Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Septieme — Grade 5

I felt happy in 8eme, feeling at home with all subjects, and enjoying especially poetry. In this grade, no more fables by La Fontaine as in First Grade. We now memorized poems by dead white French men such as Alfred de Musset. Although firmly dated in the middle of the 19th century, this particular poet had nothing of the others’ romanticism and alexandrines. He produced some weird poems with short lines, and almost post-modern raw imagery, which for some even weirder reason, were considered suitable for little children to learn. Upon searching for the Ballad to the Moon, I just found out that it is really much longer than the few stanzas we were given to study, and that the reason is clear, a lot of the further lines are definitely not suitable for children! We were ordered to draw an illustration, which I loved to do, with a bright yellow for the moon, and everything else in black shadows, and happily I memorized it.

comme un point sur un i

Ballad to the Moon

It was, in the brown night, / On the yellowed bell tower, / the moon, / like a dot on an i.

Moon, what somber spirit / walks at the end of a thread / in the shade, / your face and your profile?

Are you the eye of a one-eyed sky? / What sad cherub / ogles us / under your pallid mask? ……………… (Here, the teacher skipped a couple of stanzas.)

Who blinded your eye, / The other night? Did you / knock yourself / On some pointed tree?

For you came, pale and sullen, / stick on my panes / your horn / through the bars. (Here, the teacher skipped again many stanzas)

And it is, in the brown night, / on its yellowed bell tower, / the moon / Like a point on an i.

It is hard to say why I liked it so much. Probably because its simplicity made me think that I could write something like that.

But the bliss did not last long, for this maitresse also went to the directrice and told her I did not belong in her class. So I again skipped a grade, and joined Saadia in 7eme, for the French education system has five grades in elementary school and seven in middle and high school. There, Saadia had unseated the top student, Annie Paumier, and after I came in, I also passed her to rank as the second every month. Only one of the following months did I surprisingly score higher and end up as the first, while Saadia became second. She stopped talking to me for three days after we got our report cards.

I do not blame her. We often discussed later, as adults, the psychology of Chinese children raised traditionally. The difference of even just one year in our ages resulted in our being ranked vastly differently. Saadia wasn’t just the best, she HAD to be the best to maintain her status. At the time, I only saw her privileges, such as being in charge of all responsibilities, but never her burdens, such as… being in charge of all responsibilities. She, on the other hand, only saw my benefits, such as freedom from responsibilities, but never my wretchedness, such as being always called irresponsible, by my parents.

Saadia was now one year behind her peers and I was together with my peers, although, since I had started school a year early, I was really still a year behind my original level. My favorite subjects were history and composition, named over there Redaction, which really means editing. I wonder. Was the goal of those one-hour weekly writing sessions really to teach us how to edit? The format was simple. The teacher would write a topic on the blackboard, and we would get started. By the time the bell rang, everyone would hand in their finished work, and file out, while I would still be writing as fast I as could the final paragraph. The teacher would hover over my head, making me even more nervous. Then she would start telling me to hurry, which of course, made my hand tremble with anxiety, and start pulling the paper away from me, which would cause me to nearly pee in my pants.

History was very exciting. The syllabus for elementary school is French history only. I believe this is why the French are so good at liberal arts. History is studied in depth. I was shocked when I discovered that in the US, sixth graders are expected to study world history starting from the cavemen and ending with the Cold War, while passing through all continents. What do they get at the end of the year, except for a merry-go-round view of world history? A mile wide and an inch deep. No one can master world history this way, not even adults. In France, the lower elementary grades get an overview and the upper grades get the in-depth review.  We spent the second trimester and I think also the third trimester, studying the French Revolution. The teacher would divide us into teams of two, and give each team a “document”. This were photos or fac-similes of actual hand-written complaints filed with the Tiers-Etat (Third Estate). We were asked to read them — a very complex task because “s” was written as “f”, and the language was strange — and comment on them. We were to discuss the complaints and figure out why the people were unhappy.

cahier de doleances

Similarly, in Geography, we were given photographs of various landscapes. Mine showed a view of a rather flat hilltop, with scrubby vegetation and whitish rock showing under the pebbly soil. Nearby hills all looked similar. We had then to answer on paper questions such as: what type of rock do you think this landscape shows? I answered that this was probably limestone, that the scrubby vegetation was suitable for raising sheep and not cattle, that the area was probably not very wealthy, that these hills were probably formed in the Secondary Era and therefore this was probably the Massif Central in central France.

massif central

Today this is part of what is called the constructivist approach. Yet I see this rarely carried out in other countries. I still remember such snapshots of memory fifty years later while many American elementary students cannot remember anything in Social Studies from one day to the next.

Imagery is extremely important in young children’s learning. Which is why all these children’s encyclopedias and non-fictional picture books are much more effective learning tools than textbooks. In the French early grades, the history textbook had a left page where half the page was a huge picture painted very realistically. The bottom half had a multitude of questions which we were to discuss and answer.

What do you see in the foreground? What do you see in the back, on the left? What is the woman at the mouth of the cave doing? What do you think they used to eat? So from the picture, we were to deduce that the cavemen hunted (two hunters carrying a deer tied by the feet to a pole between their shoulders), or fished (man bringing a basket of fish) or gathered fruits and nuts (woman sitting and serving them). They wore animal skins which they sewed together with needles made of fish bones (woman sitting at the mouth of the cave). Etc etc. They already knew how to make fire.

This is but a poor and very small example of the brilliantly colorful illustration in our history book that showed an entire vista including cave, river, and forest.

This is but a poor and very small example of the brilliantly colorful illustration in our history book that showed an entire vista including cave, river, and forest.

Then on the right hand page, there were three small pictures, again painted very realistically, with a bit of text next to each. Each would highlight an important historical event or person of that time period. Thus, we had for example, in the chapter on Clovis, a little picture of the teenage Clovis with an axe in hand, about to kill an older soldier who was bending down trying to pick up his weapons. The story related how when the Franks sacked Soissons, Clovis wanted the most beautiful vase from the cathedral, but the old soldier grabbed it away, asking why Clovis thought he had the right to it. Clovis said nothing at the time, but later, as he performed an army review, he threw the old soldier’s arms on the ground, saying they were not up to par. As the veteran bent to retrieve them, he struck him with his axe, shouting out, “Remember the vase at Soissons!” This was a 15-year-old king.  The story made no sense at the time, and I pondered over it for many nights. The teacher did not really explain it either. But now, as an older and wiser adult, I understand the wisdom of this teenage leader. Had he retaliated on the spot, he would have been looked upon as a hot-headed greedy youth. But this action, performed in front of the entire army, was a well-planned show of authority, and meant to drive respect and fear in the heart of his followers.


