It was my very first day at school. My family did their best to prepare me for that significant day, that decisive period.
I was dressed, like other pupils, in a new white jallabiyyah, which was believed—not without controversy—to be ‘the national dress’ of my country of origin, Sudan. Therefore it was imposed as the public school uniform in those days.
Like many schoolboys descended from the lower class, my shoes were white plastic ones. On the other hand, and like many pupils who derived from the middle class, my schoolbag was made of leather. It had probably been imported from a foreign country, such as Egypt. However, I lacked the privileges other middle class students enjoyed.
For instance, I never went to elementary school, which would have provided me with a pre-school grounding. In those days there were two types of pre-schooling in Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan: the modern kindergarten and the khalwa. The modern kindergarten was inherited from the British colonial tradition, while the khalwa was its old-fashioned Islamic-sophist equivalent. My lack of preparation did not matter to me. I lost no important advantage, as my marks ranged between excellent, very good and good throughout my elementary schooling.
On that very first day of school I was as filled with excitement, pandemonium and enigmatic expectations as any of the schoolboys attending that day.
When we had finished learning and practising how to properly perform the morning assembly, and how to enter the clean classroom with its dark green door, windows, desks and seats, a teacher entered. He was handsome in a formal way, and his elegance and refinement made an immediate impression on us. He introduced himself as the headmaster of the school. And, as if he felt the mixture of eagerness, pleasure and anxiety that was racing through us, he said, ‘I’m going to tell you a wonderful story.’
Photo credit: DGlodowska
Accordingly, we directed our whole attention towards him. It’s unfortunate that I’m now not able to recall the entire details of that ‘wonderful story.’ I can only remember a vague image of a knight riding a horse, and a gorgeous princess riding on the back of that same horse, encircling her arms around the knight’s waist, while the horse galloped fast along the road, leaving clouds of thick dust floating in the air.
That headmaster was a brilliant teacher because he had chosen an ideal informal starter to our formal education. He had whetted our appetites and left us perfectly prepared for the upcoming official lessons. That appetiser made me look at the school as an attractive place, an apartment of stories. Therefore, I loved—at least during that elementary phase—going to school.
I believe that that appetiser contributed substantially to the development of my own narrative impulse. The curriculum itself helped me to develop this. That is to say, subjects such as ‘Islamic Religion’, ‘Arabic Language’ and ‘History’ were mostly presented in narrative forms. My imagination even allowed me to deal with subjects like biology and geography in a narrative mood. It was natural for me to envisage the growing stages of a plant as a story. I also enjoyed learning about women, who had different features to mine, in continents such as Africa, Europe and Asia.
However, as my schooling advanced, new subjects were introduced and old subjects were getting complicated.
My engagement with subjects that had narrative characteristics, such as ‘Arabic Reading’, ‘English Reading, ‘Arabic Composition’, ‘English Composition’ and ‘History’, was increasing. On the other hand, my relationship with subjects like ‘Mathematics’, ‘Physics’, ‘Chemistry’, ‘Arabic Grammar’ and ‘English Grammar’ degenerated from a half-hearted interest to a complete detestation. I guess their lack of narrative structure made a significant contribution to my declining interest.
Ever since I learned to read independently, my affiliation with narrative has become increasingly intimate. I’m now unable to imagine my life without narrative. Narrative has grown into the most decisive component of my cultural-creative identity. As a result, I became known in my motherland, Sudan, as one of its prominent ‘professional narrators’, that is, as one of its leading short-story writers.
I’m now doing a PhD in postcolonial studies at Victoria University.
My ‘narrative creative identity’ has the upper hand in determining the approach and method I’m employing in my academic project. I am making use of the story-telling skills I have acquired from my experience in writing short stories, together with the imagination that has been considerably enriched by my ongoing immersion in reading—and sometimes watching—a wide range of narrative and other creative genres. These experiences have played a vital role in my decision to utilise them in my thesis.
Could all that be possible without that very first ‘story lesson’ on that very first day in that very first school?
My answer is: it’s likely not.
Adil al-Qassas is a renowned Sudanese writer, storyteller and poet.