Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

How to say Yes and No in Arabic

That year, 1972, was not only a year of improving English but also of getting re-acquainted with Arabic. Everyone took Arabic, but we the four foreigners got to skip those classes since the level was way too advanced for us. However, since we were surrounded by Arabic in the form of neighbors, shopkeepers, street signs, newspaper and television, the learning occurred despite our schooling.

Learning a foreign language directly from native speakers is the only way to speak just the right way. In many languages, there are associated gestures and expressions, or even just snorts, sighs and tones of voice that are never taught in language classes. For example, there is a typically Jordanian gesture which consists of a short jerky upward throw of the chin — meaning, of the entire head really — often associated with an upward lift of the eyebrows and always associated with a “tzz!” sound made by quickly sucking the tongue from the back of the teeth. A sound which is closely resembles the “tsk!” in English.

I first encountered it in a conversation with a beautiful Armenian classmate named Dalida while we were sitting on a bench in the school yard. I asked something, and she replied, “Tzz!” with the cute little snapping up of the head. Confused, I repeated my question, and got the “Tzz!” again. I cannot remember how I finally figured out the meaning of the “Tzz!” but, for my readers’ enlightenment, it means “No!”

yes and no

Mind you, these sound-gestures are usually confined to certain geographical areas. Years later, when I worked as a psychiatric resident in Jeddah, I met a patient from somewhere in the south of Saudi Arabia. She was quite dark, and so had probably some Sudanese blood. I had to take her history, and asked her whether she was married. She kindly retracted one corner of her mouth, the right one, I think, and produced from that corner a very loud, very distinct and well-rounded click! There was no accompanying head movement, no smile, no nod or upward thrust, nothing. Just that click. I was a bit taken aback. Then I repeated my question. Only to get the same click. I wondered whether it was the same as the Jordanian “Tzz!” which would mean “No!” But it didn’t sound remotely similar. What if it meant “Yes”? No? Yes? I was baffled.

Aha! I suddenly found the solution. If she has children, she must be married. So I asked her, “Do you have any children?” She replied with another loud and clear click! If she is not married, then she has no children. If she is married, then she has children. I felt like I was trying to solve a Logic Problem…  “So… You do have children?”  Click!  “Er, so you are married?” Click! If only she had some facial expression, that would help! But no, this lady was totally poker-faced. Oh, God, help me here!

Then, I saw the light. “Sister, how many children do you have?” “Four.” Hallelujah! Four children meant yes, she had children, which meant yes, she was married. Hahaha! The click meant Yes! Puzzle solved! I patted myself on the back… How smart I was!

hand nodding with five fingers together

Mediterranean people, and by extension, Middle Easterners, are well-known for using gestures while speaking, so much so that it has been said that they cannot express themselves if their hands were tied. One common gesture is the ubiquitous hand nodding with all five fingers touching one another and facing upward. You do this one hand at a time, not both. It may mean “a little”, “take it easy”, “slowly”, or “wait a minute”.  It can even mean, “Just you wait, I will deal with you later…” when an angry parent nods the hand at a naughty child.  And I am probably missing a hundred other nuances right here.

They greet each other effusively, with the women doing the pecking-the-air-next-to-the-cheek thing like the French. I’m always confused whether it’s one, two or three pecks. And so, I’m always still sticking my head to the opposite side when the other person is already pulling back. Men, on the other hand, shake hands, then pull each other into a bear hug, slapping their backs as they do so. It is very normal for men to walk together, hand in hand, just because they are good friends. And nothing else. Once, the kids of one embassy staff member came to visit their parents over the winter holidays. We took them on a tour of the University of Jordan. After a while, one of them remarked that there were a lot of them here, right? I did not get it at all. A lot of what? He pointed with his chin at two boys walking hand in hand. What of them? I asked. “Are they not homosexuals?”  I just burst out laughing my head off. No. Not at all. Very common and very normal. Everyone does it.

Probably only penguins of the same sex can walk hand in hand today without anyone assuming anything other than "What good friends they are!"

Probably only penguins of the same sex can walk hand in hand today without anyone assuming anything other than “What good friends they are!”

