...Was A Boy

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Posted by farid from ? ( on Monday, September 15, 2003 at 1:05PM :

If I had to sum up my reaction to formal, government sponsored education/socialization in the simplest possible terms...I'd point out my experiene in going from one country to another...from one official religion to another...from one language, actually three languages...and one culture after another.

I don't remember much about my early years in Kuwait from when I was born in Baghdad, lived in Mosul in the north and then moved to Kuwait. When I was just turning six we moved to San Francisco...which was a greater distance than in miles alone. We left Kuwait in 1953 at a time when it hadn't changed much at all from when it had been built by pirates as a resting point in the early 18th century. There was still the huge mud brick wall with enormous studded gates like towns had in the Middle Ages...and they would be locked at night too and opened in the mornings.

San Francisco was worlds and centuries away. America was caught up in post-war confidence and growth and the promise of immense wealth. There was literally nothing there that resembled anything I'd been used to, including the language and customs. But a kid learns fast so in the three years we spent there I became as American as the next fella, even to insisting that English was my true language of choice. You can't fight television, you have to shoot it.

When we returned to Kuwait there had been changes there as well. It didn't look much like the Kuwait of only three years earlier. There were many more European families, there was now mandatory education...beggars had been cleared from the streets and put in government housing...there were supermarkets just beginning to pop up...outdoor theaters, four and eight lane highways and communities built just for foreigners. Opting not to send us to Europe for schooling, something the government would have paid for and which every other foreigner with children took advantage of, my brother and I were sent to the one school recently constructed that accomodated all grade levels up till college...and they were just then building the first one of those in the country.

Everyhting in the school was different from what I knew school to be...what it was "supposed" to be. First of all the language, Arabic, was a new one to me, having only spoken Assyrian at home before learning English. I didn't know a word of it when school started and that brought me face to face with something else I'd never experienced...corporal punishment as an inducement to education. I was never hit as a child anyway and certainly never in school in San Francisco. But from the first day at school in Kuwait I was made to go to the head of class repeatedly to get my palms smacked with a bamboo rod.

The Kuwaitis were in the throes of the Pan-Arab movement Nasser was just starting up and the bombing of Port Said in Egypt by the British, killing mainly civillians...made feelings against Europens run high. To the average Kuwaiti there was no difference between an English boy and an American one. If he spoke the language and dressed as they did and acted as they did...he was one of them and therefore a fit subject to vent their justifiable rage on..and also the only one of that breed they could get their hands on.

In the year and a half I went to school in Kuwait, eerything I thought of as "normal"..."decent"...right/wrong, got turned around or was defined in totlly new ways which required me to adapt myself all over again or pay the price. I couldn't do it, or wouldn't...and I paid the price. Seeing that I was falling behind my grade level and worse, didn't care, my parents sent me to Baghdad to live with an uncle, his wife and six children. Instead of sending me to another Arabic language school they thought to give me a fighting chance by placing me as a day student in an English boarding school that had a few Americans in it as well.

note: I found out later that Joan Baez was in Baghdad the same year I was...wonder if we went to the same school?

I thought I was safe at last...though I was being prepared to be a permanent foreigner, until I was reminded that there are differences as well between the English and Americans...as there are between the two versions of that same language they use...differences which now brought on their own punishment in the form of withering criticisms by the teachers for the "wrong" ways I spelled English words.

At home my aunt tried to introduce me to Christianity...something my parents hadn't taken seriously. We were supposedly Catholic and she was Lutheran. They tried the local American Jesuit University and every weekend a good monsignor would come drill me about a Jew named Jesus...why I could never understand. When I refused to go along, the Lutherans were conscripted and for several Sundays I had to go sing about Jesus...and I still didn't get the connection. Mercifully they all gave up and I could enjoy my Sundays for a change.

