Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The Candy Story and Slipping under the Bamboo Curtain

 

jeddah 1930s

The overall atmosphere of a utopian society was so etched in all of us that small derailments absolutely horrified us. One afternoon, Abdul Kerim came home from his daily playtime at the embassy compound with a smug smile on his face. He was holding his arms around his belly, which protruded in a strange way under his shirt, which was as usual tucked inside his shorts. He beckoned to me in a conspiratorial manner, “Hey, Er Jieh (Second Elder Sister)! Come and see what I’ve got!” We went to our room and Abdul Kerim pulled his shirt up. Out rolled candies, gums and other goodies onto the floor. A whole stack of them. My eyes went huge. “Di Di (Little Brother), where did you get all this?” My parents did not believe in weekly allowances, so we never had any money on us, unless we were sent on an errand. “At the little shop downstairs! I told them that Mama would pay them back later.”  Buying on credit! Well, well, well! My brother was certainly ahead of his time!

The little shop downstairs was a small wooden shack maybe no more than two by two meters, with a front window whose shutter could open down and turn into a counter, and shelves on the inside walls. It was a pre-fabricated mobile store that could be found everywhere on street corners in those days, and were usually owned and operated by Yemenis. This one, right outside our apartment building, sold candies, soft drinks and other daily needs.

Although I had sworn myself to secrecy just a few minutes ago, this was no ordinary secret! Thievery led to having one’s hands cut. This was an enormity. A crime. I had to help him out of this. And indelible  traces of that day in Ankara, the Day of the now famous Chocolate Story had etched themselves forever into my soul. I looked sorrowfully at my little brother, “Abdul Kerim, I am so sorry! But I must tell Papa and Mama about this. I’m so sorry!” Abdul Kerim’s face changed. “But you promised! You promised!” he protested, with tears in his eyes. I could not bear his look. I know we were best friends and best playmates, but this was no ordinary game. I walked out of the room with the step of a traitor. I told my parents.

kneeling

The reaction was immediate. And intense. Mama gave Abdul Kerim her purse and ordered him to go downstairs and pay off the bill first. Then he was ordered into Papa’s study. He had to kneel down and endure a lengthy lecture delivered with forceful stormy tones. Then he had to raise his two hands up straight, vertically in the air and stay thus until further notice. I felt terribly bad and tried to keep away from the scene during the punishment session. I truly do not remember whether he got any slaps on his hands with the fateful steel shoe horn. But by the time my father went to mind his business elsewhere, I stole into the study and tried to hold my brother’s hands in mine so he would not get too tired. “Abdul Kerim, don’t worry, I will hold them for you. Just rest a bit.” But he snapped back, “Just go away! I don’t need you!”

I moped in my room for hours.

As Saadia grew more and more withdrawn, Abdul Kerim and I had become closer. He was now older and able to join me in games. We were great pals and played and quarreled with great gusto.  I remember one day when we fought once again, and even the dreaded curse, “You Communist you!” did not cut it. So we decided to pinch each other. I said I would not cry and he said he would not either. So there we sat, each pinching the other on the arm as hard as we could and both holding back our cries and our tears.

Boys are definitely more daring and naughty than girls. I was a handful, but he topped me in everything. Once, when we started getting bored from the lack of excitement at the sheep market, Abdul Kerim said to me, “Er Jie (Second Elder Sister), shall I call out to them?” That scared me. “No, you wouldn’t! Anyway, you don’t know their names…” Abdul Kerim laughed.  “I will just say, Mohammed! There is always a Mohammed somewhere in the crowd anyway.”  I shook my head in disbelief. Abdul Kerim bent through the open window and  yelled at the top of his voice, “Ya Mohammed!!!” and quickly squatted down under the window so no one would see him. I was a fraction of a second slower, slow enough to see some of the people in the sheep market look up and around.

