It was an island we left behind, but never really left …

My dear companions from De La Salle College, circa 1975 – 1979. Our experiences are shared, though our stories are not.  I wrote this on my return from a visit to Malta in 2017.  The desire to reconnect with those who touched my life in more ways than I knew or they would know has pushed me to share these memories. Perhaps some of you may have resonance with this ongoing tale. I would love for you to add your own recollections and thoughts so we could compile them into something meaningful for all.

Arriving in Malta after 36 years was surreal.  I felt an unexplainable rush of emotions as the plane touched the runway at Luqa International Airport.  I was flooded with the memories of my first visit on an autumn evening of 1976.  My older brother Salman and I bid farewell to our parents in Tripoli and landed in Malta on a Libyan Airways, Boeing 727.  This was the first of many journeys to the island of Malta.  The flight was choppy and barely an hour long, yet it felt like an eternity.  Giddy with childish excitement, I was looking forward to exploring a new phase in my life but I was clueless as to what was ahead. 

After many days of anticipation, preparation, marking all our clothes with ID numbers 553 and 554, we packed our belongings into two brown suitcases. At times, I wondered if De La Salle College was a mythical place that I had concocted with my imagination, because all I had seen of it were the brochures and descriptions from my cousin Najmi who had already been a student there. Regardless, I was ready for the adventure. As we exited through the rear door of the plane, I could see the amber evening skies, and feel the chill in the air.  We filled our immigration forms and waited in a low ceiling hall.  It was full of people speaking languages that I had not heard before.  The lines were long and slow, but that did not bother me.  This was my first visit to a foreign country, where I was to be on my own.  I was clueless about the people, their history, their culture, or their language.  My preconceived notions, my stereotypes of “foreigners” were being shattered as I realized that I was a foreigner, a minority, and “a no one” here.  It did not matter who my parents were or who my people were. I was just a young boy, coming to attend a catholic boarding school, in a small island, and it would change my life, and all my perceptions, forever.

The immigration officer glanced at me, a stamp on the passport, a nod to move on, and off we were looking for our luggage.   There was no custom inspection and Bro. Mario met with us by the baggage control. He was wearing a priest’s collar and black sweater.  He didn’t greet or welcome us, just a matter of fact transactional exchange of information and identity verification. I rarely saw Bro. Mario displaying much emotions through out the years we were at school. He was a stoic figure and a reserved one at best. We loaded our luggage and boarded the van (that would be the primary transport to all our matches and field trips) and we left for the school.  There were 2 other boys seated in the back, but no one spoke to each other.  As the van moved passed the airport, I noticed the limestone architecture which reminded me of the “suqs” in old Tripoli, a few domed churches on the way, statues of saints and Mary on random street corners, and the winding narrow cobblestone streets that were intercepted with alleys of stairs.  We drove through cities and towns with roundabouts and hardly any traffic lights. Occasionally I would spot a red telephone booth that was reminiscent of the British colonization of this island. They had similar old cast iron mail boxes that used to be present in Karachi from the partition days. Nothing was familiar, yet that island had a homey feeling. The night had fallen and it was impossible to tell that we were on an island that was barely 96 square miles. We arrived within 20 minutes or so.  I awed at the wrought iron gates, the pillar to the right had the college emblem and in capital letters DE LA SALLE COLLEGE displayed on the banner wall which connected the pillars that held the gate.  The van drove down the road past a memorial wall to the formal entrance of the school building.  The door was high, I admired the tall roman limestone columns as we got out of the van on to the marble stairs.  We entered a low lit, daunting hallway through the large arched door.  We were asked to gather our luggage and wait on what would be later known as the infamous hot bench outside Bro. Martin’s office.   

