Saturday afternoon and Sunday I went around town a bit more. I had to visit my alma mater, the School of Oriental and African Studies—the place I studied and worked in (not to mention dozzzzed off in) for three years. Here’s something I wrote about SOAS in the final days of uni:
Behind the grandeur of the British Museum showcasing loots and wonders ‘borrowed’ from a past of glories and conquests, I found her. She herself is a remnant of an empire lost, but today much changed in the face of a different imperial order. A vision in golden lettering, glistening on the side of a lump of concrete that could easily be mistaken for something built out of a fury of socialist construction: ‘SOAS’ spoke to me. She beckoned me to leave the streets of chaos and people, and enter a tree-lined yard behind gates plastered with posters demonising the present world order and its eunuchs. Behind these gates, beyond the reaches of a London to fast and too wild to capture, I found refuge for the next three years.
For strangers to SOAS, the revolving see-through glass-doors at the entrance screams of a pompous hotel reception. People the world over check in, check out. Some come to expose themselves to the worldly knowledge disseminating from lecture halls and seminars; others come to expose themselves to that familiar mix of (not just…) cigarettes and booze. The additional barriers to SOAS’ window-dressing are indeed the latest of high-tech: students and staff, despite countless visits to the building, are sometimes randomly left stranded at the gates…maybe wondering what it was they did or wrote that exposed them to the wrath of modern machinery. Erect a few X-ray machines, metal detectors, photographic and finger-printing machines (with the glum-looking security guards always too happy to help already present), anyone could be mistaken for having stepped into that realm of paranoia of the US of A. Behind squeaky doors, on tea-stained carpets, gum-glued furniture, ‘squatting toilets’ and within crumbling walls is a place of (quote) “intellectual excitement”.
Yes, SOAS’ flaws we all know too well, and her snail-paced bureaucratic machinery
never ceases to amaze, but at face-value SOAS scarcely does justice to the substances she has to offer. I have come to be proud of being part of this tightly-knit community of the world’s peoples and diversities. Too often I find myself (and I am apparently not alone) having to spring to defend and explain what SOAS really is all about to those (shockingly!) unaware of the fact that she even exists.
It is the place where once colonial servants trained in the arts and languages of
Africa and the Orient. It is where vocal activists, socialists and crowd-followers often start their marches against war, injustices and poverty of this problem-ridden world. This is where the hijab meets the kippa, where dreadlocks meet almond eyes, where people are blind to the colour of your skin, where the robed monk meets with the shaman, where children of [quote] “diplomats, spies or gypsies” congregate. This is where, in a world where constraining structures and hierarchies threaten to stifle the voice of the voiceless, subversion is the norm rather than the extreme. Marginalised at SOAS are no longer the vast majority of the globe. In a world where ‘western-centric’ influences dwarf all else, the lecture halls, seminars, societies and pub at SOAS are filled with alternatives to the current political, economic, social and environmental structure. I imagine more gets done and said by Soasians than at social gatherings of ‘UNrepresentatives’. And yet amid this daily activism and idealism that the world could be seized, understood and revolutionised, Soasians linger the earth with such an meditative air of calm and peace. It is a school of contrasts, a school of differences and a school with a life of its own, warm with the blend of the aromas, cultures, diversities and peoples of a much greater world.
(Thornhaugh Street, where SOAS buildings are mainly located... really a tiny college of the University of London with just 3000 people altogehter, but we make up for our specialisation and uniqueness.)
Yes, SOAS meant a lot to me, and will always do. Though to be honest, the square and streets around my old uni felt so ‘empty’ this time I was there. Perhaps it was because it was summer, and a Saturday.
At least, that’s what I’d like to think.