No Comments »

Skipping Grades


The yard of the Ecole St Sebastien.  Miracle of modern technology: I was able to find on Google images this photo of the yard (cour) just the way I remember it in early spring.

The yard of the Ecole St Sebastien. Miracle of modern technology: I was able to find on Google images this photo of the yard (cour) just the way I remember it in early spring.

Uncle Lung registered us in the nearest elementary school, the Ecole St Sebastien. Yes, this was named after yet another saint. France is Catholic, and as such has a few hundred saints. Streets and schools are therefore often named after these saints.

At the interview, he informed the headmistress of our particular case. The good directrice pondered a while and decided to put us right back where we had left off two and a half years ago. That is, I would go to 9eme (Grade 3) and Saadia would go to 8eme (Grade 4).  The understanding was that if we did well, we would be allowed to skip a grade.

We did not have uniforms, but did have to wear a tablier — an apron, supposedly, but it was more like a housecoat made of a plasticky water-repellent synthetic fabric. It was printed in various patterns, usually a tartan type of cross-line design,  had long sleeves, a collar, buttoned along the front, with a matching belt, and was worn over normal daily clothes.

On picture day, I still wore my tablier, not realizing everyone else came in pretty clothes instead.

On picture day, I still wore my tablier, not realizing everyone else came in pretty clothes instead.

In elementary school, each class still had a homeroom teacher, the “mistress” — maitresse — who taught almost all subjects except PE. Physical education was named Gymnastique, and indeed included mainly gymnastics. Again I had to face the torture of learning to climb ropes. The last I remembered was instruction on how to climb knotted ropes in Grade 2 in France. Strangely, I do not remember any PE class in Ankara, and surely none in Jeddah. But now, every one had graduated to smooth ropes and here I was, still trying to master how to hold the rope between crossed feet. To this day, I cannot fathom what the use of climbing a rope might be. I have never had to use the skill yet. I understand having to learn to run fast, jump high, even turn somersaults and swim. These are really handy should you have to run away from an assassin or survive a shipwreck. Martial arts would be even handier. Basketball is very useful, for I now can throw (sometimes) used tissues and balled up scratch paper into waste paper baskets without having to get up from my chair. I guess I would have to become a cat burglar to need rope climbing skills.

All classes were extremely easy, and I got full marks in every subject without much effort. Although, now that the time has come for truth, I must confess that there was one thing I did not know. The day we had our math test, one of the questions asked us to draw a “broken line”. What could that be? I wondered. Quite by pure hazard, my eyes wandered to my right side, and happened to see, open for all to see, my neighbor’s notebook. And my neighbor herself, painstakingly, with her tongue between her teeth, trying to draw with her ruler and pencil, what looked like a pulled out accordion. Aha, I thought, so it is not a dotted line… And I drew an accordion too. That was the one question I did not know, the class having taken it before my arrival. And I confess, no I did not deserve the 10 out of 10 that day.

broken line

Whatever the case, my maitresse went to the directrice and told her I did not belong in 9eme. So the next month, October, I was moved to the 8eme and Saadia, who had done equally well, went to the 7eme. Things were still easy in 8eme, except for a new strange animal: the grammatical analysis. I had never met this before, and it took some time for me to master it. Today, I really marvel at French fourth graders, who could “parse” nouns, verbs or adjectives free hand. I have developed in recent years a similar method of parsing English words, and my students –even high schoolers —  are so terrible at it I had to develop a formatted table for them to fill so they would not forget what to write. But the method works, and my students make huge strides in grammar, writing and comprehending classical literature.

French grammar is much more complicated than English grammar, yet these children all learned to “analyze” every word correctly. Here is how it goes. The teacher would write a sentence such as, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  (I apologize; but Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books so I had to use it.) Then she would underline a few words, say, It, is, single, man, must. So the students would write each word as an entry in their classwork notebook, in the margin, underlined in red, followed by a colon.

It: Personal pronoun, neutral, 3rd person singular, subject of the verb is.

Is: Verb to be, 3rd person singular, simple present tense, indicative mood, active form.

And so on.

Math was a blast. The French take it easy, like most Westerners, and having sweated through Chinese math, this was now a piece of cake. Two months went by. I often got full marks, and occasionally a nine, nine and a half or nine and three quarters out of ten, but I always ranked first. I started making friends, in particular with a very sweet girl named Sakina, who had long black hair and was of Greek origin. She did not do very well academically but everyone could see she was the teacher’s pet, who indeed often petted her beautiful hair. Another girl named Dominique sat next to me, and I really admired her. Especially her language. She would exclaim, “Mer… credi!” which I thought absolutely hilarious. Mercredi means Wednesday, which in itself has nothing funny about it. But the word merde means shit and is used the same way as its English counterpart. Children, of course, are expected to have clean language and not use such dirty words. So, the idea was that you inadvertently started uttering “mer…” then realized the mistake, but did not want to sound strange, and therefore would finish it as a different but acceptable word.

I finally had the occasion to demonstrate my fluency with student slang one day, when the Chen family came to dinner. Mr. Chen was a Chinese professor married to a French lady whom he had met during university studies in England. They had five children, who all possessed those flabbergastingly beautiful features of mixed blood products, and on top of it were extremely bright and well behaved. If we went to their apartment for dinner, at 8:30 precisely, all children in pajamas would come and wish us good night, and kiss their parents on the cheek before disappearing silently into their bedrooms.  So I tried to impress them. I pretended to exclaim accidentally, “Mer… credi!” and felt immense satisfaction when the second and third daughters, Marie-France and Christelle, who were around my age, caught on, and burst into laughter. But my blood turned cold when they then turned and ran to their mother, laughing and saying, “Maman, Maman! Guess what Fawzia just said…!” OMG… I did not know where to hide, my face was so hot with embarrassment.


No Comments »

Paris, I’m back!

And so, in September 1967, I returned to Paris, which then symbolized the nearest thing to home for me.