There were other boys waiting besides us who also came from the airport.  Irfan and Imran Chaudhry were also waiting by the bench, I found out they took a cab from the airport.  We were all new boarders, and the rest of the boys would come a day or so later.  We had arrived earlier so we could get our uniforms, books and get oriented.  We were sorted according our housing sections. Salman and a few other boys were led to the senior section. and I was going to the middle section. Bro. Saviour walked in and introduced himself, he was wearing a black habit.  I had a completely different notion of a priest and did not know the difference between and a brother and a father/priest.  I had just presumed, wrongly, that the brothers were junior priest.  I would lose many such assumptions in the coming days as all my past experiences and my history did not lend any credibility to the future that would unfold.  Brother Saviour took us to the middle school dining area.  it was a beaded glass pane double door that opened into a room full of square dining tables with 4 crimson plastic chairs on each side. A large stainless-steel industrial food warmer that housed the food (and every other meal that we would be served) was stationed on the right corner across the dining hall.  The food had already been placed on the tables. There were 8 triangular pastries steaming on 2 rectangular stainless-steel tray.  That night, it was the dinner, along with a bowl of 4 boiled eggs.  These very cheese and bean pastizzies would become the standard weekend staple for many of us and perhaps a comfort food later on.  Never had I imagined that I would long for this delectable pastry that is synonymous with Malta.  I remember eating quietly and waiting till Bro. Saviour returned and took me to where I would live for the next 9 moons. I took the stairs to third floor, with my luggage and walked into a long hallway, past the restrooms, into what I learnt was a dormitory.  Two rows of beds in a long alley like hall.  My bed was to the left almost in the middle of the hall, facing the city of Bormla, and Cottonera.  It was the scenic side as the other side of the room was just a long wall.  I believe my bed had #15 marked on it but can’t vouch for it.  Slobodan Randelovic was on my left, but he had not arrived yet.  Slobodan and I shared the yellow closet, a lime yellow reading lamp was above my headboard and a window to my right.  We emptied our luggage and transferred our belongings to the closet.  I unpacked the best I could, placed the suitcase under the bed and followed the boys to the washroom. It was a mirrored wall and a row of sinks with the showers right across on the other side.  I brushed my teeth and changed into my pjs.  Our beds were all metal frame with a firm mattress.  While I sat on the bed wondering what to do next, I saw Bro.  Saviour walk up through the doors to bid us good night and before the hall turned dark, I heard “lights out!”.  I pulled the covers and laid down on the bed. Sleep was the farthest thing from my mind.

Five or so hours later life had changed irreversibly.  No Ammi to wake me up in the morning for breakfast, no dishwashing after meals, no waiting for Papa to come back from the university, and not a familiar face in sight.  I do not know when I fell asleep, but I know my heart was pounding with anticipation of what the next day held.  I recited a prayer for the welfare of Ammi, Papa and all my siblings.  Even though we were in the same school, Salman was with the seniors and they were in single rooms on the other side of the dorms.  I would get to see him only during the meals and sports.  There were several boys in the dorm, but I was alone and lost in my thoughts that had sprung from my recent readings of Oliver Twist. 

Strangely, separation from loved ones gave me a sense of courage, independence and even strength. I don’t remember being afraid or scared of other boys or the future. They were certainly all taller than I was. What else could one do but accept the inevitable. After all, this is what I had been waiting for months after I had received an acceptance letter from the school.  

I woke up to sounds of shotgun pellets hitting the window pane and to the toll of the morning church bells.  A Sunday morning ritual for many Maltese and the first for me. I concocted the images of the hunchback of Notre Dame pulling the ropes. Just like the mosques in Karachi, churches had their own bells and they were never synchronized.  I got up from the warm bed and looked out the window. The skyline was interspersed with red domed churches, the harbor and limestone bastions in the distant.  I could see the harbor and drydocks. The whole island was a limestone fortress. I watched a couple of men walking downhill with their dogs and their shotgun.  I remember opening the window and picking up lead shots from the windowsill.  Just as I was getting back into the bed, Bro. Saviour came and rang the electric bell.  It was a wake up call; I noticed a few must have come in after I had fallen asleep.  It was the beginning of a morning ritual which began with the buzzing sound that jarred us awake no matter when we fell asleep the previous night.  Along with the jingling of Bro. Geoffrey’s keys, I doubt if anyone of us would ever forget the sound, I know I certainly have not.  I counted 25 beds in the dorm.  13 on my side and 12 across. Some of my dormmates were Edward Papps, Roberto Christoudis, Karim Bughaighis, Georgio Mallia, Bojan, Jean Camilleri, Vladan, Bilal, Dhushy, Rudiger, Thomas Bauman, Michael Konrad, Johnny Trivitakhun, Ivan Djeorgevic, Slobodan, and possibly Fehmi with a few day scholars.  

