Sunday, 17 May 2015

Random Date, Special Day

Exactly fourteen years ago, I sat my very last exam of Year 7.

The excitement of having finished the year drowned out all the distress that had been simmering within me for the duration of the exam. I didn’t know most of the answers, so I resorted to making sure what little I could write about world geography was written in a neat and orderly manner. As I had done in previous examinations, and with no real expectation to curry favour with the marker, I drew a small birthday cake on the top of the paper and adorned it with several candles and a “good luck” scribbled across the biro-bordered doodle.

I had arranged with Homeidan and Fouad to celebrate our last day of school by going ‘out out’, as Mickey Flanagan so eloquently put it. Homeidan and Fouad, with whom I shared a three-man wooden desk near the back of the classroom, had been desperate to do something out of the ordinary - this most unlikely group of friends ought to end the year on a high, we thought.

The night before, I asked my sister for some money to fund my x-rated excursion, though I didn’t disclose the precise itinerary of our jaunt: we had planned to go to a seedy cinema in an infamous part of Damascus, and follow it up by visiting an apartment block rumoured to house a few love-sellers. It’s of utmost importance to note that we didn’t entertain the idea of purchasing any affection; we merely wanted to see what a wanton woman looked like, especially one whose vocation it was to give pleasure, even if only to the chaste eyes of a party of pubescent man-maidens.

Naturally, I had to exercise a little truth-bending in order to be allowed to do something other than come home right after school.

“There’s a Quran competition in the afterschool club, so we’ll grab a bite and then go to take part in it.”

Despite my not being entirely truthful, I’m consoled by the fact that I used the considerable remainder of what she had given me to buy her a birthday present and gave the rest to my elder brother whose escapades were far more risqué than mine.

We waited till the three of us had handed in our papers, and walked out of school feeling buoyant with elation. Within minutes, a street-vendor decided to find out why we were out of school so early, as it had barely been past midday. His eyes widened, and he looked at his wrist. He couldn't quite believe that we were out to celebrate the beginning of our summer holidays.

“Really? It’s only May 17th!" he said as he pointed towards his time/date silver Cassio watch.

"Ok. Don’t get up to anything bad.”

Although we hadn't planned on doing anything bad, we were taken by surprise at this stranger’s impromptu cautioning.

We casually walked around the area whose old alleyways smelled of roasted and baked nuts and seeds that nearby shops specialised in. Everyday, shortly after lunchtime, the classrooms were filled with an aroma that opened my nostrils and made me feel like Jerry when the waft of Swiss cheese surreptitiously crept up on him, eliciting his inner-spirit to float to the source of the delicious smell.

During our walk, we fancied a little detour, and wandered into an empty building with a long, dimly-lit lobby. On either side were closed doors and placards that seemed to belong to offices and shops which had once filled this corridor with the bustle of life. We soon realised that a potential trespassing conviction loomed large, so we ran towards the other side of the building and laughed and screamed with nervous joy. Years later, I stumbled across a cinematic re-enactment that alluded to another movie moment in which a trio of trailblazers ran wildly in a place where contemplative quietude reigned. Bande à Part, The Dreamers, The School Leavers, I thought to myself.

Fouad suggested we stop at his father’s juice shop on our way to Byblos Cinema. We happily took him up on his offer knowing that we had some time to waste before the first ‘mature’ film started.

Fouad’s father didn’t seem overly excited to meet his son’s schoolmates. He gave us three plastic cups of lemon slush and went back behind his till as we slurped outside the marble-flood shop. I was suddenly taken by a juvenile urge to flaunt the meagre wad of cash in my pocket.

“Fouad, could you ask your father how much these will cost? It’s on me. I insist!”

With an air of empty boasting, I extracted three crumpled 100 Syrian Liras and laughed at my silly gesture. Of course, we didn’t have to pay, and Fouad was slightly offended at my wanting to steal the limelight. It was his father’s shop, it was his treat to us.

After an hour or so of aimlessly meandering the streets between our school and al-Marja, where Cinema Byblos and various other adult-oriented institutions were located, we found ourselves in front of a nondescript building with yellowing bricks and a large, fading-gold letters at the front. BYBLOS. We were standing outside a brave, almost-bronzing new world. The entrance was flanked by two posters: one was unmistakably for a Bollywood blockbuster, and another that I can't remember anything about except its having a voluptuous lady with a twinkle in her eye and the eye-watering tilt of her exposed waist.

The three of us paid 25 Liras each and were told we could stay for as long as we wanted to. The cinema wasn’t completely quiet, and it was no-where near full. The handful of audience members was all grown men who were scattered across the large, darkened hall, and whose faces were partly illuminated by the cinema projector’s flickering reflections.

After we settled down and evaded eye-contact lest we’re found out, I turned to Homedian and said:

“This guy is called Amitabh Bachchan.”

The Indian film was badly subtitled, and the audio-yellow text were out of sync even to the jaundiced eye of a hormonal cinemagoer who cared no more about technical precision than he did for the plot of a movie in a language he didn’t understand.

