Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The Grey Mice

on December 21, 2013

After the two of us spent a semester in the embassy school and a summer playing around, my father decided it was time to send us to a Saudi public school.  Again, the other embassy staff members tried to dissuade him, saying that they taught nothing but Qur’an memorization. But now my father would reply, “Even Qur’an memorization is better than doing nothing.” And so it was that Saadia and I got registered at the nearest public school, School #13 for Girls.

There are no known photographs of Queen Iffat.
There are no known photographs of Queen Iffat.

Saudi Arabia started opening schools for girls in 1962, due to the great work of Queen Iffat, King Faisal’s fourth wife. Our School #13 was built on the grounds of an old cemetery, or so I was told. It looked very much like all other houses in Jeddah then, a main two-story villa surrounded by ample grounds and rooms in the back. The headmistress decided that we did not know enough Arabic and so should go to First Grade. By then, the fall of 1965, I should have attended 4th grade since I had started a year ahead. But my parents accepted her verdict as well as most of the other requirements: grey uniform, white handkerchief, white socks, black shoes. But when they also required that all girls seven years of age and above were to wear a black veil and abaya (a sort of ankle length black cape) to school, my mother rebelled.

“You are neither nuns nor widows, and you will not wear black veils!” She showed her disagreement about the uniform’s fashion statement in other subtle ways too. “Ankle length is too long. A bit shorter will work just fine.” And so, she sewed the dresses mid-calf length. These were light grey cotton fabric frocks with longs sleeves and a sash at the waist that tied at the back, and a white collar. There were two pockets on the skirt, and we had to keep a clean white handkerchief folded in there. For the young people of today, let it be known that disposable tissues, or “kleenex” as we called them back then, had only just been invented and way too expensive to waste on cleaning your nose with. Plus, we had seen them in Paris, but certainly not in Jeddah. Mama looked at the two of us in our new uniforms and remarked that now we looked like a pair of grey mice.

grey mice

The first day of school, we arrived to an empty campus. It turned out that we had gotten the wrong date and school was not to start till the next day. But, the headmistress noticed immediately that our dresses were too short and ordered us to have them lengthened. Mama grumbled but undid the hems. Still the dress was too short but even the headmistress realized that short of sticking extra fabric on, there was no way to make them any longer, and so accepted them. But I wasn’t happy because now the hem was exactly at the height of the top of my socks. And as I walked, and since my socks were not new, the hem would hit and push my socks down, and every twenty steps or so, I would have to stop and pull them up again.

This was barely the tip of the iceberg of my problems. The next day, we again went to the school, a bit too early, so the yard was again empty. We spotted a bench near the front of the school yard, near the wall, and so sat there to wait. Soon the girls started arriving. They would come in groups to examine these two new specimens of an alien species and start pointing at us and discussing our every feature. This was getting worse than the maternelle in Paris. The French children might not have met a real Chinese, but they did know what that was from books, movies or television.  Here, the students actually had no idea why we looked so different.

The crowd grew thicker by the minute until they pushed and squeezed and shoved one another to get a better look at us. One could barely squeeze a finger between the spectators. At one point a group of older girls came and tried to break up the younger students by shooing them away. Just as I was going to breathe a sigh of relief, the older girls themselves took over the audience and pointed and shoved and giggled and chatted. We kept sitting in silence until I could bear it no more. I bent my mouth to my sister’s ear, and whispered to her in French, “I feel I am a monkey in a zoo!”

I had not noticed that the size and density of the crowd had forced a number of girls to admire our alien-ness from between our bench and the wall behind us. One of them had stuck her ear behind our two heads as I spoke. She now repeated my conversation as loudly as she could for the benefit of the others, “ah shi ah sha mo ne zoo!”  and the audience burst into a thunderous and raucous laughter that rolled and rumbled and exploded over the throng.

By now, I felt that we had graduated from the monkeys in the zoo to those performing in a circus. But now I knew better than to share my thoughts with Saadia. And so we bent our heads and kept quiet. I don’t even remember whether I cried when I reached home or whether I fought against returning to school. Probably not. Because we knew very well that it would be of no use, and that we would be expected to fight for survival — survival of the fittest.

monkey in zoo



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