Thursday, October 01, 2009

Passing The Exam

Dr Gamal Khaled, religious instructor, sits back on his heels as he waits for his student Miss Sahar Al-Amir. He teaches in the only Western-syllabus university in the country, built with funding from the Americans, bloated with eagerness to share that great gift to the world, their American culture.

Gamal is pious but not stupid. Unlike the fundamentalist teachers of the Madrassas which dot the capital, he knows that it’s not enough to learn the sacred texts by heart and eke out doctrine-ridden lives in fly-blown poverty. That way lies the final erasure of the faith under the grinding wheels of Western modernity. You have to sup with the devil, study his arts and his sciences without succumbing to that empty life of atomised secular materialism presented as the unavoidable correlate.

Hence his appointment to this grand office with its modern computing and communications infrastructure and its large prayer-carpet at the edge of which he kneels. His course is not long or even particularly difficult. It is merely mandatory in the final year and Miss Al-Amir seems destined to fail.

The students here have mostly come from traditional families. For once, a degree of selection by merit rather than wealth or influence has been enforced. They are uniformly unprepared for the culture shock – exposed to a cacophony of new ideas, forced to think for themselves. It’s not surprising that so many abandon their past certainties, their faith. It’s not too amazing that they think him a hopeless anachronism, an outdated authority figure with an obsolete ideology. Most of the students pay lip service to his teaching, passing his course through hypocrisy. Some of the more intelligent and principled fight or ignore him, and they of course will fail. This is normal in his country.

Sahar is one of these. She’s taken with western ways, makes no secret of her disdain for the old superstitions. Maths and computer science centre her new life. Her first two essays have been disasters: alternately ignorant and satirical. She is here is to discuss the final assignment which will most likely be no different and will cause her to fail her degree. Gamal admires her determination not to play a game she despises while despairing of her parochial lack of insight and mourning the likely consequences for her future (or lack of one).

Sahar Al-Amir knocks at the door and then pushes it open a fraction. Dr Khaled motions her into the room, beckoning her to kneel at the far side of the prayer-carpet. He can see at once that she is nervous as she settles herself down. Her black abaya is sloppy and loose while the material covering her hair is awry. This is not a good start. He speaks to her sharply – “Put your knees together!” She looks at him intensely and pulls off her badly-arranged headscarf. Blond ringlets tumble down her shoulders while her gaze never falters.

Gamal recognises at once he’s in a situation: this is not in any kind of script. He suppresses a reprimand and waits, suspicions confirmed as Sahar slowly pushes her robe off her shoulders to reveal her breasts, small and pert. She moves her hands down to her waist, pulling her robe apart and draping it on the carpet behind her. And now she strikes a pose, pulling her head back, pushing out her chest and spreading her knees farther apart. Her gaze never leaves Gamal’s face, her mouth opens slightly as she nervously flicks her tongue over her lips.

Dr Gamal Khaled has never been in this situation before but he’s heard plenty. Miss Al-Amir is indeed a vision of nakedly available loveliness, an erotic sculpture posed before him and part of him is signalling a very male response. But Khaled is an intellectual and at times like this it’s the rational, calculating part of him which takes control. Sahar has clearly reached the end of whatever makeshift plan she had for this afternoon and to prolong the silence further will surely lead to deeper humiliation. He is a teacher: now he must teach.

“Well, Miss Al-Amir,” he says, “I take it that this display is not unconnected with your final assignment? I am sure it has nothing to do with any charms I may or may not possess. Now, let us leave to God the appreciation of what He has created and cover yourself so that we may begin the tutorial.”

These kind words break the dam, and Miss Al-Amir bursts into tears. Gamal continues to kneel patiently, relaxed but unmoving until the snuffles cease. The contract they then negotiate puts the recently concluded display behind them, agrees that Sahar will participate in further coaching and that she deigns to take seriously the concept of a spiritual dimension to life – as a working hypothesis. Perhaps she will pass after all.

After Sahar has departed, Gamal Khaled reflects. This was not a serious attempt to seduce him, the stuff of academic folklore everywhere. Sahar has no skills whatever in that department. No, it was an act of desperation, a crisis, and sometimes only a crisis will break down the walls of the mind and let us make progress.

And now, he thinks wearily, he will have to write his report for the secret police.


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