abdul is still chauffeuring Sarah and others around, having fallen through the cracks himself, most likely. In the three years of my TOEFL teaching, I have seen so many immigrants, everyone with a unique story. Still, there seems to be a pattern. The less educated ones (a bachelor's degree or high school) are most likely to succeed if they go through some sort of training in a college or university. Even without any training, as soon as they have some language skills, they find work to support themselves. It is the most highly-educated ones, doctors, engineers, pharmacists, professors, etc. who struggle the hardest to find something for which they are trained. For immigrants, there seems to be a paradox operating in Canada, the higher the education the fewer the prospects. Abdul in the story for instance, was most likely a professor back home. Chances of finding anything vaguely comparable here is completely out of the question. So, the couple was living on Sarah's income from teaching Math/Physics at a private Islamic girl's school here.

People break so many barriers - cultural, linguistic, religious, - and integrate into Canadian society. However, Canada seems slow in removing the myriad obstacles in the path of the most highly educated immigrants. I feel that in Toronto the population of the highly-educated immigrants has reached a critical mass and some kind of a major historical change is in order. This mass is our best human asset! On that hopeful note, I will sign off.

December, 2003


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All text and images on this page © Meher Shaik 2003 - posted by tim dot dickinson at utoronto dot ca

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