"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Teach English Doha Qatar.

In the summer of 2001 I boarded a near-empty Qatar Airways flight to Doha. Reuniting with my family who’d recently moved there for my father’s new job, it was my first time living abroad.

‘This is your classroom’’ said Jamla, switching on the light. It flickered dubiously for a few seconds before finally illuminating the room. But all it actually revealed was just the latest in a long string of anticlimaxes. Like everything else during my tour of The Language Institute, my classroom was less than inspiring. Dingy, run down and with a dank smell I couldn’t quite identify, I tried to picture it as a place of learning. I tried to imagine it as a classroom my students could one day be excited about coming to. But really, it was a tough sell. 

Faded posters advertising French coastal towns adorned the peeling walls. Meanwhile, the three rows of elephantine wooden desks and chairs looked like they’d been transposed from a Dickensian orphanage. My own table, set in front of Planet Earth’s oldest blackboard, resembled a dusty old grand piano. I set my books down on it and the whole thing slid to one side with a dull thud.

‘‘Someone will fix’’ said Jamla sternly from behind her veil. “I will be in my office Mr. Lie-ton. Enjoy your first day at L.T.I.’’. Turning on her heels, she swished out of the room, her black abaya trailing behind her. This was certainly going to be an adventure, no doubt about it. 

Teach English Doha Qatar.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Standing alone in my new surroundings, the fear truly began to kick in. In just under an hour I’d be giving my first class as an English teacher, only a few weeks after getting my TEFL certificate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, landing a job at this poor excuse of a school had been a piece of cake. Since signing on the dotted line I’d received no training. Nor indeed anything resembling a brief. Furthermore, nobody had given me even a scrap of advice on what kind of cultural sensitivities I might face while teaching in an Islamic environment.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

As far as the curriculum went, I was to work from an outdated course book called Headway. Any supporting materials, Jamla informed me, could be obtained from L.T.I’s joke of a library. This was little more than a depressing chamber that for some unknown reason was always kept locked.

Short story Qatar

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

In order to get into the library you had to ask an old man called Mr. Ibrahim to open it. Thankfully he was always stationed right outside the door where he sat seemingly rotting in a padded chair. Other than locking and unlocking that door, Mr. Ibrahim had no further responsibilities and in the six months I worked there I never once saw him do anything in that chair other than sit. I often wondered if it ever occurred to him to read a book, do a crossword, learn a new skill, maybe even smile once in a while. If such thoughts ever manifested themselves, Mr. Ibrahim certainly never acted on them.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Come to think of it, doing stuff in that chair was no doubt forbidden by Jamla, L.T.I’s strict headmistress. She was a thoroughly cheerless woman who seemed to have modelled herself on Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was all about the rules with Jamla, so I quickly learned to steer clear of her and have as little contact as I could get away with.

Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Nurse Ratched : Not the cuddly type.

Once inside the library, it became rapidly clear there wasn’t actually anything worth guarding. There may have been hundreds of books, but most of them were in tatters, had pages missing or were just downright irrelevant. For every fifty titles such as The Art of Sewing or Historical Stamps of Oman, you might stumble across a book of grammar exercises or a vocab pack about transport. It was very slim pickings!

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

My first class at L.T.I. was an all male group of Qatari men. All of them were thirty somethings who held clerical jobs at QAPCO, Doha’s major petrochemical company. Ridiculously wealthy through old money, most of them worked part time just to have something to do. The English lessons were part of the deal in that regularly attending classes was a prerequisite for receiving their monthly salaries. Not that I was aware of any of this on that first day.

Short stories from Qatar Leighton Travels.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

The first of my charges to arrive was Huzam, a fearsome looking man with the build of a heavyweight boxer. He neither greeted nor looked at me as he sauntered in fifteen minutes late. Slumping into one of the chairs, as far away from me as possible, he whipped out his mobile phone and began texting someone. All the while I just sat watching him like an idiot. Soaking up as much negative silence as I could bear, I finally caved in and introduced myself before attempting some small talk. But Huzam was not in a communicative mood and all I got back were one word answers.

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Thankfully the next to arrive was Saleh, a fresh faced man with a friendly smile. ‘‘Teacher, nice to meet you’’ he said, shaking my hand. Dawdling over to Huzam, Saleh sat down while I attempted to get the class started with an introductory exercise. No start until everyone here!’’ barked Huzam, his tone suggesting the matter was not up for discussion.

No start until everyone here!’’ barked Huzam. 

I was about to point out that we were already twenty minutes into a two hour session when my third pupil entered, a bespectacled, scholarly looking gentleman called Issa. “Sorry for late’’ he said quietly, selecting a desk away from the other two. ‘‘Traffic very bad’’. Adjusting his headdress, Issa pulled a string of wooden beads from his robe, closed his eyes and sat massaging them silently through his long fingers.