We are told that the sense of smell is the oldest one in evolutionary speak. And as the taxi drove us through the streets, and as I watched through the open window the huge rusting leaves of the maronniers, what struck me was the smell of Paris. Was it an after rain smell? or was it the fragrance of a temperate afternoon sun? Or the mixed scents of old limestone architecture and new civilization? I drank it in, almost dizzy with it.

avenue de la Republique

Uncle Lung and Aunt Lily had rented a fourth floor apartment in the 11th arrondissement, a rather older quarter in Paris. Along the Avenue de la Republique, Second Empire architecture reigned. The building was maybe 5 or 6 floors tall, without an elevator. Which was good, because I never liked those old boxes that creaked and whose doors were iron gates that had to be pulled and clanged and slammed noisily. It took forever to move up just one floor rather wobblily while the swish and moans of the ropes and cables told you exactly what their status was.

Louis XIV chairs

The apartment was small, two bedrooms with wallpaper, a small lobby-dining room that looked onto the central ventilation well, and a sitting-room termed the salon, which also served as Uncle Lung’s study. The furniture in the salon was old, which is an excuse for calling it antique. It was supposed to be Louis one or the other, maybe XIV. And therefore, we were not supposed to go in there to play, as we might damage the furniture, and Uncle Lung was in no position to pay for damages of that extent. Apart from the desk and the chairs, there was a really interesting item which Aunt Lily had brought from Taiwan: a large carved chest made of sandalwood. Aunt Lily used it to threaten my little cousin Louis. He would be disobedient or fussy or something, and she would carry him, horizontally, in her arms all the way to the chest, with him kicking and screaming, and would attempt to open the lid, which is pretty near impossible in that position, and would keep saying loudly, “I’m going to put you in the chest, I’m going to put you in the chest…” She actually never did. And I wonder that Louis never caught on that fact.

chinese carved chest

The bathroom was also antique. There was a bidet, that Gallic article of hygiene which puts the French people on a par with the Muslims. Few non-Muslims realize that we are supposed to wash and rinse thoroughly our private parts after each use, and it is difficult to do so in American public toilets. I actually have to carry a little empty plastic water bottle which I fill up at the sink, or if I don’t have one, I then use a double piece of hand towel and soak them thoroughly so when squeezed they will produce a little running water. Other bathroom guests look at me wonderingly. That’s OK. They already stare at me anyway because of my hijab.  But why is it they think that their private parts are clean when simply wiped with a dry paper? If your hands had touched pee or poop, would you really think that wiping them on dry paper would cleanse them properly?


The toilet flushing tank would be located high up on the wall, near the ceiling, to provide extra pressure. A long chain with a pretty wooden handle hung down all the way to accessible height.  And I wish they would still do that today, for in my childhood, we never had a problem flushing the toilet. We could throw toilet paper in there and whatever else, and it would go away nicely. Today, in order to avoid plumbing problems, I actually have to flush after every bowel movement — you know, so they won’t stack up too thickly —  and throw the paper in a covered bin.

toilet with high tank

The kitchen could be accessed through a swinging door, which made it easy to open and close when we would be carrying dishes out into the dining room. I believe there were some folding doors in the kitchen, but I’m fuzzy as to what they led to. The dining room was at the center of the home, and the round dining table was pushed against the large window. I used to sit there often, staring onto the grey and dirty walls of the ventilation well, peering at the tiny triangle of grey sky at the top, and dreaming of the blue skies of Jeddah.

I developed a morbid addiction to nostalgia. Missing home and my parents became a delectable pastime. The beauty of memory is that you see images: unending immensities of blue, bright sunny play days… but you do not feel the heat and the dizziness, the fatigue and the humidity. And so, life on the shore of the Red Sea seemed so much happier, brighter, more colorful and now so much farther away.


No Comments »

Hansel and Gretel

I apologize for my whimsical titles. But I really did feel like Saadia and I were Hansel and Gretel when we flew from Jeddah to Paris, via Beirut. In those days, we didn’t even have the service of an air hostess to look after us. True, we had taken airplanes before, but we did so following adults around. Now, we had to figure out how to navigate the maze of an airport.

Beirut airport 1967

Beirut had a comparatively small airport, so it was not hard to follow the crowd of passengers out. There, a diplomat from the ROC embassy in Lebanon welcomed us and took us to his home. In the afternoon, another family from the embassy came to visit. It turned out they were the parents of that little boy whom Saadia and I swung and flung out onto the furniture back in Ankara. Talk about past phantoms. Which brings out the moral: do not err, for the memory of your error will never let you free!

They came supposedly to see us, Saadia and me. But, of course, they had nothing to talk to us about, and therefore chatted with our hosts on and on and on, while my eyelids gradually filled with lead. Strange, why were they so heavy? I struggled desperately to lift them and keep my eyes open, hoping against hope that the visitors would just get up and leave now. I guess they eventually did, but I do not remember seeing them do so, therefore I can safely deduce that I did fall asleep.

In Beirut, it was posh to learn and speak French. I was amazed to hear our hosts’ little boy tell his mom in Mandarin, that he had “tomber”. Yes, Saadia and I also spoke that unique blend of two languages that characterizes the tongue of immigrant children, but we did not have a funny Lebanese accent when using French words.

For dinner, the lady of the house served, among other things, cooked cucumbers. Well, cucumbers to me were salad material. They just had to be cold and crunchy. So I avoided them. But the lady was very kind and thought I was being polite. She scooped some and put them in my rice bowl. Oh, great, now I had to eat them. We had  been well drilled on the duty of finishing anything in our rice bowl, for God was sure to unleash thunder and lightning on us, if we dared disdain food while our compatriots in Mainland China died of starvation. I submitted to the torture:warm and disgustingly mushy and squishy cucumbers… ugh! I eventually managed to hide a bit of them under my bowl.

boiled cucumbers

Then, the kind lady told me to take my evening bath before sleeping. I went to the bathroom with my clothes, and tried to lock the door. People who have never traveled internationally do not realize what great annoyance it is to meet with different locks, different taps, and different gadgets everywhere. For a child of ten, it was very baffling to find that there was no slide lock, or hook, the way we had them in Jeddah. I wondered how these people locked their bathrooms. It never occurred to me that I could go ask someone about this mystery. So I just decided that they would figure out I was in there and would avoid coming in.