Another time, he came home at sunset from his afternoon play in the embassy compound in a whirlwind, quickly trying to disappear into his room. But Mama was quicker, “Come back here!  Why are you running so fast?” Abdul Kerim was forced to face Mama, which is when we all noticed his shirt was greyish and crumpled. This was before the era of T shirts, and boys wore crisply ironed white dress shirts, even for play. It turned out he had fallen into the turtle pond, which was filled with green algae. Abdul Hamid and Nuruddin had tried helping him out by taking his shirt off and wringing it as dry as possible, and Chi Mama had given him another clean shirt to wear. But he was too scared to face Mama, so the boys had sneaked out and tried shaking and waving the shirt in the wind to dry it out. He then put it back on and walked bravely home, trying to look as normal as possible.

Abdul Kerim was named Ren Jieh in Chinese. Papa later told us that he had communicated secretly with his family in China starting from the years in Paris, and that upon his request for a name for his newborn son, Papa’s uncle had bestowed the name “hero (among men)”.

Today’s children do not know anything about the Iron Curtain or the Bamboo Curtain. They cannot fathom a prison the size of a country and total ban of communication between two parts of one nation torn apart by war. People in Taiwan could not write or call or send telegrams to their relatives across the Taiwan Strait, and vice versa.  For Papa, who worked for the government, trying to reach anyone in Communist China would have been tantamount to betrayal and opened him for serious investigation. Inside Mainland China, people could not leave of their own accord, unless they attempted to escape across the fenced border — which many did, at the risk of their lives.

bamboo curtain

Papa had written home, pretending to be doing business in France. He had found out  that his elder sister’s husband had been imprisoned then sent to hard labor, then later committed suicide some time after his release.  Soon afterward, his father had passed away. His younger sister and her husband, both involved in the music industry, she as a music editor and he as a performing tenor, were hard hit when the Cultural Revolution erupted.  They too were sent away to hard labor and their two children were left in the city to fend for themselves.  Papa had assumed that his brother, the Communist cadre, had escaped tragedy. Alas, no one in Communist China did. Even my uncle, who had joined the Communist Party in its infancy, was reported as disloyal by a close friend and sent to twenty years’ hard labor. 

Unknowing of the details of life under the Communists, Papa wrote letters asking about his family’s well-being, and whether they remembered to fast as good Muslims should.   His elder sister replied that they were all very well, and yes, of course, they remembered to fast, and indeed did so every day of the year. Muslims only need to fast during the month of Ramadan, so this was a secret message that they were really starving.  Papa asked whether they were in need of anything. His brother replied that they were not in need of anything since the motherland could provide them with anything they needed. Papa did not know that Uncle was already in trouble then and that those letters to and from a Western capitalist country were scrutinized for hints of wrongdoing or simply incorrect thought. That reply from his brother broke his heart more so than his sister’s description of their situation. He locked himself in his room and wept.

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Black Magic and Islamic Law

Papa’s dire threats about no music in Saudi Arabia evaporated in the hot desert sun. I occasionally reminisced regretfully about that toy guitar I gave away in Beirut. Although Saadia and I had no more piano lessons since Paris, I definitely started to develop my singing voice in Jeddah.  Mama’s music lessons and her song book spurred me on to compose my own songs. She must have noticed something, for she entered me in the singing competition when Ambassadress Li organized a Children’s Day celebration on April 4. We Chinese don’t just have a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day, we also have a Children’s Day (April 4) and a Teacher’s Day (September 9).

childrensday

Embassy functions were mainly of two types, the ones for the non-Chinese which counted as work, and the ones for the Chinese community, which counted as fun. Or what we would call today networking.  Our community was really comparatively small, just a dozen families or so, but we still made up a great contingency for that memorable Children’s Day. We had a series of outdoors sport competitions in the yard outside. Papa had ordered from America a set of bow and arrows, so there was an archery competition. Then a running competition. I failed every single sports competition, feeling miserable. My health was still poor and I had very little stamina or endurance. But after the crowd moved upstairs to  the ambassador’s living room for the indoor events, I won the singing competition. I felt so great to be good at something that I remember that feeling till today though I cannot for the life of me remember what the award was.

