My memories pulsate up from the pavement as the street glides beneath our feet. The autumnal colors of the wall surrounding the school brush against your shoulder as we pass by each day. You'd always park by the baby palm tree on the corner, and from there we'd walk. I struggle to keep up with you, waddling like a female penguin. You hurry, holding my little hand, leading me to the place where I'd be taught how to walk with elegance. This morning Mummy told me I'm sorry I meant to say 'my mother' told me that they would teach me how to walk, how to sit, and how to dance.
How you'd argue with her when she insisted that I be taught there. I have no say in these arguments. I don't even know which language I should use. I'm only a small child, the top of my head barely reaching the level of your belt. All I have is my braid, which swings between my shoulder blades. You warned her so many times not to cut it, not to restyle my hair the way she wanted it. She likes it short and practical, but you want to watch it grow. You bend over to hug me goodbye, leaving me a small wet kiss in my ear. I wipe it away with my fingertips as you turn to go away. Your long strides take you past the row of palm trees which parallels the school wall, their thick trunks swallowing you out of my sight. Each palm tree you go past makes you seem smaller, biting a piece off you, as you recede in the distance. I wave to you, then I turn around and walk under the lofty archway decorating the school entrance.
I make my way through the big playground. Its wide pathways make the open space seem so much bigger. A group of boys in shorts are standing where two narrow corridors meet. The screams of another group of children reach me from the upstairs classrooms. Three girls walk down a path leading to I know not where. Their conversation is too grown-up for me. As they take the first turn to the right, they disappear; their conversation turns with them. I want to follow them, but I don't dare. I follow your instructions, waiting for the bell to ring. I hadn't realized that I was standing right underneath it. I take two steps back. I'm now standing with my back to the wall. I look around me. I see a teacher carrying a musical instrument bigger than me. The students go in. They come out. Nobody pays any attention to me. I feel like an ant.
They all carry bags, instruments, and hats. I watch them, frozen in this spot I've chosen. I play with the tip of my braid. In the corner on the left is a tap in the center of a circle of damp grass. As I look at it, I glimpse a bead of water; it glimmers in the sunlight as it drips from the spout starting to fall. Half a second later, the door of the classroom in front of me bursts open. The children rush out shouting and shoving, like a wave of dolls crashing into each other.
They look like tens and tens of twins, all wearing the same uniform. Their shoes are all similar. Their socks are all the same length. The ribbons in their hair have all been tied the same way. They're all of about the same height, and they're all, as a group or as individuals, much bigger than me. I join in their noisiness from afar. They've started throwing apples in the air above their heads. They kick at each other; dust rises around them. Their shouting gets louder with the chaotic movement.
Suddenly the bell above my head rings. I'm startled by the sound plus the strangeness of my surroundings. A stout woman emerges. Her frame blocks the entrance to the teachers' room. Someone shouts, "Miss Melvina is here . . . the religion teacher!" She's come to take me with her. Looking up, I hold in my frightened breaths. Over my head I see the huge signpost; I know that the sign says school of music and ballet. I've come here to learn how to read those letters. How large they are! I hesitate as I place my hand in the teacher's fat one. But I know that you won't be back for me until the day is done. They'll deliver me back to you when the bell rings again.
That first day at school was my first experience of time, trapping me between two long rings of a big scary bell.
The grown-ups ask me:
How old are you?
I hold out the fingers of my left hand and my right index finger. I bring my hands together.
I count them again to make sure I've got it right, then I always say:
Khaddouja is also six.
She lives near our farmhouse. She doesn' go to school because she has no shoes.
I believed then that children who didn't have shoes didn't go to school.
In that vast expanse everything was bigger than me. Even the way you looked at me, across the breakfast table, when I called my mother "Mummy" instead of calling her "Youm" or "Yumma" in the Arabic way. I only felt I was my true size when I was with Khadija; this person was the only creature in the world who made me feel that there was something, or someone, as small as me. I made her even smaller. I called her Khaddouja "Little Khadija."