I watched the boys with their toilet bags but I did not have one. I just took my towel, tooth paste, soap and toothbrush to the wash area, brushed teeth, and quickly got ready for the breakfast. I think this was the first time I realized even young boys have their own toilet bags for their sundries. I made a note that I would get one as I did not want to standout, but no one cared or made any comments. A lot happened within the 15 minutes while I prepared to change, most of the boys had already showered and changed. A grey haired bearded elder man came in wearing a a dark chocolate brown robe and black shoes. I rarely saw him without it except for the days he would be wearing the black sweater and trousers with his priests collar. He was a capuchin friar. He greeted some of the old boys who were cheeky with him. He was Father Archangel but we just called him “Doon” Maltese pronunciation for “Don”. He had an off-white twisted rope around his hooded habit that looped like a belt and had two knots hanging below. He was a gentle soul. This was my first contact with a real Monk . He herded us all out of the dorms and that’s when I realized that there were 3 dormitories on the floor. One across our dormitory and one at the far end of the hallway. Within 20 minutes we were down the stairs, in the same refectory where I ate the night before. There were several boys already in there, and everyone was standing by their table. I walked over and took an empty spot with Giuseppe and Baghdik to the side and Ali Haddar across. Brother Saviour came and recited the morning prayer “our fathers….” and I stayed quiet, wondering if it was sacrilegious for a Muslim to recite a catholic prayer?. Over the years and before each meal, the prayers were the litmus of punctuality. None of us could sit down, let alone touch food, until every boy was in the refectory. Once the prayers were over, many made the sign of the cross, and we sat down at the table. By the 5th week, I could recite all of the prayers before our meals. There was a steaming hot aluminum pot brimming with tea, 4 sunny side up fried eggs, over a layer of baked beans in the same stainless steel tray that housed the pastizzi’s the night before, a basket of warm hard crusted yet soft Maltese bread, a tray of margarine, and jam. I ate quietly and was informed that the new boys would be going to Valletta to get our uniforms and related items. I think the name of the shop was Elite where we got fitted for our blazer and pants. Ah… The uniform, a sharp burgundy striped blazer, two matching ties, 4 white shirts, 3 grey trousers, 5 pairs of grey socks with blue stripes, a grey school sweater, and black laced shoes. I didn’t buy the blue woolen blazer as it wasn’t offered to me. That attire would become our identity and a matter of pride for the remaining years.

“Are you excited,” she whispered affectionately, as I felt a gentle nudge from my dear wife. The plane had began to de-board and I reverted to the Luqa airport and to the 21st century.  Yes, I did feel as if a century had passed since I was in Malta.  We walked up to the immigration desk and the officer simply scanned our passport.  No stamps, no questions.  The thought of visiting Malta with my family was an emotional one. I wondered if I was sharing my past or being selfish to drag them here. Other than a new country to visit, it may not mean much to them.  It was my history and not theirs.  So much was a faint memory of what now appears as a glorious past, but I wanted to hold on to the past and not let it turn into a broken dream.  36 years is a lifetime and even now, I feel a strong bond, a brotherhood, and an unexplainable kinship with all those who shared their years together at DLS.  I was hopeful that Taimur, Aadil and Ghazala would enjoy their time here, but I was lost in my past and had to remind myself that it was meant to be a family trip.