Ah, heaven! Warm water and pretty soap bubbles… I started to imagine stories again, and played with the foam dreamily, when suddenly, someone turned the door handle!!! What to do! What to do! I frantically beat the water with my hands, trying to be very noisy. The lady pushed the door half open, exclaimed, “Oh, you are still here! Why didn’t you lock the door?” and she demonstrated how to turn the key in the keyhole.

How to turn the key in the keyhole. Dummy.

That wasn’t the dumbest thing I did yet. I also dried myself, and happily dressed and went to bed, forgetting to let out the water. [slap head! slap head!]

The next day, our kind host took us to the airport and put us on the plane to Paris. On the plane, we relaxed and enjoyed playing with the cute trays and eating the cute packaged food. Then we arrived at Orly airport (which had not yet been renamed Charles de Gaulle.) This was in comparison, an immense maze of hallways. I held on tightly to Saadia, who had been tutored by Papa on the art of finding one’s way in an airport. My parents always thought of Saadia as the eldest, the responsible one, the reliable one, so they would give her the responsibility, as in this case, of navigating foreign concourses. Later in life, I was shocked to find out that as much as I resented Papa and Mama’s lack of trust in me, she had resented the burden and onus of always having to bear responsibilities.

The line at the immigration booth was not just long, it was unending! We were relieved to see, far away, beyond the glass partition, Uncle Lung waving at us. We waved back. And we waited on, and inched forward, and waited more, and inched some more. Finally, what seemed like hours later, we reached the immigration officer. Saadia handed him our passports. He flipped them open, and asked her something. She could not answer him. So he sighed long and loud, remarked angrily out loud why people would send children flying all by themselves without proper paperwork, what kind of irresponsible parents these were, and pointed at a desk somewhere in the back. Saadia led me back to the lobby.


“What is it? What did he say? What happened?” but Saadia would not explain. We stood in line behind a few people, in front of a tall counter, so tall that our heads barely reached its top. After another long interval, we reached the counter, but the lady did not see us, since we were too short. We were too shy to speak up and so we waited quietly, until finally, an announcement came over the loudspeaker, and the lady looked around, stood up, and saw us. Uncle Lung had squeezed through the crowd to the very exit right by the immigration booth, but we had disappeared. He waited for a while, but we did not appear. He was sure he’d seen us, so he had gone to make inquiries. I marveled at how clever Uncle Lung was!

The whole problem turned out to be that the immigration officer was looking for our visas and had not found them. Visas then were a piece of official looking paper. Papa had stapled them onto a back page of the passport and folded them neatly to fit within the size of the page. I remembered then that he did show us these visas. “Da Jieh, why didn’t you tell me that’s what he was looking for?” but I guess it was a rhetorical question. The tall air hostess led us back to the immigration booth, past the long line of travelers, and scolded the poor guy vehemently. She then handed us safely in the hands of Uncle Lung.

Today, such incidents would never happen. Not only children, but seniors, or handicapped persons, or persons not speaking the right languages, can be consigned to the care of stewardesses, who hand the duty over like a baton to the next airport or airline worker, and one is safely cared for, from paperwork to food to wheelchair all the way from departure to arrival. I cannot to this day understand how airline and airport workers could see us, two children, walking around, alone, in a bewildered manner and do absolutely nothing.


No Comments »

Flying from the Coop

Around that time, Uncle Lung was transferred again to Paris, as a representative to UNESCO.  When Mama shared that information with Ambassadress Li, the latter expressed concern for our — Saadia’s and my —  education. She felt we were wasting away our wonderful French schooling in this forsaken place. She suggested to Mama the idea of sending the two of us to live with Aunt Lily in Paris. 

As far as my education went, my Arabic was pretty good for a second grader, I was getting full marks in every subject, even in Domestic Science. The school did not offer PE, which was good since my health was not getting any better. My Chinese had also improved very much, and recently Shadia and I were the only ones who were actually able to write a poem as assigned by Mr. Sui. He actually went to Papa and told him mine was outstanding. In Chinese Math, I had finally gotten over the hump of long divisions.

So Mama and Papa talked it over and made a decision. Mama wrote to Aunt Lily, asking her to pass by Jeddah on her way to Paris. Once Uncle Lung and Aunt Lily came, the two sisters discussed the situation and came to an agreement.  We would travel to Paris in the fall, and Papa was to contribute US$200 a month toward our upkeep. They left again, and Mama proceeded to make preparations for our departure.

I do not really remember this, but Papa told me years later that I went to him and begged him to allow me to stay with them in Saudi Arabia. I solemnly promised Papa not to hit or pinch my brother ever again if he were to let me stay. I pretty much broke his heart.

But truth be told, Abdul Kerim never got much punishment when I told on him. Papa claimed to be fair to all of us children and not be “zhong nan qing nu” — give more weight to boys and less to girls. Once, after complaining about something or other that Abdul Kerim did to me, I went back to my room. Then, feeling very bad about my brother getting a severe reprimand, I returned to Papa’s study, determined to ask for clemency on his behalf. However, upon reaching the door, instead of a loud lecture and appropriate whimpers and moans, I heard Papa chatting with Abdul Kerim. “Ah, you know, girls are like that. They just like to whine and complain and tell on boys. My sisters were just the same. Don’t worry about it…” I was not so much shocked as saddened. Really, was that what Papa thought of me? And once again, the same recurring thought sprung again, maybe I wasn’t born of my parents. Why otherwise would they favor Saadia and Abdul Kerim over me?

jeddah souq

So Mama proceeded to shop for fabric and sew us some really chic clothing, which she created from patterns out of a Japanese fashion sewing magazine. One day, she took us with us to the souq — covered market — in downtown. This was summer, and even under the great roof of the souq, the atmosphere was humid and stuffy.  We walked from store to store, and Mama would chat with the storekeepers, have them pull out various scrolls of fabric, touch, rub and inspect them over, then bargain over the price, until the merchant would happily concede defeat and praise her as one astute shopper. Mama would smile happily.  The seller would pull out yards of fabric, measuring it along a yardstick, then add a bit more, fold it, and snip it a little with a pair of scissors: “Mabruk! Congratulations.” Then he would tear the fabric from the snip before folding it up and bagging it. The ceiling fans would turn round and round lazily, blowing the fine fabric powder in the stifling heat, and cause me to rub my eyes. “Stop it,” Mama would snap, “you are just making them redder!”

