In the second installment of The Past Lives of Habzyz II, our pharaoh-in-residence recalls feelings imprisoned in Saudi Arabia and capital punishment in school...
In a past life, I was a prepubescent boy living in a desert compound in a country that is considered to be the holy home of Islam. To be specific, I was living in the barren quarter of the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals campus in Dharan, Saudi Arabia.
It was my first time living in the Middle East, and I wasn't used to many of the customs, let alone living in a fenced cage, in a desert with very little in it. I wasn't accustomed to the sight of small homes camouflaged in the brown nothingness, or the landscapes devoid of colour (with the exception of red boxes of poison scattered around to kill what I assumed to be other poisonous scorpions, snakes, or spiders).
My entertainment was limited to a convenience store, well-stocked with packs of Nerds and censored issues of Wonder Woman, although you couldn't really tell who she was; she was completely blacked out except for her eyes, niqabi style. There was also a terrible recreational centre, complete with misshapen basketballs, a decrepit bowling alley, and a concession stand to buy fries and coke. It seemed like I had to make a home out of a prison.
It was probably the first time in my life that I was excited to go to school; just the prospect of seeing colours outside the fences enthralled me. When I arrived on my first day, my excitement quickly dissipated into horror. What I was brought to didn't look like a school, it more resembled a run-down motel, complete with holes in the roof, a dingy white room crammed full of students sitting on rusty chairs, and desks made of spare pieces of wood with unfinished nails.
The first class of the day was Arabic, and my teacher was a relatively small, sallow Egyptian man with yellowish brown teeth, and breath to match. Due to the fact I knew no Arabic, I was placed in the kindergarten class with the five-year-olds despite the fact that I was rounding my twelfth year. The desks were small and I felt lost; most of these kids already knew more Arabic than I did. The teacher was a no-nonsense man with an inferiority complex that he took out on the children. I recall once taking a stand, telling the teacher to stop slapping a child because he couldn't pronounce a letter in the alphabet. In doing so, the crying child was quickly forgotten, and the teacher quickly turned around and came towards me, stopping to grab a cricket bat. With a brisk swing, the bat cracked against my knee and thus he taught me what I could expect if I ever chose to speak out of turn.
Angry and hurt, I limped home to my father (Habzyz II), and told him about the lesson I was taught. The next day my father brought me to school, and decided to pay a visit to my teacher. I entered the class first to see my smug looking teacher looking satisfied with my limp. As the class began to settle in, my father knocked on the door with a request to have words with my teacher outside. Habzyz II towered over him by a whole foot, and as soon as the door was shut, the cries of a man-child could be heard, as Habzyz II taught him the lesson of what happens when you mess with a Habzyz. All that could be seen from the class room was the flimsy wall shaking as my father continued to slam the life out of him. After about ten minutes of crying and pleading, a deal was struck. My teacher returned to the class swollen, bleeding, and limping. With a defeated demeanour, he promised me he would never again lay a finger on me, and that he would also stop teaching me and just give me a 100% on all assignments and tests. From that moment on Arabic class would become nap-time. Word had quickly spread amongst the teachers, and it was understood that I should never be hit.
The following year I entered grade one Arabic, armed with a 100% score and the inability to recite the alphabet. On the first day, my new Arabic teacher told me that I could continue sleeping in class, as long as I promised never to bring my father to visit. I continued my routine of nap-time until one day, the principal interrupted the class. I awoke to find an eight year-old boy pointing me out to the principal and babbling quickly in rapid Arabic that I couldn't comprehend. I have never seen this child before and couldn’t imagine what he would possibly accuse me of.
Upon being whisked out of class, we arrived at the principal's office to find a waiting police officer. Principal Talal returned to his desk and began to lovingly stroke the cut-off broom handle that he enjoyed beating children with. The eerie silence was broken when he asked the child to explain what happened. The child began by saying that three weeks ago, in the parking lot, I approached him with a bag of white powder. He thought it was powdered milk, and when he was about to taste it, I (supposedly) told him that you don't taste it, you sniff it.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I, of course, had no alibi for where I was three weeks ago, as the child was uncertain of what day it actually happened. I also knew that drug dealers in Saudi Arabia are sentenced to death. I was only 13 at the time and, at that point, had never seen drugs, let alone sold them. The Principal give me a chance to get off easy, by admitting that it was just a joke; if that was the case, my admission would get me off with an easy fifty lashes. I remember considering the deal as I was terrified of what would happen if I was arrested. I didn't take the deal, and instead, I explained to the principal that if I was responsible, I would gladly take the lashes, but that I was concerned that if someone is dealing drugs to children then they deserve to get found out.
I swore to Allah I had never seen this kid before. The child instantly swore to Allah that I was the one responsible. It seemed that his word meant more than mine as he was Saudi Arabian, and I was merely a Muslim foreigner. My fate almost seemed sealed, until the child slipped up by adding that he had a friend who was there at the time, and will also swear to Allah that I was indeed the culprit. Upon hearing this the police officer rose up and proclaimed that if this other child identifies me that he will be taking me in.
We proceed to march to the kid's friends' classroom. In terror's grip, I can recall trying to cherish every step I took as a free boy. It was as if they were marching me towards the electric chair on death row. We arrived at the classroom, and just before the knock that would decide my fate, the Principal turned to the child and asked him one last time if he was positive I was the one responsible. The child replied with a non-committal, “I think so, maybe.”
Instantly the Principal began beating the shit out of him. It was probably the most bittersweet moment in my life; deep down inside I couldn't believe that a grown man could beat a child like that, but at the same time I felt like the child deserved it, and it was better him than me. In the midst of the beating, the Principal stopped for a second and told me to return to the classroom and never to speak about what happened, or else I would end up worse off than the child he had bloodied.
I returned to class in a state of shock. Everyone asked me what happened to me and were surprised I returned without any lashes. I kept my mouth shut, and refused to tell anyone what happened, as I simply put my head on the desk and returned to sleep. The whole experience left me feeling very vulnerable in a racist society, and the only thing I learnt from the whole experience is that you never, ever, swear by Allah unless you are truly 100% sure.