In 1972, Ahmad was training to be a teacher in London where he was nourished by the many galleries and museums. Today, officially retired, Ahmad is a volunteer teacher in Tiaz, once the cultural capital of the Yemen and now on the front-line in the civil war between Saudi-backed government forces and Huthi rebels. From a distance, he stares at ‘his’ bombed out school.
Back in ’72 he was a fan of Alice Cooper’s album ‘School’s Out’. He can’t get the lyrics out of his head: ‘School’s out for summer ….’ In Tiaz, it’s the first day of the academic year. Silently he says, ‘School’s out forever.… School’s been blown to pieces,’ but adds his own words – In sha’allah, an end to war.
A boy looks out through what was once a window and, is now, one of many gaping holes in the remaining walls of the only surviving classroom. The rear of the building has been blasted away by an air strike. The school’s second floor, with its steel skeleton, bursting like ragged bones through smashed concrete, ends in an unguarded precipice. The remnants of the floor are thronged with children tightly crammed together on bare concrete, waiting for Ahmad to arrive. He’s astounded that the many children who wait for him have survived such a brutal war.
He remembers seeing Goya’s series of eighty-two prints ‘The disasters of war’ and recalls Goya’s phrase: ‘I am filled with a prodigious flowing of rage’. The vivid horror of the prints, exemplifying ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, has lived in his memory ever since he saw them in London. Once, he had thought to show his pupils reproductions of these works but realised there was nothing he could show the children worse than their own lived experience. Goya depicts the bodies of mutilated civilians displayed on trees like marble sculptures, to terrify all who saw them. Ahmad knows that Yemeni children have seen the bodies of their kith and kin torn limb from limb by bombs and rockets, their flesh left hanging where it had been thrown until rescued by survivors. And what would it mean to show them the image of a peasant about to cut off the head of a soldier with an axe or the image of a garrotted priest deemed guilty of carrying a pocketknife? Ahmad knows the primary difference between Goya’s war, and that in the Yemen, is industrial. The perpetrators on each side rarely look their victims in the eye. That’s it, Ahmad thinks. Drones and planes. Abstracted death, but a reality for the lives of innocents.
In the classroom Ahmad asks the children, Who is the enemy? Young voices shout, Saudis, Huthi. No, he says, War is our enemy. A siren blares. The classroom empties. Ahmad waits. No bombs fall. Some children slowly return. The siren blares as the first bomb explodes near the school. It’s too late for Ahmad and the children to escape the bombardment – another disaster of war.
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© Phil Cosker 2022
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.