Years ago (10th grade), I had a wonderful Honors World Cultures teacher, Mrs.Vera Bej (pronounced Bey.) She was from Soviet Czechoslovakia, and she blew my mind.
Raised in suburbia, secluded from any type of ethnic, religious, or racial minority, I felt on my own as a Russian Jew with mainly American friends. Adriano Celentano was my favorite singer,
Lagaan was my favorite movie, and my parents would have hour-long blab sessions with their friends about how Putin was going to be bad for Russia. And I couldn’t talk about any of it with my friends because they thought I was weird enough already. Why couldn’t I just listen to Blink-182 and talk about what was going on at the mall on Friday?
But Mrs. Bej opened my eyes to so many new and exciting things, and I always felt that she “got” me because she was from Eastern Europe, too. And she was hard as hell. Lots and lots of people failed her class because she handled the room the way a Soviet teacher would and didn’t fall back on crappy U.S. teaching methods. We had to “internalize, then synthesize” everything, write 8-page-long papers, memorize all of the countries on the continent of Africa and read lots and lots of books. Midterms and finals were a nightmare and I stayed up until 2 am studying for her exams which always included at least two essays.
I loved and excelled in World Cultures, but man, was it hard. One of the hardest parts for me was when she divided the class and we had to take viewpoints opposing our own. I was a Palestinian arguing for land rights. Since I hadn’t been exposed to much bilateral discussion of Israel at home, it was insanely tough.
We had four divisions: Russia and Eastern Europe, The Middle East, China and Japan, and the Modern World. Among the things Mrs. Bej introduced me to that I still reference today were two of my summer reading books Guests of the Sheik (which we read before the United States invaded Iraq) and The Good Earth.
For our field trip in the spring, we went to Washington, D.C. and visited the Saudi Embassy, the Islamic Center of Washington, the Smithsonian Sackler Gallery, and the Hillwood Estate (which Mr. B and I actually went to last year again.)
I was in love. I couldn’t believe there was so much going on in one city, and so many exotic things. I’d never seen or thought about Muslims in my life before until we went to the Islamic Center and all the girls had to wear headscarves. My classmate, Arthi, almost got into an argument with the mullah who answered her questions about why women had to wear headscarves.
The highlight of the trip was dinner at a Moroccan restaurant that night, Marrakesh. I had never been to one and had my eyes open wide the whole time as I ate with my hands and sat on the floor. At the end, the belly dancer came out and Mrs. Bej danced right along with her and our class clapped and she laughed. It is probably the only field trip I still remember from high school or middle school.
What caused me to remember this? This recent article about the Saudi Arabian Embassy and Saudi Arabia’s recent relationship with Washington, which, it seems has cooled down quite a bit
The Saudi Embassy is covered in snow, and U.S. Foreign Service officers on their lunch breaks in Foggy Bottom skid by and giggle. Washington is notoriously incapable of digging itself out from under, and almost a year into the Obama administration, it seems the Saudis are having the same problem.
The Saudi-American relationship has traditionally been managed from the Saudi embassy, especially during the heyday of U.S.-Saudi comity presided over by Prince Bandar, a high-spirited Dallas Cowboys fan affectionately known to members of two recent administrations as Bandar Bush. “Bandar used to have strong ties with everyone in town,” explained Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a Washington-based journalist with Kuwait’s Al-Rai newspaper. The prince, who once bought a Jaguar for the wife of his long-time tennis partner, Colin Powell, and was shown war plans for Iraq, was far and away Washington’s preeminent diplomat.
While I was reading the story, I reminisced about our trip to the Saudi Embassy-huge and glittery and expensive and was amazed at how something I was taught so long ago continues to be relevant in my life today as I’ve grown out of the awkward weird foreign kid phase and now live in that city that amazed me before. It really is true that some teachers can have a big impact on the direction your life goes, and Mrs. Bej was it for me.
Related on the blog:
The Sands of Saudi
Another person who wasn’t a big fan of high school