Indeed, I had had a number of visits to the ophthalmologist, and had had all kinds of examinations over my eye problems. I even had the ocular pressure measured with one of those machines that pressed a metal head onto my corneas. Today, this is done with a little puff of air. Pfff! and you get a reading. No lying back and having your eyelids pulled up and moving a heavy machine into your eyes… Papa guessed the redness was probably due to all that swimming in the Red Sea. No one wore goggles for swimming then.

fabric store

But to come back to the souq. We must have visited half a dozen fabric stores, and I was feeling very tired. Some strange feeling was spreading over me, something between fatigue and nausea, somewhere near dizziness or exhaustion. I pulled Mama’s sleeve, “Ma, Ma, can we go home?” Mama wasn’t amused. “Stop it! Who do you think I am buying all this fabric for?” So I stopped it, and tried to keep up the trek. But as we stepped out of that last store, I felt an immense weakness invading my limbs and innards. Saadia shook my arm, “Faw, stop it, everyone is looking at you!” I muttered faintly, “Stop what?”

And that was the last thing I remembered.

Next thing I knew, I found myself seated on the pavement in front of a store, with someone trying to force some hot sweet tea into my mouth. Mama’s face bent over me, looking concerned and worried. “She’s opening her eyes!” someone said.  It turned out I had fainted. Mama and Saadia held my arms and hauled me into a taxi. Once home, Mama forced me to lie down and take a rest. But I felt very well now, my head like a limpid pond and no more like a muddy marsh.

That was maybe the most dramatic event punctuating my ill health. I’d had other interesting happenings, including a prolonged illness related to diarrhea during which I had to eat burnt toast only. Another time, during a fever, I experienced strange feelings of distorted sensations. I would place my fingertips on the wall, and feel the horrifying slippery sensation that one gets when you slide down a vertical cliff at high speed. I would try to hold a grain a rice and get the feeling that it was a gigantic object. I would pick up the salad bowl and drink the vinegar in it — Mama did not use oil in her dressings. Heat tired me, and lucky me, we lived in a hot climate!

Finally, the day came, and Papa and Mama took us to the airport wearing dark glasses to hide their tears. We waved stonily and climbed the steps into the plane. Goodbye Desert! Goodbye Red Sea! Goodbye Dear Family!


No Comments »

Typhoon in a Teacup

typhoon in a teacup

The beauty of writing one’s memoirs is, you have the choice of including only what you want to include. And so, I pondered long about whether to include the following episode in this collection of souvenirs. On the one hand, dirty laundry is best kept hidden. On the other, such occurrences mean nothing any more in today’s society, and would barely raise an eyebrow. Finally, I decided to tell it, for two reasons: First, it marked the initial milestone in my awareness that covering women’s beauty is conducive to a more stable society. And secondly, I can not explain otherwise to my readers why I developed a sudden fear of males.

Our third home was an apartment in a pink building that housed four units. The two downstairs units were offices, and therefore empty and quiet in the afternoons and evenings. Upstairs there were just two apartments, whose front door faced each other on the landing. The staircase continued to the rooftop, where we could find the only trace of life in the other apartment: their laundry waving in the breeze. That home was exceedingly private. We never saw anyone go in or out, or up to the rooftop.

After lunch and some rest time during which we expedited homework from the Arabic school, we would head to the embassy. It was situated so close that we only needed to cross our own unpaved little alley, travel down in front of the telegraph office, and there it was. Papa and Mama let us go and come by ourselves, Saadia, Abdul Kerim and I, usually on foot and sometimes on the American bicycle or on roller skates. We must have been quite a sight, with our knee-length short-sleeved dresses and flip flops, exposing hair, arms and legs for all to see, laughing and chatting on the way.

tin roof

Across the embassy was, as previously mentioned, the sheep market, beside which, across from our building and beyond, lay the Yemeni refugee camp. It was said that Eve’s tomb was there, somewhere, among the multitude of ramshackle structures and jumbles of cardboard, plywood and corrugated tin roofs. Yes, Eve, as in our mother Eve, the first woman on earth, the mother of all mankind. I have no idea why people knew it was hers, but there you are, everyone knew it was there. Somehow, maybe the word might have been passed down from generation to generation.

On the corner of the main street and our alley, was that little wooden hut store mentioned previously in the candy story.  The shopkeeper was a Yemeni, and often, a young Yemeni boy of no more than 12 or 13 helped him at the store.

One day, Saadia and I were walking back home after our classes at the embassy school. Upon reaching our building, we met my schoolmate Najwa, who lived in the next building, and we started chatting. Saadia was tired and not in a chatting mood. She continued into the building and up the staircase. After quite a while, I said goodbye to my friend and also started up the stairs. As I reached the second flight just before our landing, I was surprised to see the young Yemeni boy from the corner store coming down the stairs from the rooftop. What could he be doing here? He was wearing a strange smile and looked at me. No matter, I’ll just go on my way.

We crossed paths as I reached the landing. I stepped to the right to let him pass, but he stepped in front of me, barring my way. Just as I was debating on what to do next, he grabbed me in a tight embrace and proceeded to do what could be called a kiss. Except I had no idea this is what it was supposed to be, since my parents gave me the peck type on the cheek, and this was totally not like it. I felt extremely disgusted and tried to push him away, but he had me locked in his arms, with my arms crossed on my chest, holding my school books.

Then, abruptly, he released me and fled down the stairs. I had not idea what this whole thing was about, but I knew it was a trespass upon my privacy, and I was not going to let that go unpunished. I ran to the edge of the steps and raised my books, aiming at his head. Just as I drew my hand back to gather momentum, I remembered that the books were new, and if they got damaged in the throw, I would probably get a good spanking. Thus, in that frozen pose, I stood and it was just then that the perpetrator looked up. Exasperatingly, he smiled and waved, then ran down and out.  Unbelievably, he had thought I was waving goodbye!!! I was so infuriated I could have killed someone.

