How I Spend It: Sami Ibrahim on his desk

The playwright, in lockdown, is transported to his teenage self

Image: Klaus Kremmerz

I should start by saying that my desk is not actually a desk. It is a squat, six-seater kitchen table from Argos (73cm x 74cm x 129cm). Its wood is a pale, faded brown, like parchment, and the surface is covered in a decade’s worth of graffiti: scratches of Biro, permanent marker, highlighter, Tipp-Ex, paint, carvings from a compass, and I’m sure there’s melted wax hardened onto the surface next to my lamp.

The desk has sat in the corner of my childhood bedroom since I was a teenager. It saw me through GCSEs and A-levels. It was with me through years of not‑starting-homework-until-way-past-bedtime. It was with me after university, as I sat in my parents’ flat, looking aimlessly for a job. And it’s with me now. Thanks to a little bad timing, I have ended up back at this desk, in lockdown, in a small but perfectly preserved teenage bedroom. And I am glued to the desk for eight hours a day, trying to get on with work, pretending that the world outside is completely normal.

I could do a lot worse. If I’m being pretentious, I’d say the desk is a comfort. At a moment where a lot of us are stuck at home trying to make sense of things, each time I sit here I’m hit by nostalgia for a simpler time. The doodles that cover the desk are tattoos, spread across its surface area (a precise 0.9546m2), and behind each one is a story. Some stories are tedious, but every now and then I pick up a stapler, or move a book, and discover something that jolts me back to being 16.

First things first. In long, spider-like letters, hidden under my laptop, my past self sends me a message: “DO SOME WORK!!!” And he’s right. All this time looking at absent-minded scribbles is no good for productivity. Then again, neither is a pandemic. So I figure it’s best to embrace it. Dive into the musings of a pop-culture-addled, male teenage brain. There are the Simpsons quotes (“All work and no play makes Sami something something…”), there’s a reproduction in Tipp-Ex of the smiley face from the Watchmen comics, there’s a tally showing how many of Empire’s Top 100 Films I’ve seen (67 in 2010; 81 in 2020). And then, among it all, I can make out a faded revision schedule. “Tues – Biology”.

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Between all that and the narcissistic attempts at practising my signature (in both English and Arabic), the desk is a catalogue of all the versions of me that have ever sat here: mostly bored, often tired, sometimes loved-up. To my right, under a pile of books – just above a cartoon of an alarmed skull having a cigarette – I’ve scrawled the word “ellie”. To the 17-year-old who wrote that, Ellie was another girl I presumed I’d never have the guts to talk to. But years later we’re still together, and seeing that name is like a thread, pulling me back through a decade of memories.

Still, I can’t be too precious. A decade-long relationship is not contained in a single piece of graffiti. As much as I want it to be, this desk is not an irreplaceable antique. And, if I’m honest, some of these doodles are now meaningless. Random scratchings that once made sense have now faded. Their meaning is opaque.

Then again, clinging to memories is addictive. To my left, I’ve written in block letters “DO NOT TOUCH”. I can’t pin down why I wrote it but it’s as if the desk is telling me it’s far too precious to end up in a skip. So maybe I should listen. Somewhere near the back, the desk still has some empty space. I’m sure another decade of doodling would fill it.  

Sami Ibrahim is writer-in-residence at Shakespeare’s Globe. His play Two Palestinians Go Dogging is scheduled to open at the Royal Court later this year.

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