The Ali Story: Angst over exams

It was ironic that I had passed all the subjects I dreaded but had failed Arabic. Arabic is a tough subject to pass for many Arabs, just as English is difficult for many native English-speaking people.

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In this serialised feature, Ali Al Saloom shares his insight and experiences from growing up in the UAE.

I got the biggest shock of my life in July 1997. It was the day some important exam results came in.

Mum called me from school on my mobile phone to ask where I was. "I'm at home," I said.

She said she was coming home right away. I knew something wasn't right from the tone of her voice. I helped the maid set the table for lunch and waited for Mum.

When she got home, I could see my report card in her hands, and I noticed there was a picture of a duwaihah (a small red tomato) emblazoned on one of the subjects titles. This was a polite way of telling you that you had failed a class. When I spotted it I was having a sip of water at the time and I choked. I had failed Arabic, by just two marks of the required 150.

Mum, who had been ready to punish me big time, gave me a hug instead and patted my back murmuring words of encouragement. She commented that at least someone had had the integrity not to show favouritism towards me. My mum and dad, as I have mentioned previously, were both respected people in the UAE education field.

It was ironic that I had passed all the subjects I dreaded but had failed Arabic. Arabic is a tough subject to pass for many Arabs, just as English is difficult for many native English-speaking people. Classical Arabic is different from the everyday Arabic we speak, and I found it hard to get my head around the literature, especially the poetry. Even so, nobody who knew me, including my parents, could believe that I hadn't passed.

Mum told me to freshen up and beckoned me to come and have lunch. I sat down at the dining table but instead of eating I just bawled my heart out. I could see all my classmates heading for undergraduate studies in the US, UK or Canada and poor me having to stay back home.

I agonised over the embarrassment I had caused my family, the shame of being a blot on their reputation. What would people say about this, and how would I face them? I was more concerned about what other people would think than what I needed to do to rectify things. This is typical of Arab culture. Nothing is more important to an Arab child than making his parents proud. We are brought up to value the respect of our elders and peers and to be mindful of their disappointment when we do not measure up to their standards. And look what I had done.

About a month later my classmates were ready to leave for their adventures abroad. They all came to see me before they left. Some were supportive ("Don't worry, man, you'll get through the resit."), some stayed quiet and others laughed at how silly it was to fail Arabic. I was still in shock, but I needed to prepare for the resit. And quickly. You may have a whole year to prepare for your final examination, but you got just two months for the resit. Despite that, I just couldn't get down to studying. Instead, I played football with my buddies in a desperate attempt to hang on to my old life. In between games, I crammed. Al Hamdul'illah, my work paid off. I passed with a good grade. I was thrilled.

My next challenge was to get a scholarship. Because of my hiccup in Arabic, I had gone from straight As to a grade-point average that was not strong enough to get a government scholarship for studying abroad. Plus, my classmates had already bagged scholarships while I was studying for my resit.

My goal was to study in the United States. I have often been asked why, if we consider the US to be unfriendly to Islam, we continue to opt to take up higher education there. To me, America is Harvard and Harvard is America. Not all of us can go to Harvard, but surely the sheen from such a great institution should rub off on its smaller institutions. In the Arab world, Egypt enjoys a similar enviable reputation for academic excellence, with institutions such as Al-Azhar University. Egypt is one of the preferred destinations not only for students in the Arab world, but also for students elsewhere. We believe that a country that has a great educational institution will maintain high standards for its other seats of learning as well.

What's interesting is that some of the faculties at these top-notch American institutions are Arab as are many of the distinguished alumni. But what I personally liked about studying in the US was that it encouraged free thought about life, learning, success, failure, riches and poverty. Heck, we could even wear pyjamas to class - seriously!

However, all this was before September 11, 2001. Life took a 360° turn for Arabs after the terrorist attacks. After Barack Obama's election as president in 2008, we are hopeful that America will once again regain its status as a friendly, free-thinking nation.