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.


touta said...

same name, nationality, and bag? Are you sure you weren't looking in the mirror? :D

3eeraqimedic said...

Dear Little Penguin
I must admit this is my favorite type of post, and with personal memories of moving to a Baghdad school (with RE teacher who regulalry instilled fear with her mastara) after an introduction to education in the UK, and now having two children attending two totally different types of schools I smiled through the entire post.

Anonymous said...

LOL bring back memories ..

Joyful read..

Abbas Hawazin said...


I also enjoyed this post, you show promise as a keen observer of human creatures.
However, I must say that I got confused a couple of times (i also write the most confusing stuff sometimes), like when you said that you went to al-Khoei school but then dropped out to a london school, and after that promptly started to describe al-Khoei school again, also when you mentioned that you went to Syria and then came back to London, in the next paragraph saying that you're six year old, i was like whoa, how did he know all this stuff about growing up in syria when he only came back as a six year old, only to realize after a while that you're still in Syria, this gets misleading, I think it's better if you stick to one location and describe it fully before moving on to the next or your conclusions.

Other than that, great series.