Audience members grew restless and a few disgruntled voices sporadically broke the reverential silence with which I observed the unfolding Bollywoodian spectacle. No sooner had the Indian flick finished before another film started. This, time, it was an old Syrian production, dating back to the sixties or seventies judging by the grainy quality and the surprisingly youthful features of actors who I’d known to play grandfathers in the children's programmes I grew up watching.

The second film’s raunchiest scene included a disco-lit house party, and an actor -a distant relative of Homeidan- salaciously placing his palm on a naked thigh, barely visible underneath a long, baggy skirt. In another eye-popping moment, the actor is shown to be a peeping Tom who watches his young neighbour hanging up some laundry.

“The perving bastard! I’m going to tell on him next time I see him at a family gathering,” railed Homeidan under his breath.

I was fairly incredulous towards his hushed threat.

“How will you explain where you saw him doing this?”

We watched with amazement and excitement, but we were aware of the pendulum of time quietly swinging over our heads.  Five or six in the evening was late in the world of a twelve year-old - and we still hadn't been round to the den of debauchery Homeidan had told us about.

"I was in the area a few days ago, and a stranger -I bet he's a pimp- walked up to me and told me that if I paid him 100 Liras he'd get me laid, and he took me to the top floor of this building where I actually saw a topless woman!"

My heart raced as we walked up the stairs, until we reached the third floor. The stairs to the fourth floor and beyond were locked off. A white metal door with frosted-glass panes blocked our access, and we were secretly relieved not to be able to go any further.

"Wallahi I'm not lying!"

Homeidan's attempt at reassuring us of the truth of his tall tale seemed sacrilegious given where we were and what was being promised in the name of God Himself.

"It's OK. At least we tried," I told him, in vain hope of retaining some dignity. Afterall, we were merely chasing the figure of lust, knowing full well that we weren't going to do anything beyond that.

We hailed a taxi that took us to the mikro depot where we boarded minibuses heading towards our respective home destinations.

On my way home, I rehearsed my alibi and embossed it with feigned disappointment at having missed out on first place in the Quran competition. My sister showed little doubt in my story, and consoled me by saying that my sincere intentions were more important than standing on an imaginary podium. That may have made me feel a little guilty, but I quickly brushed it under my mental carpet and revelled in my secret, low-key adventure.

The fourteen years that followed were far more adrenaline-fuelled and life-changing than that afternoon nearly a decade and a half ago, so I’m not sure why that day and that date stuck in my mind. Perhaps it was the street vendor’s startled expression and unbelieving tone that earmarked the day as one of significance to me; it could have been the fact that it was my first foray into the world of near-teenage wilderness. Whatever the reason, every May, I count down the days till the seventeenth so I could recount that afternoon to myself or to whoever is interested in listening to the the story of my first out-outing.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Longing for belonging

I drank water, flowing fresh down my throat
And it was like I tasted nothing but sewage;
Suffering beyond comparison,
Like that of a boat amongst raging ocean waves.

Elia Abu Madhi, the revered Lebanese poet, perfectly described what it feels like to be away from where you belong. Where you ‘belong’ is by no means exclusive to where you were born or the country from which your parent(s) hail; rather, it’s the place where you feel alive. Once you emigrate, the sense of loss becomes too great to comprehend, too irrational to justify. Your life away may be safer, more financially rewarding, but you’re starved of tranquility and spiritual fervour.

Having lived in India, Syria and England, and being of Iraqi origin, I've always been reluctant to put my finger on a map and wholeheartedly say “Here’s where I’m from,” as I've never felt as though I truly belonged anywhere I’ve lived in thus far. For that reason, as well as their artistic depth, Abu Madhi's words strike several, tangled chords within me.

My intergenerational and consecutive migrations have amplified the fogginess with which my unyielding heart tries –and fails- to adjust to its surroundings. It is filled with longing for company I hadn’t enjoyed, relishing a reunion of hearts with lovers I hadn’t encountered, objects of adoration whose hazy countenances were weaved together by my starry-eyed mind. And yet I dream of being there, and yearn to be with them. The precise geographical location of the place, and the identifying features of the people - aren't necessarily a relevant detail, for the heart needs no bearings once it's in a place it warms to, and in company it finds soothing and sensual in equal measure.

Not only am I burdened with a wild and wayward emotional constitution, I confess to feeling disarmed of my creative faculties, like a pelican in a pigsty, bedraggled and bereft of life. The light of my mind flickers and flashes sporadically and painstakingly, having previously assured my child-self that it would illuminate my yet-to-be-lived days.

I often wish I were able to visit Iraq as freely and frequently as my contemporaries and fellow second-generation exiles do. More than Iraq, though, I dream of setting foot in Syria once again. The dusty, overcrowded streets of Sayyeda Zaineb, the epicentre of my childhood on the outskirts of Damascus – are where I made sense of the world: in the ear-piercing cacophony of tirteras, cattle and shopkeepers. A celestial soundtrack of an otherwise mundane life.

London may have cleaner streets and a wider selection of international cuisines, but it has yet to convince me that it could stir me the way Damascene alleyways did.

