In a Strange Land
There are ants on the tree, the children are screaming, and she wishes it would rain.
Salej watches an ant reach a knobbly piece of bark, hesitate, rear up, then turn back. Where was it going in such a hurry, if
turning back makes no difference?
Her dark eyes flicker out to where the children are playing. The bigger ones stand in groups, talking. It is the smaller ones,
Salej’s size, who run about shrieking to each other. She shrinks behind her tree. If it rains all the children will go into the big building.
And then what?
Mother brought her very early.
“You have to stay here until I come for you, Salej. I am busy with your Aunt Shamil. It is the law that you come here. Do not
Salej sniffs. Does crying matter if there is no one to see you? Mother had not said. Salej thinks not, and here are the cold tears
on her lower lids. When she thinks of Mother they get bigger until they roll out.
Earlier they sat in the dark room behind Aunt Shamil’s shop. Mother gave Salej a cup of strong coffee and a sweet roll as
Aunt Shamil said, “Poor little thing! At least the twins have each other.”
“She must go.”
“Poor little lamb.”
There is a sound like a musical instrument played on one note: bong bong bong bong bong! The children go to the building.
The bigger ones walk, still chattering, and the smaller ones – Salej’s size – skip or run.
Mother had pointed to the big building and said: “In there. I will be here again when it is time.” And now the children are
hurrying up the steps. Salej wipes her eyes and follows.
“Ah, Sally! Come with me!” A woman at the steps takes Salej’s hand and leads her inside. She is talking all the while but Salej
cannot answer. The woman opens a door just inside the entrance and shows Salej there are toilets. Salej nods, not meeting the woman’s eyes.
They go to another room where children are seated at rows of desks. There is a beautiful lady at the front of the room,
wearing a blue dress. The two women talk briefly and the younger one smiles at Salej. Salej drops her eyes. The other woman leaves.
“Class, this is Sally al-Shatri.”
The children chorus: “Hello, Sally!” Salej studies her sandals through a blur of tears.
The teacher smiles at Salej again and indicates a vacant desk. Salej sits, and stares straight ahead. Some of the children laugh.
The teacher says something. The girl beside Salej takes the shopping bag containing Salej’s lunch to the window side of the room, where a row of pegs supports a row of identical blue and yellow bags. Salej’s plastic bag with the incomprehensible red lettering gleams like a beacon to her shame. The other girl sits again, smirking.
At an order from the teacher the children open their desks. It is a signal to talk, evidently. Salej’s seatmate addresses her in
friendly tones as she removes an orange-covered book from the neat piles within. Salej says nothing; she sees that all the other children have orange books, too. She lifts the lid of her desk and finds there is nothing inside but a dirty, chipped ruler.
The lids are all shut with a clatter and one word from the teacher stops the class talking. The teacher says something about
“Sally” and her seatmate pushes the book to the centre of their desks. The book is open. At the top is big writing, and a picture of a dog sitting by a chair. In the chair is an old woman, knitting. There is smaller writing under the picture.
The teacher talks. Some of the children raise their hands. The teacher nods, and a voice from the back begins to speak. Salej
twists around, surprised, to see who is talking for so long. No one seems to have noticed; all eyes are on their books.
Salej looks at the picture again, but before long she steals surreptitious glances around the room. Most of the other children
are wearing blue jackets, each with a blue and yellow insignia on the top pocket. The boys have pale blue shirts, ties with thin yellow stripes, and dark grey trousers. The girls have blue dresses, and a few are wearing blue jumpers instead of jackets. Salej sees how the collars peep out of the neckline, which is edged in yellow. The children all have grey socks and black shoes.
Salej has a sand-colored shift dress and leather sandals. She is suddenly appalled at her own thin arms and legs, the colour of
milky coffee. She wishes she could hide.
At break she walks to her tree. She walks slowly so no one will notice her. The ants have a dead moth they are carrying up the