She was my world. She was everything that came in the second half of the day. A world that spread between our farmhouse and her fathe's hut, by the banks of the Tigris River, in our little village twenty miles south of Baghdad. Zafraniya, it was called"Land of Saffron." That was where the apricot trees grew. Vast acres of graceful trees, their upper branches entwined. When the sun starts to sink over the apricot farm, their shadows fall as complex patterns of light and shade on the ground underneath. The youthful branches stretch out in all directions. Their sharp twigs seem like fingers, entangled in handshakes, exchanging bunches of white flowers. Each spring I wish that the flowers would last forever.
When the trunks of the apricot trees secrete a dark sticky glue, the color of a slightly burned syrup, we run to pick it. The gum is wedged between the rough folds of bark. We spend hours collecting it, kneading it into a ball as big as our fists. We press on the rubbery dough and roll it in the dust to make it less sticky. We stamp on it, flattening it; then we each take one end, pulling hard. We play a brief tug of war until the middle bit weakens, breaking in two. We share, making bracelets, rings, and hoops, which we hang from our ears. Sometimes we make false nails, trying to stop them from sticking together when we shake hands as we play "visiting the neighbors.";
I watch Khaddouja sculpting her doughy gum into the shape of a fish or a bird. She adds two pebbles, one on either side of the creature's head, giving it colored eyes. Watching it all the time, she lifts it high above her head as she runs around, weaving through the low-hanging branches. She doesn't tire of hovering in the air with her bird until she bumps into one of the trees and falls backward, laughing at the giddiness that overcomes her. The sticky bird falls into the ditch.
After our toys lose their bounciness, the apricot gum melts in our hands. Time trickles through our fingers, colored like burnt honeya sign that this magical day with Khaddouja will end. The sun is setting; my mother is waiting for me at home. I must leave my wild, skinny, childhood friend, who awaits my return from school every Thursday. She hides by the big farmhouse gate. Neither one of you notices her there. Her people call us "the doctor's family." I later found out that they call everyone who has a car and lives in a house that's not made of mud a "doctor." They also called us something else. They called us "the foreign woman's family."
My mother was relaxing on the black sofa in her room. She was wearing a black dress. The whiteness of her skin stood out. It was as though her face, arms, and legs were made of porcelain. She looked like an imported Chinese miming puppet. A rag doll strewn on the sofa. She was listening to the BBC World Service. A fashion magazine and a booklet about slimming lay by her side.
On the low table where she has propped up her feet is a small bowl filled with hazelnuts and a musical cigarette box. Every time she opened it, it played a tune. How I hated that tune! What you hated was the fact that she smoked. You thought it was improper for women to smoke. So you chose a separate bedroom, at the other end of the corridor, to get away from her clouds of smoke. She leans over to pick up one of those small colored bottles with the unusual tops. She will varnish her fingernails when she has finished trimming and tidying them. The nail file, tweezers, and scissors are in her lap. She hardly notices me entering. I greet her:
She answers me in an English as white as her skin:
Hello. Where have you been?
She's expecting my reply.
‹Outside, in the farm.
As usual, she flies into a rage. The bowl of hazelnuts gets knocked over as she leaps up.
You mean you were with that dirty little girl again. Didn't I warn you not to mix with that lice-ridden child?
But Mummy, she's my friend.
No! She's not your friend, she will only give you her diseases.
She starts to pick up the scattered hazelnuts, then asks:
Did you eat anything when you were with her?
I answer in a low voice:
Only a small piece of bread with some cheese.
She erupts again:
My God! Haven't you seen how her mother uses dried cow dung for the fire with which she bakes the bread?
Haven't you seen the hordes of flies that swarm around that cheese they make with their filthy hands?
I try to object:
Interrupting me, she raises her index finger, holding it up rigid and still:
I'll speak to your father when he gets back. Ifill make him stop you from going to the farm again.
I realized that I was going to be the cause of their next argument, but then, most days of the week seemed to be just another installment in a never-ending argument!
