Thursday, August 24, 2006

‘Yes?’ the teacher replies unenthusiastically as she stares out of the window, hands behind her back.
‘Can we write whatever we want in our letter?’
‘No’ says the teacher, continuing to look out of the window, ‘you must all copy out what I have written on the blackboard.’
The blackboard has been split in two by a wriggly chalk line in the middle. On one side of it there is a letter, written in white chalk. It reads:

Drear Soldier brother
My name is … and I am … years old. You are very brave my brother.
Your family must be very proud. We pray everyday for you to defeat Saddam the killer and come back home. We are behind you every second of the day, fighting from our little trenches: our schools.
May Allah be your guardian

On the other side of the blackboard there is a badly drawn picture of a standing man with his hands in front of his face in prayer position.
‘What about the picture Miss?’ asks the girl sitting in front of me raising her hand, ‘Can we draw a different picture?’
‘No’ the teacher sighs. Then she turns around and reluctantly walks to the blackboard, ‘you must draw this picture on one side of your paper, and then copy out this letter on the other side of it, putting your name and surname here,’ she says pointing to the dotted line after ‘My name is’ and then pointing to the next dotted line she says, ‘and your age in here.’
‘What did I tell you?’ the girl in front of me whispers victoriously. I want to give her a kick from under the desk but I don’t want her to know that she has annoyed me. So I shrug. ‘So?’ I say indifferently.
‘So’ she whispers again, with one hand in front of her mouth, ‘your drawing is no good and you have to start a new one now. I shrug again. Tina, who is sitting next to me whispers, ‘Just ignore her.’
The girl in front turns around and seeing that I’m still colouring in the picture I have copied from my pencil case; Luke Skywalker having a light sabre duel with Dart Vader, whispers a little louder than before, ‘You’re going to get a big fat zero for…’
‘Shhhh,’ says the teacher, ‘Quiet. You only have ten more minutes to finish your letters and then we’re going to start our lesson. If you’ve finished already, take your letter along with your moneybox and put them on my desk.’ And then she starts walking in between the desks and looking at people’s drawings. ‘That’s nice’ she says smiling, ‘Well done Zohreh.’
The girl in front of me giggles. ‘She’s not gonna be smiling when she sees your drawing.’ She whispers.
‘Shhhh’ says the teacher and glares at her frowning for a few moments before resuming her stroll around the class.
Suddenly it sounds like there is a fight going on downstairs in the yard. Some of the girls on the other side of the class are peering out of the window. ‘What is going on?’ asks the teacher as she walks to the window herself, hands behind her back. ‘A few mums are talking to each other down in the yard Miss.’ Says one of the girls, standing on the bench to get a better look. ‘Niki,’ she says excitedly, ‘you’re mum’s down there too. And so is yours Niloufar. And…’
‘Get down from there and finish your letter.’ Says the teacher as she opens the window.
An anxious voice calls from the yard, ‘Thank god Mrs Baagheri. Are you sending the kids down now?’
First looking at her watch and then back out of the window again and sounding a bit unsure, our teacher replies, ‘No’ and then, ‘There is still half an hour left until break time.’
‘We’re not talking about break time’ one of the mothers screams melodramatically in a squeaky voice, ‘the Red Alert has already gone off. We are about to be attacked.’
‘Oh I see,’ says our teacher, ‘I wasn’t aware of that.’
‘Well now that you are, will you send our kids down?’ says one of the mums from the yard.
‘I’m sorry’ says our teacher, ‘but I can’t dismiss this one class when the rest of the kids are still in their classes.’
There’s a sudden uproar in the yard.
‘Can you believe this?’
‘They’re crazy.’
‘Are you honestly expecting us to…’
‘Don’t worry Niloufar darling, mummy’s here.’
Niloufar hangs her head and starts to go beetroot red. Some of the rest of us start to giggle hysterically.
‘What is going on here?’ asks the principle, shuffling her way across the yard in her rubber slippers.
‘We’re about to be bombed’ shouts one of the ladies, ‘and we want to take our children somewhere safe.’
‘Yes I heard the Red Alert’ says the principle calmly, ‘but I’m sorry; I can’t close the whole school every time the red alert comes on. As you know, sometimes they come on three or four times a day and nothing happens. But even if we are attacked, I don’t think it’s safe for the kids to be sent away before school closing time. What if their parents are not home yet from work? What if their parents always pick them up from the school and they get lost? What if instead of going home…’
Tina nudges me. ‘Start packing’ she whispers. I grab my backpack and shove everything inside it in one swift move. Downstairs the principle is still counting the reasons why she is not going to close down the school, ‘I’m responsible for these girls. If something happens to one of these girls during school hours, I’m the one who will have to answer for it. I’m the one who angry parents will come to and ask, ‘why did you send our daughter out of school all by herself?’ What I’m trying to say is…’
Boommmm. The sound of the bomb is faint and muffled. ‘Aaaaa’ screams the squeaky mum, ‘they’ve started.’ The whole class stand up; ready to run out of the door. ‘Sit down’ our teacher says firmly. We all sit back down on the edge of our benches with our backpacks still on our backs.
Boommmmm. Class shakes. Windows rattle. One of the girls screams and starts crying. From downstairs mums shout out their kids’ names followed by, ‘Mummy’s here.’
Out in the corridors and stairs, kids have started to run around noisily. Our teacher goes to the classroom door and looks out for a few moments. Tina and I hold sweaty hands. All the girls with aisle seats have one leg out of the bench, ready to run out.
‘Out’ our teacher suddenly announces, holding the door wide open with one hand and waving us out with the other.
Tina and I squeeze ourselves out through the door. In the corridor, we join the sea of kids pushing each other towards the stairs. I trip but don’t fall over since we are all so packed together that there is no room to fall.
Outside in the yard, tearful mothers grab their children and storm out of the school.
Four of my friends and I try to go walk out of the gate but the principle stops us. ‘No. Only the kids whose parents have come to pick them up can leave. The rest of you are staying here.’ And then points to the back of the yard, ‘go and stand over there.’
‘Ahhh’ I say, ‘just because we don’t have crazy parents who spend their whole day waiting outside the school, listening to the radio, we have to stay here for the whole day and sit through maths while everyone else gets to go home.’ The others nod in agreement. ‘I said go and stand over there.’ Says the principle, noticing that we have not yet moved away from the gate, and points to the back of the yard again. We cut through the crowed and stand under a tree.
Booommm. There’s another explosion but we’re too miffed to pay any attention to it. ‘Back of the yard.’ The principle is saying to another group of disappointed girls.
‘Nargess’ a lady standing by the gates is calling and waving in our direction, ‘come hear darling.’ She screams. But she is barely audible in all the noise everyone else is making. ‘I’m here to pick up Leyli’ she says, holding the little first year girl, Leyli, in her arms, ‘you can come with us too if you like.’
‘That’s my neighbour.’ Says Nargess.
‘You’re so lucky.’ Maryam says to her.
‘Yeah’ she says, ‘Sorry’ she shrugs helplessly at us, ‘I see you tomorrow.’
The four of us wave at her glumly as she pushes through the crowed. When she reaches the gate, her neighbour asks her something and points in our direction. Nargess says something back to her. Then she shakes he head and says something to Nargess. Suddenly Nargess starts waving at us. ‘Come on’ she shouts cheerfully.
We start pushing through the crowd instantly, not wasting a nanosecond of time.
‘Come on’ says Nargess’s neighbour, eager to get out. We all follow obediently without stopping for a second to tend to our twisted veils or unbuttoned uniforms or undone shoelaces that have resulted from being pushed and pulled and hung on to for steadiness as we had tried to make our way through the sea of girls trying to make it out of the school.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ the principle shouts at us angrily, ‘How many time does a human child need to be told one simple…’
‘They are with me.’ Nargess’ neighbour cuts her off bravely. We all huddle behind her, using this opportunity to adjust our veils and button up our uniforms.
The principle grunts in displeasure and turns away from us.

