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.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Looking Less, Living More

This time last week I was an absent-minded twenty-five year old guy trying to work out what’s happening in his dizzying and erratic life. Now, I’m asking the same questions having made no real advances in my dilettantish quest. The only difference between then and now is that I can no longer see as I did a few days ago.

Over the weekend, I suffered a relapse. It loosened a single, minute muscle that helps move eyes from side to side. I can look to the left with my left eye, but the right eye is unable to follow suit. Similarly, my right eye inches towards the right whilst its twin is stopped in its tracks and fails to move in the same direction. When I look directly in front of me, at my nose for instance, my eyes do a little jiggle before they sit next to eachother like the old buds that they are. Whilst this happens, my eyes cross, I feel a sharp pang in my brain followed by an undetectable, inaudible clicking sound in my head signaling my eyes’ alignment once again. This last movement clears up my vision as if it were Google Streetview after the page loads: foggy at first then it’s clear once you stop moving and looking around your crush’s neighbourhood.

I found that it helps to cover one eye and have the other do all the work. At first, I did this using my palm, then I covered it with a floral eye mask that reminded a friendly shopkeeper of Pudsey Bear, the eye-patched chugger-cum-mascot the BBC wheels for Children In Need – quite a cheering compliment given my uncertainty towards my sudden and uncontestable change of look.

After several trips to an eye hospital’s A&E and orthoptics clinic, I was told I have suffered a relapse that triggered what is known as Bilateral Internuclear Ophthalmoplegia. They also gave me a pair of glasses with a sticky material covering one lense so that it looks as though I’ve been in a steam room. This, I was told, would allow my eye to get some air whilst it is rested from doing any real vision work. Alternatively, I could wear an eye-patch that completely shields the eye from any light or vision. When I wear the eye-patch, I would still blink, but I don’t see much save for some grey and black swirls akin to those you see when you close your eyes and rub them, an illusory meteor shower glittering the weary inside of my eyelid.

All movement around the house and on the street is slow and stuttering. My judgment of distances has shot to hell and I’m forever bumping into open doors, doorframes and a whole host of stationary objects that evade my narrowing line of vision.

Internuclear Ophtalmoplegia usually occurs amongst those who’ve suffered a stroke. Cases amongst younger patients such as myself are often caused by Multiple Sclerosis. I must admit that in the seven years that I’ve lived with MS, I haven’t relapsed in a way that has hammered home the impact this disease could have on my life – until now. I may have been unstable on my feet, forgetful and achy, but never visibly struck by illness.

The prospect of spending the rest of my life like this, or, even worse, with no vision at all – terrifies me. It’s not a fear of losing my sight per se, I’m scared I won’t be able to see the darling of my damaged eye flourish, grow and become an independent, loving and unrestrained spirit. And though the idea of (very slowly) running around the park with her pretending to be a pirate would delight her and other children in the vicinity, I confess to being wary of the new boundaries restricting my mobility. The extent of my involvement in my fledgling family’s life is the cloud that shrouds my spirits. That said, and naïve and short-sighted (poignant pun?) though I may be, I don’t care what besets my ailing body so long as my mind is intact and able to compose intelligible sentences –whether by writing or dictation à la Jean-Domonique Bauby. That, for me, should be enough.

I’m aware of the considerable anxiety this relapse has brought those around me, and that is an added worry for me. I don’t wish for people to panic, nor do I want them to pity me. I’m the same person. I haven’t changed one bit. I’m just a little slower when I move and I will occasionally don a piece of unconventional eyewear.

This time last week I had wanted to write but didn’t find the time to. Today I have written a few modest passages with one eye, and, in the process, have unburdened myself of quite a spiky thorn I was handed over the weekend.

Things must be on the up.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Writhing On Paper

As American teeth clattered under the inauspicious halo of an "arctic vortex”, and as Southern England was soaked till the water came up again, I was having a meteorological meltdown of my own. It was in my head and it’s still raging.

Pathetic fallacy aside, I’ve been feeling irredeemably low lately. My body has become a piece of cotton being tossed about by impersonal and unrelenting winds, an empty wooden vessel carried by the water underneath.

I’d never felt this helpless in all my adult life.

Perhaps my slowly subsiding health had something to do with it. Whilst my head played reluctant host to ever-entwining intrusive thoughts that were mostly negative (the rest I consign to the Unspeakably Bizarre category), my body gradually weakened till it became quite a struggle to move without a grimace or a groan.

It’s as if my kneecap were replaced by a jello-laden sheet of plastic: any movement hurts. Some movements more than others, but each and every single time I move my knees, it hurts. I guess I’ve become so used to the numb pain that it doesn’t hurt or burn the same way a freshly open wound hurts and burns.

What I need is a release.. and what better way to channel one’s pent-up frustration with Nature’s impenetrable might than to write. I realise that it won’t make the pain any less real, but it’s a chance to articulate it, understand it, and, hopefully, give those around me a way of understanding what I’m going through. I won’t be writhing on my own. Rather, I’ll be writhing in writing, which sounds –and feels– considerably better than squaring up my illness in a solitary, invisible fashion.

That said, I’m not entirely sure whether it’s helpful to relive the challenging physical and mental conditions that I began this piece by subtly alluding to. I don’t think a limb-by-limb account of what I go through is essential. The idea, I hope, has been conveyed.

What I worry about sometimes isn’t whether I’ll be able to walk or talk in a few years’ time. I don’t look forward to that, nor do I wish it becomes a reality. Multiple Sclerosis is an unpredictable disease and I should never be naive enough to hazard a guess as to how it will affect me over the next few years. The thing that scares me is wasting what little time I have left doing something I don’t particularly want, something that doesn’t move me from the very core.. something that doesn’t stir my soul.

A life of intellectual, emotional and personal mediocrity is what many people seem unwittingly content to bequeath their children. I don’t want that for myself, nor for my darling daughter whose insatiable appetite for life instils in me an incredible, unshakeable will to keep going. It is this, I believe, that has sustained me through my darkest hour yet.

I don’t think conventional medicine has yet come up with a real antidote to pain that’s amplified by one’s exaggerated yet somehow palpable fears. If such a miracle drug has been found, my doctors aren’t being very honest with me. So for the time being, what I ought to do is purse my lips lest I wallow in self-pity, and commit to expressing my innermost physical and emotional fears on paper.

Once I lay my fingers on a keyboard or wrap them snugly round a pen, I will feel a slight relief. I always do.