But something else fascinated me and started a new hobby that day. In the luxurious setting of that embassy living room, we had a Magic Show. Ambassadress Li called on some volunteers, like Saadia and Shadia. Which explained to me why, the day before, from the top of the back stairs, she had called them one at a time to her living quarters. Upon their return, we would pester them with questions, why did she call you? What did she say? and they would mysteriously say, “nothing.”  So, Ambassadress Li announced a game called Black Magic. She sent Saadia out of the room then ask a guest to pick an object in the room. She would then call her innocent volunteer back and point at various objects, “Is it this one? Is it that one?” And magically, she would know exactly which one had been selected. Well, Saadia later did disclose the secret to me, and here I am telling the whole world the secret to this black magic: It was not the type of question or words used. It was simply, as the title suggested, “black” magic. If she pointed to a black object, then the next one would be the correct one. I was so enthused by this magic show that I started looking for magic tricks in Papa’s shelves and trunks of books but alas coming up empty.

magic

Even though there was music on television and on the radio, and no one ever threatened to put me in prison because I loved singing out loud, Islamic law was indeed present, alive and well in Saudi Arabia then.  Papa had told us about stealing and having your hand cut if you stole back in Beirut and that tale of the man’s fingers haunted me still for years. When taking the garbage out across the street to the dump on the vacant lot (at the first house), I would tread around the huge pile, and look around for treasures.  People throw away all kinds of things that to me were wonders. Here in the US, there are garage or yard sales, and today, there is eBay and Craig’s list. But then and there, people just threw them away, and not in bags either. Disposable plastic garbage bags had not yet been invented. So I would carefully look around, make sure no policeman or nosy neighbor was looking, and furtively pick up the wanted item and stuff it in my garbage can, while pretending to be throwing something away.  Then I would walk leisurely, pretending nothing was happening, and once home, head to the kitchen, and pretend to be cleaning the garbage can, and then stealthily, quickly stuff the treasure in my hand or under my clothes, and run to my room. For who knows, my parents might give me away and the police might find out somehow. I certainly did not want my fingers or hand cut.

For that did happen for sure. Mama told of one Friday when Papa took her driving downtown in front of the courthouse, specifically for checking out the truth of this matter. Executions and hand cutting were advertised publicly in the paper, and usually carried after Friday prayers. She said how scared she was when she saw a pair of hands hanging overhead in front of the courthouse. Another time, she and Papa went to watch an execution, which caused her to nearly throw up.

But in defense of Islamic Law, life was definitely very safe in Saudi Arabia then. People were more in touch with real feelings, and the atmosphere was one of a gigantic village. In Makkah, the merchants and shop owners would throw a piece of cloth over their wares when the call for prayer sounded, and head to the Holy Mosque. No one would dream of stealing the gold bracelets, necklaces and earrings on display in the open air.  Upon their return from prayer, they would remove the fabric cover and resume business as usual. Papa kept telling and retelling for years after how amazed and flabbergasted he was at the sight.

Once, as we were crossing the sheep market on our way to the embassy, we saw a little newborn lamb suckling from its mother. We were mesmerized and kept saying how cute and lovely it was. The bedouin who owned it smiled benevolently at us and picked it up, then tried to hand it to us. He spoke in Arabic too difficult for me to understand. He seemed to be saying, go ahead, take it, it’s yours. We looked askance  at Papa, oh, please, could we, really? But Papa said, no, absolutely not. That is too much of a gift. Later, after he recounted the incident to his colleagues at the embassy, they told him he should have accepted it. Never cross a Bedouin and never refuse a Bedouin gift. Why, we asked. Well, it seemed that that was very offensive. But at the time, all I could think of was, see, Papa, you should have accepted that darling cutey of a lamb!