Outside, I hungrily breathe in the air of freedom. ‘You will all go home now, won’t you?’ Nargess’ neighbour says, holding her daughter tightly to her chest with Nargess standing by her side. We need to split from them as we are not going in the same direction. ‘Of course’ the rest of us say in unison and then we turn away from them and start running in one direction as they run in the exact opposite.
We run past the little nameless shop next to the school. For the first time I can see what the front of the shop actually looks like without a crowed of girls attached to it. Multicoloured plastic boxes containing bottles of black pop are stacked on top of each other outside in the sun. There is an empty little worn-out stool just in front of the door where I presume Mashdi, the store keeper, sits when he is not being attacked by swarms of girls from our school demanding lollipops, popsicles, cheesy puffs or sour prunes.
The street is empty except for the odd car speeding through every now and then and swerving round the corner. We run as fast as we can until we are almost flying with our sails of veils flapping behind us in the wind. With every step we take the coins we have each been collecting for the war for the past three months, rattle noisily inside their plastic grenade-shaped moneyboxes.
Booommm We run faster laughing and screaming with tears spurting out of the corners of our eyes from all the dust blowing into them.
I imagine arriving home and finding a pile of rubble where our home once stood. ‘It landed on our home,’ I sing, my right foot hitting the asphalt. ‘Chlink’ the coins do their bit. ‘It didn’t land on our home,’ I sing as my left foot momentarily hits the ground before it is forced to swing back again as my right foot comes to the front. ‘Chlunk’ sing the coins.
‘Wait’ someone is shouting. I almost fall over trying to stop. My backpack, still in flying mood, hits me on the back of the head hard before falling back down to place again.
A little further down the road, Tina sits on the ground rubbing her knee. All around her are the contents of her backpack: books, notebooks, her Barbie pencil case and a packet of cheesy puffs. Her maths notebook with red cover has fallen open in the middle of the road and the pages are being flicked through by the wind, or the invisible man. Her plastic grenade rattles happily rolling down the road until it is stopped by the tire of a parked car.