Whimsical romance aside, I’ve realised that cannot afford to spend my days envisaging a parallel existence. My converse-clad feet are firmly rooted in a lively part of London, and I must work towards rekindling the flame of life within my shrinking frame. Otherwise, what’s left of my dwindling spirit will vanish into thin air, leaving in its wake a mediocre nothingness, much like the indistinguishable sound of a tirtera – forgettable in its absence as it is salient in its presence.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015


In the early summer of 2004, and during the preliminary stages of London's bid to host the 2012 Olympics, my school was visited by a group of sporting dignitaries; amongst them were members of Iraq's newly reformed boxing team, as well as a couple of representatives from the London 2012 Olympics Organisation Committee.

The assembly hall was packed with tired-looking children counting the minutes till hometime, and their chaperone-teachers who stood idly by, watching the spectacle unfold. Before anything happened or anyone spoke, the visiting men in sporting outfits handed out London 2012 flags that were attached to black, meek, plastic sticks. Freebies couldn't yank us out of our humidity-induced lethargy, so I hoped the athletes themselves would.

I quickly turned to my then-BFF and spoke to him in a hushed tone.

"Whoever wins the bid to host the 2012 games, I promise to be speaking to you as they light up the Olympic flame, whether we're on the phone or speaking face-to-face. We'll be speaking as the flame is lit in 2012."

He smiled and agreed with an element of surprise and appreciation. In my mind, our friendship and devotion towards eachother made us as inextricably-bound together as the Olympic rings themselves; except, they were five, whilst my heart, then, was tied to one.

The "special" assembly's proceedings began with a brief talk by the boxing team's American coach. He spoke loftily of the team's potential and its newly-found zeal for sporting success: Iraq was reborn, and Olympic medals gleamed on the horizon - it was merely a matter of time before they could be added to the team's long-forgotten trophy cabinet.

After the talk, the middle-aged gentleman opened the floor for any questions. Naturally, I put my hand up and waited my turn. My question wasn't quite audible and I was asked to repeat it. I duly obliged, albeit with an added degree of forced confidence and innate self-consciousness.

"Now that the whole country is looking forward to a brighter future, have the team's aspirations changed, too?"

I heard one of my teachers remarking how it was very typical that I would ask such a silly, long-worded question.

"Aspirations.. pft!"

The coach gave a swift, diplomatic reply, and assured the half-yawning, half-gawping crowd that the team was going to make it big.

"Some of our athletes are preparing to take part in the upcoming Summer Olympics in Athens. Keep an eye out for them!"

Just before the assembly came to its inevitable, chaotic end, the teachers informed us that the athletes had a surprise for us. The two boxers stepped back and stood widely apart. An air of expectancy filled the mostly wood-paneled hall, and the boxers, dressed in white and green tracksuits with an Iraqi flag emblazoned on the right side of their chests, slowly began to skip in a circle. The silence was broken by the screeching sound that the boxers' footwear made as it grazed against the wooden floor, and their chanting:

"Iraq. Is Back. Iraq is back! Iraq. Is back. Iraq is Back!"

Their pace quickened, and the chanting that began disjointedly was now in full-throttled unison.

I glanced around me and saw the Maths' teacher's disdainful face changing in colour and complexion.

The assembly ended with some of the Iraqi students rushing to the boxers to introduce themselves, making sure their family name was pronounced clearly to ostensibly solicit the boxers' respect and reverence.

As we made our way back to the classroom, I plucked up the courage to ask Miss Ameen as to why she seemed so irrevocably cross.

"This is a joke. How disrespectful! An American making our boys dance like clowns to the tune of 'With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you' .. and saying this is our country's bright future!"

Her frustration was clear, and her sentiment sincere. I found myself agreeing with her point of view, though my blood didn't paint my face pink as hers did. The chant she was referring to was a popular jingoistic pledge of allegiance synonymous with pro-regime political rallies in countries with a Ba'thist inclination. It carries particular poignancy for Iraqis because of its evocation of pro-Saddam circles, state security agents, gulags, etc - the chant was an oral artefact of a blood-soaked and forgettable past that Iraqis like Miss Ameen had hoped to have seen the back of.  This, I'm told, could have been the catalyst for her profound dismay.

Eight years later, and weeks before the London 2012 Olympic Games commenced, I was torn as to whether I should fulfill my juvenile promise to a dear friend to whom I no longer spoke in the same capacity as I had done so many years before. Our meetings had become sparse and were imbued with an aura of respect and reserve brought on by age, experience and a newly-acquired adult responsibility, namely the birth of my daughter. He could easily have forgotten, and my calling him out of the blue to meet my fifteen year-old promise may creep him out more than any of my gushing compliments might have done all those years ago.

On the day of the opening ceremony, and having sought advice from my nearest and dearest, I decided I would call. I would put my self-conscious demons at bay for a day, and call. A promise is a promise, no matter what, I told myself. The ceremony began. Countless sportsmen and women waved their respective countries' flags. My heart was racing, my mind going into meltdown. It was almost midnight and the flame hadn't been yet lit. I didn't even know whether he was in town or abroad. At long last, and after hours of circular deliberations with myself and others, the flame was lit, and my poise was reduced to ashes. I rushed outside the house and pressed the green call button. His name and number were on my screen for hours, and my mind for days. It rang, rang, rang. My heart was beating very quickly, until I hung up. I looked at the time and it was well past midnight.

