When I say graduation, most of my readers probably get a mental image similar to this:
(I had to use Google image search because apparently I haven't taken a single picture at any of the recent graduations of siblings I've attended in the past few years. Oops! Sorry guys!!)
But graduation in Saudi Arabia is a whole 'nother animal! The actual graduation shindig is tonight, but I was asked to bring my class to the graduation rehearsal on Tuesday so the kids could see all the hoop-la. At first I was really annoyed that I was losing class time again, but as I reflect on it, I'm really glad I was able to see all this.
I walked in to the gym with my class, and the room had been completely transformed. The walls were covered in black velour (or velvet) upholstered boards--I assume for sound control as much as for decoration. The stage has been extended out to cover about a third of the gym floor. There's an elaborate backdrop with an acrylic diamond at the center with radiating metallic fabric extending out, framed by styrofoam cave-like rocks. The theme for graduation this year is "Diamonds," so the backdrop is supposed to mimic a diamond mine.
Yes, I said theme.
You see, my friends, graduation in Saudi Arabia is not your typical pomp-and-circumstance procession, speech riddled, cap throwing ceremony. It's a social event. There's a central theme, Bollywood-meets-Arabia style dance numbers, dramatic readings, poetry and all kinds of other things!
I'm getting ahead of myself.
So I walk into the gym to find it completely transformed and I see the graduating class on the stage in the middle of practicing their entrance dance. This is the part of the story where I wish I could have taken pictures because I'm not sure how to describe this dance. It's kind of like a waltz because it's got three beats, but the girls alternate from one foot to the other in a little mini-hop as they rotate and move their arms. All while standing on the balls of their feet. Their heels don't touch the ground.
Except for the girls in stilettos. They were already on their toes, so they just went from one foot to the other.
It sounds like such a blah, simple dance, but with the whole stage filled with girls dancing, it really is quite beautiful. So uniquely Saudi.
So they decide to start the whole rehearsal from the top and they start the procession. The graduates all lined up and Arabic music blared out of the speakers. Then the girls--some of them in their graduation regalia, some not--slowly started walking two-by-two towards the stage. Emphasis on slowly. One foot every 8 beats. When they reached the stage, the pairs ascended the steps and stood in two spotlights as over their shoulders was projected a picture from their childhood and their names.
There are only about 50 students in the graduating class, so the procession didn't take too terribly long. After the procession, the MCs welcomed everyone (I assume. It was all in Arabic), there as a reading from the Quran, and the entertainment began. As I mentioned, the theme for this year is "Diamonds," so the Seniors have taken the Guy de Maupassant story "The Necklace" and adapted it a bit. Like the story, we see two girls on stage, one asking to borrow a beautiful necklace for the ball. She is presented with a lovely, elaborate and sparkly necklace and it's off to the ball. The ball, predictably, is the first dance number. Eleventh-graders in pastel gowns that remind everyone of Disney's Princesses present an Arabic-slash-Victorian dance and we see the main character of the story enter, dance, lose the necklace, and exit.
The story goes on to show the careless borrower explaining that she lost the necklace, but she will make it all right. There are more dance numbers--one involving a hip-hop mash up of the song of the dwarves from Snow White singing in the mines and a song that I'm pretty sure the girls chose because it sounds like they say "lose your mine" when it's actually "lose your mind." There are a few other dance numbers involving students from the lower grades. This really is a group effort!
Generally the idea is that the girl who lost the necklace goes to the "mine" (aka the school where I work) for 12 years and works so hard and she finds more "diamonds" (aka the graduating class) that are more beautiful than the diamonds she was lent years ago. She now has released them from their confines to go make the world beautiful.
A nice way to stay away from the actual ending of the de Maupassant story where we find out that the borrowed diamonds were actually fake...
Anyway, after all this is revealed, we are regaled by the stories and poetry and dreams of the graduating class, the diamonds. The graduates get up on stage and make presentations in Arabic and English and I think there's one more dance number (I had to leave rehearsal early) and THEN it's time to call the names and present the diplomas.
Let me tell you, it is quite the production! When graduation rehearsals began more than a month ago, I rolled my eyes and figured it was just another excuse for the girls to get out of class. While that often was the case, I can now understand why the teachers behind this madness felt the need to get started early.
While this sounds like a gratuitous display, I found out the reason behind all the madness: In the 1980s, after the ultra-conservatives tightened their grip on the country, all forms of non-Islamic celebrations and presentations were outlawed. Schools were only allowed to have graduation. So schools said, "Alright, you'll only let us have a graduation, so we'll have a graduation by gum!" The ceremony wasn't just a graduation, it was a talent show, poetry reading, dance competition, fashion show, and everything else all rolled into one.
After things lightened up, about 10 or 15 years later, the big graduation production had become a tradition and if there's one thing you don't do in Saudi Arabia, it's mess with tradition. Each year my school tries to rein the production in, but each graduating class says, "Ok, but wait till after we've left to change graduation."
This is a truly Saudi tradition that I am so glad I got the chance to experience. Other international teachers who live in Saudi Arabia and work at the non-Saudi schools are getting to have the same ol' boring ceremony. This is a slice of Saudi life that few outsiders get to see, and I feel privileged to have been let in on this little secret so I could share it all with you.