suckling lamb

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Hajj

Our stay in Saudi Arabia turned out to be beneficial to our family in more ways than one. Under the influence of his co-workers and friends, Mr. Abdullah Chi, Mr. Yaqoub Ma, and Mr. Sui, Papa gradually became more religious. Islam became more open at our home, contrasting starkly with the secretive rare prayers that Papa offered in his room under lock and key back in Paris.  Now, there would be a prayer rug constantly folded in Papa’s study and he would attend Friday prayers at the mosque.  He would on occasion wear a little white cap that identified him as a Chinese Muslim. I remember him displaying proudly an Arabic newspaper one day with him in a large picture on the front page shaking the hand of King Faisal. He had led the Hajj (pilgrimage) group from Taiwan to meet the king, so he was dressed in his most spiffy black tuxedo and had his little white cap on. Mama gasped and had a fit, “Oh, my goodness! I told you not to stuff your camera in your back pocket. Now look! Front page and everyone sees you with a hump on your buttocks!”

white muslim cap

Papa also decided it was time to give us some religious education. So he taught us how to make our ablutions and how to pray. He instructed us on the five pillars of Islam. He told us to remember we were Muslims, of the Sunni sect, and following the Hanafi school of thought. That meant little to us, and it was enough to remember we were Muslims. For once, this was not out of the ordinary, and we would proudly wear our religion in school, feeling as one with the rest of the girls. Our food, which stuck out like a sore thumb in France, was not even an issue here, since all meats were slaughtered the Islamic way and no pork or lard or alcohol was to be found anywhere. Identity, prayers, and dietary rules. That was it. Reciting the Qur’an was inculcated at school. Whether at home or at school there was little discussion about the attributes of God or the principles of Islam or even the differences or similarities with other religions.

The most exciting event, religiously speaking, was the pilgrimage. This was a duty incumbent on all Muslims, to be performed once in a lifetime. For people living in other countries, it is a costly and painstaking endeavor. Here we were, living right there, next to Makkah. So Papa thought it would be best for us to perform it too, although we were still children. Meaning, we still had the duty to do it later in adulthood, after making our own intention to do so, and paying for it ourselves. I actually performed then the Hajj twice, on two consecutive years.

Mama sewed us white ankle length dresses with long sleeves. Abdul Kerim got to wear nothing but two unsewn white towels like all other men. One around the waist like a skirt and the other thrown over one shoulder. Men get a lot of nice cool bodily ventilation during the five days of pilgrimage.  So it is only fair that they get to do most of the chores too.

The first year, we stayed in white tents like everybody else. But the second year, Papa ordered from America a camping tent, orange and blue, made of sturdy nylon, just for our family. We were very proud to look so modern, the one spot of color in a sea of white. Well, we regretted it soon enough. These American tents were firmly and tightly sealed on all sides, including to the ground. Although we started off happily playing with the zipper door, we soon kept it open for ventilation. The tent turned into a brightly colored oven. It was so hot in there that  we had trouble sleeping at night, even with the door and window open. During the day, we just wandered off to the main large white tents, which were dozens of degrees cooler. I assume it is due to several factors. First, white reflects heat. Second, the lower edges were kept off the ground by about six inches, and the tops gracefully arched into peaks, creating a natural current of air that circulated throughout the entire tent. I guess that centuries of trial and error beat modern technology. And American tents were probably designed for cold mountains rather than hot deserts.

1966 truck

Pilgrimage was one of the times when we felt that all adults had turned into children too.  It started off on the embassy grounds, with one or two trucks, with our red, white and blue flag stuck on both sides of the front windshield,  idling loudly. These were large trucks but open like pick-ups, with the side railings looming up to five or six feet. The men piled into the trucks and hung onto the railings. Then the chanting would start. Male voices are always used in opera for soldier choruses for a good reason. When you hear large groups of men chanting in unison with all their lungs and enthusiasm, “labbaikallah humma labbaik! Labbaikallah shareekalakalabbaik! Innal hamda, wal ni’mata, lakawalmulk, laaaa shareekalak!”  then a feeling of strength, unity and passion to achieve something is born and floats around the entire caravan.  We, the womenfolk and the children, of course, rode in our family cars. But, since the windows were kept rolled down, we would enjoy the breeze and the chant. Somewhere along the way, the men would tire of chanting, and the chant would dwindle and stop now and then, only to be reborn upon the next bump in the road.