As we picked our luggage and walked to the car rental place, I realized this was no longer the Malta I had left behind.  Globalization, and the European Union had made its mark on this tiny oasis of an island.  Besides Maltese, English and Italian, I heard Russian, Czech, Polish, Chinese, Arabic and a few other east European languages.  Ironically, other than Russian, I must have heard all of these languages spoken at DLS at some time or another.  It was a hot day and there were a lot more date palms, olive trees and sage brushes around.  This was an unfamiliar flora, that was not reminiscent of the Island I had left behind. It was surprisingly comforting to see the straggling caper bushes on the limestone walls of the various bastions that encircle the island and the prickly pear cactus that was the more common sight.  The caper bushes were still holding on strongly among limestone cracks and crevices just as I was holding on to my past. I recall climbing the bastion walls just to get to the top of the school boundaries to try and get out of school without getting caught by the brothers. The limestone walls had stood the test of time, but appeared weather worn, and after decades of being away, perhaps I wasn’t much different.    

The airport was still small but better laid out.  You walk outside to the open parking lot to pick the rental car.  Most if not all cars were manual shift.  We got in our Fiat and headed out towards Sliema where we would spend our first night.  Driving in Malta is an experience by itself. The roads are narrower than I remembered, the traffic is continuous, and parking is akin to packing sardines in a tin can.  Malta has kept up with its British past and it is the only other country in the European union (aside from Cyprus) where you drive on the right. Aside from the city signs I had no idea if I was going in the right direction.  What made it worse was that our phones were not working yet, and we had no map to guide us. 

The vague imbedded memories of watching out of the slow green buses that took us from Bormla/Cospicua Bus terminus to Valletta started pouring in.  A 3.5 cents fare would take us to the central bus terminus that encircled the triton fountain. You could pull the white string tied to the bell and the driver would let you off to the next nearest stop or as soon as he felt it was safe. You got out at the terminus and walked through the Kingsway.  Maltese busses did not have a number but were color coded, so you could get on the bus with the right color and eventually get to your destination. Thankfully, none of us were color blind or we would have ended elsewhere…  

While driving, many familiar names of the towns appeared and so did the reminders of the journey that was a Saturday/Sunday pilgrimage, unless we were (grounded) gated.  I recalled the sports fields of Marsa where we played cricket.  Hockey fields in Paola where we won many trophies. The busses were so slow that one could run and get to their destination faster.  The joke was that if they drove any faster, they would fall in the sea by the time the driver would hit the brakes.  I knew, that sooner or later I would find my way as the island is small.  Logic dictates that there would be a coastal road and some that go through the island, so I was comfortable with getting lost.  The island is famous for its labyrinthine streets that I swear are narrower than the cars that somehow go through them.  Driving through Valletta and Sliema, we finally arrived at St. Julians.  After repeatedly asking directions from a few people (and not really following them exactly), we managed to find our hotel.  Parking at the hotel was like threading a needle.  I am only glad I did not scratch that car.  There was intensity in heat as we got out. The hotel was just across the St. Julians bay and I was looking forward to taking walks by the harbor. Captain Morgan tourist boats used to be docked there, and Jackie worked for them as tourist guide when I last left Malta.

We showered and changed as we were invited to Jackie’s house for a Maltese feast. Jackie came straight from her work to pick us up. After decades of corresponding, I knew her address by heart and finally got to see it. It was just across the sea with a great view of the bay.  She had prepared almost every possible traditional Maltese
food that we could eat, except for rabbit and lampuki (dorado fish) pies which were not in season. Such is Maltese hospitality that is hard to equal.  Phillip (her husband was overly gracious) and served us Kinnie.  My boys did not like it either and I still had to say that it was an acquired taste.  After 3+ decades of not having it, I didn’t miss it or liked the bitter orange taste. My favorite soft drink on the island was Solera (citrus soda) which is no longer available.  5 cents would get you any soft drink and you could eat as many candies, smarties, and twisties that our pocket money afforded.  Jackie and I spoke of many stories of the past, and met with Emma her daughter who was working nearby. Years of separation were not enough to lessen our friendship. Despite the lapse in contact for years, this was a reunion that true friends can appreciate. Jackie suggested that we get to De La Salle before noon as the school would shut down for the summer and no one would be there.  Our time with her was full of reminiscence.  She was so kind and treated my family with immense affection.  I am forever indebted to her for making sure that my family was well taken care of through out the trip.  On our last day on the Island, she arranged for a private cruise on the traditional Maltese Luzzu. It was an unforgettable treat and a lesson on Maltese history that we will always remember. Jackie and I have had a special bond, she is a friend, an adventurer, a kindred soul, and throughout my school days, a strong adviser whenever I needed one.  For decades, she has been my one and only corresponding partner who punctually handwrote, double sided letters, on a light blue rice paper stationary, remembered my birthday, and made sure that we stayed connected with the ups and downs of our life throughout the years I had been away from Malta. This has been a friendship of a lifetime.  Despite the decades that had passed, a loving strong bond, a fondness, and a respect for each other overflowed every aspect of our relationship and still does. I beamed with a fulfilled heart and I held my tears back as we all hugged and walked out into the warm humid St. Julian night.  She spoke with the boys, and Ghazala and told them about the history of the area. She shared the anecdotes from my teen years with the boys. She reminded me of my youth. We promised to connect later and walked down the cobblestone stairway that connected to the harbor. The Mediterranean was calm but streets were crowded and brightly lit. 

