Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator


on November 15, 2013


So here we were staring at an oasis in the middle of the desert: A Chinese Muslim restaurant!

We parked and invaded the small eatery. The truth is I have no recollection whatsoever of what we ate. My parents fell into conversation with the lady owner, a Mrs. Wang, and her brother-in-law who helped with the cooking.

As Papa often told us, all Chinese Muslims are related to one another one way or another. We are after all, only over one hundred million of us (as of today), and usually intermarry. So, upon some digging on mutual backgrounds, Papa was able to figure out who she was, who her late husband was, and how they ended up in Istanbul after the war. My parents finished eating but the three of them kept chatting on and on.

The three of us became rather bored and despite our good manners, started fidgeting. “Mama, can we go play outside?” Mama glanced at the street and nodded yes. We happily trotted out.

Inside, the conversation turned to life in Turkey. Mama had many questions for Mrs. Wang, and got more information than she asked for. Safety? Oh, you have to be very careful. Recently, there are many kidnappers prowling the cities. They have a sort of hallucinatory ointment on their hands. When they see a child that they target, they pat the child’s head, then walk away. The ointment gets absorbed through the scalp and the child sees a roaring tiger on the right, a precipice on the left and a wildfire behind him. But in front of him there is a wide road, so he follows that road as fast as he can. This road is the path taken by the kidnappers. This is how they kidnap children without any struggle. What do they do with the children? Oh, sometimes, if the child is cute, they chop off a hand or a foot and make them beg. Everyone takes pity on such an adorable child afflicted by such a handicap. Otherwise, they sew the child into a bear skin and make him dance in the street. Of course, such a well-trained bear attracts a lot of coins.

dancing bear in turkey

At this point, my mother looks at the front window and cannot see us. “Where are the children?” The three adults stop talking and run to the door. We are nowhere to be seen. Mama goes hysterical.

Mrs. Wang looks for her brother-in-law, who had already closed the kitchen and headed home. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Mai, he probably took the children home with him. Let me find out.” And indeed, that is where she found us, just about to ascend a big staircase in an apartment building. She raved and ranted at the poor brother-in-law who was only trying to take us to meet her children.

He had walked out of the restaurant only to see us on the sidewalk playing by ourselves. He asked whether we would like to play with other children. We were happy to do something more fun than ghost hopscotch and watching passersby.  We walked to a street filled with tall building and stopped by a wall. He pulled several times a string that hung down from an upstairs window. He waited a while. Then he said to us, “It looks like no one is home here. Let’s go to the other house.” And we traipsed behind him on to the other building where Mrs. Wang found us.

Mrs. Wang turned out to be the old woman who lived in a shoe. Her apartment was filled with children. Or so it seemed to me at the time. She had I believe nine children, all older than Saadia. As dinner was being prepared, Mama chatted with one of the middle schoolers. “How do you count in Turkish?” She took a piece of paper and a pencil and started writing them down in Chinese characters for ease of pronunciation. “Bir, iki, itch, baysh, dirt, yeti, sekiz, tokuz…” Mama looked up in surprise, “What? Did you say tokuz?”  The girl insisted, “Yes, Auntie Mai, eight is tokuz.”  Mama was laughing now, “Ah, really, tokuz? really! “tuo ku zi”? Hahaha, this is too funny!”  Indeed, in Chinese, Tuo Ku Zi means, take off pants.

When learning foreign languages, we always tried using mnemonics in other familiar languages. “Baysh” for example, sounded like “beche” in French, a spade or shovel. “Yeti” sounded like the yeti in Tintin in Tibet, the abominable snowman. Think of seven abominable snowmen walking towards you. You won’t ever forget that one.

Among the nine children in that room was a girl who was about 12 or 13 at the time. Maybe she was the one who taught Turkish numbers to my mother. Her name was Rosey. Many years later, she was to become my husband’s aunt. As Papa said, all Chinese Muslims are relatives.

But in the meantime, we just played together, ate together, and spent the night in their apartment. The next morning, we said goodbye to that big family and drove towards the Bosphorus.

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