In the 1960s, the highway from Jeddah to Makkah was nothing like it is today. It took two hours to drive to Makkah on a regular day, and the entire day during hajj time. On the way, our trucks would join a huge caravan of trucks carrying multicolored flags, some grimy and dusty from long treks from other countries.  The actual pilgrimage takes place in several locations. The campgrounds are in Mina the first day, on the plain of Arafat the second day, and back to Mina for the remaining three days. Sometime during those last three days, you have to return to Makkah and perform the tawwaf (walking seven times around the Kaabah)  and Sa’ee (running seven times between two hills); on top of that, you had to go to the three “devils” (jamrat) incarnate — stone pillars, and throw seven pebbles at them, pebbles which you had to have picked up on your way during your trek between Arafat and Mina. All this is done by around a million people dressed in white.

The Kaabah in the Holy Mosque, Makkah, 1960's

The Kaabah in the Holy Mosque, Makkah, 1960’s

 

 

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Coca Cola and Origami

the twist

Formal diplomatic functions were certainly less frequent than in Paris or Turkey. And all of a sudden, we children were not needed so much any more. No more watching the older kids practice the Twist while waiting to get on stage at the Salle Pleyel.

There was an International Ladies group that our mothers were members of. Mama especially loved networking with the Japanese and French ladies. It gave her the opportunity to show off her fluent Japanese and learn fashion and sewing tips from France.  She actually joined one of the French ladies as her assistant seamstress, and helped her duplicate the latest Paris fashions and sell them to rich Saudi ladies, usually princesses. The first time that Mama attended a function in the palace — Saudi royal parties were either all male or all female — she came back full of stories. The Saudi Queen and princesses had all been dressed in French gowns flown in straight from Dior or Chanel, and the party had been held in the gardens and the entire place smelled very fragrant. It turned out that the maids had been spraying the garden with French perfume! (Air fresheners had not yet been invented, or at least not available in Jeddah.)

One day, the International Ladies held a huge festival. Now, I can only assume it was related to Halloween, because the weather was rather cool and we had all made a huge mistake. For once, we children were involved. We were told to all dress up in national costumes, so we did. Upon arrival and being told to walk onto the stage, we found out that all other children — mostly Westerners — were dressed as robots, doctors, fairies, princesses and so on. No national costumes except the lot of us. The robot won first place.

I loved the Japanese booth, which was a sort of tent hung with dozens of paper cranes made of beautiful gift wrapping paper.  They fascinated me!  One lady in kimono was teaching how to fold them and I learned there and then how to make them.

origami cranes

Once home I started making cranes and hanging strings of them everywhere in the house. That spurred Papa to teach me a few other models: a gorilla, a boat, and an airplane. The gorillas were the best, they were wonderful. They were easy to make, only a few steps more than the “cocottes” we made in Paris, and the best part, they could be used to wage war! We made big gorillas as generals and commanders, and small ones for foot soldiers. We stood them in formation, then used the left over paper to make ammunition: thick paper bars folded in two. With a thick rubber band held tight between the left thumb and middle finger, the “bullet” was hooked in front of the rubber band and pulled back. Releasing it caused it to fly off. The game was to take turns shooting “bullets” at the enemy soldiers. Fallen men could be removed to a shed where they would “recover” for so many turns. If the general got hit, then it was game over, the enemy would win.

Of course, eventually, Abdul Kerim and I would get over excited and started shooting the bullets at each other especially if we felt our general was unfairly hit. Saadia would keep her nose in her book and ignore us.

