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[casi] From Riverbendblog October 05

Sunday, October 05, 2003

First Day of School...

Today was the first day of the new academic year.
Well, it was actually on October 1, but most students
didn’t bother going on Wednesday. University students
have decided they are not going to start classes until
next week.

Yesterday, I went with my cousin, his wife and my
brother, E., to shop for school supplies for his two
daughters- a pretty 10-year-old and a loud 7-year-old.
Every year his wife, S., takes the girls to pick out
their own pencils, notebooks and backpacks but ever
since the war, she hasn’t let them step outside of the
house- unless it is to go visit a relative.

So we packed into the car and headed off for a
shopping area in the middle of Baghdad. We don’t have
shopping malls or huge shopping centers in Iraq. We
have shops, big and small, up and down commercial
streets and located on corners of residential blocks.
School supplies are sold at ‘makatib’ or stationary
shops that sell everything from toys to desk sets.

We pulled up in front of a little stationary shop and
all got down. It felt a bit ridiculous- four grown
people all out shopping for Barbie notebooks and
strawberry-scented erasers… but I knew it was
necessary. E. and the cousin loitered outside of the
shop while we went inside to make our purchases.

I have missed stationary shops… the row upon row of
colored copybooks, the assorted cans of pencils, pens,
and markers are the best part of any school year. I
used to anticipate shopping for school supplies well
before the start of the school year. The long,
unsharpened pencils with no bite marks, multi-colored
pens, and clean erasers somehow held the promise of
achievements to come…
My cousin’s wife, S., was in a hurry. She had left her
daughters at our house with my parents and was sure
that the little one was going to talk them to death.
She went to pick out the pencils and crayons while I
got to choose the copybooks. In the end, I went with a
few Senafir (Smurfs) copybooks, some Barbie notebooks
for the older one and was hard-pressed to choose
between Winnie the Pooh and Lion King for the younger.
I went with Winnie the Pooh in the end.

The erasers were all in a big, clear fishbowl. S.
wanted to go with some generic pink ones that looked
like pieces of gum and smelled like tires, but I
argued that kids don’t take care of their school
supplies if they’re ugly and she should just let me
choose- they all cost the same anyway. I rummaged
around in the fishbowl, pulled out one colored eraser
after the other and tried to decide which ones would
look the best with the copybooks I had chosen.

The shop assistant looked exasperated when I started
smelling them and S. hissed that they all smelled the
same anyway. No, they DON’T all smell the same- they
all *taste* the same (and don’t shake your head- we’ve
all tasted an eraser at some point or another). In the
end, we went with some strawberry-shaped erasers that,
oddly enough, smelled like peaches… S. said I was
confusing the kids but I reminded her that they had
never tasted strawberries anyway (they only grow in
the northern region in Iraq and rarely reach Baghdad)…
her kids wouldn’t know the difference.

At home, we found the girls waiting impatiently. There
were mixed feelings- their summer vacation had started
at the end of June this year and since they had been
cooped up at home the whole summer, the last couple of
months didn’t count as a summer vacation to them. On
the other hand, they were going to get to see their
friends, and leave the confines of their house on a
daily basis… I would gladly trade places.

They greeted us at the door, reaching for the bags
their mother was carrying. The older one was
appropriately pleased with everything I had chosen…
the younger one was another story. Apparently, she had
outgrown Winnie Dabdoob (Winnie the Pooh, in Arabic)
and wanted a Barbie copybook instead… I tried to
divert her with the ‘pretty horse with a plait and a
bow…’ but she loudly proclaimed that he was a ‘7mar
benefseji’ (purple donkey) and if I liked donkeys so
much, I could keep the copybook… so from now on I’m
going to jot things down for my blog in a little
notebook with a purple donkey and a bear gracing its

My cousin and S. made arrangements on how the kids
would get to school and back. They agreed that my
cousin would walk them to school (which was two blocks
away) and wait around to see when school would be out
and what sort of security arrangements the
administration had made.

This morning, at 8:30, they headed out to the school,
the girls dressed in their uniforms, new pencils and
deceptive erasers ready for use… my cousin, pistol at
his waist, clutching each girl firmly by the hand,
reached the school just as other parents and kids were
getting there- school normally starts no later than 8
am, but today was an exception.

The school was full of people… but many of the
classrooms were practically empty- the desks were
gone… the chairs were gone… but, the blackboards were
still there and they would have to do. The good news
was that the windows that had shattered when a site
behind the school was bombed, had been replaced. The
parents agreed that any child who could, would bring
two pieces of chalk a week, until the school could
sort out the situation with the Ministry of Education.
An architect with 3 kids in the school volunteered to
provide white paint for walls at a reasonably low

We’ve heard of a few schools that are being renovated
in Baghdad by the UNICEF and the UNESCO, but it’s a
slow process and there’s a lot of damage. Some schools
suffered from the bombing, others from the looting and
quite a few from the ‘political parties’ that set up
camp at various schools all over Baghdad.

The curriculums aren’t going to be changed drastically
and the students will be using the same books but
teachers have been asked not to teach specific topics
in the history and geography books.

My cousin met with the teachers and with other fathers
and everyone decided that the best option would be to
have the kids bring in small chairs or stools to sit
on while the teachers gave classes. The fathers were
agreeing amongst themselves to take shifts ‘guarding’
the school during the day… lucky for my cousin, the
school is in a residential area and the majority of
the students’ parents live nearby- the whole area
keeps an eye on the kids. Very few of them will be
walking to and from school, at this point.

I remember watching them every year- I’d be off to my
university or work just as the kids started leaving
for school. The majority were on foot, early morning,
wearing their uniforms. The uniforms are usually a
navy-blue smock and white shirt for the girls, and
navy-blue or gray pants and a white shirt for the
boys. Many parents prefer uniforms because they are
more economical and the financial backgrounds of the
children are far less conspicuous when everyone is in
navy-blue and white.

They always looked crisp and clean in the morning-
shirts pressed, hair tidy, faces clean and backpacks
where they should be- on the back. By 2 o’clock, the
majority of them are straggling home after school in
little groups, backpacks being dragged on the
sidewalks, shirts half yanked out of pants, sweaters
tied around their wastes or around their heads and
white socks a dingy gray and bunching around little

This year will be different… S. says she doesn’t know
how she’s going to spend the day without the girls ‘in
front of her eyes’… “It felt like they took my lungs
with them- I couldn’t breathe until they got home…”

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