I broke the news to my family, and felt a weight fall off my shoulders. At least I tried, I consoled myself.

"He's not picking up."

Almost two years later, Providence pulled some strings and I saw him at a friend's house. I was thrilled and filled with familiar warmth. I had really, really missed seeing him and speaking to him. After the customary pleasantries were exchanged, I confessed to him my Olympic debacle and expected him to furrow his brows in deep suspicion and mild scorn.

"I was thinking about that, too, but thought you might have forgotten and it would be a bit gay to actually do it."

I didn't mind that he deemed it gay, and felt even prouder of myself that I had at least made a genuine attempt to stick to my oath of bygone years.

My friends and I laughed it off, and moved on. I told myself that I have more days to come, more friends to cherish, and more promises to keep.

The Olympic flame has long gone out, but the fire for life and love kindled within me by kindred spirits I've met over the years will burn until I, and they, turn into mere dust. Even then, my love, respect and gratitude will be etched into immortality somewhere hidden and obscure such as this meager blog, or, if I'm lucky, in a book.

Friday, 25 July 2014

On Ageing..

There are certain things in life that reveal themselves to you gradually, like realising that your shoes have got too small for you, or that your choice of words has become almost identical to that of people you work with. Another example of this is your character: your likes, dislikes, habits and hobbies – are carved out of your experiences after years of trying things which were novelties at first, but which then became familiar, and were lumped together to form your personality. Age is also one such thing. Despite birthdays being the conventional mark by which you measure your time on this forlorn planet, they are mere numbers, statistics that don’t show a fraction of what lies behind them. Besides the annual reminder of how old/young you ought to consider yourself, age manifests itself in a number of curious ways.

If you’re a man, hair is usually a good indicator of where you’re at in your long, desolate journey towards your chequered flag. What I find funny is how upset people get when they see their hair change in volume or colour. It has almost become a rite of passage to lament a solitary grey strand you discover whilst examining your youthful yet diminishing features against a faithful, four-cornered friend. Worse still, when you pat your head only to realise that a thick mop no longer cushions it. Rather, your scalp is nearly visible underneath a faint, rapidly-thinning clump. Either way, your heart sinks with dread as you convince yourself that you’re not that old yet.

Another common signpost you should look out for is people you once considered to be children. It’s both heartening and horrifying when you bump into lower classes from your school, only to be dwarfed by their height and shocked by their age. The ten year-olds are now double that age, and, more unnervingly, you’re a good five years ahead of them. Life, it seems, doesn’t stop. As you grow older, so does everybody else. It may sound like a pretty lame realisation, but for me it is a constant surprise when I see former children who have become ‘grown-ups’.

A less universally acknowledged sign of the ageing process is when football players you idolised during your teens become mere studio spectators and pundits, or actually evolve into coaches and managers. For me, watching Ryan Giggs take temporary charge of Manchester United, counselled by other members of the Reds’ famous class of ’92 – was exciting from a purely footballing viewpoint, but a sobering reminder that more than twenty years had passed since he made his debut for the club. The Lion King was released two decades ago, too. If footballing history doesn't stir you, perhaps Simba's birth will.

Though I didn’t follow the World Cup as avidly as I may have done in the past, I was slightly relieved every time a commentator said the name of a player who I knew from yesteryear. These included Messi, Van Persie and the Portuguese Ronaldo. His now-rotund Brazilian namesake, meanwhile, watched from the commentators’ box as his countrymen were obliterated by a German team I barely recognised.

As for today, well, I’m two weeks short of turning twenty six years old. It’s about time I stopped wallowing about my years of self-perpetuating wilderness. Instead, each day is to be taken as a gift, each breath a blessing, and a chance to do well.

