School Lessons

By Abdulrazak Gurnah

I speak to maps. And sometimes they say something back to me. This is not as strange as it sounds, nor is it an unheard of thing. Before maps, the world was limitless. It was maps that gave it shape and made it seem like territory, like something that could be possessed, not just laid waste and plundered. Maps made places on the edges of the imagination seem graspable and placable. And later when it became necessary, geography became biology in order to construct a hierarchy in which to place the people who lived in their inaccessibility and primitiveness in other places on the map.

The first map I saw, though I must have seen others in innocence before that, was one a teacher showed us when we were seven years old,…even if I can’t say for certain about the ages of the multitude that shared this experience with me….

I have never properly considered the oddness of this before and it is only now as I think of it that I realise its strangeness. If you were over a certain age, it was as if you had gone over the point beyond which you could be instructed, like a coconut that had over-ripened and become undrinkable, or cloves that had been left too long on the tree and had swollen into seeds.

And even now as I think of it, I can’t come up with an explanation for this stern exclusion. The British brought us school, and the rules to make school work. If the rules said you had to be six and no older to be allowed to start school, that was how it would be.

From “By the Sea”


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