When considering teaching English in the Middle East, one of the most important things you can do to prepare, is to familiarise yourself with the local culture. Not only will this make the transition somewhat easier, it should also prevent you committing (m)any (!) cultural faux pas’ and possibly offending your new employers or students!
The Middle East is a really popular destination for EFL teachers (not least for the stellar salaries) but often teachers worry that the culture is so different, they might commit a crime (yes, an actual crime) without even realising it.
Here are a few things that you should consider before embarking on a TEFL career in the Middle East!
BLOGS, BLOGS, BLOGS
Check out some expat blogs for invaluable advice on moving to the Middle East. There are thousands of foreigners living and working in the Middle East already – in fact only 16% of the population of UAE are native Emiratis, so there’s no need to go it alone. These blogs have advice on everything from adjusting to the culture to setting up a bank account. Finding out how to go about these things now will make the transition easier when you arrive in your new home.
WHAT TO PACK
As most teaching contracts in the Middle East last upwards of a year, you’ll need to consider what you should pack from home and what you can get access to once you’re there.
If you’re going to a big city, you’ll find pretty much the same things as you will in shops at home, but here are some items you might want to pack:
– A few wardrobe staples which cover your shoulders, knees and elbows
– If you are a size XL plus, you may struggle to find clothes to fit, so bring enough from home
– Prescription medicines. Whilst most have these can be bought over the counter, they are often quite expensive and the brand names may be different, making it hard to know if you are getting the right thing. If you are taking prescription medication, make sure to get advice from both your Doctor and the embassy to ensure that everything you are taking in is legal and above board!
WHAT NOT TO PACK
– Skimpy clothes (if you are going to be living in a compound, you can wear shorts and vest tops within it, but in public, you’ll need to cover up)
– Religious (non-Muslim) paraphernalia. However, a small bible for example, is permitted for personal use
If you’re teaching in the Middle East and you come from a western country, you’ll need to prepare yourself for the strict way in which you need behave in public. The main religion in the region is Islam; therefore you should be respectful of all Islamic laws and traditions both inside and outside of the TEFL classroom. These include:
1. Abstaining from public displays of affection with members of the opposite sex when in public
2. Being mindful of laws pertaining to the consumption of alcohol
3. Being particularly respectful during the month of Ramadan (holy month), when it is forbidden to eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight hours
4. Dressing appropriately and modestly
The region is vast however, and some countries are stricter than others when it comes to enforcing Islamic law**:
Emiratis are a relatively tolerant bunch but you should always dress modestly. Any form of nudity is strictly forbidden but swimwear is allowed on the beach and in swimming pools. Provided you have an alcohol licence, drinking is allowed in private homes, hotels and licensed bars. The exception is Sharjah where alcohol is prohibited. If you are planning on travelling to the UAE with a partner, remember that sexual relationships and co-habiting before marriage are illegal and public displays of affection – even for married couples – are considered offences against public decency.
If Kuwait is your teaching destination of choice, you’ll need to abstain from alcohol completely as it’s strictly prohibited. Again, extra-marital relations are illegal and P.D.A’s deemed offensive.
Saudi Arabia is the strictest country in the Middle East when it comes to enforcing its laws. Women are expected to wear an ‘abaya’ when in public, as well as a head scarf; and men should wear long tops and trousers. Alcohol is strictly prohibited and common-law relationships, homosexual relations and adultery are illegal and are subject to severe punishment, including the death penalty. It’s also illegal for women to drive!
Whilst Turkey remains a predominately Muslim country, its thriving tourist industry means that they have become fairly tolerant to western dress and behaviour. That said, you should still dress modestly if you’re visiting a mosque or a religious shrine and outside of the main tourist areas. Alcohol is allowed and public displays of affection are acceptable in big cities and tourist areas, but frowned upon in more rural areas.
If you are a non-Muslim in Qatar, alcohol consumption is allowed in licensed restaurants, bars, clubs and at home. P.D.A’s could get you arrested, but are mostly just considered highly inappropriate.
Egypt welcomes thousands of western visitors every year and is a popular winter sun destination. If you choose to teach there however, you will be expected to behave more like a local than a tourist. Alcohol is allowed in Egypt, but during Ramadan, can only be sold to non-Muslims. You should also refrain from P.D.A.’s.
Bahraini’s are some of the most liberal people in the Middle East, and in fact, many teachers based in Saudi Arabia go there at weekends to enjoy a night out or go to the cinema. Light PDA’s are also perfectly acceptable!
**Laws in place at the time of writing. Do make sure to check any legality thoroughly with your embassy and your employer before you go.
Temperatures in summer can reach a scorching 50C so if you’re thinking of teaching English here we hope you like the heat! Sunhats and sunblock are essential. Bear in mind that if your country of choice is Saudi Arabia, women are required to wear an ‘abaya’ in public; which, in 50C heat can be unbearable for some. The hottest months are July and August and a lot of teachers plan their holidays at this time to escape the worst of the heat.
Foreigners are treated politely in the Middle East, although integration with locals can be difficult. This is usually because family is of upmost importance for them and they often deem mixing with outsiders ‘unnecessary’. In places like the UAE, where only 15% of the population are indigenous, the difficulty lies in actually finding one!
In the TEFL classroom you can expect your students to be part of The Middle Eastern elite – after all, in Bahrain your teaching salary will be twice the national average wage!
The Middle East is steeped in history and if you teach English here, you’ll be amongst some of the oldest civilisations on earth. It is also the birthplace of many religions including Christianity, Islam and Judaism. From the ancient pyramids of Egypt to the ruins of Troy in Turkey, the region lays claim to some of the most fascinating archaeological sites in the world.
So, in a nutshell, teaching English in the Middle East is going to be a lot different from the life you experienced at home, but if you are prepared to immerse yourself in the regions differences, it could be one of the most rewarding and interesting experiences of your life!