Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

What religion are you?

on March 1, 2014

I had been very wary of meeting again the type of segregation and discrimination I had encountered repeatedly a few years ago.  So, when the girls behaved rather politely, comparatively speaking, I heaved a sigh of relief.  However,  one day, one of my classmates, Jocelyne,  took it into her head to ask me what my religion was. I hemmed and hawed, tried be evasive, then changed the subject.

The question was not really out of the blue. One by one, my classmates would be taking time off for their “First Communion”, a sort of coming of age ceremony for Roman Catholic girls upon reaching around age 10. They would come to school with a stack of little cards and give them out to all. There would be various forms of a little girl all dressed in white, praying on her knees, and a golden cross or a cup somewhere on the card, and on the reverse, there would be a date, time and the name and address of a church. When neither Saadia nor I handed these out, it was obvious we were not Catholic.

Having lived through the Six Day War of 1967, however far we were from it, while in Jeddah, I knew somehow vaguely that Muslims and Jews did not get along. The only thing that had marked the occurrence of the war was the painting of our car’s headlights and our house windows in black. Papa had told us that this was done so planes at night could not see the lights of the city. And we excitedly would turn off the house lights at night and peer outside at the darkened city, whispering, “This is the war!” The war was punctuated by our Yemeni houseboy, Ali’s, shouts and yells to announce some new development, with his transistor radio in his arms.

six day war

In the 11th arrondissement, there seemed to be a lot of Jews. They looked just like other French girls to me. No large hooked noses or dark skins. And you wouldn’t know until they told you they were “juives”.  One good friend of mine, named Etoile Sellam, was a Jew. And so were Jacqueline Cohen, a tall, beautiful and self-confident girl who seemed much more mature than the rest of us; Patricia Tordjeman, who was always in trouble for talking in class; and Veronique Tordjeman, her sister. I was scared stiff that they would find out I was Muslim and the racist ostracism would start all over again.

So, when Jocelyne asked me what religion I was, I gave an evasive answer. She would not give up, “You are not Catholic, so are you Protestant then?” I said no. The next day, she came armed with more religions, “Are you Orthodox, Baptist, Unitarian, Mormon? Jewish? ”  I still said no. The next day, she had more, “OK, so then, are you Buddhist, Confucianist? Taoist? Shinto?” Every day, she would find more. The closest she ever got to Islam was, “Are you Arab?” and I truthfully answered, “No.”

So many people confuse Arabs with Muslims. To me, the difference was clear, since I was a Muslim but definitely not an Arab. But once I said no, Jocelyne never again wandered around that religion in her guesses, and I was safe. Jocelyne finally came up with what she thought was for sure the correct answer, “You must be an atheist!” I was shocked, “Oh, dear God, no!”  I now feel very sorry for having misled her. And if she ever reads these memoirs, I want her to know that I am Muslim and proud to be one who has good Catholic friends.

Jocelyne Henry's entry in my cahier de souvenirs

Jocelyne Henry’s entry in my cahier de souvenirs

I guess that the worst thing that can sink a child’s pride in her self identity is not knowing about her heritage. I had resigned myself to being Chinese, for those two and a half years of reading elementary texts at the Chinese embassy had inculcated some rudiments of Chinese culture into me, and with them, some beginning of pride.  But those endless droning hours of Qur’an memorization had not done much to teach me about Islam. And what in Jeddah had helped me integrate, I tried to hide from everyone here.  My academic achievements brought me respect from my classmates, and so, I tried even harder to excel.

Aunt Lily and Uncle Lung were not Muslim, but tried very hard to avoid cooking pork at home to accommodate us. During the month of Ramadan, Saadia and I attempted to fast over the weekends, using the sky color to guide us to the correct hours. Regular prayers had flown out the window the minute we had stepped off the plane. I would occasionally remember them, and feel terrible guilt at having neglected them. I would pull out my prayer mat, and perform my ablution, then carefully lock my door so my cousins would not see what I was up to. Once, tired out by the exercise of praying (which involves standing, bowing and kneeling down, repeatedly), I crouched on my mat for a bit of rest, and felt so good I stayed there for maybe half an hour. I made a chart of the missed prayers, so I could make them up eventually. But they just kept piling up so fast I realized that I would never be able to catch up with them, ever. There are two rakats (a set of standing, bowing, prostrating twice and kneeling) in the dawn prayer, four in the noon prayer, four in the afternoon prayer, three in the sunset prayer, and four in the evening prayer. Plus three almost obligatory ones after the evening prayer. That was a total of 20 rakats per day. Since I would remember them only every month or so, you can imagine the amount of exercise I condemned myself to!

My cousin Therese would ask me why I had to lock myself up, and I would refuse to answer her. One day, she laughed happily, “Er Jie, (second elder sister), I know how you pray!!! You just crouch on the rug there!” Oh, goodness! She had seen me exhausted, trying to catch a respite! “No,” I tried to explain, “that’s not how I pray…”  But she would chip on, “Yes, it is! I saw you! I was peeping through the keyhole!!!”

The moral of the story is, hiding yourself leads to even more misunderstanding and mystery, or even ostracism.

prayer mat


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