Monday, 30 June 2014

New Faces, Old Foes

News, videos and images emerging from Iraq over the past few weeks have polarised opinion amongst political pundits, media commentators and, most devastatingly, Iraqis themselves.
The ISIS-led debacle has gripped international attention for its sheer speed, unprecedented brutality (unprecedented only for the selectively amnesic – cue Taliban’s massacre of Hazara Afghans to name but one instance of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by “Islamist militants”) and its implications for Iraq and the wider region. In my naive opinion, it’s symptomatic of how low humanity has got that headlines are made only when the international geopolitical status quo is under threat; as if the deaths of millions of innocent civilians, and the inconceivable suffering endured by people affected by war, as if all that weren’t cause for concern within corridors of power. That’s another matter altogether, though.
I don’t live in Iraq and harbour no ambition to live in my forefathers’ homeland anytime soon. Therefore, I will not offer my opinion on what may have triggered this latest setback for Iraq and Iraqis. However, it’s incredibly frustrating to see people I know toe the oft-sectarian, Us vs Them line that serves no purpose other than deepen the rift caused by self-interested thugs. These thugs take on a variety of guises and come under a range of names and banners, but they all have only themselves in mind. It’s time we stopped barricading ourselves behind religious and ethnic groupings, and stood together for once in total opposition and unequivocal rejection of ISIS or anyone trying to implement some foreign agenda on Iraqi soil.
The country has faced innumerable crises throughout its age-old and illustrious past. Iraq’s history is dotted with glittering successes that have shaped humanity as we know it, but it is also saturated with blood, needlessly shed alongside its two rivers’ banks. Idealistic though I may sound, I remain convinced that no matter how things pan out over the coming weeks, months and years, Iraq, and Syria, will stand tall even if both countries’ entire populations were lined up and summarily executed at the hands of ISIS and its affiliates, or even if they fled and sought safety elsewhere. It’s not the first hurdle Iraq has faced, and it certainly won't be the last. If some political clairvoyants are to be believed, cartographers are set to redraw a map already plagued by Sykes-Picot’s haphazard agreement. Even then, Iraqis will be there, unfazed and unwavering.
Today, whilst suspects in suits wrangle over who gets what as they slice up the parliamentary pizza, Iraq’s detractors are hard at work in galvanising bearded mercenaries disguised as Muslim liberators. The likelihood is that an elaborate proxy war is being fought out in Iraq and Syria, one where far-flung powers are locking horns through loyal, subservient regional surrogates. Whatever the truth is, we’ve seen enough bloodshed to last us a lifetime. Although I take great pride in my memory, I hold faint hope in a scientific breakthrough that would enable us to erase the scenes of gratuitous savagery that have blighted our world over the past few years, particularly the appalling crimes committed by “Islamist militants” whilst they proclaimed godly endorsement.
For millions of Iraqis, this latest crisis is another inevitable hurdle in their country’s bumpy road to a sense of national stability that has so far proven elusive. The government’s loose grip on security, coupled with sparse supplies of water and electricity, has made this dire state of affairs the hallmark of post-2003 life in what is, fundamentally, a mega oil-rich country. Sadly, for many others, Ramadhan, usually observed with cautious jubilation, will usher in a new reality, one where the law of the land is defined by an antiquated and archaic interpretation of Islam. 
I am siding with no-one except those whose words and actions are guided by immaterial, intangible values, as opposed to those whose backbones are emblazoned with a dollar sign, and whose souls reek of crude oil.
It must be noted that in calling these assailants “Islamist extremists” we are unwittingly giving the new rulers of Mosul and large swathes of Iraq and Syria a halo of religious strife and divine indignation – a cause they are ostensibly marching towards whilst they trample on what’s left of human decency.

Monday, 31 March 2014

School Daze - Part 5

Parts: 1, 2, 3 and 4.
“You’ve got a lot of catching up to do, young man.”

Miss Kazmi, my Bio/Chem teacher, spoke briskly and with no detectible sympathy.

I missed the beginning of Year 11 as I’d been visiting Syria and Iran in the very late stages of the summer holiday. Four days into the new term, I’d already missed the first few Maths, IT, Biology and Chemistry lessons that were supposed to explain the premise of our crucial coursework assessments.

“You should’ve thought about that before swanning off on holiday.”

The year had begun in a panic. Nothing weighs down on a student’s heart like the prospect of flagging behind classmates, especially if the subjects in question were as difficult to grasp as those I struggled with; Maths, Bio/Chem and IT.

The task of keeping the Year 11s in line was unceremoniously handed to Miss Asaria, our new form tutor. She was a recent teaching graduate who spoke to us as friends as well as students – a fine and delicate balance to strike. Being fairly young, she didn’t shy away from raising a few eyebrows with her direct, unapologetic tone.

Pretty early on in the year, my father decided to visit Iraq for the first time since he left the country in the early eighties. I was extremely tempted to go with him, as I’d never before seen my supposed “country of origin.” After some deliberation and an oath to pray for him in Najaf and Karbala, Mr Mowahidi, the school’s mystic-looking headteacher, allowed me to further disrupt my studies in order to see Iraq. It was an eye-opening experience that was supposed to reinvigorate my waning spirits.. but it didn’t. It left me feeling out of place and wanting to retreat, recoil and live like an ascetic hermit. People no longer interested me. Perhaps this was spurred by the turbulent home environment I was finding hard to accept; or by feeling quite alone in facing the mammoth task of trudging on. In any case, I sought solace in solitude in familiar territory – writing.

Whether in English or Arabic, I would write on an almost daily basis. Failure was staring me in the eye and there seemed no way of avoiding the plunge into personal, emotional and academic oblivion. Ensconced for hours on my slightly ripped swivelling chair, I poured my heart on blank A4s that I would later hide in my wooden drawer. My slanted writing mirrored the skewed, unconventional outlook on life I was developing.

A mild and short-lived sense of redemption was achieved in English lessons. The English teacher, a characterful and bespectacled lady in her mid-twenties, immediately commanded the trust and respect of the class. She led the pack very gently and never made us feel inferior.