Saadia hit puberty rather early for those times, at around ten years of age. She later told me how scared she’d been to find blood in her underwear, and how when she finally told Mama, all Mama did was to hand her some pads and an elastic belt with two loops, and said, “From now on, you will have to wear these every month when it happens.”  However, at the time, I had no inkling of all this drama, and could not understand why Saadia stopped joining us in our games and would stay home and read.

Papa’s status was higher in Jeddah than in his previous posts. I believe he was then First Secretary.  So we started hosting dinners at our home. We had moved out of that cockroach infested home which was too far from the center of action, into first the grey boat-shaped apartment building across from the sheep market, and then finally into the pink apartment building a stone throw from the embassy. Papa had requested from the ministry that Saudi Arabia be classified as a hardship post, like African countries. When that got approved, he received an extra US $200 per month. That made us quite rich, compared to others. We had TWO, not one, air conditioning units: one in the living room for the guests, and the other in my parents’ bedroom.

Dinner parties meant Coca-Cola time. Mama bought them by the case. These were luxury items, and so we were not allowed to drink them normally. But during dinner parties, we opened an untold number of them and served them to the guests. Mama allowed us to drink some too, so we would gorge ourselves on that sparkly little black drink and keep opening swirly bottle after swirly bottle.

coca cola crate

Mama started hiring help as well. I remember in the grey building, we had an old Yemeni lady with sagging empty breasts who would invite her own friends over whenever Mama was out. She would open Coca-Cola bottles and serve them to her guests. We were shocked. She was eventually fired.

Then in the pink building, we had a young Yemeni boy named Ali. He was a part-timer and would be especially there on days when we had company. I loved that because doing the dishes had been my duty up till then. I had gotten it down to a science. I would make sure to empty and soak everything, with plates, bowls and large serving dishes separated and piled together. Utensils would soak in the pots. Then I would soap a pile at a time. I got very good at rinsing with one hand while placing on the rack with the other. Pots were the best because I could pretend they were cauldrons and the yucky liquids in them were various magic potions.

Every time I invented some new labor- and time-saving trick, I would demonstrate it to Mama. “Mama, Mama, look! See, I can carry ALL the plates AND ALL the bowls at the same time this way, all in just one trip!” Mama would glance up and make always the same remark, “Lazy people come up with lazy ways.”

 

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Les Trois Mousquetaires

les trois mousquetaires

My own personal favorite was, thumbs down, The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas: plenty of action there to  enthrall me! In my dreams, I galloped alongside d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis to save the Queen of France, Anne d’Autriche. Since I had also read Vingt Ans Apres (Twenty Years Later), a much darker sequel little known to the English-speaking readership, I also had Mordaunt, Milady’s son, show up in my dreams. Mordaunt was a much more sinister evil character than his mother and definitely frightened me. Once, we were rowing a boat on a river that was miraculously located along the side wall of the embassy, behind a line of poplars, and Mordaunt burst out of the water, trying to topple us and stab us to death. Another time, we were trying to get away in a pick-up truck (talk about messed up time and place in dreams!) in that dusty back street behind the embassy, and Mordaunt appeared on the roof of a house across. He pulled his rifle up and started aiming at us. The musketeers all jumped on the pick-up truck and drove off. I kept running after them, waving my arms and yelling, “Wait for me!”  ineffectively. The pick-up truck revved away, not noticing my failure to grab and jump onto it.  Mordaunt came down into the street, a tall silent assassin. I stumbled and fell. He loomed over me, pulled up my hand, and shot me  … in the palm of the hand! I looked at it: a big black hole fumed in the middle of my hand…

Looking back, I remember sensing in my dream the apprehensive fear of oncoming pain; thus I probably unconsciously changed the shooting target from a much more likely head or chest to the less painful hand. Also, possibly, having experienced being beaten on the palms of my hands allowed me to accept pain on my palms in my dreams. Whatever the subconscious reason, I woke up and saw a red mosquito bite on my palm. Ha!

