Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Typhoon in a Teacup

on February 15, 2014

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.

phobias


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