I couldn't understand why you shouted at each other so much. My going to the School of Music and Ballet made you throw pieces of your temper in her face just before breakfast.
The girl will be spoiled!
She answers you from the kitchen:
But the schools out here are so deprived. I want my daughter to learn languages, dancing, and socializing. I'm not asking for much.
You mimic the way she speaks:
Dancing and socializing, not asking for much! But one day, she may pay too high a price for your decision.
She comes to sit at the table.
I won't let her go to a primitive school!
Your face turns red, as if you were choking on a piece of dry bread.
Don't you realize, woman, that we're now in the Arab, Islamic world, and she and I are Muslims? This education, which you are calling "arts" could damage her future prospects.
It would still be better than damaging her morale in your local girls' schools. She's showing promise and talent.
Why do you want to keep her in isolation? Isn't it bad enough that she mixes with that Gypsy girl and those illiterate fools who spend the whole day running around in that disgusting farm?
Woman, you're talking about a culture you don't understand. I've warned you about the differences we'd face in raising her. I know what I'm talking about, why don't you listen to me?
I listened in the past, that's why we didn't send her to nursery school at the age of four like the other children, because we're so far away from civilization. But now I'm sick of this isolated village and its primitive people.
The time has come for her to be educated in the city. I want her to go to school in Baghdad.
Woman, let her mingle with the peasants' traditions, there's no harm in that. Let her bond with the land, with the people and their animals, the way we were raised. For God's sake, let her see what you can't see!
My mother calmed down, then replied:
I know that we can't afford to buy a house in the city at the moment; I have no choice but to wait until your projects and commitments in this area are done. I'll also overlook my loneliness, which you seem to have forgotten as a result of your numerous engagements. But I will not compromise with her education. The discussion is over. OK?
How often your arguments ended with that single word. From you, or from her.
The days pass. My mother announces that she hates the apricots because they give her an allergy. They give me Khaddouja, who comes over with all the gossip about the families who live in the mud huts built on the riverbank. In spite of your conflicting plans, you were unable to stop my mother from sending me to that school. And she in turn was unable to convince you to forbid me from going to the farm. Your disagreement allowed me to mingle with both worlds. Just like our house, which was in itself two worlds.
Once again, I join Khaddouja. We spend the entire afternoon looking for earthworms and snails. We turn over the stones and pebbles, pouncing on the insects sleeping underneath them, some on their tummies, some on their backs. We gaze at the ants with their glimmering sheen as they slip in‹out‹in‹out of their lacy, sandy mounds. We stamp on their anthills; how we laugh as we watch them scatter. The snails end up on the liquid gum that oozes out of the pores of the apricot trees. We spend hours collecting those fragile jellied creatures that were languishing peacefully in their helical shells, and attach them, with pleasure, to the tree trunks. Khaddouja entices them out by singing to them a peasant's rhyme in her hoarse voice to coax them out of their hiding places:
"Oh, snails, snails, show us your horns, oh but . . . Snails, snails, come out and start to head butt . . ." The naïve molluscs respond to her appeals. They extend their small heads from their safe havens, their feelers flailing at the air. They clamber onto our hands as though to kiss our sweaty palms. They leave behind them a thin transparent strip of sticky slime. It tickles; we laugh even louder. At the end of the day we find our pockets full of snails that haven't succumbed to the charm of our song. I ask Khaddouja:
What shall we do with all these snails? She answers without thinking,We must kill them!
She beckons to me; I follow her immediately to the tree we call "the Punishment Tree." Khaddouja believes that the snails are defying her; she has to punish them without any hesitation. We head toward the tree which produces more sticky gum than any other in the entire apricot farm. We stick all the snails we still have onto its trunk until it is completely covered with all kinds of insects and other creatures, punished as decreed by Khaddouja's laws. We crush the ugly ones; they burst open under our feet, leaving behind a wet mosaic of shattered shells and grayish fluids. Khaddouja sneezes suddenly and small white petals from the flowering apricot tree descend gently upon our heads. In the distance we hear my mother calling.