Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Flying from the Coop

on February 16, 2014

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!

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