Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Beirut

on November 28, 2013

It was also in Ankara that we got to keep our first pet.

One of the neighbours upstairs had a brand new litter of puppies and were looking for takers. We bugged Papa so much that he yielded and we came back downstairs, bright eyed, and hugging a little ball of black curly fur.

We named him Milou, after Tintin’s dog. Now, in the English translation, this white dog is named Snowy, which seems totally unsuitable for our little coal black little darling. But in the original French version, it is named Milou, which is cute and not related in any way to a color.

Milou was a very happy puppy and ran around like crazy to play with us. We got him a leash and the four of us, Janet, Joyce, Saadia and me, would take him for wild dashes in the building yard and across the vacant lot. It was not until his sister, who had been adopted by another family upstairs, daintily walked out, totally shaved naked with nothing left but tufts on her paws and tail, that we discovered Milou was a poodle.

black poodle puppy

But we only got to watch Milou grow for a few months.

Just as we were settling down to life in Turkey, the Ministry sent word to Papa that the transfer to Turkey was a mistake. The excuse was that pulling so many staff members out of Paris at such short notice was a little difficult to handle. But anyhow, there is a vacancy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Mr. Mai would be just the right person to fill it.

Papa threw a royal fit. He stormed around our apartment, thundering about quitting diplomacy altogether. Did they think back in the ministry that moving a whole family around was that easy? And Saudi Arabia, really? That place was not fit for human habitation. All deserts and nothing else.

He later told us that it was a coffee cup that changed his mind.

One of the neighbors upstairs invited Papa and Mama to a farewell dinner, after which they offered them some Turkish coffee. This is a very rich coffee served in very small but beautiful cups. The best part is after finishing drinking it, you swirl the thick residue around a few times, then tip the cup upside down, and place it on the saucer to drip itself dry. This happens in a few minutes, after which the cup is ready for fortune reading.

So the neighbor read Papa’s coffee cup and told him that he was going to a place where he would be very very happy and have very good friends. That sounded promising. So Papa thought maybe he would give it a try, and decide later whether to quit or not.

And so, he planned for the move. This time, it being December, and the snows in Turkey being able to bury a child or a car, driving was out of the question. He decided to fly, but not in a straight line. He was certainly not going to pass up the chance to see the Holy Land and the Dead Sea, both of which lay on our path to the deserts of Arabia.

Again, we sold all furniture, and packed all clothing. We boarded a plane and flew to the first leg of our Middle Eastern trip: Beirut!

Beirut 1964

Beirut was then known as the Little Paris of the Middle East. It was filled with music, culture, tourists and tycoons.  Again, it looked nothing like a hot dusty desert country. On the contrary, it was very cold, and there was snow in the streets. I was starting to get used to have my stereotypes blown away by now.

We stayed in a hotel, and Mama took us shopping. I got to buy a toy guitar that made real sounds if you turned a handle on its side.  What a marvel! I played carefully with it, so as not to break it. The next day, we were to visit one of the embassy families that had invited us to dinner. Mama talked to me, saying this family had a child, and why don’t I give up my guitar so she wouldn’t have to go out buy another gift.  I had tears in my eyes. Why did I always have to be the one to give away my things? Papa joined in the conversation. He said that the guitar couldn’t go to Saudi Arabia anyway. Over there, music was forbidden. If the customs officers were to see it, they would take it and throw it away.

Just to frighten me some more, he added that this was a very very strict country. If you stole things, they would cut off your hand. Once a man found a bag of rice in the street and went to report it to the police. They asked him, “How did you know it was rice?” The man replied, “Oh, I just felt the cloth, and could tell it was rice. — Which fingers did you use to feel it? — These fingers here, on my right hand.” The policeman then ordered the man to be taken out and have his right fingers chopped off. For he had touched what did not belong to him.

Now, as I try to piece together the events of my childhood, I realize that the  embassy staff in Beirut must have had a field day telling him all sorts of scary stories about the ruffians in the Arabian Desert.

So I agreed to give away my guitar.

toy guitar

 


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