Spotlight: Before the Arab Spring


Present Simple

It’s September, and forty-one degrees. Condensation runs

down the windows, puddles on the lino. The air-conditioning

rumbles. Ella and her new class regard each other with cautious


The students see an alien creature with sand-colored hair,

short as a man’s; calves that are shockingly bare, eerily pale.

Ella sees young Bahrain. Jeans, T-shirts, patterned

headscarves, discreet flashes of gold. Rich boys in pure-white

robes, looking like delegates at an international conference.

Village girls in black abayas, only their faces showing. Dead

center in the front row sits a faceless black shape.

The students describe their daily routines: ride sharing,

lectures, lunch in the canteen. A girl says, “In the evening,

usually I eat chocolate and fight with my small sister.” The

black shape giggles.

* * *

Past Simple

Everyone talks about what they did last weekend. When it’s

Ella’s turn, she omits cocktails at the British Club, bacon for

breakfast, languorous morning sex. They practice question

making, and someone asks, “Teacher, how did you meet your


It was at a party. We fell into bed together, too drunk to

perform till the next morning.

“We met at a party,” she says. “We fell in love and got


* * *

Future Simple

A change of lesson plan becomes necessary. Ella has handed

round photocopies of the horoscope pages from the Gulf News

(You will learn… You will meet someone… People with this

star sign are courageous…) in heavy silence. Finally, a thin

serious boy called Sami says, “Teacher, this isn’t true. Not from

Islam.” Others nod agreement. They do a multiple-choice

grammar quiz instead.

* * *

Describing a Person

Maryam, the girl in black, wants a word for “the person who

always understands my problems.” Ella writes sympathetic on

the whiteboard.

“Teacher,” Sami says, “what do we call the man who want to

change the government? When the government is wrong?”

Ella writes up the words dissident and revolutionary with a

side glance out of the window. She’s not sure if it’s good news

that Sami trusts her enough to ask. 

It’s the mid-nineties. The Arab Spring has not yet been


* * *

Holidays in My Country

Military helicopters overfly the campus, lashing the eucalyptus

trees. Ella’s students murmur fearfully. It’s whispered that

during one demonstration, a young man was shot dead. The

Gulf News does not report this, but Ella’s parents send

newspaper cuttings from England about vicious beatings,

community leaders imprisoned, pro-democracy protestors held

without trial.

In December, the class discusses Christmas customs and the

approach of Ramadan. “In this holy month, everybody is

happy.” “When we fast, we feel sympathetic about hungry

people.” “We visit our family at night and eat a delicious

traditional food.”

Ella calls her parents and tells them she loves them.

* * *

The Weather

The students say there are only two seasons, hot and cold, but

in March the weather becomes briefly glorious. The Arabian

Gulf shimmers turquoise and green. Ella and her husband walk

in the desert, carpeted with yellow flowers after a sudden

rainstorm. Embassy advice is to stay away from Shi’a villages,

but in the distance, after Friday prayers, they see towers of

black smoke, hear the deep roar of an angry crowd. Arabic

graffiti appears on walls and telephone boxes, and is swiftly


Under the headline Terror Plot Foiled, 29 Confess, the Gulf

News prints a row of faces, young men with bruised

cheekbones and frightened eyes. One looks very much like

Sami, who has been absent for weeks. An American colleague is

deported for allowing political discussion in his class. Rumors

circulate of government spies among the students.

* * *

My Plans for the Future

When the others have left, Maryam flips her silky black veil up

and back. It’s the first time Ella has seen her face. Circled by a

tightly pinned headscarf, it’s round and pretty, but pallid as

grass hidden from sunlight. 

After Maryam’s homework questions are answered, Ella

wonders why she’s still sitting silent, twisting slender black-

gloved hands in her lap. Suddenly she says, “Teacher, I am

very afraid. Soldiers came to my village at night and took away

the young men. They took my fiancé. Why, why do they do like

this? We only want the democracy.”

Ella’s heart beats too fast. The silence lengthens. Maryam

replaces her veil abruptly and rises to leave; Ella thinks she

might be crying.

Remembering another holiday is approaching, Ella calls out,

“Eid Mubarak!” but the departing black shape makes no reply. 

It’s nearly exam season.

Patience Mackarness lives and writes partly in an elderly VW camper van, and partly in a cottage in Brittany, France. She has taught English in various countries, including Bahrain during the 1990s. You can read more of her work at