‘Giggler’, as I was known during my introductory weeks, gradually befriended new pals and re-friended old ones whom he was, typically, uneasy about at first. As well as my unusual laugh, I became known for other qualities. During the break and lunchtime, the majority of the class played football, but with a tennis ball. The goalkeeper stood against the wall, his back towards us, and threw the ball high into the air. I became infamous for pleading with team-mates to set up volleys for me, letting the ball bounce so that I shoot it whilst it’s in the air.
You would often hear me shouting “VOLLEY! VOLLEY!” much to the amusement of most and annoyance of some. Once the ball bounced before my eyes, I ran towards it and shot the fading-green cannonball with all my might not towards the goal, but towards the Heavens. It always landed beyond the playground's fence and into neighbouring gardens - costing us a match and a tennis ball. Though angered at first, my classmates saw the humour in my heroics and chased me around the playground in playful vengeance.
The school’s undisputed bad-boy, Ali, also happened to be my buddy. He came from a distinguished family, his grandfather being the founder of the school; he was virtually untouchable. We were cordial towards eachother at the beginning but over time became very good friends, and took great pleasure in the fact that our friendship seemed a natural surrogate to that of our fathers, though within starkly different settings; theirs being in Najaf’s centuries-old seminaries, hub of religious and intellectual rigour, and ours in the London of Blair, Beckham and Bo Selecta. My hopelessly-bad vision meant that I sat next to him at the very front of the classroom, and he made sure that our proximity was exploited for comic purposes whenever a chance presented itself: If the English or Maths teachers came close to us to answer a question, he would slip his hand under the desk and rub my thighs so as to force a certain kind of kneejerk reaction, quite literally. The result was forever the same – I jump, he laughs, we get shouted at, lesson resumes.
Our form tutor, Miss Kazmi, had been teaching at the school since its inception in the early 90s. Before becoming our teacher, she had taught our elder siblings and so her long tenure meant much more than sound professional experience; rather, she conducted herself as though she were an elder sister as well as a teacher. She was stern but boundlessly pleasant and exuded an air of confidence, charisma and kind-heartedness. Despite that, she had forged an ominous name for herself and if you were on her bad books, life looked dim for you. She upheld a character that demanded respect from colleagues and students equally.
Miss Ameen, the aforementioned Maths teacher, was another name worthy of note. She had a jar of honey for a heart and cherries for cheeks: She was immensely kind but easily-reddened. It took guts to anger her and not laugh at the sheer speed of blood rushing through her otherwise-friendly face. I once had the misfortune of pressing that big red button during a particularly mind-boggling lesson: Algebra. She had just solved an equation that appeared to me as though it had been composed entirely of Sanskrit characters, but I nodded along like the whole deal was as simple as 1+1. Ali, it turned out, believed my little trick; he thought I had actually understood what was going on, and asked me as to why she’d solved it the way she did.
“I don’t know. She just did.”
I answered him in Arabic and referred to her only as “she.” Little did I know that even Maths teachers were to be referred to as khala, “Auntie” in Arabic, by way of showing respect. Though it was a murmur, she –sorry, khala- heard our two-sentence exchange and turned volcanic before I had time to fathom the reason behind her wrath.
“SHE?! HAVE YOU NO RESPECT FOR ELDERS? IS THIS HOW YOU SPEAK TO YOUR PARENTS?!”
She was berserk. I know it’s unseemly to quote her entire tirade in capital letters, but that’s really how it was. She was absolutely livid.
Being the relentlessly-polite kid that I am, her accusations confused and horrified me, and a big lump formed in my throat as my stammer-stricken defence proceeded.
“Miss, I didn’t mean to offend you. I was just..” but she was in no state to listen.
Ali, like everyone else, was stunned and I remember his back straightening immediately. He turned his gaze between our desk and the wall in front us in utter silence. Had it been any other teacher, he would’ve leapt to my defence. Not this time. Not Miss Ameen.
At the end of the lesson, I made a desperate attempt to apologise and, to my surprise, she had almost forgotten the incident. Her face, now light-pink, beamed and it was she who apologised profusely for over-reacting. Naturally, I insisted that it was my error of judgement, as I struggled to swallow this tumour of a lump in my throat.
As well as teaching Maths, she was in charge of overseeing afternoon prayers. After lunchtime and before registration for the 5th and 6th lessons, about seventy-plus kids flocked to the prayer room and stood in rows before The Almighty. I was occasionally asked to be the one who recited the call to prayer, Athan. It was difficult to control the large number of sweaty and restless students, so I tried to quieten them with my melodic bellowing. Sometimes it wasn’t enough so I followed up the first “Allahu Akbar!” with a silencing “INCHABOO!” (Slang Iraqi for “Shut up”) It worked, and Miss Ameen cast an approving smile over my ingenuity.
For a variety of reasons, History was one of my favourite lessons. It was chaotic, almost riotous, and was never short of laughs. Most importantly, it was an opportunity to have a stab at non-fiction writing, no matter how bleak it seemed at times. The lesson was unstable throughout, though, and by the time I sat my History GCSE exam at the end of year 11, we had been taught the subject by three different teachers, though our lack of behaviour didn’t have much to do with this.
