Tuesday, 28 October 2008

School Daze - Part 2

Year 2 was much better as I was as academically capable as most students in the class. I wasn't yet one of the select few who the teacher regarded as the cream of crop, but I was gradually getting there. During that year, I managed to strike up good relations with a few people whom later became my best friends. I found one of them on Facebook a few months ago and I cannot wait to meet him again after all those years.
We moved houses the following year and it took some time for me to settle and feel comfortable with the latest change of scenery. Once I did feel at home, though, I slowly climbed up the ranks in my class till I was finally dubbed the 'naughty genius' by teachers. Despite that, I was beaten up with that sordid stick on an almost daily basis. I, along with the vast majority of students in the country, were beaten up for the smallest of errors and the most undeserving of reasons.
The summer following the end of that academic year saw the passing away of my mother and my adopting an attitude that was a little more observant, as opposed to the care-free, inquisitive character I had upheld previously.
I had a good relationship with all my teachers, especially those whose lessons I found particularly engaging, and whom I strove to impress throughout my schooling years. Looking at it now, it seems a pitiful effort to achieve something I cannot quite figure out. Maybe all I really wanted was to fit in and be like the others. I was a passportless Iraqi whose sole 'connection' was a family friend who was well-connected with high-ranking Syrian officials. I did, however, manage to stand out in certain aspects; English lessons were Mehdi-time as far as some of my friends were concerned. Due to my having a relatively better knowledge of English, I was the teacher's favourite. On many occasions I would refrain from putting my hand up as I saw eyes rolling and tongues tutting as if to say “Here comes Mr Shakespeare!”
Year 4 was perhaps my best year in Syria. I was academically outstanding and I had a wonderful set of friends, all of whom helped me feel truly happy at heart. My teacher, Mr Bashar, gave me an invaluable amount of encouragement and planted in me a sense of confidence that no other teacher came close to equalling. Still, I didn’t escape his Asaya, but my beatings came no where near the beating a friend of mine once received for scoring low grades in his monthly examinations. Usually, you would open your hand and stand on the tips of your toes in anticipation of the teacher’s cursed Strike. This time, Mr Bashar had intended to hit Hussein so hard that he missed the target and ended up hitting the underside of his wrist. The whole class gasped in shock but Hussein simply fell to the floor in agony. The janitor, Abol Foz, was called to deal with the situation whilst we froze in utter terror. Having missed the rest of the week, he came back with a cast covering his arm.
Year 5 was more or less the same as Year 4, except for the teacher of course. Mr Zuhair was a refined, leather-jacketed disciplinarian. He was a hardcore, sixties sort of teacher who talked about student activism and old-fashioned trends that we lacked. His apparent gentility was never in doubt, but he occasionally switched tabs and became much like any other teacher. The class consisted of nearly 60 students, three on each desk. When angered, he managed to throw a piece of chalk at the student he wanted to call, as if it to sound the drums of war. One of the corners of the class, where the rubbish bin handily sat, he called ‘The Boxing Ring.’ As prefect, it was impossibly difficult for me to write names on the blackboard. Sometimes I did, and I can’t forgive myself for doing so. The scenes of carnage that ensued are stuff of Dickensian fiction, but it was happening before our eyes.
Year 5 also saw my getting the highest grades in the whole class for the first (and only) time. I was usually amongst the top three but had never been the highest scorer. When I did, I was overjoyed and my friends flocked to congratulate me. It’s funny and rather annoying when I think of how good I was back then, and how far-fetched such achievements seem today.
It was only in Year 6 that we had a different teacher for each subject. The Arabic teacher stood out as the students’ favourite due to his involvement in an after-school program which many Shia students took part in. I only joined because they went on trips and offered participants the chance to play on computers - an absolute privilege in 1999. He liked me and I was rather apprehensive towards him because he was one of those aggressively-playful characters whom you are bound to meet in your lifetime. I was introduced to him during our first lesson with him; I was called out and told to answer a grammatical question which another student had answered incorrectly. It was an extremely basic question of tenses but my standing in front of Mr Abdel Rahman scared me to the core.
“It’s a past tense, Sir.” I murmured, shaking.

