Mess o’ Potamia

The Gulf crisis dominates the news. I can’t help but feel lucky i got out six weeks ahead of the invasion but my thoughts have a much gloomier side when i think of the friends i left behind and who are now in deep trouble. The Maniac of Mesopotamia may push things over the edge with horrific consequences and lots of innocent people may pay the full price if they’re not fortunate enough to escape.
Flagg (from New Zealand en route to India) came to visit for two weeks and we had a moderately good time but he didn’t really enjoy himself. It wasn’t the geography, the relationship with himself is poor. By his own frank declaration his ‘self-esteem is shot’ and he’s perpetually depressed. He wasn’t able to adapt to the humidity, the food or the people. I took him to interesting places but nothing seemed to cheer or amuse him; i did my best but it wasn’t good enough. The school offered him the post of head librarian but he turned it down. I tried to persuade him work would be good for him, would get him out of himself but he ignored me. He was at least gracious enough to attend the interview i arranged for him.
Patrick has paid a high price for his chronic procrastination. He didn’t accompany me, as promised, in June but assured me he’d be here by July 31st and throughout July he kept in touch by phone three or four times a week. I last spoke to him on July 31st, the very day he was due to arrive, and he said he was postponing his flight by a week and would arrive on August 7th and we all know what happened since then. Not a word from him now or from anyone in Kuwait. I’ve tried to get through by phone but all lines from Thailand (and from the rest of the world, i suspect) are cut off and there’s no point writing. Flagg also spoke to Patrick the night of July 31st and both of us urged him to leave Kuwait immediately as we knew once Saddam had massed his men on the border there was no way he wasn’t going to invade. You can’t put 100,000 war-weary, hungry men on a vulnerable, rich neighbour’s border and then withdraw them, the prospect of spoils denied would’ve left him with an uprising on his hands so he had to make the Jiddah negotiations with the Kuwaitis so unreasonable they had to refuse and their refusal gave him the excuse to order his men into the land of milk and honey.
Expats had plenty of time to get out and anyone, and it turned out to be the vast majority, who didn’t read the ominous signs was foolish. Thinking Saddam wasn’t going to plunder never entered my mind, i was convinced he would, and i’d been preaching for six months it was only a matter of time before he invaded but i was thought of as an alarmist. The visit i made to Iraq in February confirmed my worst suspicions that the Restorer of Babylon was bent on gaining control of everything south of him once Iran was no longer a threat.
Did Bush make a mistake in sending troops to the area? Should he have stood back and let Saddam take Saudi Arabia as well? One or two of the more interesting Americans on the staff are of the opinion Saddam wouldn’t have been able to hold the West to ransom as Bush and the allies claimed. He may be a manic bully but he’s not a dummy and once the smoke had cleared and the Sabahs and the Sauds of the region had been ousted forever Saddam would’ve sold the oil to the free world. He needs the money, the very reason for the invasion of Kuwait was money. Bad and all as he is, quite a few people here would prefer to see him rather than lazy, self-indulgent kings and sheikhs in charge of the region. But now that the infidel has landed on the sacred soil of Arabia the entire Arab world and the Iranians feel they have a legitimate excuse for a holy war. It’s not likely to come to that but there is the possibility that eventually they will unite against the perceived common enemies of Europe, America and Israel. Bush’s insistence that sanctions be applied – a legitimate insistence according to Western logic – could well lead to confrontation with Iraqi oil tankers and other shipping in the region, and the Americans will be accused of aggression and warlike acts, giving the Iraqis and Iranis the right to retaliate. We may have had an eight-year Gulf War from 1980 to 1988 but the real Gulf War may be about to begin. I hope i’m wrong about this and i hope the more moderate and cagey leaders of the region, Hosni Mubarak and King Hussain, will be instrumental in defusing the tension. The Baghdad Bully feels cornered and cornered men are unpredictable.

