Diplomacy, In Slices : 4.5 minute read

            “Stop it! Stop it, right this minute!”

          “But why, Miss? My grandfather says we should thank him.”

            It was my daughter’s Year 5 ski trip during the February half term. What was usually a three-hour drive back to München Airport had turned into six. With that same number of Al Thani boys with us, Mohsin —the Egyptian minder extraordinaire charged with accompanying the ruling family kids—had convinced the Qatar Airways flight that was due to depart, to let us board. And we would have but for German civil aviation rules. Stranded, we were staying the night in a nearby hotel. All fifty of us—kids, teachers and the handful of accompanying parents, including yours truly.

            I’d sent my daughter ahead with Kavy, who we liked to joke was her “school mum”. As the receptionist at the Doha-arm of this revered British school, Kavy made far more than she could working as a teacher in any of the Indian institutions. Her son was on the trip, too. Classmates with my girl, they were her carpool, my daughter’s ride in the mornings. Plus, Kavy worked in HR as well, and knew everything about everything going on in the school’s small world.

            But it was just me now left with this last bunch of ten-year olds. Or were they nine? Some were. And what all were as well, was overly excited. Even at this late hour and despite the early rise to leave in extra good time. Criss-crossing down snow-drenched Austrian mountains around sharp turns and hairpin bends in a coach of our size had been hairy at best. But it was the crawling in freak traffic that stretched into the horizon along clogged German autobahns that had been like stress in cup, served up straight. To order, then re-order, would lead to disorder—This much I’d learnt so far on this trip. What was an adult to do?

            Sitting here now at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, the airport was practically empty. We’d been told to wait on the seats closest to the automatic doors; the hotel van would be back for us. Almost an hour had passed and the boys were getting restless. Up till then, we hadn’t warranted a second look from the few passers-by. A frazzled Asian woman and a motley crew of Caucasian, Middle Eastern and European boys; they’d think I was their teacher. And in some ways, from the time we’d left Doha, this wan’t untrue.

            Out on the slopes at the rear of Intermediates, me and three Qatari boys waited as the first two batches of three went down the bumps to do some “flying”. Day 4, albeit still cold, and having carried their own gear all week, their skills —in coping, as much as in skiing—had improved tremendously. Mohsin was still picking up after the youngest wherever he went, the one whom at home liked to drive around inside the house in a golf cart, easing it upstairs in the mansion’s wide-bodied lift. Thankfully, the boy, a year younger, was in a group of Beginners.

            Still, that day, all of us for one reason or another, were thinking of Qatar, where it was a public holiday. And an historic one, too—The country’s first National Sports Day. In the years that followed the annual long-distance run that would mark the occasion would be won often in a sweep of 1st, 2nd and 3rd places by professional athletes from Kenya. Everyone else would be out only to put on a show of effort. The day would see the boys’ families come to gather, feasting together, and for all the cousins to meet up and play. And there, standing bravely on their skis on Sölden’s training slopes, was it this warmth the boys were missing? Slated for the second Tuesday of February each year, that first one had been on February the 14th.

            “Miss, Miss,” they clambered to be the one to say it first, addressing me as they would a paid tutor. “Valentine’s Day is haram, Miss.”

            “Miss, Miss,” another chimed in, “disco is haram, too, Miss.” The night’s activities would entail sipping hot chocolates and doing the conga around a giant circular bar. (It was more like kids going mad to blasting sounds under a circus top than Studio 54.) Bearing witness to it all, I swear, in all honesty, hand on my heart, poke a needle in my eye—wallahi, those boys—first watching from the side lines until they couldn’t bear it any longer and joining in the fun at the back of the crowd, touched not a single girl.

            “Valentine’s Day is to remember your loved ones,” I said.  “Later, after lunch, you should call your mothers.”

            “It’s not haram?” Their eyes shone with disbelief.

            “And when you are married,” I continued, “never forget to be extra nice to your wife every year on Valentine’s. They will thank me later.” So will you, I wanted to add.

            That had been simple enough. But what to do now about Ahmad?

            His mum was here, too on this trip, and like the other parents had gone on ahead to order our dinner. At least when we got there our pizzas would be warm. But before that I was going to have to deal with this first, myself.

            “You can’t say that, Ahmad. It’s against the law here.” I think it was, I think I’d read somewhere that in Germany, especially, it was banned.

            But Ahmad wasn’t the type of boy to care if this was “haram”. In the Cinderella play my daughter had written for their English class, Ahmad was the first to volunteer to play a step sister, which role he’d cleverly rendered with the finest hint of camp. The boy was bright and funny and he had gumption. And in those twinkling blue eyes of his, I could see as he stood before me, that Ahmad believed he was right.

            With the same wavy brown hair and fair complexion, he had his mum’s good looks. Ahmad’s main extra-curricular, she’d told me, was diving, at which he excelled at the Aspire, Qatar’s National Sports Academy.

            “Would he accept a sports passport if offered?” I remember asking, but couldn’t for the life of me recall what her reply had been.

            Was he Palestinian? (Qatari passports for the family would be a godsend. Some were only possessed of travel papers.) But it hadn’t occurred to me to ask before this. A fair number of Jordan’s population are, including its Queen. Reading the history later, I learnt too, that at one point the Palestine initially carved out of the Levant by the British was later divided into three parts—one of which was allotted to Jordan to rule. And at the school’s International Day, hadn’t Jordan and Palestine shared a booth?

            “He did us a favour, Miss. My grandfather said so.” Ahmad The Persistent. And The Precocious, and The Precious, too. God bless this cheeky, spirited child. For now, for his own good, I had to get him to shut up.

            “No more ‘Heil Hitlers’. Or you’re not getting pizza, are we clear?”

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