Then, I got busy washing up and doing homework and forgot about the episode until dinner. “Ah!” I suddenly exclaimed, “Mama, something really disgusting happened today.” And I proceeded to tell the story of the weird boy on the landing who stuck his tongue in my mouth. Papa’s chopsticks froze in mid-air. Mama dropped her rice bowl. Then she exploded in super hysterics. “Where was your sister? Did we not always tell you to walk together?” I turned to look at Saadia, stuttering, “She went upstairs first, I was talking to Najwa…” But I was shocked to see Saadia, red as a beet, head down, and silent. Mama was quick to grasp the situation. She had that kind of intuition about us. “What? Don’t tell me, he kissed you too? Is that it? Answer me!”

Saadia was older than I was by just a year, but more mature, definitely. She understood, somehow, the sexual nature of that behavior, having probably read more books than I did. Television, other than showing news segments of the king’s daily activities, occasionally aired American movies in black and white where any intimate scene was cut out whenever a male and a female got too close together. So I had had no opportunity to learn about kisses. So she kept her head lowered, and felt so embarrassed she could not utter a word.

Mama now seemed to lose her self-control completely. She was screaming. “Why didn’t you tell us? Why are you keeping quiet? Do you love him? Then go and marry him! Go!…” I was absolutely dumbfounded. What crazy nonsense had landed on our peaceful home? Papa, his face white with anger, stood up suddenly and slammed his chopsticks on the table. He walked out of the house in a silent storm. Not much later, he was back with Mr. Chi. They called me to follow them, so I did. We went downstairs, and walked towards the other neighboring buildings. Just as we turned in the walkway toward the back of the compound, we met the storekeeper. Mr. Chi asked him in Arabic where his young assistant was. He answered that he did not know, that the boy wasn’t around. As luck would have it, no sooner had he spoken than the boy in question turned the corner of the building and appeared in full sight. Mr. Chi called him over in a thunderous voice.

Mr. Chi grabbed the boy by the collar and yelled a rhetorical question, “Why did you kiss the girls? Answer me! Why!” I kept pulling Papa’s sleeve and whispering, “Papa, he wasn’t kissing, he was doing a weird thing…” but Papa totally ignored me, lips pinched, face livid and eyes shooting daggers. Mr. Chi raised his hand and slapped with all his might the boy on the cheek. “Come on! Answer me!” Whack! Another slap! On and on he slapped the boy on the cheeks till his whole face was swollen and red. I stopped pulling Papa’s sleeve after a while since no one was paying me any attention at all. That stupid lad kept looking at me with a silly smile, which infuriated me so much I would have slapped him myself had I dared in that electric climate.

Then Mr. Chi lectured the boy and the shopkeeper loud and long, and we finally trudged home. Papa thanked Mr. Chi profusely, offered him a towel to wipe his sweat, and water and tea to quench his thirst. I was sent to my room. Next day, Papa delivered a strong and stern lecture to the two of us, “Never, ever, allow any male to get too close to you! Understand? ” We nodded.

That episode left me such a strong impression that I became extremely afraid of any male, even my familiar playmates. The next time we all played together, Hamid grabbed my wrist as we fought over some toy or other. I thundered at him, “Hands off! Take your hand off! Keep away from me!” Astonished, he asked, “What’s wrong with you?”  I did not know what was wrong, or that anything was wrong. I just knew that any male in close proximity was a very frightening prospect.

That fear was to grow bigger and larger and more gargantuan by the month, and create an enormous phobia for years to come.


No Comments »

A New Sister

We children thought life couldn’t be any happier. Even the teasing and ogling at school had stopped. Saadia and I, and now Shadia as well, were accepted as normal human beings by the other students. We had even made a number of friends, and our Arabic was fluent enough to allow us to chat and have conversations. I even remember one day, seated on the cement pavement of the school yard,  launching into a description of life under the Communist regime in Mainland China to my friend Najwa, a pretty dark head with big black eyes, thick curly lashes, fair skin and two thick braids. I became so engrossed in my storytelling, punctuating it with gestures and theatrics,  that I did not notice the crowd that had gathered around us in gaping attention. Not until I ran out of breath and story material, and raised my head.

life under communism

Mama and Papa never had disagreements, quarrels or arguments in front of us, so we thought them absolutely blissful at all times.  But Mama had not been as happy as we thought. Despite her close friendship with Mrs. Chi and Mrs. Sui, as well as Mrs. Ma, Mama must have felt occasionally like she lived in a forgotten corner of the world. She had immensely loved Paris and traveling throughout Europe. In this desert city, despite being by the sea, life was very different. One day, she even forgot to hide her personal feelings behind the bedroom door. In plain view of her children, she sat by the dinner table, tears rolling down her eyes. I did not know how to react and what to say. So we said nothing. It never happened again, but I never forgot that crack in her usual smiling facade.

It was also in Jeddah that I saw Papa cry for the first time in my life. He was sitting in his study, elbows on his desk, holding his lowered head between his hands, and sobbing. Loudly. That scared me. My perfect all-knowing father, whom nothing could faze, crying?  He told me years later the reason. It was during his campaign against the Made-in-China goods imported by Ma BuFang’s followers (see the post on the King of the Northwest).  One of the Taif businessmen had broken the cease-fire and started selling Chinese goods again. Papa called him and ordered him to come to Jeddah and have a chat. I’m sure he felt like a general or a judge, with the aura of authority floating around his head. The merchant agreed to come in the next day.  As fate would have it, the car he rode in flew off the highway that spirals down the mountainside from Taif to Makkah. He did not survive. Papa felt like he had killed him.

road to Taif

Around that time, we found out we had a little sister coming soon! Mama said babies grew in your abdomen and then you have to go to the hospital and the doctor will make an operation and take the baby out. And as proof, she would show me a scar on her belly.  Now, I think it might have been an old appendectomy scar, but we were well fooled.

Papa took Mama to the hospital one bright summer morning: June 7, 1966. The three of us played with Legos on the bedroom floor. Legos have since evolved to pre-designed sets and then to robotics. But back then, they were quite simple, and, to quote Anne with an “e”, gave much room for imagination: base planks,  a few primary colors, the 8-dot brick, the 6-dot brick, the 4-dot brick and the 2-dot brick; a few long bars, and, marvel of all marvels, wheels with rubber “tires” around them in a groove. I “discovered” the concept of gears through these grooved wheels, and used a system of rubber bands to make various machines, such as a bar to close and open a parking lot. All our buildings had no roof, thus allowing us to design the interior as well, and move our little people in the buildings. The 8-dot bricks were adults, red for males and white for females. The 6-dot bricks were teens and the 4-dot bricks were little children. That day, I had proudly built a U-shaped home, with the central section on a floor above the other two. Cars could park under it, and my geared gate controlled the access to the enclosed courtyard. I had stairs going up and down that upper floor.

lego blocks

And then, Papa came home, flushed with excitement: “You have a new little sister!” We jumped and screamed, forgetting gears, gate, and stairs. Abdul Kerim was a bit disappointed, since he craved a brother for a playmate. But Saadia and I were absolutely on cloud nine! A real live doll to play with. That beat a Barbie any day. We visited Mama at the hospital. Mrs. Chi had brought her chicken broth, a must for Chinese post-partum care, but she had little appetite. We drank most of it, relishing the taste of homemade food, which we missed.

