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http://www.riverbendblog.blogspot.com/ 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 cover. 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 price. 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 ankles. 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…” __________________________________ Do you Yahoo!? The New Yahoo! Shopping - with improved product search http://shopping.yahoo.com _______________________________________________ Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. To unsubscribe, visit http://lists.casi.org.uk/mailman/listinfo/casi-discuss To contact the list manager, email email@example.com All postings are archived on CASI's website: http://www.casi.org.uk