Writing my name on the blackboard, I reintroduced myself before explaining the rules of a warm-up game designed to break the ice and produce some getting to know you language. ‘‘Teacher, why are you so young?’’ asked Huzam with a suspicious glare. ‘‘Teacher should be older’’.

“Teacher, why are you so young?’’ asked Huzam with a suspicious glare. 

Ignoring the sinking feeling that had lodged itself deep into the pit of my stomach, I pushed on, asking Saleh to kick things off with a few sentences on why he wanted to learn English. ‘‘I am Saleh, I am 33 years. I am working in QAPCO’’. Shooting Huzam a cheeky glance, Saleh grinned a silly grin before turning back to me. ‘‘Teacher… I don’t want learn English, I must learn English or lose money’’.

‘‘Teacher… I don’t want learn English, I must learn English or lose money’’.

With no idea how to respond, I just sat for a bit in the ensuing silence weighing up my next move. ‘‘Issa….’’ I prodded, standing up from my desk, ‘‘is it the same for you? Do you want to learn English? Or not really?’’. ‘‘I don’t care’’ he said, matter-of-factly. Subsequently, he let out a long sigh, opened his eyes and set the beads down on the table. ‘‘English is ok. My English is ok, don’t really need better’’. He raised a hand, motioning slowly around the classroom. ‘‘But I like it here… more quiet than office’’.

Teach English Doha Qatar.

From left to right: Saleh, Issa and Huzam. Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

We struggled on like this for another ten minutes or so when suddenly the air was filled with the booming high-pitched shrieks of Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. As a result, Huzam, Saleh and Issa sprang out of their chairs and, in the blink of an eye, I had been abandoned. They could have literally left puffs of cartoon smoke in their wake.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Opening a window, I stood listening as the call continued to boom out across L.T.I’s inner courtyard. The sound was coming from a number of rusty loudspeakers. Everywhere students streamed out of classrooms, hurrying towards the school’s small mosque. It was over half an hour before my guys returned and when they did they were even less interested in the lesson than before.

‘‘Book boring. Let’s stop’’.

‘‘Teacher, do you religion?’’

‘‘Why womens in America dress like whore?’’

‘‘Teacher, I must leaving early. Meeting with doctor…’’.

Finally, after what seemed like an age, the class dragged to an end and I felt a sweeping wave of relief wash over me as they filed out. However, with only a ten minute break before my next class, there wasn’t much time to reflect. The second group was a whole different kettle of fish! These guys were an elementary class that could barely string a sentence together between the five of them.

And so the two hours crept painstakingly by in droplets of one word answers, vacant expressions and a comically loud fart that echoed around the room as if it were stuck in a pinball machine. I eventually got to know them really well. Moreover, by the end of the year they had even improved. But my god was that first class tough!

Teach English in Doha Qatar.

With my L.T.I. elementary class, 2001.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

‘‘How was your first day?’’ came a friendly voice from across the room. Recovering in L.T.I’s shabby teacher’s room, I’d collapsed into an old armchair like some kind of trauma victim. The voice belonged to a pretty, dark haired English girl called Emma. We hadn’t been formerly introduced, though I knew she was my colleague. Apparently I looked so fried that an answer to her question wasn’t deemed necessary. ‘‘Ha … I know the feeling’’ she said. ‘‘I remember my first day here. Don’t worry, it WILL get better’’.

My first day as an English teacher had certainly been a baptism of fire. Little did I know it then but Emma was right, things would improve. And as we sat there chatting, I was also unaware that I’d just met someone who would turn out to be one of the great friends of my life.

‘Baptism Of Fire’ is the fourth chapter of my short story series The Qatar Collection.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001, so why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • Anonymous

    Smashing read.

    November 23, 2014 - 12:12 pm Reply
  • Mary Phillips

    OMG! Headway! I saw that before I read most of your story. God, Leighton, why did you go back the next day? I’m not sure I could have. It must have been meant to be that Emma was there. Can’t wait for another story.

    November 23, 2014 - 1:10 pm Reply
    • leightonliterature

      Headway yeah! Well, that first day was tough but somehow I forced myself back and it got easier. As the next short story attests…

      November 23, 2014 - 2:13 pm Reply
  • Pierre

    Genuinely funny story, but I bet it didn’t feel funny then! Great the way you portray characters very vividly: a talent.

    November 26, 2014 - 5:46 pm Reply
  • simon

    Good to see there are places in the world with more apathetic students than the UK. But it could have been worse in my first week as a teacher in the UK I had a chair thrown at me!

    January 6, 2015 - 4:39 am Reply
  • leightonliterature

    Yes, as depressing as that first lesson was I feel blessed that I didn’t have to physically defend myself.

    January 6, 2015 - 4:43 am Reply
  • Beverley

    Loved this. Very funny. I wonder if Mr Ibrahim is still sitting there?

    November 29, 2019 - 6:16 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I imagine poor old Mr. Ibrahim must be dead by now, but you never know. He was certainly a hardy soul.

      November 29, 2019 - 6:18 pm Reply

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