In Kuwait the religion teachers had taken great delight in forcing me to go through the Muslim ritual, which I would have thought would have been anathema to them. But I guess they couldn't resist the opportunity thrust their way. I was a "Christan" kid in a school and country filled with Muslims. I'd resisted their religious indoctrination was well so that by the time I arrived at the Luthern Glee Club in Baghdad I was convinced religion was just another device to torture people with.

What was interesting to note later was that I never belonged where I was. In Kuwait I was pummelled aand beaten and insulted for being an Anglo...and all my protests that I was born in Iraq were fruitless and worse because I didn't speak the language or have the religion of Iraq...so to the Kuwaitis I was a Westerner...which wasn't a popular thing to be, not with the working class. In Baghdad I was called an Arab by the American and English children at the boarding school and when I tried to lean on my Anglo credentials...my lack of knowledge of the Arabic language, my reliance on English (which was a sort they didn't recognize as legitimate anyway), living in America for the last three years...they took it as a sign that I was ashamed, for good reason, for NOT being a Brit or some other white type person...and that only made them haughtier..like I was an Anglo wannabe...desperate to be accepted by these superior worms and slugs.

Finally we returned to the United States and I had to learn how to spell the language in another way or face a whole other set of gauntlets to run...plus I couldn't be Iraqi because we were all being melted in that pot to one sort of goo...but as luck would have it...I wasn't sure I wanted to be melted into anything anymore. I'd grown wary of this thing we do to innocent and hapless children born through the luck of the draw anywhere on this planet ten people are fighting among themselves and teaching their hatreds to their offspring. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, when ToTo accidentally lifts the curtain and exposes the plain old carnival barker manipulating the levers and lights that go into his supposed wizardry. Obviously "reality" depended on where you lived and how you lived and how often you moved around. It could be Muslim on Monday...Christian the following Wednesday...Buddhist that Saturday and Atheist on Sunday. You could get high scores or low, depending on what your teachers insisted had to be the right way to spell color...not like that, but "colour"...unless of course you moved to the States, in which case you'd get the same damn word marked incorrect...and that was just the obvious stuff.

The spelling and the language and even the religion are tangible things you can identify and choose to accept or not...at your peril. But what of the other sparts that go to making up a reality...what of the subtle things like "fellow feeling"...and wanting to join in and conform and make friends and not have so many enemies. How do you ever know what or who "you" are if at every stop someone holds up a different sort of Crazy Mirror like in a mad Fun House and your image keeps changing and changing again until you don't know what "you" look like for real...and what if you can never leave the Fun House...what if the world itself is one big Fun House where all the mirrors are made by a capricious handyman so that, shop around as you might...you can never be sure and so in the end...just to have some peace of mind...you decide you look like whatever gets you the least pain...and you cling to that mirror desperately to the point where you'll kill anyone who tries to take it from you...or show you another. And it goes without saying that you respond to other mirrors...the images of people in their own mirrors so that none of us knows what any of us look like...and we grow suspicious and learn to hate what's really just another version of us...in another sort of a mirror...the blind hating the blind.

My solution was to not care what I looked like...not in anyone's mirror. I had the chance to look behind the curtain...I saw the machinery...saw the man who manipulates the levers and pulleys...and I opted instead to be unimpressed by any of it...take only what was absolutely essential...and be carefull that no one else would ever really be satisfied with me. To me there was now more danger in fitting in than being an outsider...because I knew damn well that if I "fit" anywhere...it was only because someone had forcibly manipulated me into a slot. Let me be a parriah wherever I went...let me make sure not to fit in...Not in Iraq, not in America, not in Kuwait or anywhere else....except maybe in my self...and that was going to take at least one lifetime to get to know...a lot of the time wasted rejecting one version of me after another posted in those nutty mirrors by the Carnival man and resisting the pressure to just be His version of "me" and get it over with.

But in truth, it isn't as if you go around simply refusing to do what's expected...rejecting images of yourself out of hand just on principle. If you honestly try to find your own face...you'll get all the abuse in the world...no need to go courting it.

-- farid
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