While we walked and watched the waves gently caress the shore, my thoughts had reverted to my teen years. I do not remember when we got back but I was far off in my world that kept on tugging at me. As the school day would end, tea time, sports, showers, study, and supper would be the sequence of the day for the boarders. Supper would start at 7:00 and barely an hour or so left before we would head back to our room for the night. This is when most of us would gather around Brother Geoffrey’s tuck shop. Whether you liked Cat Stevens or not, he played his collection, we ‘d sing to the lyrics of “moonshadow, and he ain’t heavy, he is my brother” and so on; this was the place to be.  Table tennis, billiards, chomba (table soccer) and the one and only TV in the hall was all that we shared.  That was all the entertainment one needed and on the tables, winner stayed till he lost or till Bro. Geoffrey kicked us out.  No democracy there.  Either you won or lost or tried to bullied your way into staying.  No consolation prizes nor any sympathies.  We shared the few resources we had without ever feeling deprived.  We watched and laughed at British comedies such as “Mind your language” and made ethnic jokes without malice or discrimination towards each other.  One could curse and swear in several languages and never mean a harsh word to the fellow boarders.  We were all “equal opportunity abusers”.  We loved diversity and thrived on being fellow sufferers, away from home and our parents.  We listened to ABBA, Alan Parsons Project, Pink Floyd and whatever else was playing.  It did not matter what color your skin was, what religion you followed or what your social status was.  We were equal in each other’s eyes and were respected only for our achievements in sports, academia and our ability to get the attention of the sixth form girls who were older than we were.  No one knew who our parents were, what they did or why they sent us to DLS.  We had to discover and define our own identity and gain respect in the eyes of our peers.  We were just who we were, face value, irrespective of our names, our belief, and our personalities. 

Although the world has fragmented to so many ethnic divides, I had no idea which of the boarders were Czech or Slovak. Which one was Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Slovenian, Kosovar or Albanian?  If the war had not broken out, I doubt if my Yugoslav friends would care for their ethnic division.  They spoke Serbo-Croat and that is what I thought was the Yugoslavian Language.  I did not matter whom was Chinese or Taiwanese, and we had both nationalities at school.  I didn’t know who among us was catholic, protestant, orthodox christian, nor who was a shia or a sunni muslim and we really didn’t care. Neither did we pay much attention to the religious or any other differences, and nor it mattered.  We laughed at the same jokes, shared disappointments, tasted victory and defeat together, teased, ridiculed, supported, encouraged one another, listened to the same music, read the same comics, and rarely watched an “R” rated movie if we could muster up the courage to get to the ABC movie theatre.  Probably the only thing we all feared after God, was getting caught by dear Brother Geoffrey or disappointing him. 

Despite the jetlag, I managed to get up in time to drive to Cospicua.  Although the roads and towns are well marked, I was sadly mistaken that my memory would lead me to the gates of De La Salle.  Nothing could have been far from the truth.  Cottonera was just the city where DLS was located.  I did not know the street address.  In all our years the correspondence to De La Salle was “Name of Recipient, De La Salle College, Cottonera, Malta”.  That was it! All our letters arrived with just that address. The zip codes did not exist in Malta.

