Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The Candy Story and Slipping under the Bamboo Curtain

on January 21, 2014


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.


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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