Papa named her Iffat, after Queen Iffat, King Faisal’s fourth wife, the one who was well educated, and spurred girls’ education and modernization. Her Chinese name was Mai Tai-Hwa, Hwa being a symbol of China. Saadia and I were by then 10 and 9 years old, and were given the jobs of assistant nannies. Well, I must own that it was Saadia’s job more than mine. We got to change her diaper and feed her, and Papa got to lull her to sleep at times, singing and humming Brahms’ famed Wiegenlied.

queen iffat cultural center

Iffat was a big-eyed little wonder of a bundle of joy, who would have been labeled ADD today. She toddled everywhere lustily and ate everything except her food. One day, she woke up from her afternoon nap and started experimenting with the taste of her diaper contents. Another day, she opened the front door while we were all resting after lunch, toddled out, and disappeared. When Mama found out that she was missing, the three of us got punished. On our knees! Saadia and I lowered out heads, appropriately feeling guilty and sorry for not having looked after Iffat properly, but Abdul Kerim walked on his knees to his room, pulled a Tintin book down, walked back on his knees to the punishment grounds, and proceeded to read and laugh.

Papa and Mama called for reinforcements from the embassy, and all the adults roamed the neighborhood, calling and hollering.  Eventually, the police brought her home, unscathed, just a bit sweaty and happy from her roving adventures.

No Comments »

Suicide and Discipline

While we lived in the second house, the grey boat shaped apartment building, two things happened which were maybe unnoticeable to outsiders, but definitely life-changing turning points for me.

The first concerned discipline. Up till then, Mama had been the primary discipline handler in our family. Papa discussed encyclopedic topics with us, played with us, read with us, and checked our report cards. Mama, on the other hand, was the nurturer, the hugger, and the punisher. Apart from the famous chocolate episode, Papa never ever even tapped us. Mama, however, was very generous with her hand. She would slap us — quite painlessly, actually — on the buttocks, hips, shoulder, back, arm, whatever body part was handy at the time. She would also use her knuckle to knock our heads. These were automatically dispensed if we dared “talk back”, or show disrespect in any form. Until one warm afternoon. That moment is still deeply etched into my memory, so earth shattering was its impact. I was around eight years old, and was supposed to be sweeping the floor. I do not remember what I had forgotten to do or done wrong, but Mama had been nagging and nagging while I reluctantly pushed the broom here and there. Enough! Enough! Stop it! I had had it. In my head, I talked to myself, “talking back” impudently to Mama all those words that I longed to shout out but never dared to. So here I was, sweeping and sassing in my head, when suddenly, inadvertently, those words actually came out of my mouth! I froze in horror! O. M. G.! How did they escape from my tongue? I winced in expectation of the slaps or knocks. But none came. I stole a look at Mama. She was sitting in her chair, busy sewing, and acting like nothing had happened. But I was very sure I did say those words out loud! I heard them! Did she not care any more? Surprise overtook shock and I stayed frozen for a while. Then I resumed my sweeping, totally blank and stunned. Mama had not reacted. Mama had not reacted. I talked back and Mama had not reacted!

Years later, I asked her about this episode. She did not recall the exact time but said that she and Papa had had a talk around that time and had decided that we, the girls, were growing older and bigger, and it was time to stop using physical forms of punishment. I myself do not endorse physical punishments today, however, I must say that up till that memorable afternoon, I had been an obedient and cooperative child. Did my teachers not repeated it again and again on my report cards? Well-behaved, well-mannered, just too shy. What lucky parents!  But sometime after that, I discovered I had turned into a bad-tempered brat, with a volatile temperament, and given to flights of rage.

slam door

I clearly remember another tell-tale episode in the third house, on one hot summer day.  The whole family camped in my parents’ bedroom during the summer, since that room had an air conditioner. Our mattresses were covering up all the available floor space around Mama and Papa’s bed. Something bothered me — I cannot even remember what that could have been —  and I flared up. I actually shouted quite rudely, apparently to the air around me, but obviously intending it for my parents. Then, frightened by my audacity, I turned and ran out of the room before a reprimand or rebuke could reach me, verbally or physically. I slammed the door, made for the bathroom, slammed again its door as violently as I could, locked myself in, and sat on the toilet cover. There, I felt as if in a sanctuary. Let them sweat and try to get me, I’m just not coming out. I remained there maybe an hour, or maybe three. I am not sure. But I finally emerged carefully, and tiptoed back into the bedroom. My parents were lying on their beds, reading magazines and newspapers, and not paying me any attention whatsoever. Just like nothing had ever happened.

Papa and Mama probably meant well. They were recognizing in me Papa’s temper and thought it wise to let me be. But I now see how unchecked behavior whirls into a vicious cycle that climbs higher and higher and spawns a new character. That year gave birth to a new me, one that was given to temperamental flights of rage, and which caused my family years later to nickname me Mu Lao Hu,  the “Tigress”.

The second event which quietly changed my life also happened that year.  It was an evening, hot and humid, like all evenings in Jeddah. The window was open, and the lilt of Arabic music floated up from the coffee and tea house below. I had been pondering a lot about God, life and death.

heaven and hell

Does God really exist? Does Heaven really exist? Does Hell really exist? Do our good and bad deeds really count and decide our destiny in the afterlife? What if all this is not true? What if there is nothing after death? How could I possibly know? What should I do then? How could I live on, not knowing what to follow as my compass? I looked up into the dark night, and the stars, and wondered. A scientist at heart, I decided that the only way to know was to experiment. How? Well, what if I jumped out of the window right now? I could then die, and find out right there and then, whether there was really an afterlife, and whether God really existed. The thought was so appealing that I came as close as possible to the window and leaned out. But then, what if I did not die? What if I broke something? Ouch, that was bound to hurt. On the other hand, maybe I would die after jumping out, but what if there was no heaven and no God! Then what? Too late to come back and enjoy this life a bit longer.