I realized I had never really explored or knew much about the city while we lived there.  We really weren’t allowed out much and on the weekends we all went to Sliema, or Valetta. This was a neighborhood that had changed considerably. The milk farmer who was across boundary wall east of the school had moved There were traditional Maltese limestone homes and condos all around the school now, and the apartments were certainly a new additions as they did not exist when we were boarders.  Though Nannu’s bar remains adjacent to the school gate, but the main entrance has been moved towards the gym in the back.  The gates that had brought me in decades ago would not open for me anymore. They were controlled by remote access, and were no longer open accessible by general public.  I walked into Nannu’s which had remained frozen in time.  A beaded curtain and a bar with display cabinet right across, low lit room and the cigarette vending machine by the door.  The only difference was the price of the cigarettes and the sign of Euro currency instead of the Maltese Lira.  The lady behind the counter suggested that I should go around the school and enter from the gym side.  I drove by passing St. Edwards (our main rival in hockey and cricket), nothing was familiar.  I arrived at the backdoor with the De La Salle logo on a pillar and guard house.  I told the guard that I was here visiting after 36 years.  He was not impressed, and said that he did not have the authority to let me in.  On my insistence he called and spoke with Bro. Martin’s secretary, who approved of our visit.  The guard gave me a badge and I drove past the marble sign of boarder’s residence 1970 and parked just after the school’s main entrance across the Madonna statue up the stairs.  I remembered the white apiary glass box, that was mounted on a stand and used to be located on the side of the statue.  I would open the doors to look for the queen bee in the midst of a crowded hive.  The glass apiary, along with the white marked queen bee were both gone.  The caper bushes that used to hang on the side of the limestone rocks were still there.  It was a visceral emotion that kept on jarring me from past to present and back again. I told my wife and my sons about my first visit and the entrance door. Bro. Henry’s statue still sits on the right side of the door as you enter.   We were greeted by the receptionist who walked us upstairs to the staffroom.  I reverted to the days of my youth and I could hear the old pickup truck that used to deliver the Maltese Hobz. The rattle of the milk bottles around the delivery area of the kitchen.  Brother Edwin repairing some van or car.  As I climbed the stairs I could hear the distinctly familiar voice.

Brother Edward looked at me, and after a moment his face lit up with a smile.  Whether he had mastered the art of deception or remembered me after 36 years, it did not matter.  He looked just as I remembered him. The years of servitude and giving had kept his spirit untarnished.  My respect for this man of cloth was amplified immensely on hearing how most of the brothers had left the brotherhood and only a few remained from our days.  I was touched by his fondness and affection.  He was appreciative of all those who came to visit him, after all these years. We walked over to the headmasters office and as Bro. Edward announced my arrival. Brother Martin looked at me with a quizzical face. I smiled at him and mentioned that this was the first time I had come to his office without expecting to get punished. He chuckled and hugged me, then my wife and my boys. He didn’t blink and eye and said “Let’s drink to the old times, now that you are old enough to drink!” We spoke while reached out for a bottle of spirit and poured a few glasses. I could tell that years of drinking had left a mark on this man who was an enigma then and now. I politely declined as he recalled that I didn’t drink alcohol. He embodied so much of what the school had been and behind the scene, he been the ultimate politician, a man of God, a true wizard of oz while we all carelessly attended the college. I joked with him that he hadn’t changed a bit, and he teased my wife and said, “He was always among girl’s ta, too many girlfriends this one” and I replied “so did you brother!!”…

We laughed and he spoke of the changes to school, the life we had when the boarding school was at its prime, and the days gone by. I learnt that Bro. Edwin was at Stella Maris, Bro. Savior, Bro. Edward, and Bro. Martin were still at La Salle.  The boarding school had stopped operating since 1984 when the Maltese government nationalized most parochial schools and the church schools had lost their autonomy.  St. Edwards is about to be closed, and the funding for DLS now comes as a government-church private hybrid partnership.  The school had added a wing and converted the boarder’s residence into 6th form classrooms.  The kitchen is no longer there, and the dining areas were converted into classes for lower sections. 