Once Flagg and i learned that Patrick had postponed his arrival (yet again) we set off for the north of Thailand. I took him to Chiang Mai which the poor man didn’t enjoy either. We rode the overnight train the very night Kuwait was invaded and learned of the invasion when we picked up the Bangkok Post next morning in C. Mai. We sat down right there on a street corner and with a copy each – one couldn’t wait for the other to finish – read every word. Flagg’s first words to me were, ‘Jesus, how lucky you were!’
Coverage in the Thai papers has been comprehensive and i’m constantly tuned to the BBC so there isn’t much i miss except news from friends in the middle of the mess. Are they going to end up in concentration camps or barracks?

As soon as we got back to Bkk, Flagg left for Delhi to visit an ashram and ‘find myself’ and i set off for Pattaya to attend a workshop run by three teachers from California. It was five days of jargon and i made several enemies by standing up and taking issue with woolly thinking and gobbledegook. I exposed weaknesses and wasn’t appreciated but at the end of the workshop the three women giving the course came to me and offered me a job in their high school next year. I was astounded but they explained i’d impressed them with my candour and ideas. I was flattered i admit and i’m going to give their offer serious consideration. The remuneration alone would be worth it and salary for one year would be tax-free; they’d provide accommodation and give me a sweetener of $20,000 into the bargain. Clearly, their school district has bundles of money to throw around.

If the Gulf crisis hadn’t arisen i’d planned to write ‘The Rise of the Baht and the Fall of the Buddha.’ Apart from the traffic and the pollution (which i can cope with in most ways) what disturbs me is the yuppyism and the greed. The Buddha is very little in evidence in this city, the manic focus on money, and it is manic, has dislodged virtually all spirituality. I have no problem with the loss of spirituality; what i find offputting is the pretence that old values still mean something. If one wants to find true Buddhism in everyday life, one has to move west to Burma, but Burma won’t be open until the fall of the current military regime and that means it won’t be safe to move there for another twenty years.

My Filipino and Burmese colleagues at school are delightful but i can’t say the same for most of the Americans. They’re too heavy and loud for my liking and they complain all the time about everything and they dislike me because i’m more real and down to earth than they are. For years they’ve been impressing the others with their jargon but i take them up on every point and challenge them at every turn and they feel threatened. With my encouragement, the Filipinos and the Burmese are now beginning to question things and this is setting several cats among the pigeons. I’ve decided at this stage to stay for one scholastic year only as i can’t take all the shit. To give them credit, a few Americans on the staff are on my side and have openly declared their support for me. The Thai priests who run the school are happy i’m rocking the American boat and are backing me. It’s going to be a difficult year but the bottom line is the students at the school are a pleasure to work with and as far as i’m concerned that’s the real plus.

On the staff are a few people i’ve become friends with as opposed to the rest who are and will remain colleagues. There’s a Burmese couple, Jeff and his fiance, Claire, whom i’ve taken a real shine to. Jeff is Catholic but not in any way silly about it and he never preaches, he handles it better than any Irish person ever could. Claire is Buddhist and a woman of exquisite grace and charm and natural good manners. I’m totally relaxed in their company and they in mine. It’s their first year, too, at the school and they, like me, aren’t impressed with what goes on. Through Jeff and Claire i was offered a job in Taiwan as they spent several years there teaching with the Dominicans. Jeff teaches PE and Claire is a psychologist. Jeff has a fascinating lineage: his grandparents were Irish – don’t we get around! – and they lived for years in Burma; their daughter married a man from Taiwan so Jeff is half-Chinese, half-Irish and it makes for a handsome combination. Claire is pure Burmese so when she and Jeff marry and have children they’ll be quite a mixture. I’m going to Taipei for four days in October to help supervise at an inter-school soccer tournament and Jeff who’s in charge of the event is going to introduce me to the people he knows there.
In addition to Jeff and Claire, there are two Americans worth knowing, Mark and Jack. Both of them like to try the local food and both are making the effort to learn a bit of Thai. Mark is of Irish parents, the Irish Mafia is in depth at the school, and he grew up in Alaska. He and his sister are body builders and he has shown me pictures of her and she’s better built than he is! He’s a character full of life and good fun and i like his company. Jack’s from Baltimore and looks like Woody Allen and has his off-the-wall humour. Then there’s Susie, a Filipina with a great laugh, and two Filipino music teachers, Joe and Sebert, easy, charming and talented.

