Nasser came into my pre-intermediate classroom about three years ago and asked me to teach him English. This is more unusual than you might expect. Student attitude varies enormously, I’ve seen everything from tearful resignation to cheerful enthusiasm, but Nasser looked me right in the eye, got his notebook out and basically said “okay, give me what you’ve got”. It’s no surprise that he now speaks beautiful English and has much better grammar than most native speakers.
It’s not just that Nasser was a great student that made me ask him to represent his colleagues in my celebrations. Yes he did his homework and learnt quickly, but he was a thoroughly nice man to have in the classroom. Unfailingly polite to the other students, always willing to take a newbie under his wing and with a thirst for knowledge I’ve never seen equalled. He wanted to know everything about life in the UK, from 1960s TV adverts to how I felt about Henry VIII. He was fun, friendly and a huge asset in the classroom.
Awa was a great choice. I wouldn’t have gone there on my own but was keen to try it as I have eaten Arabic food before and liked it. Everything there was just slightly different from what I’m used to. The waitress looked European and spoke with what I initially thought was a Polish or Lithuanian accent but turned out to be Yemeni. I asked for tea and was brought a pot, some sugar and a small glass. The tea was delicious, but not the mug of builder’s with milk you get everywhere else.
Nasser was great company. He was making his final arrangements to go home and was really excited about seeing his son, a bewitchingly beautiful seven year old. He told me it was 37 degrees in his home town that day ( it was more like 10 in Swansea and blowing a gale). Just as well winter is coming on, he has spent most of the last four years here, so the heat and humidity of the Saudi summer would surely be hard to go back to, even if you have spent most of your life there.
The end of the meal came and I tried to suggest we share the bill but Nasser flatly refused. He told me that everyone from Saudi Arabia is rich (a standing joke in our school, but sadly not true). I was reminded that in spite of his sense of humour, eagerness to explore new ideas and cultures, my friend is a proud man. He recalled an incident which had happened when he first came to the UK. He and his then very young son had missed their train from London to Swansea and were waiting, quite late in the evening, for the next train. It was very cold on the concourse of Paddington station so they had gone down into the underground station to keep warm. Nasser’s little boy curled up and went to sleep on his father’s lap while they waited, Nasser closed his eyes and relaxed. He was very surprised some time later when a pound coin landed in his lap. A man running to catch a train must have seen them and and assumed they were homeless. Nasser tried to call after him but the man had got his train and left. He thought this was really funny but was also quite impressed with it too. He got Helen (lunch number 2 on this blog) to turn the pound coin into a necklace, which he then gave to his son, “to remind him how lucky we are”. I think the boy is indeed very lucky – to have such a generous, warm hearted dad.
9 October 2014
Awa Grill House, College Street, Swansea
I was pleased when Nasser suggested Awa, as I had never been there but knew it was very popular with my students and always seems to be full when I pass.
I asked Nasser to choose our food, I could have puzzled my way through the bilingual (English/Arabic) menu but we were eating lunch at 3:30pm and were too hungry for intellectual puzzles. We started with a meat and couscous rissole type affair which was delicious but which surprised me because it tasted like pork. Stupidly, I said this and got a shocked, pained look by way of response. No pork and no alcohol is served or allowed in this restaurant. Our other starter looked like a Chinese springroll but was filled with some kind of soft cheese. Both starters and the salads they came with were delicately spiced with saffron, cardamon and a taste I couldn’t identify and which Nasser said is called ‘baharaat’. The starters were delicious and very different from the stuff I normally eat.
Our main course made our ‘half and half’ look downright stingy – we had rice, couscous, chips and flatbreads, all on one plate and all covered with a mixture of grilled chicken, lamb and kofta kebabs.There was another salad to go with it and a garlic sauce to dip the meat in. We were given cutlery but Nasser ate with his fingers and suggested I do the same. I did, but very messily, I kep thinking of a toddler with a plate of baked beans, whereas Nasser managed to eat without any mishap at all. Arabic people are generally polite and sure enough, no one batted an eyelid when I spent a few minutes after my meal picking bits of rice off my clothes.