A square peg now and always

The other day I was chatting with my six year old son about school and he talked about how hard it was for him to find someone to play with. His friends from previous years were no longer interested in playing with him because their interests had diverged and he said he often found himself walking alone during playtime, hands in pockets, looking down at the ground. This knowledge tugged painfully at my heartstrings, all the more so because it brought back memories of my own difficult school years.

I too had days when I would walk around in the playground alone and friendless. I remember I would try to pass the time until the end of the break by going to the toilets, combing my hair until it was neat and perfect and generally making myself as invisible as possible. I did end up making friends although the relationships were generally ones of convenience rather than true camaraderie. Looking back now I can see that it was not easy being an Arab in London in the late seventies. We are so used to London being a cultural melting pot that it is easy to forget that it was not always so. During those years I yearned to fit in, to be more like the others at school. All the other children seemed to do exciting things during their holidays such as going camping or fishing or skiing, whereas my family’s idea of leisure time was staying home and cooking a big meal.

And yet these cultural differences do not explain entirely why making friends was so difficult for me. One of the advantages of getting older is that you get a better understanding and acceptance of who you are. I was never going to be conventional. I am and have always been a square peg in a round hole. It’s not that I look or act in any particularly unusual way. I am not a bohemian or a “free spirit”. Neither am I some socially inept introverted person. I have enough social skills now to converse with people in a confident manner. Yet it is clear to me that I see and experience the world differently to most other people. That’s not to say that I am any better than others or particularly special. Just that I tend to have opinions that are not held by many. Some might call me quirky.

This disposition runs in the family. It should come as no surprise therefore that my son is quirky too. Both my parents were unusual people. They were not geniuses or great savants but they had an independent streak in their thinking which I must have inherited. My mother was considered the plain one in a family of beauties. She did not have the height, plump lips and hourglass figure of her sisters. She was very bookish, the only girl in her family to get a university degree. Growing up in Damascus during the sixties, a time of political uncertainty where several governments came and went before the military coup that brought in the Ba’athist regime of Hafez al Assad, she took a keen interest in the politics of the day, going on marches and talking back at teachers she disagreed with. From an early age she found herself running against the flow of majority opinion, being forthright in her views even when the general consensus was against what she said. When people applauded Assad for bringing stability and security to Syria she was vehement in her denunciation of his regime. Fortunately by that time she had married and left the country.

My father was more judicious in his speech but his life too was distinguished by an individual rather than a conventional way of doing things. He was a senior Saudi diplomat whose career success was all the more remarkable given his lack of family connections (in a country where tribal loyalties matter) and his refusal to play politics in order to get ahead. Here is one anecdote that throws light on his character. It was customary for government officials to greet the king at the airport every year when he returned from his Summer holidays. There would be long lines of people waiting to pay their respect to their monarch and the monarch in turn made note of who was there, showing loyalty to him. Favours were dispensed accordingly. My father never took part in this. His friends would urge him to go, maybe then he would get the long awaited promotion. But he obstinately refused to do so. In his mind, he was quite clear that he was serving the Saudi people, not the Saudi royal family. The promotions did come in due course, his royal bosses being too aware of his usefulness and talent for diplomatic negotiations to overlook him for too long. In the decade before his death at the young age of 55, he was at the heart of Saudi foreign policy from trying to broker a peace deal in Oslo between the Palestinians and Israel to negotiating to join the GATT trade treaty (later WTO).

Growing up with such parents was a privilege but it created misfits out of us. When I was 13 and my elder sister 16, my father was recalled back to Riyadh and he took the difficult decision to leave us in London (with an au pair, joined by my cousin who was in her first year at university) so that we could continue our schooling here. The family back home was scandalised. How could he leave his young daughters without a male protector in London? Surely, free of restrictions, they would get up to no good or mix with the wrong crowd. To this my father replied that he trusted his daughters and that their education was too important to compromise. His trust was not misplaced. Nothing could have been worse than to disappoint him. So we stayed on in London to complete our education through to university. While other diplomatic children returned home and were re-integrated into society, we always stood out as the foreigners whenever we visited Riyadh in the holidays. We didn’t fit into the norms of society in our homeland and we didn’t really fit in with what other young teenage girls were doing in London either. There were no boyfriends or alcohol or youthful experimenting with drugs.

So here I am, married to an Englishman, living in a quiet suburb of London. It took me a long time to meet my prince charming. Somehow everyone I met before then made me feel like a freak. Then came along Andrew, with his nerdy habits of collecting model trains and observing street lights, here was someone every bit as unusual as me. We connected! And we procreated. I had hoped that my son, with his English surname and good looks, would find school a less daunting place than I did at his age. But true to his parentage, he has Andrew’s interest in trains, buses and planes and he has my shyness and awkwardness. While the boys in his class want to play fight or do sports, my boy is more interested in observing the different models of buses he sees on the road or watching documentaries about concorde aeroplanes. But what can I do? I shall just have to watch and support him as he grows up, knowing that he might find it challenging to fit in with his peers but hoping he will eventually find his niche.

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