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.
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.