Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator


on January 7, 2014

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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