“Past tense? Brilliant! Are you sure?” He asked mockingly.

I quietly shed a few tears of embarrassment, fear and utter hatred of life!
“Yes, Sir. It’s a past tense.”
I could hear a few students gasp and say “Mehdi! What’s wrong?”
I looked at them and cried some more but I couldn’t see what other bloody tense it could have been!
After the lesson, he called me out of the classroom and spoke to me. Upon finding out that I was Iraqi, he asked why I had answered incorrectly and why I was crying. I told him I was very scared so he hugged me so as to comfort me and re-assure me that he is but a friendly beast.
It went downhill in Year 7. The onset of adolescence, coupled with my choosing to waste my time and money on collecting Pokemon stickers resulted in my academic levels taking a significant slump. I struggled to maintain average grades and many gave up on my passing that year. This wasn’t made any better by my new-found interest in a number of public figures. Of course, I don’t mean Javier Solana or Kofi Anan; rather, my friends and I were infatuated with a Syrian actress called Nourman As’ad and would not stop debating which angle best accentuated her utter beauty! Only Elissa proved to be the catalyst that diverted our attention. She soon become the talk on every tongue. Any teenager that year must have had at least one Elissa moment which he would be able to recall as if it had happened only last night.
One of the most hilarious incidents of that year was during an Arabic lesson when the teacher asked about the different conditions of the hemza (a written linguistic link placed either by itself, above a vowel or underneath it.)
“I wonder where the hemza in 'Elissa' goes..“ Joked Homedan.

We giggled but were cautious so as not to draw Mr Bahjat’s attention, only for Foad to open his gob.

“Depends on whether she’s under the duvet, under water or alone and bare."

As we laughed hysterically, a few were rounded up and sent to the head of year’s office. Mr Ridha, who was in charge of the boarding facilities during my brief yet scarring stint - was the Head of Year. His name was enough to make students shudder with fear. Inevitably, they came back cooling down their palms.
There was a mirage-like notion of our moving to England, but it was hardly something that I thought much of. Somehow, I passed Year 7 and, ironically, straigh after collecting my certificates from a smirking Mr Ridha, I had to dash to the British embassy to finalise my paperwork. I was a little upset that I’d have to leave behind the faces and places that I’d grown up with. My final year was particularly exciting for me as I was able to explore the city and form a relatively personal relationship with it.
To be continued.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

School Daze - Part 1

I was recently flattered by the knowledge that one of the kids I knew from school is an avid reader of my blog. When he started attending the school, he was subject to intense scrutiny by everyone who saw him as he had a distinctly posh manner of speech. The fact that he wasn't yet ten years old made it more comical given that the vast majority of students nationwide struggled to construct a single grammatically-sound sentence. His stardom gradually waned and I suppose kids have now become used to their rather refined colleague.
Merely remembering him, though, tempted me to go through my mental-archives and see whether my schooling experience was a memorable dozen years that moulded who I am today, or a forgettable set of incidents, people and papers which are best kept at bay lest I'm sucked into the cyclone of pubescent melancholy, where I regularly took refuge during those days. More importantly, how much has changed, if at all, since I last walked past the school gates as a student?

My first two years of school, Reception and Year 1, were spent at an Islamic school in London which had been set up by the instructions of Sayyed Abol-Qasim Al Khoei, so as to provide a suitable learning environment for the Shia community's children. Although it was a private school, it chargeed very little. However, it now charges significant fees and many families who felt that they can no longer pay four-figure cheques for their children's education have opted to send their children to state schools, irrespective of the cultural ghosts that loom large - or so it is claimed. Luckily for me, I suppose, the fees only rocketed after I left.
In any case, my introductory couple of years at school were pure, unadulterated fun. I vividly remember Miss Lynn whose office had, amongst other wonderful things, toy monsters. My favourite was a brown dinosaur for whom I would deliberately get in trouble in order to be sent to Miss Lynn's office. I also remember when I told my teacher that I needed to use the bathroom, only for me to sneak out and go to the newly-built children's play area. There were a few tricycles which I just wouldn't stop dreaming of playing with. The picture was taken a couple of years ago when I went to visit.

