Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Fighting the Reds in the Arabian Sands

on December 17, 2013

turkish coffee

The coffee cup reading neighbor back in Ankara had been right. Papa was happy in Jeddah. He said later of this period in his life that it was one of the most enjoyable episodes in his career.

Because of the small size of the staff, he became very close with his superior, and had the opportunity to make executive decisions on many matters. In a larger embassy, the ambassador reigned over not just the political branch or employees from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but also at least over a few more branches:  the military branch —  the employees from the Ministry of Defence; the information branch — which included staff from the media as well as from the secret service; the economic or trade branch, which included staff from the Ministry of Commerce; and possibly more, depending on the needs of the particularly country. In such a large institution, if you were in charge of, say, stamping visas, then that’s about all you got to do during the few years of your appointment.

In the Jeddah post, Papa did not just take care of issuing visas. He got to make decisions about a Chinese sailor that had passed away at sea. He oversaw the students from Taiwan that came to study in Saudi Arabia.  He took charge of the arrangements for the annual pilgrimage group from Taiwan, since the Charge d’Affaires was not a Muslim and consequently could not enter Makkah. But the one affair that he boasted about for years after was banning all “Made in China” goods from Saudi Arabia.

The 1960’s were a time of development and growth for Taiwan, who had by then grown its economy enough to start becoming an important international exporter.  Everywhere in the world, one could find toys, stationary, plastic utensils and so on “Made in Taiwan”. However, in Saudi Arabia, Ma BuFang had commanded his followers, many of whom had become businessmen, to import from mainland China, primarily to get back at Taiwan for dismissing him as ambassador. Thus, all the souks and shops were flooded with “Made in China” goods.

Papa studied the problem from different angles and combed the souks for samples. Finally, having come up with a strategy, he went to meet the head of the Chamber of Commerce.  After greetings and tea, he pulled out a ruler, a pencil and a bookmark, and showed them to the gentleman. “Here,” he said, “these are made in China. Have a look!” His host turned the objects this way and that, and asked what the matter was with them. They looked perfectly innocent. “Saudi Arabia is a free country, and all its citizens are free to trade with whomever they please,” he told Papa.

little red book

“Aha!” said Papa, “they are wolves in disguise! Do you know what this writing is? This is a quote from the Little Red Book, by Mao Tse-Tung. This too, and this too. Who uses these objects? Students. Youth that will become the leaders of this country. Who will read them and try to understand them? Children who are more intelligent than others, and will become the great thinkers of your country. Day after day, they will read these quotes, and little by little they will become brainwashed. Soon, your country will be full of youth and future leaders that will be Communists. That’s what China is trying to do to your country.”  The head of the Chamber of Commerce was smart. He thanked Papa for his visit and his advice. Next thing he knew, Papa found out that the Chamber of Commerce had issued an advisory to all its members not to import from China any more. In the blink of an eye, all “Made in China” rulers, pencils, erasers, bookmarks and so on disappeared from all stalls and shelves in the whole of Saudi Arabia. Soon after, they were replaced by rulers, pencils, erasers and bookmarks that were “Made in Taiwan”.

Trade and commerce were not the only battlefield against Communist China. Every year, the largest event in Saudi Arabia was always the Hajj. This is the pilgrimage to Makkah, a duty incumbent on every Muslim, wherever they might live on earth. This was also the one time of the year when a large number of Communist Chinese were able to enter the Kingdom, for the Saudis could not refuse to issue a hajj visa to any foreign Muslim.

Communism by definition forbade the worship of any god or the practice of any religion. Go figure a Communist country sending a formal group of pilgrims to a Muslim country to perform religious duties, during an era when Communist fervor and extremism reached its apogee, when Chinese Muslims were oppressed and their leaders forced to tend to pigs or be killed. Could those pilgrims be true pilgrims? Or were they borrowing the name of pilgrim so they could enter the country, and perform other duties? The question was not ours to answer, but their actions against us during their stay in Mina and Arafat was definitely our business.

hajj 1966

The kids at the embassy regaled Saadia and me with stories of who did what to whom during such and such a year’s pilgrimage. My memories are couched in the mists of time by now, so I cannot swear who did what. People from one Chinese camp would sneak over during the night to the other Chinese camp and do one thing or another. The most thrilling one was stealing away the flag of the enemy. I think it was our group who did it. Or maybe I wish it was so.

This was the height of the Cold War. And even in the heat of the Arabian Desert, the war was on. Papa scolded us when we left food over in our bowl. “People in China are dying of famine and you are wasting perfectly good food!”  He told us that the Communists were breaking down families and forcing children to report their parents; that people were forced to live in communes; that food was not sold but given against ration coupons; that each family received only a ration of fabric a year, the same dark blue fabric for the uniform that the entire population had to wear. When someone got married, the family members would pool their pieces of fabric together to sew a new uniform for the newlyweds. “Three years new, three years old, and three years mending and repairing.” That was what was said of clothing.

The government was Big Brother. It oversaw every aspect of the people’s lives, Papa told us. It decided who you should marry, how many children you could have, where you could live. At work, the government decided when workers could take a bathroom break, and for how long. In the toilets, the foreman would call out, “One, two, three, everyone, push and pass one bowel motion! One, two, three, everyone, push and pass a second bowel motion!” Well, we never were quite sure where Papa’s news analysis stopped and fiction started. But we were mesmerized by his stories, and fully convinced of the Communists’ evil ways that earned them the name of  “bandits”, gong fei.

When my brother and I fought, we would throw insults at each other, starting with “stupid”, and moving gradually to more forbidden epithets. Then one of us, more daring than the other –usually Abdul Kerim, would then hurl the ultimate bad word, “You…! You … Gong Fei!”

communist bandit


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