Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The Red Sea

on February 7, 2014

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!”


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