Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

A New Sister

on February 14, 2014

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.


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