What a mixture of students at the school! They come from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Burma, India, Bangladesh, Sweden, Hungary, Ireland, USA, England, Brazil, Chile and thirty other countries. The interesting thing is they mix well without prejudice and there’s good camaraderie and give and take, a healthy atmosphere.

My Thai is getting better and i can hold my own in simple conversations. There are hundreds of things i have difficulty handling but i can communicate reasonably well.

18 thoughts on “Mess o’ Potamia

  1. Hi John, An interesting read.   Do you miss your teaching days ?



  2. Enjoyed reading this, John. Hope your procrastinating friend found his way out. I know what you mean about jargon in education. It’s rampant here in the Ga. and the U.S. It’s a tool that gives the impression of power and knowledge.

  3. wonderful story, my dear friend and colleague…and I truly wish I could learn another language as well because the ones I did learn run unused

  4. Thank You, Gentlemen, for reading and commenting, i appreciate the support
    and it encourages me to write more. I have quite a few ‘out and about’ pieces i’ll post in time.
    Once more, thank you.

  5. Winnie and myself were in the relative safety of Bahrain when all that happened but
    decided our days in the ME were over and we packed our bags and left shortly after. This writing brings back many memories.

  6. You have taken events memorable in your life that also coincide with a major global event and interwoven them into an interesting story that this reader thoroughly enjoyed. The love of sharing and advancing abilities of others is not learned but an internal passion with capable educators. Your work was certainly rewarding as your writings reflect. Thank you for sharing your recollections of the time and place.

    • Thank you, Hollie, for your time and for making the effort and i’m happy the text kept you engaged. You are a staunch support and i appreciate you deeply.


  7. I scanned this as I am in a hurry (but will come back and give it proper study). It instantly connected with me because at the time you originally wrote this (I’m assuming it’s from a diary?) I was working as a volunteer on a Kibbutz. It was interesting and alarming to hear about the invasion from the the Israelis and Israeli Arabs who I worked alongside at the time.
    The bomb shelter volunteer disco was stripped of it’s deck and 3 flashing lights and stocked up with overnight supplies. Instruction was given on the best use of gas masks. Like you, I was tuned to the BBC world service (instead of my usual favourite Radio Peace. A pirate ship station transmitting “from somewhere in the Mediterranean”)
    While many left the area, after telling my worried parents I was leaving the middle east, I and a few others travelled to Cairo and were able to luxuriate in Egyptian hospitality and antiquities almost to ourselves. I really must find my diaries. I look forward to reading this again tonight. Thanks.

  8. It was “voice of peace” the middle east pirate radio ship. I enjoyed reading this. I hope your friend got out ok. How things have changed, and yet also have not. What a mess it’s become. I’m happy I did a lot of travelling 20 or so years ago before the world became more paranoid about terrorism. I’m interested, was your work TEFLA? It’s something I have considered. Travel’s a wonderful thing, even when it’s done from the safety of an armchair!

    • Silvertonguedpoetess,
      It’s always interesting to hear how others coped with the same experiences at the same time, how our lives are parallel.
      I did teach English as a Foreign Language for a while but mainly I taught English Lit, Social Studies
      and Maths.
      Thank You so much for all the interest and support, I appreciate it deeply.
      Big hugs

    • Thank You, Margaret.
      At one time my Thai was very good but over the years without contact and practice it has slipped Thai friends here in Singapore to converse with.
      Best to You


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