The Leader's Motorcade

His mother was rapping the iqaal which his father had chosen for him around his new white ghutra, keeping it a little spread out so as to hold the cloth firmly in place. In the five years of school he’d been wearing it, he still hadn’t learnt to put it on himself. She began advising him on various things and especially, once again, to make sure he was in the front row. He saw his sister leaving for her school in her dark blue pinafore dress, her collar sticking out like white petals, and he felt full with pride: she would not be able to see the leader’s motorcade. It was only the boys who would be there to welcome him when he landed at the airport.

He made his way from the house, winding through the little alleys of his neighborhood and then out into the big square where his school was. His sense of uniqueness diminished the closer he got to school and the more of his peers he saw. They were all dressed in the same uniform as him: white thobe, white ghtra with iqaal on top – but at least he was the only one in his class who had the same name as the leader.

The buildings of the city were soon left behind as their big yellow bus left the town. He was not as interested in the loud conversations of the other students as he was in memorizing the answer his mother had specified to the questions the leader might ask. Most importantly, if the leader asked his name he was to reply, “May you live long.”

He was to say this after every answer – that was her most important piece of advice.

The road turned in to two faded black lines over a vast area of dusty ground. There were no more buildings to be seen, now that the bus had left the city limits. After a while the bus slowed down. A massive crowd of white came into view and its brilliance increased with sun’s glare.

He gripped onto the headset of the seat in front of him as the bus turned off the road onto unpaved ground with a violent jolt. The rising dust added a layer of grime to the prevailing bright whiteness.

“I want you all to line up two by two.”

 

These instructions from their Egyptian teacher Mr Rushdi were closer to a shout. He had spent the journey standing at the front of the bus watching the road through the front windscreen, and talking to the driver. He looked strange with the sides of his white ghutra tucked behind his ears.

He took his position at the head of the line, heading for where the groups of students were standing on either side of the road from the airport. The teachers in charge were spread out at the front of the white crowd, which was separated from the road by a green shield of soldiers. The nearest of his formal outfit began to deteriorate, rebelling under the pressure of the long wait in the crowd. The disc of the sun rose higher and its all- pervading white glare kept him from fully opening his eyes. He was on the point of asking the teacher’s permission to go and drink water from one of the big coolers which had been placed at the back of each bus, but he decided it would be wiser to enjoy his dusty spit than to lose his position at the very front. The restless little bodies fidgeted, and the teachers in charge tried their best to get them back into neat formation. For a fleeting moment the sound of speeding engines roared at them, as black cars with tinted windows flashed past at lightning speed.

Little hands reverberated, applauding in imitation of big hands, and then the white formation broke up entirely and chaos reigned.

On the way back the bus wasn’t filled with same clamour it had been on the way there. Sleep captured some of them at once, and snuck up stealthily on the others.

October… war… leader…us… Israel…

These were some of the words he’d heard his father saying to his mother as he had been feigning sleep that morning. Now he could hear a discussion, more like an argument, between teacher Rushdie and the Syrian teacher Mr. Ghassan who had decided to join them for return journey.

He walked home, sticking to the space noon shadows of the walls. His outfit was no longer neat and formal at all. He had his white ghutra in one hand and his iqaal in the

 

other, his white cotton skull cap was back on his head, and two buttons had come off his thobe.

He hadn’t even entered the house before his sister accosted him. He was surprised by his sister’s shout, who had gotten home before him.

“Faisal ….. Faisal”

She came out of the house towards him and when they were face to face she asked:

“Did you see him? Did you greet him?”

Her questions surprised him. And confusion persisted.

“What did he look like?”

He would have started sobbing, if his memory hadn’t come to his aid.

He summoned his mental image of the schoolbook picture of the leader, and before he went into the house he answered her:

“He was wearing an iqaal embroidered with gold and silver thread.”