That thought did it.  I straightened myself and went back to my chair. Better stay in this life and live it even though I did not know for sure that God existed. What choice did I have? I had to go on believing in God and pray and do good deeds even though I was not sure, not really really sure that all this was for real.

No Comments »

The Red Sea

Jeddah, after all, is a port city. And occasionally, Papa had to deal with Chinese sailors, or Chinese ships. Once, all of us, families from the embassy, were invited to tour a Chinese ship from Taiwan.  I was struck by the neatness and cleanliness of every single room and even the deck! I even got to see the captain’s room and the pilot’s cabin. But I guess I never had a sailor’s heart, because no, I did not hanker for a try at the wheel. We took plenty of pictures and went back ashore.

Another time, we were invited to take a little cruise around the bay of Obhur on Mr. Fuad’s  little yacht.  Mr. Fuad was an American convert, who later married the daughter of one of us Chinese Muslims, Imam Dawood Ting Chung Ming. He had sunglasses and a little goatee, and welcomed all of the embassy crowd on his boat. I loved the feeling of wind in my hair, and the blue of the sky meeting the blue of the sea. The adults chatted and joked and laughed and took pictures.

sailing on the Red Sea

My favorite view of the Red Sea was not around the port area, but much further north of the city, in an area named Obhur. Now and then, the embassy families would pack a picnic  and caravan to the seaside compound there, where we had a cabin. We would change into our swimsuits and jump into the sea. The ladies occasionally put their toes in the water, but our dads had a great time snorkeling or teaching us to swim.

Papa took it upon himself to coach Abdul Kerim, who was very scared of the water.  There are several approaches to how to teach any skill. There is the step by step approach, slow and steady; and there is the sink or swim approach, which believes that a human being will naturally flail his arms and legs in just the right way when faced with death in water. Papa tried the second approach. Abdul Kerim got a good soak, a good fright, and a lifelong fear of water. Never mind that the whole incident happened in three or four feet of water. He loved the swings better than the sea.

obhur cabin

I need to interject my own little philosophy here. Papa wasn’t quite wrong. But he gave up too quickly. In order to eradicate a fear using the sink or swim method, one must carry it out thoroughly, up to the part where the person reaches the reward: swimming or floating happily in this case. Going through the dunk and the swallowing of salty water is all right if one actually manages to float at the end. But if one leaves the water after all the fearful sequences, without floating, then one carries only the memories of fear and starts the vicious cycle of building a phobia.

As for me, I didn’t really learn to swim. Wearing old tennis shoes,  I learned to float in a swim ring and even once in an inner tire tube: the king of all swim rings! and I learned to propel myself in various directions, and to lie back and enjoy the sunshine, the breeze and the water. I learned to throw water on my playmates and collect seashells. We would run towards the cabin when our mothers called us for feeding time. Then we would play on the old rusty and cranky swings, throwing our heads back and trying to surpass each other in height. We loved collecting hermit crabs. We would fill a paper bag or a bucket with them, and have  a lot of fun pulling the crab out of its shell. My students today tell me I was cruel and naughty.

hermit crab

Was I? The world was our playground, with its fauna and its flora. And we learned through our games. Torturing animals? Pulling hermit crabs out of their shells was nothing compared with catching flies. I practiced and became pretty good at catching flies back in Ankara. It was more fun trapping a buzzing and dizzy fly on the window pane than studying. I would then slowly open my palm and observe my prey. Scientific observation. What does a fly do if it cannot fly? I would pull one wing off. Ah, it buzzes and goes round and round in a circle, just like when you row a boat with only one paddle. What happens when you pull off both wings? What happens when you pull off a leg?  What happens when you squeeze it on the abdomen? I screamed when a string of little whitish gooey rice-like grains
came out, and started wriggling around. I ran and hid, so grossed out and scared I was. That totally cured me of torturing flies. Never touched one again except with the safe distance of a fly swatter.

house fly


This then was the life of the expatriate elite then in Jeddah in the late ’60s. We were rich enough to not only have two air conditioners, but also to order American goods from a catalog. Papa bought us roller skates, a bicycle, and a toy log house, just to name a few. We took the skates to the embassy compound, to play with after class, and all the kids learned to roller skate. We also pushed the bicycle to the embassy compound, and everyone took turns learning how to ride it. Somehow everyone mastered the exquisite balancing skills required to ride this contraption in no time at all, with all of us holding the bicycle with the learner on it. And as usual, I was a slow learner and just could not balance myself well enough to get the bike going.  Finally, I was the only one left who still required the other five to hold me. They tired of the game and all ran off to play something more amusing. Only Abdul Hamid stayed on, and still held the bicycle for me. We were near the front end of the compound, and I tried one more run. OK, you hold tight onto the seat, and don’t let go! Right, left, right, left, I pedaled. Hey, this is now steadying… it is actually moving nicely… and faster! I hollered to HaMi, “Don’t let go, OK, don’t let go!” and pedaled harder. I heard his voice far behind somewhere, “OK, I won’t let go…!” What?  far behind? I looked back, and there he was, smiling widely, miles away! “No! You let go!”  He shouted, “You made it, you are riding now!” But I panicked. No… No…! I found out, in that fraction of a second, that the side yard of the embassy had a slight slope going down from front to back, and it never was flat ever, and that my bicycle was going faster and faster down that slope. I could squeeze the hand brakes, but would that not throw me overhead if I braked too suddenly? Too late. I was already reaching the bottom of the slope and would now smash head on into the front patio of the Chi home. I tried to turn my steering handle to the left. Turn, turn, turn! Not too abruptly, not too sharply, turn! Ah, too late! I forgot that the staircase to the ambassador’s upstairs quarters sat right there! Wham! I slammed into the whitewashed brick wall surrounding the bottom of the staircase. And found myself on the gravel, nursing a long cut along my leg and thigh. Hamid arrived out of breath and pale. “Are you hurt?” The rest of the gang arrived too. “Faw! Faw! Are you OK?” I was furious. “It’s all your fault. All of you. I held you when you were learning, but you all deserted me!”


No Comments »