pt 2 Teaching in Qatar: Principal’s Office to the Police Station

Tell me: Did I put my foot in my mouth?

I worked in the Secondary school and the girls were required to offer salaah at a certain time of day and there was a musalaah for them. But many of them preferred to use the time to socialize with their friends, so they would rush through their salaah to get the free time. This made the prayer lines look all crazy and disorganized some girls in ruku’ and others in sujood all standing in the same line. They were really hard to control. One day when I was on ‘prayer duty’ I got sick of it and I shouted at them.
I told them this is the way that the Shi’aa (Shi’ites) pray; in a confusing way.
Well, have you ever heard the term ‘you put your foot in your mouth’?  Right after I made my comments some girls ran up to me upset, “Miss Nadiya why did you talk about Shia, they are our friends! You made some of the girls cry! ” The next day I was told me to meet the Mudeerah in the Social worker’s office. The Social Worker was a large Lebanese woman who wore ebaya over her clothes with no head covering.  She had a deep slow voice, “Miss Nadiya what you said is very hard… you know my mother actually is a Shia’ and my Dad is Sunni.” Ya Allah!” my head dropped and I wanted to disappear. My heart started racing. “You should not teach religious beliefs just moral values. This is better,” she instructed me.  She’s the social worker! What was she talking about? I teach Islamic studies and that includes Aqueedah.  Had she even SEEN the Islamic studies books issued from the government??  I looked at my Mudeerah to enlighten this woman. My Mudeerah was seriously Sunniya, her dress code, the way she talked the way she taught;  she mastered all the subjects of Islamic studies and Quran taught in the department. I had deep respect for her level. I expected more from her in that moment, but all she did was give me a nervous smile.  Am I sorry for what I said? Well, I can’t apologize for my beliefs but I did not intend to shock anyone or make anyone cry. And although I don’t have any ill will toward Shia people,  I do invite them to the Sunnah.

A couple days later, the Principal worte me an email, “I would like the opportunity to speak with you.” The Principal (the 4th one that school year) was a British Pakistani woman. “You made inflammatory statements we don’t tolerate that here. “  Did she think she was back in England? I wondered if I was the only English speaker in the school who had ever read the Islamic studies books.


When living as a foreigner in the Arab Gulf, or anywhere, it is very important to maintain your legal status; keep your ‘iqaama’ (residence visa) valid. I was working so I had mine but my daughter’s iqaama was delayed. I had to get special permission to sponsor her since her father wasn’t in Qatar yet and then the paperwork went back and forth a few times and between trips down to the Jawazaat (passport) office and flying out every 2 months for a tourist visa. At last! All the paperwork was finally filed.  I stopped flying out and I thought everything was fine. AFter the 5 month process I went back to Jawazaat office presented everything and I was told: As soon as you pay the 20,000 Riyal fine, you can sponsor her. What!? While waiting for the process a ‘graama’  (fine) increased by 200 Riyals a day on her passport, and a ban was put on my own passport.

The Police Called and said, “Give Us Vernell!”

Vernell is my birth name. It’s a good name. It was the name of my great-grandmother. It means green and flourishing. I was giving a class with my students when the H.R. lady called me on my cell. “Vernell!”I  heard this urgent almost whisper on the phone, “The Police called they want you NOW. Leave everything and go to al-Bahath wal Mutaab’iah!” I didn’t even know what was Bahath wal Mutaab’iah but I knew it wasn’t good. I knew I was in deep trouble. I left my class and went in a taxi. The taxi driver took me around in circles a couple of times, not knowing exactly where to take me. I told him the name of the department I needed but he didn’t speak Arabic, so he couldn’t understand. Finally, I saw the name on the building from far away and I pointed to it, “There it is!” I said.  Although he didn’t know Arabic (he was Indian) and couldn’t understand the sign, he eyes got wide when I pointed to the building. He asked, ” you wanna go there? But Madame,… that’s the jail! “

My heart was beating out of my chest as I went through the security check full of men. I didn’t know what to expect. I was ushered to the front of the line.  The building was surprisingly classy, lovely carpets and pure white walls with Arabian motifs. I passed a waiting room where Qataris were waiting to submit reports about runaway maids. I had to go upstairs to one of the head policeman. Surprisingly the policemen were polite “You’re American, and Muslim?” That’s always a discussion. I told them how I misunderstood about the rules, why I had the fine. Then I asked,  “So, do I really have to pay it?” The  policeman smiled at me very kindly and said, “yes, you do.”

I told him that I didn’t have the money and he said I should borrow it from the bank. I said I would try. I did try and I was denied the loan. Remember I was living as an American on an Egyptian’s salary. My rent to was too high, the bank lady said.  About 2 weeks later, the H.R. lady called me again in the middle of my class. “Vernell! The Police just called. They want you NOW. Go and leave everything.” Again I left my students and off I went. Again they wanted to talk about how I was going to pay the fine. I had no clue. They let me go again.
The next call I got from H.R. was for a meeting in the Principals office between myself, my Mudeerah, the Principal, and the H.R. lady. The Police Dept had called the Head of the Boys School. If I couldn’t pay, the school would be charged. Every one in the room wanted to ring my neck.

After that meeting I went home a nervous wreck. It was getting close to summer break time to travel, but I had a ban on my passport.  I decided to write a letter in Arabic about how I got the fines and how I misunderstood the rules. I wasn’t sure who to give it to at first. I will just say Allah ta’alaa guided me to the right person who helped me and instead of paying 20,000 I only had to pay 2,500. That’s all to be said about that. It happens that way sometime. They call it ‘waasitah’ someone to intercede on your behalf, talk to the authorities for you. Some people might call it unfair advantage. I call it a mercy from Allah AND it beats going to jail.