In one lesson, we were put in pairs and tasked with giving an oral presentation on one of the poems in our anthologies. Whilst Kareem and Mehdi Z feigned intrigue by Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est, Hadi and I furrowed our brows over Seamus Heaney’s Mid-term Break, a poem so simple yet so symbolic, I still marvel at its grim, heart-punching rawness.

When we stood in front of the class to reflect on the then-undecipherable text, Hadi and I bravely improvised and demonstrated faux knowledge of the poem and its moving themes, and glum, industrial imagery. Though we didn’t flounder, it was clear we had not a clue what we were trying to explain. I had no trouble addressing the classroom whose paltry interest in literature fuelled my impromptu pseudo-analysis. However, when I looked at the teacher, I knew I had performed miserably, and I was gutted.

As soon as the lesson finished, I quietly went up to her and promised I’d explain why I’d been unable to perform as well as I could have. At the end of the day’s lessons, I went to see her in the exam hall, between the staff room and the never-open fire escape door.

“Things outside school are hard, and I’m really struggling to keep up.”

I was sincere and almost pleading with her to feel sympathy towards me. She seemed genuinely moved by my defence and promised to help me do my best in school, even if that were to happen in her subject only. She also showed interest as to why I felt resonance with Heathcliff, the ominous protagonist of Wuthering Heights, the very first English novel I’d read cover to cover.

“I feel we’re a bit similar. We both want to be accepted as we are, in a world that respects people not for who they are, but for what they have.”

She also wrote a poem about the classroom in which she referred to me as “Mr Walking Thesaurus”, much to the envy of some of my equally eager colleagues. She also penned some verse that she laminated and gave me, a present I have safely stored in my box of valuables (amongst other artefacts such as a hand-drawn map of my inaugural paper round route). She recommended I read Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, as it, too, had characters fighting more battles in their heads than in their stately homes. However, when I told her that I was quite taken by Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus, she urged me to be cautious lest I’m negatively affected by her accurate and eloquent portrayal of melancholia.

The whole class enjoyed her lessons; though, to varying degrees. English always brought out the most curious qualities in people. Whilst I revelled in the enforced hypothesising and second-guessing what a writer may have meant centuries ago, others found the work a little tiresome: as we entered Robert Browning’s bleak head, in hope of seeing why he strangled Porphyria with her own golden locks, someone near me let out a sigh of frustration. He then proceeded to say something that not many students present in that class have forgotten.

“This guy’s desperate. If it was me, I’d just rape her.”

He followed his quip by an uneasy laugh, as if he were disappointed that he didn’t draw more cheers.

The class fell silent. A few people, including myself, gasped. I was in disbelief by his incongruous declaration. Our teacher looked horrified.

“That’s just shocking. I have no words to say to you.”

On another, less incriminating occasion, the English teacher's foresight was being put to the test. She was envisaging what each of us would do in later life. She said she could imagine me as a nimble man of God, donning full religious garb and working away at some passage from the Quran. She calmly turned to Hadi and said:

“I think you’ll be the first in this class to be sent to jail, for dealing drugs, probably,”

I should clarify that there was no malice in our interactions with the teachers. The relationship we maintained -whilst hierarchical- was relaxed and, sometimes, humourous. The teachers occasionally poked fun at our expense, and, some of us, bit back.

The class erupted in laughter.

Usually loud and outspoken, Hadi was quiet. He looked disturbed and offended in equal measure by the English teacher’s premonition.

Alongside the eventful English lessons, History, under the helm of the hard-to-impress Mrs Ahmed, proved an unlikely outlet. I found it far more rewarding to learn about real people’s decisions and lives than trying to conjure up some convoluted, cryptic mathematical mystery and slaving away trying to solve it.

Mrs Ahmed was stern and rarely smiled. The only time I remember seeing her facial expressions change was when she realised a football had ricocheted off the wall and was about to knock her off her feet. Luckily -for both of us- I was right next to her, and somehow managed to deflect the leathered cannonball away from her fixed features. In that very lesson, hushed sniggers broke out when my friend proclaimed that Jordan was a place he’d love to explore, whether he meant the Hashemite Kingdom or the silicon-encrusted glamour model depends on whether you were a student or a teacher in that half-empty classroom.

As the most senior class in the school, we considered ourselves masters of the playground. We’d occasionally mingle with the lower years, but it was often imbued with a hint of condescension. Last year’s dubious Year 9 lot were now in our place. Our Year 10 classroom belonged to them, and so, naturally, we didn’t like them very much.

As the year progressed, I formed closer friendships with a number of classmates whom I still speak to regularly. However, one particular friend completely enchanted me. I suppose it’s a rite of passage to have a BFF with whom you make numerous vows of life-long loyalty. Unfortunately, my classmates couldn’t get over the fact that I was deciding for myself who I chose to spend my long hours at school beside, who I confided in, and in whose company I thrived. Over the years, my friendship with the gentleman in question may have taken on another form, occasional text messages and rare catch-ups, but my respect and love for him have remained as they had been a decade ago. I fail to see how loyalty withers or how love for another vanishes. The core is indelible, but its appearance morphs into something more palatable to one’s later outlook.

