September 24, 2015 3 Comments
In the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia and most of the Mideast had become fantastically wealthy after OPEC came into power and the oil boom, well, exploded. Suddenly, all the countries wanted to “modernize,” and they figured they needed a western education to do so. With oil revenues, they gave scholarships to their young men to study in the United States. To get into US universities, they had to pass an English proficiency test. A person I’d met had told me with a master’s degree in ESL you could get a job in Riyad making $60,000 a year and live in a rent free apartment.
After working 10 hours a day in a factory making $4.00 and hour with my useless degree in French literature, 60 grand sounded pretty grand to me. My alma mater, Indiana University in Bloomington, had a one-year master’s program. I applied and visited the department, where I met the head of the department, a friendly mustachioed linguistics professor named Harry Gradman. It turned out Harry had just set up a deal with the Saudi government to bring students to IU to learn English here. Harry offered me full tuition and gave me my first teaching assignment on the spot. So in the summer, 1978, I returned to Bloomington to begin working on my first master’s.
My students were amazing. Many of them were middle aged, already had college degrees and some were married. They were full of life and I immediately took a liking to them. It must have been reciprocal, for they soon started inviting me to dinners at various students’ apartments. These were great, men-only events, and followed a similar format. You’d arrived and the first thing you noticed was the smell–the air was thick with the smoke of Marlboros which was mercilessly cut by the exquisite aroma coming from the kitchen made by a pot of chicken and rice, seasoned with dried lemons, sumac and cinnamon, stewing on the stove.
I don’t remember drinking any alcohol, but a few of the students, sometimes had pot. I remember once sitting on the couch with a student in a colleague’s class–a long-haired philosophy professor, probably ten years older than me. We got in a discussion about existentialism, and then moved onto classical music. He said he loved to get stoned and listen to symphonies because “It feels like the notes are coming out of the speakers and flowing over me like water. It’s wonderful.”
Eventually, the host would announce that the food was ready. Everyone would jump to to help spread out newspapers on the floor. Then someone would bring out a roll of aluminum foil, tear off a few sheet, and then pleat them together and make a large serving platter to put on the paper. The host would come in carrying the pot of chicken and rice and pour it out onto the aluminum foil. Shoes off, we’d sit in a circle around the stew and they taught me how to eat with my right hand. The food was superb (I wish I had some right now).
The youngest of my students, Badr, was thin with clear skin, looking about 18. When I first saw him in class I was a bit surprised because he was so slight. He did not resemble the Saudis at all. His accent was so heavy and he was such a novice speaker I sometimes could not understand him.
I didn’t really know squat about english Language pedagogy (or andragogy since they were grown ups). My method of teaching english was to bring in newspaper articles and have them read them out loud and I’d ask them questions about the content.
One day, I brought in an article about philosophy. I asked if anyone had heard of existentialism. The discussion was pretty painful as the article was above their level of English. Afterwards, Badr came up and said, “You know Sart?” “Who”” I asked. “Sart, John Bol Sart.” I suddenly realized he was saying Jean-Paul Sartre. “You know who Jean-Paul Sartre is?” “Yes, I read much philosophy. I want to get my phd in philosophy.”
Badre told me that he was originally from Yemen of Somali origin. His father was a successful businessman who’d moved to Abu Dhabi in the Emirates, which were seven small Arab states that had formed a country that was even richer than Saudi Arabia.
Badr had a beautiful soul–he was as enamored of learning as I was and we became fast friends. He went on to get his phd in Political Science, moved back to Abu Dhabi, where he is a policy analyst who often writes insightful articles for a major newspaper there.
None of this, of course, has anything to do with today’s piece by Monteverdi, Laetatus Sum, which means “I was glad.” It come from Psalm 122 and according to Wikipedia, this is the text:
- I was glad when they said unto me : We will go into the house of the Lord.
- Our feet shall stand in thy gates : O Jerusalem.
- Jerusalem is built as a city : that is at unity in itself.
- For thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord : to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the Lord.
- For there is the seat of judgement : even the seat of the house of David.
- O pray for the peace of Jerusalem : they shall prosper that love thee.
- Peace be within thy walls : and plenteousness within thy palaces.
- For my brethren and companions’ sakes : I will wish thee prosperity.
- Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good.
I discovered it sometime in graduate school at IU in a boxed collection of Monteverdi’s masses called, Selva morale e spirituale.
It is one of the most knee-weakeningly beautiful pieces of music I know. It makes me extremely happy where I hear it, as it did when I first did some 38 years ago.