At the beginning of year 10, Miss Rizvi, the year’s assigned History teacher, was on maternity leave and was deputised by the IT teacher, a sinister mixture of ostensible sleaze and cockiness. Thankfully, the winds of motherhood waned halfway through the year and she returned to resume her role, ending a whole term of inaccurate note-taking from a teacher who was more USB than USSR, if you know what I mean.
When she got back, she had known all of her students except for me. As was the case in other lessons, it was blindingly-clear that a select few got special treatment in and out of the classroom. I wasn’t one of them. In History, this meant better essay-marking and a sweeter-than-usual manner of address. Feeling somehow robbed of my divine right to attention, I was perhaps more self-assured than I should have been. Ali and I often copied eachother’s work and made use of the seats vacated by our classmates who had chosen to study wind patterns and mountains instead of wars and monarchies. Miss Rizvi made no secret of her dismay of our (his, mostly) disruptive behaviour, but we knew that she was secretly entertained: no teacher likes a straight-A-no-cheek kind of student, not that we were anything spectacular academically.
Many would argue that the highlight of Year 10 was our English teacher. A fresh graduate; young, articulate and impeccably dressed – she was nothing short of a celebrity to our chaste eyes. My most vivid memories of her lessons are those where we read –salivated over, rather- poems such as Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress and John Donne’s The Flea. A bunch of over-hormonal 14 year-old boys being asked to dissect a text soaked in sexual imagery was bound to trigger some sniggers and the resulting immaturity is easily imaginable, and excusable. I owe her a great deal for recognising my keenness for words and urging me to pursue it. In the light-green booklet that was my end-of-year report, she noted that I was promising and “gave the lesson 110%”, a compliment I will forever cherish. One of the other Mehdis, however, got a less complimentary report, prompting him to confront her briefly after school and say "Miss, I'll tell you one thing: You're dread!"
I was overjoyed with my report, but what I wanted more than anything was for her to reiterate her high opinion of moi at my hour of reckoning - Parents' Evening. As anyone who's ever been to school knows, Parents' Evening swings parental pendulums one way or the other; you're either God's gift or an utter waste of a child. Having worked my school socks off to impress at least one teacher, I was banking on the prospect of getting a glowing review of my performances in English. My elder sister turned up and made her way to the assembly hall whilst I lurked around the school gates and sneaked a peek every now and then in hope of catching a glimpse of something.. anything. Parents formed queues in front of their children's teachers and waited for their turn. The IT teacher had the least number of parents wanting to speak to him; a small crowd of mothers jostled for a place in the queue to see Miss Kazmi and Miss Ghania, the Bio/Chem and French teachers, respectively: the former’s reputation amongst parents was one that was built on endless requests for after-school detentions, whereas the latter had been simply known for teaching the most moaned-about subject; the longest queue of all, unsurprisingly, was comprised of middle-aged, belly-over-the-belt, balding Iraqi men who giggled and telepathically back-slapped eachother whilst preparing to speak to the gathering’s star attraction. I wouldn't have been surprised if some of them didn't even know what she taught. Despite that, a throng of fathers seemed suddenly compelled to discuss their children’s literary progress. Tragically, this meant my sister wasn’t able to speak to her because she deemed it dangerous to stand in the midst of a torrent of testosterone, and so, to this day, my much-lauded repertoire lacks verbal confirmation from the horse’s –mare’s, in this instance- mouth.
Towards the end of the year, rumour had it that she had got engaged and that she wasn’t going to teach us in year 11. Though my classmates and I would never admit it, we were left heartbroken; angry, even: She somehow rendered all of the year’s assignments meaningless and she got engaged. But we managed to forgive her and wish her a happy and successful post-Khoei life. I secretly (not anymore, I guess) hope that one day I bump into her so that I’m able to thank her in person for her encouragement.
At that point, I was almost 15 and I have a vague memory of my being eager to learn everything about everything. The limits of human ability hadn’t yet dawned on me and I thought I could be super good at football, skate-boarding, writing, studying, etc. I distinctly recall, though, that I was developing a real passion for all forms of counter-culture. Perhaps this was spurred by my (very late) discovery of Sylvia Plath, the Obituaries page and rock music, the latter being achieved through MTV Sports: Skateboarding, a videogame I played during the summer of 2000. The game’s soundtrack included bands such as System Of A Down, Cypress Hill and Deftones. I was entranced. I now know that the effect this revelation had on me could have only been so at that age; Sugar and Rock Superstar are awesome songs, but at the time they felt life-changing. One of my elder brothers deserves, contrary to popular opinion, I would imagine, special thanks for facilitating my musical –ideological, even- acculturation. “Pearl Jam is what people ought to listen to..” he declared “Cobain only got big because he jumped ship.” a sentiment Mickey Rourke echoed brilliantly, nearly a decade later, in The Wrestler. At a time when Justin Timberlake danced his way to the top of the charts, my unorthodox musical interests earned me extra kudos amongst my friends, though one of them claimed many years later that he had in fact been very rock'n'roll prior to my introducing the genre to the class.
Generally, my performance in year 10 was average. I didn’t feel the need to push myself as I had the previous year, and I was happy with the pace of my progress. I got on well with all my teachers, especially the Iraqi ones with whom Ali and I enjoyed myriad discussions. Sadly, he had announced that he would be leaving the school and going to Iran at the end of the year. At the same time, Iraq had taken international centre stage, and Saddam’s fall signalled a new life ahead for most people I knew.
To be continued..