The class spent a lot of time thinking about where we’d be after the summer, trying to secure ourselves places in colleges and sixth form schools for our A-Levels. We paid a few visits to potential colleges, though many of us eventually studied in places that weren’t what we had initially fancied.

When the year neared its end, panic over unfinished –or unstarted– coursework ensued. The sense of foreboding was immense and impossible to bear.

On one of the last few days before we went off on our study leave, I had overslept because I’d spent the previous night attempting to write all four or five essays I had to submit for English. As if by divine scheming, I stumbled on a long-lost file on my computer called CM 00-01. Excitedly, I opened it and found that it was what I had suspected: Championship Manager. I spent the whole night clicking and hyperventilating as the screen flashed goals and offsides. I completed a whole season (winning the Premier League, of course) and slept on the sofa in hope of waking up for school. Instead, my brother jolted me out of my snooze after he took a phone call from the school secretary.

“They want to see you immediately.”

I rushed to school, arriving just before home time, and waited outside the staff room. A number of teachers had requested my oft-elusive company. First to give me a glare was Miss Kazmi, furious that her coursework was late.

“I’ve been putting my neck on the line for you, mister, and you still haven’t delivered!”

That was the first time I heard this odd expression. I immediately imagined her dangling her scarfed neck onto a railway track, almost as if she were Jerry facing the onrushing, salivating Tom. 

Unfazed, I took her words in my stride and remained nonchalant. On the inside, though, I was trembling.

Soon, I realised that I was in front of Miss Ameen, Mr Jafari, and several of my teachers. One by one, my disgruntled debtors took aim as they hurled accusations and threats of expulsion if I didn’t rectify my errors.

In the corner of my eye, I glimpsed the ever-thoughtful English teacher watching the spectacle from behind the glass panes next to the unholy congregation. She waited until her colleagues had finished berating me.

“I stayed behind to make sure you didn’t have a nervous breakdown after speaking to all of them at once.”

The weeks leading up to my GCSE exams were a period of relentless self-flagellation. I knew for a fact I was going to fail. My only reprieve was the sense of understanding and recognition I was getting from reading and writing. At my creaky wooden desk, I understood myself better and saw my life with some clarity.

On the final day of lessons, someone brought in a video camera and recorded the day as it unfolded. I was struck by a sharp pain in my stomach, and was quietly groaning all day. This, my classmates thought, was typical.

“Everyone’s happy about the last day of school but you find a reason to be depressed about it.”

I was in no mood to contest their claim, and stayed at my desk with my face down. I half listened to the noise around me and wished I were elsewhere. Later that day, Miss Kazmi read a short piece she’d written for us. Her recital was abruptly interrupted by the school secretary’s knocking on the door and asking to see me.

“Your little brother was sent out of his classroom for misbehaving and being rude.”
A prominent source of anxiety for me in Year 11 was the constant trouble my younger brothers were getting themselves in. I had to stay with them during afterschool detentions, and if they misbehaved in class, I was every teacher’s first point of call. This drained me and made me adamant to not send my own children to this passable attempt at being an educational institution.

“He was caught doodling during a spelling test.. drawing this…”

She presented me with a large piece of paper with crayon-green letters scribbled on it. At the top of the paper, my brother had drawn a stickman with two disproportionate circles around the chest area. I couldn’t hold back my laughter.

“Okay, Miss. I’ll talk to him after school.”

I walked back into the classroom and slumped in my chair, feeling quite flushed. At the poem’s end, Miss Kazmi asked each of us to say a few words in tribute of our years at the school. When it was my turn, I heard chuckles and murmurs remarking that my short speech was going to be quite Shakespearean, which is hilarious, of course. I readied myself, looked at the floor and spoke succinctly.

“This is the first class I’ve been in that has made me feel welcome, and I’ll miss being a part of it.”

My sop-speech was directed at but a few of the audience. The rest, I was quite relieved to be parting ways with.

The GCSE exams went by in a flash. Along with MZ and Hadi, I wasn’t allowed to sit the IT exam as punishment for submitting (allegedly) plagiarised material, so we spent the afternoon in the nearby park, talking about our impending future and thoughtfully listening to Seether’s Fine Again.

On the last day of exams, the boys’ class went to a nearby cinema to watch Mean Girls (starring Rachel McAdams and Lindsey Lohan before things went a bit awry), whilst our female counterparts, on the other side of the building, opted to watch Troy (Brad Pitt topless throughout), in the very same cinema complex. Whatever tickles your fifteen year-old fancy, I suppose. I opted to join a group going to MZ's cousin’s flat to watch Germany take on the Czech Republic in Euro ’04. On our way there, we were met by a reasonable number of delinquent youths who’d assaulted Mehdi Z a few days earlier. As soon as they squared up to us, all my friends vanished except for one, MZ. Whilst those who fled took refuge behind nearby vehicles, MZ selflessly stood by me, preventing what could have been quite an ugly, one-sided scuffle.

Since that day, the class has never been the same. Inevitably, our personalities were crystallised once we stopped being together all the time, and we were able to choose our company with greater freedom. Though many of them I no longer really care about, a few still play a big part of my life today.

