[Salma Idilbi is a Syrian writer. This text was written in Arabic and published on Jadaliyya. It is translated by Fatima Fettar]
I spent every moment of my entire education, from age four to eighteen at “Dar al-Salam” School at the center Al-Najma Square in the heart of Damascus, It was one of the best private schools. Its students were all from affluent families; businessmen, officials, and what was then know as “the middle class.” My own cousin who was twenty years my senior was educated in the very same school. Many of her teachers from the primary and secondary stages were still teaching. Most of them used to come to school in short skirts, but later began to wear the veil.
We arrived at school at a quarter to eight. The military education teacher stood outside of the front gate. She watched the girls as they got off of colorful buses. She was short in stature. Plump. Her hair was always combed, black, soft, and immense, cascading on her small shoulders. Her eyes were black. An intense ferocity beamed from their depths. She stood firmly, her back taut. Her fists always clenched as if saluting the flag. Her scrutiny was always trained on the girls descending the buses in the direction of the school. Girls, among whom morning conversations on the busses circulated about Fairuz songs, would instantly become grumpy, the distance between their eyes narrowing as they poured out of the buses and walked toward the small school door. Ms. N, no detail ever went unnoticed by her, stole the smiles from the students’ mouths, taking them and keeping them in a place that none of us knew of. Laughter was prohibited, as was smiling. Her glances were disapproving and students were always guilty until proven otherwise. There was never any room for humor. A humiliating slap here, a tug of the hair there. Her husband was a martyr, a hero. How could the wife of a martyr be so tough? I would ask myself. We were prohibited even from putting our hands in our coat pockets, because this was a clear indication that a student was hiding her long or painted nails. Hair was to be always up in a ponytail. The ribbon had to be black. Braids were prohibited.
To escape from the hands of Ms. N. was an impressive achievement and a source of pride. We gathered in the vast courtyard, standing in carefully organized single-file lines. We performed the “Morning Salute” in our military outfit. Khaki pants and a jacket with belts wrapped around our waists that we nicknamed “the band.” On our shoulders stretched yellow or red bands, indicating our grade level, but they resembled officer ranks.
Ms. N. would hold the microphone as if she were a professional singer. She would begin by yelling (I can still hear her) “Ista’id!” (Attention!) exaggerating the short vowel after the ta’ so that it sounded more like “Istaaa`id!” We would put our right feet out, in the standby position, ready for “battle.” This was always followed by “Istarih” (at ease!), again with an elongated a. We would return our right feet to their spot. “Formation!” We would raise our left hands and place them on the shoulder of the girl in front of us. Hands were to be tight and firm, and here, the subject of joking was not acceptable at all. “One Arab Nation,” N. would yell, and we would raise the level of hyperbole in order to satisfy her: “With an Eternal Mission!” “Our goals” she would yell. We’d answer “Unity, Freedom, Socialism!” “Our Eternal Leader?” We would answer: “Comrade, Hafiz Al-Assad!” After this, she would lead the salute to the flag, and woe to those who did not sing or who pretended to sing.
The bell rings, and we run towards the grand staircase to enter our cold, gloomy classrooms.