Edinburgh Fringe – Frexit: Comedian Zahra Barri admits she was a racist ten year old.
I was thinking recently : What’s the most racist thing I’ve ever done?
‘Racism’. It’s very much a buzz term at the moment. Along with ‘woke’, ‘ghosting’ and ‘smashed avocado’. It’s known to Millennials and Generation X as the darker sister of ‘xenophobia’ and the un pc grandmother of ‘cultural appropriation’.
The truth is we’re all victims of racism which ironically makes it very inclusive. Racism has no prejudice, it effects us all. Whether it be receiving racial abuse or being called racist. You can’t escape it.
All this got me thinking about my own experiences of racism throughout my life. As both a victim, (I’m half Egyptian) and as a perpetrator, (I’m half Irish). What I found was that most racism happens on public transport. Rosa Parks back in 1962 started that trend. And mine was no exception-on a school bus in Saudi Arabia.
Let me set the scene: my family and I were typical ‘brits abroad’ out ‘on the lash’ in Saudi Arabia. Except we weren’t really because booze is illegal. I learnt the hard way that ‘100 lashes’ is not a brand of mascara. Like most Brits abroad we didn’t want to engage in the culture, like public executions and treating women like second class citizens. We didn’t eat the local food either- in fact we went out of our way to eat proper British food, you know none of the foreign muck, like, you know, hummus and stuff. We even had ‘dealers’ who would smuggle in packs of bacon back on the planes from the UK. Turns out pigs can fly. Technically, we weren’t breaking the law because we ate the bacon safe in the cover of the British aerospace compound in Saudi Arabia. There, we’d ravenously consume it with other fellow westerners like it was crack(ling). We chomped our way through hundreds of packs; smoked and unsmoked contraband in that British Aerospace compound, vehemently aware of the technicality of our human rights but also forever in fear of getting busted by the equivalent of the Gustapo, the Matowah, the Saudi religious police. In the British Aerospace we were like a weird cross between Julian Assange and Anne Frank.
We also, I am ashamed to say didn’t bother to learn the language. My Egyptian dad spoke Arabic to his colleagues but didn’t ever teach Arabic to me or my sister because he didn’t want us to grow up to be bilingual. He connected being ‘bi’ as he called it, with being a ‘jack of all trades master of none’. When he says this to people, they think he’s talking about bisexuality, ironically, I guess, this miscommunication kind of proves his own point. Nonetheless, my sister and I didn’t need to learn Arabic because we could go to an English speaking school.
My English speaking school was called The British International School in Al Khobar. (Pronounced ‘alcobar’ weirdly). The British International School, al Khobar or BISAK for short, was incredibly ethnically diverse with students from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Lebanon, Ghana, as well as where m and my sister had come from in Bracknell. The school bus that took us in everyday also dropped students off at The French International School in Al Khobar (FISAK). There was about 20 of us from BISAK and only 3 from the FISAK. As you can imagine the French students felt a bit dominated by us Brits. There was a definite divide on the bus. We did not integrate. The French sat at the back of the bus and kept themselves to themselves. The driver, a Saudi man who spoke very little English, dropped them off at The French School and then would drop us off at The British School each day. On the way home, we’d get picked up and then we’d go to The French School and pick them up and then we’d all go merrily home back to our gated compound which was called KFUPM. KFUPM stood for King Fahad University Of Petroleum and Minerals – my dad has a job there working with oil, he was a chef.
One day on the bus back from school to KFUPM, I got dared by Christopher Dayle to tell the driver who didn’t speak very good English that The French School didn’t need picking up. Now, let me briefly tell you the complicated history between me and Christopher Dayle. Even though we were only nine years old, we had a long history, in fact to this day, we still have our friendship on Facebook listed as ‘It’s Complicated’. In short, we were exes. We went out for a week, he gave me a ring, he kissed me in his bedroom and then freaked out and ended up dumping me for Emma Hale. I was devastated. But guess what, by crying to my girlfriends and playing Kiss Chase with Mohammed Mohammed Mohammed (that was legit his name) I got over Christopher Dayle. We still hung out on the school bus with his sister Antonia and my sister Amirah. I was still a little bitter from the break up, I became very defiant towards him. He would goad me all the time. When I told him I was auditioning for The Artful Dodger in Oliver for the school play, he laughed in my face and told me I would never get the part because I was a girl. I auditioned and the next day took immense joy in telling him I had got the part. It felt glorious. That was the first time I realised I was a feminist. And in Saudi Arabia, oh the irony!
Anyway, back to the crux of this: me being racist. One day, after school we were on the bus and Christopher Dayle dared me to tell the driver that The French School didn’t need picking up that day. ‘I bet you don’t have the guts’ he sneered. I couldn’t let this boy win, I had to do it. I wasn’t thinking of what this would do for Anglo- French racial tension. No, I was thinking about Feminism. I needed to prove this boy wrong. So. I did it. I can still remember the driver turning round ‘No French?’‘No. No French School today.’ I said, like the little nine year old ‘shit’ that I was. If you think I’m a ‘little shit’ now, it ain’t a patch on how much of a ‘little shit’ I was when I was nine. Put it this way I’M the reason why I don’t want children.
When I think what sort of an evening I put those French kids through. Standing at the school gates in the baking heat waiting in vain for a bus that was never going to show up. A bit like TFL during BST.
I feel so ashamed to this day. No wonder Saudi still are tenuous about putting women in control of a vehicle. This incident certainly didn’t help the situation. If I could change my decision now I would never have caused FREXIT. My motivation wasn’t racially charged but it did have racist implications. Like BREXIT it took a long time to rectify, lots of grovelling and apologising and my mother making me go round to each French kid’s house to apologise. Not to mention, making a phone call on the eve of the night to one very angry French Dad.
I don’t think the French ever truly forgave me. And I don’t blame them. To this day they probably still talk about me as the ‘little shit’ that in one snap decision caused them to Hard FREXIT off the school bus entirely. We tried to get them to do a Soft FREXIT – a deal where my family would pay half their bus fare as compensation. But they chose to hire a private taxi to take them to school everyday. This ultimately increased every British School kid’s transportation costs. So it was a raw deal for everyone really.
It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I can look back on my decision that fateful day and wish I’d made a different one. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m not racist but I did bully kids off a bus simply for being French. Zahra Barri is at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival 1st – 25th August