Throughout the ten years that have passed since we left that messy classroom, some of my school friends and teachers have stood me in good stead. The school itself is not remembered with particular fondness, but some of the people I met there have been immeasurably important in my survival in the wilderness of life. To them, I tip my araqchin, and extend copious amounts love, appreciation and gratitude.

Apologies are in order for the unfathomable delay in publishing this latest instalment. Sift through previous posts and you may gather what's been keeping me busy.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Smiling Still

“Iraq? How cool! So what do Iraqis do to celebrate Mothers’ Day?”

“I think we don’t do anything too different to you Syrians. But we’ll be reading her some Quran, since she’s not with us.”

My sister was answering a group of smiling teenagers who seemed intrigued by our customs as well as our large number.

The whole set of siblings, all ten of us, were treating ourselves to Pizza Roma, one of Damascus’s tastiest and lesser-known pizzerias. I don’t recall it being a planned outing. The weather was dismal. Electricity had gone out, and I was filled with an unmistakable, unshakable sense of dread. It felt like I had a whole month’s worth of undone homework hanging over my ten year-old head. Perhaps we all felt the same. Our heart sank as soon as the lights went out. You squelched your way to the small shop at the foot of our muddy, bumpy alleyway to buy some candles. It’s quite a difficult feeling to describe. You‘re suddenly downcast with no logical reason as to why your spirits plummet as soon as the room is filled with darkness and silly, searching questions.

“Is that you?”

“Yes. Stop poking my arm.”

We hired a minibus –more affectionately known as a mikro– to help us escape the damp, dimly lit area we lived in for a few hours, and bask instead in the lush Sha’laan neighbourhood.

The restaurant was always bustling with punters of all ages and of different backgrounds. I don’t know why we drew attention but it meant that we roused the interest of the group of scarf-wearing teens to approach my sister, as we were getting ready to leave, and ask her where we’re from.

“Iraq? How cool! So what do Iraqis do to celebrate Mothers’ Day?”

“I think we don’t do anything too different to you Syrians. But we’ll be reading her some Quran, since she’s not with us.”

The girls looked thoughtful and said they would read some Quran for my mother, too. Until my sister recounted to us her brief conversation, we hadn’t really made much of Mothers’ Day. It wasn’t an occasion we really celebrated. Other than this non-event at Pizza Roma, my only memory of Eid-ul-Um was around the time I was six or seven years old.

My Year One teacher, Mr Saleem, handed out a bunch of uninspiring and unimaginative greeting cards with a big red rose and “Happy Mothers’ Day” printed on the front. I was told I had to give it to my mother when I got home, as it was her special day. I didn’t have a clue why it was her special day. Maybe the occasion was explained to the class, only I couldn’t speak much Arabic at the time. I sat at my desk and daydreamed of a life where people understood my language and didn’t hit me with a wooden, sellotaped stick.

When I got home, I rushed to Mama and gave her an empty card. She smiled and thanked me profusely and showered me with kisses, hugs and loving whispers.

I don’t remember celebrating Mothers’ Day with Mama except with that blank, impersonal crimson card. Almost seventeen years after her passing, the occasion evokes in me a sense of longing to see Mama and to do what little I can to bring her some peace and recognition. I wonder today, as I always do, what life would have been like had she been alive to see her children and grandchildren. My total inability to conjure the image in my head keeps me grounded and focused on making the most of what is around me, what is very much alive and deserving of all the appreciation and recognition my mother was denied – my family. I do my best to honour my mother’s name and memory by embodying her noble, selfless nature in my everyday interactions. Whilst this has not been the most effective antidote to humans’ insufferableness, it’s kept Mama’s memory and spirit very much alive in my household and everywhere I go.

In tribute, I’m reposting an old entry I’d written on Mothers’ Day in 2007, the height of my juvenile idealism, before I had so much as an inkling as to what motherhood really meant.

As the world celebrates Mothers' Day, sons and daughters pay tribute to their mothers, foster-mothers, grandmothers and, in some cases, step-mothers. Our mothers symbolise the essence of what is humane and honest. Whether we know it or not, our mothers are saints. My mother is the cornerstone of who I am today. She taught me to live and let live, she taught me to pardon and forgive, she taught me to be human.

I speak to my mother as if she were in front of me. I type the words and see her in my mind's eye. She is smiling still.

Never have I forgotten how I loved making you tea. You cherished your tea so much that I said I'll have them put a kettle on your grave. On your bed, you would sit on your knees, rocking back and forth, a Rothmans cigarette tightly held between your full fingers - you regularly look up, smiling at us, keeping us attached, no matter how upset they had made you.

Admired by most, oppressed by many, you remained invincible in your children. Everyone of them is testament of your manners. They all ask "How did they manage?" They thought they could get away with hurting you. They thought you weren't "as good." They don't see what you are made of. Every minute with you is a seed for the soul.. it grows as the heart grows.

Decades will pass by, we will pass away, but your legacy will survive. Your name is timeless. In every generation there will be You, and there will be Them.

All our goodness is from you. All our happiness is for you. All our sadness is a grain of sand in the desert that was your suffering. We venerate you.

We miss you dearly.