‘It landed on our home. Chlink. It didn’t land on our home. Chlunk…’ I sing turning into our street after dropping off Tina, Maryam and Goli at their homes, making the last bit of my journey home alone since out of all my friends I live the furthest from school. I try to jump higher as I run, to see if any smoke is coming from the direction of our home, surprising myself with how much energy I still have after all that running.
I run up the stairs two in one, bursting into the front door of our flat, gasping for air. My mum and dad both come to the door to meet me. ‘They closed down the school?’ my mum asks. ‘No’ I say panting, pulling my veil off theatrically and feeling my hair stand up with static electricity. My dad smiles. ‘We escaped.’ I say and throw myself in their arms.
It didn’t land on our home.


jarvenpa said...

You write so vividly, Shirin. I think we need a book of your stories of your life. Congratulations on being such a little rebel. I think had we been in the same country, during the same school years, we would have been friends--I see in your writing a very kindred spirit. During part of my childhood I lived on a special Air Force base where all sorts of things were tested: there was a period during which air sirens went off often--though thank heaven we were not bombed. My friends and I too learned how to escape the school grounds and run home.(and I always hated set assignments! Draw this? No way.)

Shirin said...

Wow Jarvenpa, we have so much in common. And yes, set assignments were rubbish. We had to draw that stupid praying man almost every year during my first five years at school! I bet even the poor soldiers were sick of it ;-)

Tamara said...

Wow, Shirin. I lived in Iran through the first year of the revolution (I was around 10), and I have similar memories of utter chaos... but still, it wasn't the same as fearing bombs exploding over your head any minute. I know it may sound romantic, but there's a way in which I envy that experience... of living IN the moment.

Thanks for sharing!

Amir Sharifi said...

Dear Shirin, This was a very beautiful and vividly written story.
...One thing that I could never get use to was, when they forcefully took us to follow the coffins … in Junior High we had to do it but when it came to High School… I recall only one time attending one of those funeral demonstrations after that our principal banned us from going… He said “our school is better off not attending”… what kids were doing wasn’t good for the image of our school…

Tess Durbeyfield said...

didn't you have one of those underground shelters in your school with bags of sand all around it? I have one of my best memories from the war time when we were running and screaming with my friends through its corridors pretending to be scared.

Shirin said...

I know what you mean Tamara. Those were undoubtedly exciting times. I wouldn’t like to go through that now of course because things are a lot different when you’re an adult but being little then, we thought the whole thing was super exciting and the fact that our schools would sometimes close because of the bombings was just the icing on the cake really.

That sounds horrible Amir. Luckily our school never took us to anything like that. Mind you at the time, given the choice between attending a funeral and sitting in class, I would have taken the funeral every time ;-)

We didn’t to begin with Tess but then they decided to build one and funnily enough, it finished on the exact same year as the war ;-) We only ever got to use it once for our emtahaan moarrefi I think, during which there was an attack and people started screaming and laughing. It was really funny with teachers trying to keep everyone sitting and people pretending to cry while all they were doing was looking over at someone else’s paper. Ahhh the good old days :-)