Brother Edward recalled the changes as we walked up the stairs that lead to our dorms and the rooms. The stairwell walls now have the pictures of alumni students on the wall.  I was able to locate the class pictures from 1975 – 1979.  I found the location of what used to be my bed, my cupboard that I shared with Slobodan. The door was always closed when I lived there, but led into the lab where Dhushy and I made our first stink bomb by mixing Ammonium Sulfate with HCl (H2S) and pumped it under the dorm door.  Mr. Sammut had no clue what happened but I remember the stench was present for hours. Surprisingly, Mrs. Aquilina was in the lab.  She remembered me as Faizul and was pleased to see me.  She was getting ready to retire and was archiving all her old stuff for her future replacement.  Even after decades, she maintained her kind tone of voice. I told her that she had inspired me to pursue life sciences, and she just beamed with pride. Humble as ever, she smiled and continued to pack the labware for her replacement. What is it about teaching that makes it so noble? Where would we be, if it wasn’t for the teachers? Having spent time in many well funded labs and institutes, I realized the limitations of the small island and its meagre resources that were used to teach us the concepts of chemistry, physics and life in general. She was more interested in what I was upto, than speaking of her plans. We spoke about our life in the USA, we remembered old teachers and the students.  We spoke of the changes in Malta and we continued watched her pack up her belongings as this was also her last day at De La Salle.  She was retiring after 38 years.  I gave her an emotional hug and she wished me well.  One of my classmate Norbert Zahra is the principal of the school now. Brother Edward showed us to the doors of the rooms where I lived for 3 of the most formidable years of my life. All the rooms had been converted to teacher’s offices. The doors were still green on the outside and I peeked in.  It was hard to believe how this small room was more than enough for all our needs and wants. If those walls could talk, we would have an unending conversation. Even in the solitude of our rooms, we were connected. Life was rich and simple.  

Along the narrow hallway with doors on both sides, I recalled the duel with scream of “on guard” by Sir Thomas Baumann, who would challenge me daily as soon as we got back from classes.  I had no idea who took Julian’s fencing foils out the first time, but they were used repeatedly for the battle to save the honor of some sixth form maiden.  Whomever she was, she had no clue, and though we spilled no blood, her honor was restored each day or as long as Julian didn’t go back to Gozo for the weekend with his fencing foils.  Coming back from school into our room was a time of daily celebration.  15 – 20 minutes to get changed into sports gear, place your uniforms back, drop off all your laundry so it would be back in time for next week, playing basketball with the rolled-up socks and making sure you had a complete uniform for the next day.  All that while getting ready and then heading for tea that would be followed by formal studies with Mr. DeGabrielle, Mr. Cauchi or Mr. Arthur Cachia.  Teatime was always a riot.  The aluminum teapots would be so hot that they could burn your skin, and someone would strategically place it by your elbow so you could get a heat-shock. Ali Haddar would begin inhaling the black pepper and start non-stop sneezes just to create a ruckus.  Mr. De Gabrielle would scream and threaten us, but no one really cared.  Jam, margarine and all the Maltese bread you could eat along with your own (or some poor junior or middle-sectioner’s) peanut butter and Nutella.  Excitedly, we would walk to the study rooms where we were expected to complete our homework and catch up on the next day’s classes.  