The best thing about those two years, however, was the fact that, despite seven years in quasi-exile, some of the children I played with in 1993-4 are now my closest friends.

"Where are you going during the summer holidays?" I remember being asked in front of the whole class, sometime towards the end of of Year 1.

"We're going to Mecca for two weeks." I replied, much to the envy of some of my friends whose summer was to be spent in less awe-inspiring places. Little did I know that I were to re-enroll at the school nearly a decade later.

We did go to Saudi Arabia that summer. Dubiously, our two weeks of pilgrimage were followed by a 'visit' to Syria. To cut a long story short, there was a dramatic change of plan and we ended up staying in Syria for over seven years. There, I came to a vague understanding of the world and where I, in all my 165cm of might, stood in it. It wasn't exactly a sheltered childhood, but upon my return to London in late 2001, I clearly saw that life in places like Syria limits not only people's opportunities but their view of the world at large.

We stayed in a town on the outskirts of Damascus called Sayyeda Zaineb, in reference to the Prophet's grand-daughter whose golden-domed shrine is the centre-point of the town. A local relative was entrusted to find a school to take me in. Seeing that I was still six years of age, and that I couldn't even spell my name in Arabic, I had to start from scratch. It took three attempts to find a good school for myself and my brothers, for whom it must've been doubly difficult to adapt to this sudden change of plan.
The first school we went to was a state school near our house (which we changed several times over the years). Most children there were of economically-disadvantaged backgrounds. They were generally nice to us, despite the occasional oh-look-at-the-British-kid remark which we had to put up with. The real jaw-dropper, however, came in the shape of a large, sellotaped wooden stick. Anyone caught talking during the lesson, anyone whose homework wasn't immaculately presented, anyone who gave the teacher, well, the wrong end of the stick - was punished by the Asaya. Our pleas to parents and relatives were forever unheard, and the beating continued throughout our time in Syria.
After the state school, we were transferred to a private school. A mini-bus with a colourful sticker on the driver's door picked us up from our area and dropped us back. There, I became good friends with an Iraqi boy called Mehdi who, like me, had a bag with a big, smiling bear sketched on it. The only difference was that my bag was black and yellow whilst his was pink and red. I was delighted that I was one of two bear-bag wearers whose names and nationalities were identical. Sadly, this coincidence was the single interesting thing that I told people when they asked me about school.
A few days later, we were transferred to another private school. It was said to be one of the best schools in the country, admitting only the smartest (most well-connected, really) students. However, this time there was a rather important clause; we were to become resident students at the school's boarding facilities. We attended the school as boarders for the remainder of the year and moved back home afterwards. I will spare the readers any details of my experience there as it was rather forgettable.
Fortunately, my Year 1 teacher, Mr Saleem, was kind enough to let me pass eventhough I had yet not learned to write one word in Arabic. I was so hopeless that, on one occasion, I memorised how to write one of the ten words which were written on the blackboard in preparation for a spelling test afterwards. Having learned that single word, I pretended to scribble whilst the teacher read the words out. When he finally uttered the golden three-syllabled word (يجمعون if my memory doesn't fail me) I jotted it down with boundless joy. Unsurprisingly, I scored 1/10. Nonetheless, he kindly allowed me to pass to Year 2 and gave me, as encouragement, a pair of plastic badminton rackets. Funnily, the same day that we started our summer holidays that year, I somehow became near-perfect in my spelling and use of grammar.
To be continued.