Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Sheep Market and Three Kingdoms

on December 31, 2013

Since school work was a breeze, and television consisted of two hours of news in English — which we could not understand– or heavily censored American movies between 8:00 and 10:00 pm, we had plenty of leisure time to fill everyday.

One of those little vignettes imprinted in my mind is of us sitting on folding chairs on the veranda of our third house, the pink apartment building, eating oranges and bananas and throwing happily the peels over the railing into the street below. I must explain here that most streets were still unpaved and that herds of camels would occasionally be driven through them, eating garbage on sight. So we were doing the camels a favor, really.

Another favorite pastime in our second house, the grey boat-shaped apartment building, was to watch from our second floor window the activities in the sheep market across the street. This was a vast vacant lot filled daily with sheep: ewes, rams, and lambs.  We were told by the people at the embassy that this market was rather new, only about 2-3 years old. It was previously a slave market. Somehow, during King Faisal’s reign, slavery was eradicated quietly and disappeared without much ado. Which is why, the storyline regarding the Arab slave trader in The Adventures of Tintin: The Red Sea Sharks, is actually accurate and not total fiction.

Although this is a picture of an Algerian sheep market in 1906, it is very similar to the one across our house in 1965 Jeddah.

Although this is a picture of an Algerian sheep market in 1906, it is very similar to the one across our house in 1965 Jeddah.

Customers would stop and check animals: teeth, hoofs, eyes, etc, then bargain. Once the price was agreed upon, the customers could walk their ware home on a leash, but more often asked the seller to slaughter the sheep on site.  Abdul Kerim and I had the entire procedure memorized down pat and would play sheep market and imitate them.  Though I never had the opportunity to do so, I bet I can still slaughter and skin a sheep if I had to. First. you tie the feet together with a rope. Then you cover its eyes and hold it tightly, and with a swift stroke, cut the throat with a sharp knife. Then, after the blood finishes dripping in the basin or the trench, you pull the rope up and tie it onto a vertical pole so the sheep now hangs head down. You proceed to slit open the belly, and pull out the innards, which you bag separately for the customer. Then you skin the sheep by slashing under the pelt and outside the flesh. This is the most painstaking step. Finally, you take the sheep down onto the butcher’s block and chop it down to size, bag everything and give it to the customer.

But our favorite pastime was no doubt,  reading French classics.

We had long read and re-read our Bibliotheque Rose and the few Bibliotheque Verte little hardcovers until they came apart. There were no libraries then in Jeddah, and the only bookstore in town that offered foreign books had just English ones, and nothing for children at all. Papa, on the other hand, while in Paris, had accumulated a really impressive collection of French classics that he displayed on his shelves or kept in the two large metal trunks in his study. We disregarded them for a while at first, because they had no pictures and the print was too fine. It looked like a lot of work.

But, just as people turn to eating rats, tree barks and roots during famines, we did finally turn to them. I found Saadia reading The Count of Monte Cristo, volume I, one day. She was totally absorbed in it and would not even answer my calls. I checked the book out and couldn’t believe she was so interested in something without pictures. I asked her, and she answered, “Yes, it is very very interesting!” So I waited till she finished Volume I and moved to Volume II. I grabbed the book and tried. This was very difficult to read, since Papa bought only original, unabridged classics. But I trudged on. Finally I finished Chapter I. “Da Jie (Eldest Sister), this is not fun at all! So far, all that happened was a ship entering a port!” She did not even raise her head, “Keep reading! It gets more interesting later.”  It had to, otherwise why did she prefer those picture-less books to playing with Abdul Kerim and me?

le comte de monte cristo


Eventually I did find the plot interesting, but only as far as Edmond Dantes finding the treasure. After that, it was only mildly so. For a child, the intricacies of stocks, banks and politics had not yet captivated my imagination. And this is how, at eight years of age, I embarked upon the greatest discovery of my life, the love of reading. Soon enough, we both became speed readers. I assume it was because of the lack of book reports, summaries, vocabulary checks and so on. When reading is for the sole purpose of enjoyment, one has the freedom to skip the boring parts, and guess at meanings of unknown words.  Somehow, we swallowed whole dozens of books, from the entire works of Moliere to Les Miserables, and from Les Trois Mousquetaires to Madame Bovary. There were of course, translated works too. So we also read Charles Dickens, and I cried every time I re-read the part when Davy is told of his mother’s death.

The Empty City episode in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The Empty City episode in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Papa did his part as well. Every day after dinner, he took his place on his favorite chair in his study. We would arrange ourselves on the floor or on his knees, and he would read a chapter from various books in Chinese. There was Little House on the Prairie, translated into Chinese by Mrs. Chao, the Charge d’Affaires’ wife. His favorites however were no doubt the Chinese classics. I had long forgotten these until I came across The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin many years later and suddenly remembered those evening session in Jeddah. I was totally awed by the intelligence and tactical genius of Zhu Ge-Liang, who has come to the awareness of the Western youth through computer gaming, of all things! Though, at my age, a few things still eluded me. I remember asking Papa again and again why the army decided not to attack the “Empty City”, after Zhu Ge-Liang, aka Kong Ming, told a few old men to open the city gates and go sweep the ground in front of it, while he himself played a string instrument on the city walls.




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