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Becoming a Teacher in Qatar


When my friend in Qatar, told me that her daughter’s Arabic class had no teacher and that she was recommending me for the job I thought, “Nice idea, but it will never happen.” Why would Arabs hire me from the USA, to come teach Arabic in an Arab country? So 2 weeks later when she gave me the email address of the H.R. person and told me to send in my CV (and quick!) I did it …but I was still in denial. The head of the Elementary school, a kind lady from New Zealand met me on Skype and said, “we are looking for an Arabic teacher for our non-Arab students…you will be offered the full benefits package.” Was I in the Matrix? Did I just swallow the red pill? I kept my mouth shut, other than my family, nobody knew until like the week before my flight because I still actually couldn’t believe it. My brother was living in Qatar at that time, working with the military. Between him and the school, all my affairs were taken care of. I was on my way, just like that.

Sounds like a dream right? Ha! Little did I know I was in for the most challenging fight of my life! The next 3 years I underwent rigorous training ! My patience, perseverance even my self-esteem, was tested at every level. The years I had spent teaching at my dining room table in Philadelphia, were child’s play compared to the fire I had to walk through at al-Maha Girls Academy.
When I arrived, although I had been hired by the English department, I realized that I was actually a member of the Arabic department. I was the only non-Arab teacher of 42 mostly Egyptian, Palestinian, and Jordanian professionals. I knew I was in for it from Day 1 when I had my official interview with my Muna-ssaqah and my Mudeerah. ( I didn’t even know what the word Munassaqah meant when I was introduced! ) If only I had a dollar for all the times I felt totally out of place in that first year! I had no professional skills. I had 2 years of Arabic at the Fajr Centre in Cairo and 4 years of conversational Arabic with my neighbors in Medina. I had never been trained as a teacher in English and now I had to attend workshops and trainings in Arabic with people who were far above my level. My colleagues all had degrees from Arab countries specializing in Arabic and/or Islamic studies and some had Master’s degrees. They used terminologies I didn’t understand like ‘maeer’ and ‘tat-beeq’ and ‘taq-weem’ and ‘mih-nee’. When my Munassaqah (coordinator) presented me with 2 new students and told me to prepare an ‘Ikh-tibaar Tash-keesi” I gave her this blank look like , “huh?” It’s hilarious when I think back on it now. Yet, with all the professionalism and decorum, the department had no idea how to teach the 40 or so non-Arab students in the school. So although the first 6 months I was lost in the sauce, I hated staff meetings and I was terrified of the workshops.  I had to keep reminding myself that I am a specialist in my field I teach Arabic to non-Arabs and I am a non-Arab. I actually know things that they don’t know. I had to keep my head on straight and stop comparing myself to other people who had a different purpose.

Then there was the money issue. Everyone wanted to know how much I was getting paid.

You see in the Middle East the pay grade goes according to nationality. Anyone from the Khaleej (Arab Gulf) is always the highest paid, then US and UK passports second highest, then other European countries and South Africa, then the other Arab countries. Actually the teachers in the English department were paid a whopping 40% higher salaries than the teachers of the Arabic department. So what do you think they did with me? Well, being an American they had to pay me more than an Egyptian or non Khaleeji Arab. But I was in the Arabic dept so I couldn’t be paid as much as someone in the English dept. They paid me something in between and my American friends were like: “How in the world do you live off that???!” and my Arab collegues knew I didn’t deserve to be paid more than them since I was not at their level of knowledge. But that’s Middle East job politics.

In that 1st year, I went from amateur ‘shoot from the hip’ dining room table teacher to  ‘professional’.  I had no choice.

I learned to write lesson plans in Arabic according to the dept standards. I learned to prepare worksheets with proper objectives. Every teacher’s work had to be filed into her own binder for the Muderah to inspect at any time. My Arabic typing got faster, my professional vocabulary grew. I was on a roll…until mid-term exams. It was the first time I had to write exams for my students. The exam had to be written in a very exact way to be accepted by the Arabic dept. then submitted to the Education Council. I had to write at least 4 different exams for the different levels of my students. Of course the other teachers had a format that was given to them by the department, since they had a ‘ma-eer’ (standards). But ‘Arabic for non-Arabs’ had no set standards, yet I had to bring it up to the department standards. Otherwise it would be an ‘ih-raaj’ (embarrassment) on the dept, I was told. I kept making mistakes in the instructions or on the questions or on the title page or the page numbering. The Munassaqah sent it back to me 3 times and on the 3rd time she was sick of me, so she reported me to the Muderah. I was tired and felt hopeless. That night, I wrote to my friends back home like, “That’s it I can’t do this. I am looking for a job teaching English this is too hard. They don’t want me here. I’ll never fit in and I feel like I can’t do anything right.”

I carpooled to work with a sweet Moroccan sister who taught Islamic studies and I told her what I was going through.

She invited me to go with her group to help manage the girls during a Quran competition. That morning I sat in her halaqa listening to her remind the girls about how Allah had honored them and advising them about their manners. All along the bus ride I listened to the girls reciting Quran, and I just cried and cried. Although I was hurting, feeling awkward and overwhelmed with frustration, I knew that I was in the right place at the right time. I decided no matter how much I had to go through, I would stay on the job for as long as they would have me, which turned out to be 3 years al hamdulillah.

In part 2 I will share about, almost becoming homeless, getting called to the Principal’s office and run-ins with the police. Oh my, there is a lot to tell!

I am Ustaatha Nadiya Johnson, Teacher & Curriculum Designer, Arabic for Understanding al-Quran29249172_1722833444445582_5048873264149106951_n

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