Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Black Magic and Islamic Law

on January 21, 2014

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).


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.


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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