My Ziyara Qasira to Sa’dah [Archives:2003/650/Education]

July 14 2003

By Prof. Sarat Chandra Satapathy
Visiting Professor, College of Education, Sa'dah, Sanaa University

“Reach out and touch them; they will appreciate it.” With these words Dr. Damodar Thakur wished me good luck and I was on my way to Sa'dah. In Dr. Thakur I found a wise man who was also full of affection, a rare combination indeed.
The battered taxi ate up the road, as we passed through the nihilistic wilderness of black volcanic rock structures, unending arid expanses with occasional patches of green with a couple of Arab mud houses, standing in their helpless isolation in the vicinity, and negotiated through the labyrinth of big, bare, and bald mountains, cutting across layers of them, finally entering Sa'dah at the end of four gruelling hours.
The Yemeni driver deposited me by the roadside for Dr. Murari Prasad, Head, Department of English in the Faculty of Education to retrieve me eventually. “Welcome to Sa'dah”, he said.
“I find this land of ornamental jambiya and free flowing jambiya interesting. But am not sure if I feel quite comfortable about the culture of qat and Kalashnikov.”
Dr. Abdul Wasa'a, the Dean smiled and nodded his head in understanding.
In a couple of days I realized that Dr. Wasa'a is an able administrator, a strict disciplinarian, besides being a prominent literatteur. And he had in his Iraqi physicist Vice Dean, a magic man. Soft-spoken, and suave, intelligent and innovative, Dr. Ayham stands a few notches above the ordinary, completely dedicated to the profession and committed to the institution.
Sheikh Nasir Qubas is part of this administrative structure, I understand. He is the community leader, people's man, young, energetic, solidly built and purposeful- looking. I found him a gentle giant. The triumvirate visibly warmed up to my suggestion of founding a full-fledged university at Sa'dah. It is heartening to note that the institution is in safe hands and the future looks promising.
Dr. Murari Prasad and his two young, Karachi educated Palestinian colleagues, teacher Munir and teacher Khalid comprise the English department. Over burdened yet uncompromising, I found the heroic trio giving the students their very best, encouraging the young lot to move forward and prosper. The department is in need of more teachers on permanent basis.
They called me “doktoor Sarat” and I found my students a wonderful lot. Eager to learn, intelligent and full of questions, enthusiastic, discerning, appreciative and receptive to ideas and thoughts, unafraid of offering critical assessment of their own, on occasions, yet willing to accept corrections as well as instructions with humility and grace and thankfulness, the students were my greatest source of joy. I enjoyed being with them, though at times, I admit, the chorus of “duktoor Sarat” was rather jarring to my ears, and the never ending bouts of hand-shakes with one and all left my fingers aching.
Yet they were slow in writing, the habits of Arabic writing from right to left, considerably hampered their speed while writing English in the reverse direction. Lack of proper reading materials, both in the college and outside, absence of the need or forum to communicate severely affected their comprehensive ability and conversational skills. (They ran half a dozen tape recorders in my class, to record the lectures and play them back home on big machines so as to understand the discourses with ease). They had all posted 'notice to Duktoor Sarat' in their examination papers regretting their inability to complete the answers).
Their syllabus has been designed with greater emphasis on language study.
When asked to write the summary of the poem “The Daffodils”, quite a good many of them filled the pages with columns of words, successfully identifying the nouns, adjectives, similes and metaphors etc., and writing nothing else. It was like correctly identifying the whole spectrum of colors, without ever seeing the rainbow. There was the sense, but the sensibility part was woefully lacking. The syllabus designers should give it a thought. It is high time.
On vociferous popular demand “We want the new Indian Duktoor Sarat with us”, I entered the classes which I did not teach. To my utter amazement and delight, I found myself in the role of the unofficial cultural ambassador of India, desperately negotiating my way through a veritable minefield of questions relating to Taj Mahal, the essence of Gandhian philosophy, pluralistic society, multi-lingual, multi-cultural situations, food, bridal finery and what not. Most of the questions came from the shrouded figures, their eyes sparkling through the slits. One of them finally got me when I could not say a word to her query, “Why is it that I have only one wife and one daughter and what are the chances of the numerical improvement in the area in future?”
During the session I repeatedly failed to distinguish between one shrouded figure and another, often addressing my answers to the wrong person. A very helpful suggestion was offered to me from among the hooded group, “Read the eyes, you'll see the differences”. I did not even attempt it. I know that is one text I would need a different pair of glasses to read. But I marvelled at the ingenuity of the suggestion. Even the teacher has to sometimes learn from his students, I did. I have been rather fortunate,
The Yemeni is normally a good friend, a helpful community man, non-interfering, well-meaning and very tolerant. He values his leisure, joins his ceremony of qat- sessions with gusto, proudly wears his jambiya and considers the Kalashnikov as an integral part of his body, a kind of an extended limb.
“Qat is efficiency booster, capacity enhancer, idea- multiplier stuff,” one of my students tried to educate me on the values of qat-chewing. Pat came the rejoinder from a shrouded figure: “It kills time, saps vitality, blocks the mind, gives a false sense of euphoria, breeds slothfulness, ruins you economically and definitely damages your health. You look awful with the ever growing bulge in your mouth.” I thought it prudent to play a dumb guy.
Sa'dah is a bit rural in its feel, a little rustic in its environment, but all things considered, quiet and peaceful. It is steadily growing. New establishments, good roads, large houses are all coming up very fast. One can still feel the old world charm here. It is a contented little world. People know each other and regularly join street-side conversations which is part of life and living.
I used to go on long walks in the evenings with two Syrian academics Dr. Yaser and Dr. Samir. They knew no English and for me Arabic was an alien tongue. Yet we conversed on various subjects making use of mime, gesticulation, signs, sounds and available objects and what not. It was interesting. Human beings reaching out to one another without the help of available communicative methods and modes. It was achieving understanding at its pristine best. Back in the residential block of apartments, it was the melee of Syrians, Indians, Sudaneese, Iraqis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians, a big and a beautiful world, happy and peaceful.
His Excellency the Governor of Sada'a came visiting the college. He was a big man, cheerful and very polite who could make himself comfortable with students, faculty members, office staff, one and all, without standing much on ceremony or protocol. We shook hands, talked a bit. Dr. Ayham acted the interpreter – I found myself doing the rounds as part of his entourage and finally standing by his side for the photo session. (Indians and Yemenis have been good friends, always).
It was to go home, at the end of my Ziyara Qasira (short visit) to Sa'dah. I returned with happy memories. Until another day I convey a big 'shookran' to Sa'dah and the nice people there.