There was hardly enough time to complete the homework, but we did because we all wanted to get to the playgrounds.  Mr. Cauchi would help with Mathematics, Mr. Cachia was the most patient of teachers.  He was kind and calmly explained the physics problems. If it were not for him, I would have ended up hating physics.  Through all this, Mr. De Gabrielle just tried to maintain order.  He had the bushiest beard of all.  The sports time would be dedicated to hockey training with Mr. Tortell, while the rest of the boarders played tennis, basketball, football or whatever one desired to.  Everyone played something and got some exercise.  The time just went by and we loved it.  After the sports we showered, changed, went to study till supper time.  Following the supper, we had free time.  We could study, hang out by the tuck shop, go back to our rooms and visit each other before it was time to turn in. Every now and then we would press our luck and stay past curfew, despite the fear of being caught dead in someone else’s room. The sound of the jingle of bro. Geoffrey’s keys would rattle our soul but we knew it was a misdemeanor we could handle. You learned to deal with authority with respect but also develop a sense of objectivity when your life is on the edge. The creative ways we attempted to become invisible in the tiny room still brings a smile to my face. Bro. Geoffrey had better insights or simply put he had seen it all and saw through our cloak of invisibility. It was always a mystery, whether he would let you go or you would end up being gated, regardless, he was the ultimate of disciplinarian, and respected by us all. He kept us all grounded and honest with his silence than his scoldings. He held us all to our highest possibilities and did not mince his words. How I wish we could have more mentors like him? The sadness of youthful inexperience is that we don’t have enough wisdom to know what’s good for us or know the difference between tough love and unbridled abusive authority.

The echoes of my past walked with me into the small room that was our haven… The sink and the overhead mirror cabinet was still there, but the rest had changed. The window in between and the bed with a small bookshelf overhead that housed our comics, novels, textbooks etc… A closet that was tandem with desk and another one on the side of the bed was more than enough for our wants and needs had been replaced with a couple of chairs.  A humble orange curtain still draped the window.  I remember placing my hockey sticks and sports shoes behind it.  So much packed in the small room, where I learned to shave using a Gillette II razor.  The time spent there just flew by, I recalled the full moon nights and watching through Tommy’s powerful binocular that gave me the first views of the moon’s craters.  I listened to American Pie, Lobo, and Simon & Garfunkel’s bridge over troubled water and whatever would touch the soul of a teenager who was full of foolish optimism, love for all, and thought of life as one long adventure.  We had so much to learn from each other yet none of us saw oneself as someone who had anything to teach.  We were 40 nationalities, cultures, ethnicities, languages all placed in a limestone sanctuary.  The daily anticipation of going to class, the joys of playing team sports, and the lifetime of friendships that have continued for many.  Most of us are now spread across the globe, our individual and shared experience at De La Salle has shaped our personality and the way we turned out.  I learned so early on that the differences that separated us, just made us unique, but we had a subliminal connection that has kept us tied to our past. We did not know it then, but we are woven together as a rope

I experienced so early on that I had to accept each human, face value, if I wanted to be accepted by others.  I had to let go of my stereotypes, my preconceived notions and accept all mankind just as it was, without reservations, and without being forced to do so. It was a natural outcome of the experiment we all willingly/unwillingly participated in. Probably for most of us, definitely for me, this realization grew into a character strength as I navigated the later years of my life.  I learned so much in those years and it has only been re-enforced.  Being away from parents, and most other loved ones for 3 months at a time, was replaced by family of peers, who saw you as who you were.  There were no pretensions as it did not matter. There were no popularity contests nor any awards.

Now, we are in our 5th and some in their 6th decades of life now.  Many have become grandparents while some have left this world way too soon.  We wonder how we ended up where we are. Many are in the UK, US and Canada along with the rest of the globe.  It’s not an accident that we found solace in a multiethnic, multicultural, and democratic societies. We just couldn’t adjust in a place of little diversity, where despite having the nationality, even ethnicity, we were a minority.  We would all suffocate without diversity.  Its not an accident that many of us are more comfortable with ethnicities other than our own. Somehow, we all endured in our own ways, and reminisce the time when we were together on a small island that perhaps defined our future in more ways than we know.  

Published by bhooliyaaden

I am known as Rehan, I live in a suburb of San Diego. I do not know the rules of good writing, nor is my rhetoric refined. I write to share and express, or perhaps to leave behind my thoughts that may resonate with others. I hope to use this platform to connect with my peers, loved ones, and those who may find joy in reading. I am looking for my mentors and those who wish to join on this journey. The Urdu word "Humsafar" is probably the most appropriate term for the readers of this collection.

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