In the afternoons, after the embassy school classes, which had now shifted to 4:00-6:00pm, we played endlessly in the embassy compound. I usually led the gang in our games. I tried making them follow me in tracking down Milady, but they wouldn’t understand the game. So, we would fall back on pirates and princesses; or robbers and cops; or a fairy tale, which was easier to retell my way than a full novel.

 

Still, it was a lot of work making other children comprehend my imagined world. “I am a robber,” I would tell Abdul Hamid, “here, I’m coming in the night, trying to find the diamonds in this house. Now you are the police detective. Next day, you try to find clues on the scene of the crime. Go ahead!” He would walk a bit, then grab my arm, “Hey, I caught you!” Exasperated, I would explain, “No, no, how could you catch me when you didn’t find any clue yet?”

 

pirates

One day, we finished playing a pirate story as the sun set. Time to go home, wash up and get ready for dinner. Well, how should we end this? We, the three eldest leaders — Saadia, Shadia and me– decided the princesses should get married to the princes, who conveniently appeared at the end for that purpose. We were 9 and 8 years old. So we told the boys, Hamid, 6; Nuruddin and Abdul Kerim, 4; that they had to marry us. The little ones agreed readily, because disobedience would get them kicked out of the game. But Hamid, being slightly older and therefore more rebellious, refused. “No, I don’t want to get married to Saadia!”

“You have to, no choice here! Come here and stand with her in front of the priest.”  But he retreated and seeing no way to avoid it, ran away as fast as he could. We chased after him, shouting as loudly as we could, “Come back  here! You HAVE to get married! We can’t end the story otherwise! Get back here immediately!” It was already dark and we ran around the entire embassy compound fruitlessly. He had disappeared into thin air. We had to hold the wedding with just two couples.

The next day, Shadia told us that her brother had jumped into the pond in the front yard, which happened to be empty, and had squatted among the turtles until we had tired of searching and had returned home.

I turned increasingly more daring. One day, we noticed a man sitting on the back steps of the embassy, observing our play.  Shadia told me his name was Ma HaBi, and was here from Taif on business. “It doesn’t matter. He should not be bothering us, watching us play.”  I was as bossy as usual. So I devised a way to get rid of him.  I had then made up a song called — what else? — The Three Musketeers. The lyrics were really simple: A-athos, Po-orthos, Aramis sont mousquetaires; E C E-, G E G-, A GA G, E D E-.  And so on. So I changed the lyrics to: Ma HaBi, Ma HaBi, Ma HaBi Ya Ma Ha Bi!  I made all the kids sing along with me as loudly as we could.

It worked. The guy sat on for a while more, then got up and left.

The Ma kids rarely joined us in our daily play. They usually returned home straight after class.  Fawzia was a lady par excellence, already demure, well-mannered and gentle. Kobria was my idol at the time. She, like Ambassadress Li, had slightly protruding eyes that gave her a sparkly look. She always had strong opinions about just about anything, and was always very smart. Number three sister was Rabia, two years my junior, but already very well-versed in the domestic skills of a well-bred young lady: she could embroider beautiful flowers on pillows!  Mama showed them to me one day when we were visiting them. “Look at her work! Such delicate needle craft! Why can’t you do something like this?”

 

Well, that hurt. Because I was indeed not very good at needle work. In Grade Two, we had a few additional subjects including sewing.  I tried very hard. But truth be told, Mama never asked us to sew at home. She did all the mending and sewing herself. So the one hour a week of sewing never got me very far. I remember one day in class having to embroider some simple design on a handkerchief. I bent over painstakingly trying to get the stitches to look neat. After sweating for a good half hour over that handkerchief, I tried to pull it up to display it proudly to Saadia and Shadia. But try as I might, the handkerchief would not leave its place on my lap. I lifted it from the edge and found that I had stitched it onto my skirt!

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