Libyan writer Hisham Matar's English boarding school experience.

FT
Stories from the Financial Times. 
Feb. 26 2011 7:39 AM

Hiding Out

The child of an outspoken Libyan dissident on attending boarding school in England.

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I began asking if I could be sent to boarding school, too. Eventually, my parents yielded, but I had to go under a false identity. Joining Ziad in Switzerland was not an option because that would have made concealing who we were more difficult. I chose a school in England. I was to pretend that my mother was Egyptian and my father American. It was thought that this would explain, to any Arabs in the school, why my Arabic was Egyptian and why my English was American.

My first name was Bob. Ziad chose it because both he and I were fans of Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. I was to pretend I was Christian, though not religious. I was to try to forget my name. If someone called Hisham, I was not to turn. I was warned against having a routine, going to the same places too regularly, or leaving my tea unattended in a cafe. Ziad had read in some science magazine about a new poison that needed six months to take effect. If I were poisoned, no one would be able to trace the source.

"Only go to the toilet before you order or when you are done eating," I was told.

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The first time I traveled to my new school I took a taxi there from Heathrow. This was a mad thing to do not only because it was unbelievably expensive, but also because the cab driver got horribly lost along the meandering country lanes. He threatened to leave me there, by the side of the road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I wished my suitcase had wheels. I became terribly anxious.

"A taxi driver in Egypt would never do that," I remember telling him.

There was no one around to ask for directions. It was as if I was in an empty country. Then two women on horses appeared. They looked like sisters. The driver pulled up beside them. They smiled. The sight of a London black cab in the depth of the country must have seemed ridiculous. The horses were higher than the cab. I remember their skin glistening and their breaths coming out in thick white clouds. They must have just been on a gallop. The older woman gave the angry driver very precise directions. The younger one looked away, but at one point her eyes met mine.

Eventually we found the school, a Tudor building surrounded by heavy oak trees. My boarding house lay a further three miles away into the thick hills. My room was on the first floor, where the ceiling was very high. It almost never got warm. The view from the tall window was spectacular. It overlooked the grounds, which I later learned had been designed by Capability Brown.

It all seemed surprisingly easy at first. I was Bob and that was that. I even enjoyed the acting, pretending to be of a different nationality and religion. The school I went to was known for its drama, and I threw myself into the stage. I helped build sets, I acted, directed, and, when they found out I could do a bit of writing, they got me to write a sketch a week. I didn't see then the obvious link between this passion and my new reality. I became close to several students, boys and girls, but I never once disclosed my true identity. And I seemed to be fine. I even thought of myself as happy.

At one of the school parties, a girl I was fond of walked across the room and asked whether I would dance with her. We danced through several songs, then stood side by side against the wall. When it was time for us boys to be bussed back to our house, she accompanied me down the long path to the bus. It was completely dark save for the distant lights of the lamp posts. She kissed me, a long slow kiss on the cheek. I still remember her smiling. I could hardly sleep from happiness. But then the following morning, when she ran over to me in the line to the dining room, I pretended not to recognize her. The way she looked at me remains a source of shame and regret.

The year passed and it was wonderful to be home for the whole summer, to eat my mother's food and be called by my real name. Ziad and I seemed closer than we had ever been. Our old friends were almost always in the house. I became less boisterous and talkative the more my departure date grew closer. My Russian aunt gave me a scarf on which she had embroidered my fake initials. My parents made it very clear that I could change my mind, that they would prefer I stayed home, but something in me persisted.

On my return to school one of my friends came to tell me about a new boy.

"He's Arabic," he said.

"Really? Where from?" I asked.

"Libya."

I went to look up the name. His father worked for the Qaddafi regime. I had no doubt he, too, would recognize my family name. Our fathers were on opposite sides of a conflict. I had no doubt he, certainly his father, would see us as enemies. I certainly saw people like his father as opportunists, mercenaries, drinking the blood of the people, stealing the wealth of the country, in short: criminals. I was anxious and angry, frightened and furious, and didn't feel I could tell a soul.

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