To go back to actual spoken language, I learned it from everyone in the streets, and from the neighbor kids. One day, we were walking home from school, and a group of little girls in their greenish gingham dress uniforms started following us and trying to talk to us. One of them was very insistent. She kept shouting out loud, in a tone that seemed to be a question, “Addaysh assa’ah?” That apostrophe is actually a strange consonant that only exists in Arabic. It originates in the throat, and is produced by squeezing the back of the soft palate down, a bit like when you prepare to throw up. But instead of throwing up, you slide out a sound that should be smooth and oily, not raspy and retchy. Then you pair it with a vowel, while hopefully still holding on to the consonant. Very tricky affair. So then, this little girl kept asking me, “Addaysh assa’ah? Addaysh assa’ah?” non-stop. I tried to shake my head and say, “La! La!” meaning no, no. That was before I’d mastered the Tzz! trick. But that did not stop her. She then grabbed my left wrist and pointed at my watch, “Addaysh assa’ah?” Oh, I got it! “How much is the watch?” Well, the effrontery! Really! This watch is not for sale! How do I say that? So I kept on saying, “La! La!” and ran to my house, which we’d finally reached, and banged the gate behind us. what time is it The next day, the girls at school translated that sentence to me when I related the incident. “Fawzia, addaysh assa’ah means what time is it?”  And they all had a good laugh. Oh… I see. It was “how much is the time?” for the literal translation.  Time. Watch. They all translate into “sa’ah”. Ah, again, all those traps and obstacles in learning foreign languages…

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From King Arthur to Barbara Cartland

All in all, we took to the British school as ducks to water. I discovered Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table, after reading our assigned “Morte d’Arthur” by Tennyson. I also discovered that this was the same King Arthur who pulled the

From Morte d'Arthur, a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson

From Morte d’Arthur, a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson

“Sword in the Stone” in Disney’s rendition, the one I watched back on the roof of the Marines’ dorms in Jeddah. Our school library was a little dusty room in the back building near the kindergarten. It was often locked, but we managed to visit it often enough to unearth some really interesting books. I particularly remember reading about the Knights of the Round Table and wondering what the Holy Grail was, that so many valiant knights should search for it. I finally figured out, with the help of a dictionary, that it was a cup. A cup! Unless this was a magic cup, I could not envision myself giving my life for a cup. And these stalwart young men would just ride off with no clue whatsoever about what the cup looked like or where it could possibly be. But the stories were enthralling, and so I read on.

Another book that took me by surprise was the story of the von Trapp Family Singers. I had watched The Sound of Music in Taipei but never asked myself whether it was a real story. Now I found out it was not just real, but that the whole family did not stop in Switzerland after crossing the Alps but went on to emigrate to America and settled there. I laughed at their attempts at learning English, something I could identify with so well at the time. I grieved too, to find that one of the children had died.

von trapp family singers

However, the majority of our reading material came from the library of the British Council, which lay conveniently on the way home from school, if we took Rainbow Street down to the First Circle. We started from the Children Section, where the books were easier and introduced us to many English traditions. I found out, for example, about the Twelve Days of Christmas from a book describing what My Love brought as presents on every one of those days. Only to find out later that it was a song too.

rainbow street, amman

Eventually, we moved to the sections of “real” books, where I checked out every single book by Agatha Christie, and soon became a fan of Hercule Poirot.  Saadia, as usual, was ahead of me in discovering new authors as well as in her speed of reading. Soon, she plunged herself into thick tomes by Victoria Holt, not to be disturbed at any cost.

Victoria Holt, Mistress of Mellyn

It was also during that year that we discovered the genre of popular romance. The girls from school passed around copies of Barbara Cartland books. For today’s generation, this is probably an unknown writer. But in the 1970’s, she was the queen of romance. There was always a heroine, who was mostly blonde, always beautiful, and who attracted the attention of a dark, handsome man who was usually brooding and taciturn. There was also a third person, a competing rival who could be either male or female, and was always evil. The high point of the story was always THE kiss. Just one. And the ending was always happy. Great formula, which has been described as: Boy meets Girl, separation, reunion, separation, reunion, separation, reunion. It worked great. All the girls at school just died over her stories. We knew they were silly, but we loved them all the same.

Barbara Cartland book

Today, romances have become more trashy. A kiss is nothing any more.  It is probably assumed by modern romance writers that unless people jump into bed at the drop of a hat, the story cannot be a romance and no one will want to read it. How wrong they are. If we judge by the continuing success and popularity of the K-pop culture and Korean Wave, the rarity of the kisses makes them all the more valuable and worth waiting for. American romance movies are total flops compared to Korean ones.

But I digress again…

By the time Iffat turned seven, she was attending the Islamic College, and was not reading books, neither in English nor in Arabic, much less in Chinese. I noticed that fact one day, and realized to my great horror that when I was her age, I was devouring The Three Musketeers, original and unabridged. I quickly endeavored to remedy the situation by taking out The Three Musketeers from the British Council library and reading it out loud with Iffat. Somewhere in the middle of the book, she was able to continue and finish the reading on her own. Thereafter, I got her a membership card too, and she was launched, just as Therese had been, back in Paris.

I love to mention always that I taught my cousin Therese to love books by reading her The Three Musketeers and I taught Iffat to read the same way. The former ended up going to Harvard and the latter to MIT. Anyone with a background in science rushes to tell me that two cases do not make a reliable study, and I have to agree. Still, is that not a pretty story to tell?


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French Versus Chinese

le chateau de ma mereI mentioned in my last post that we also signed up for Advanced Level French and Chinese, which again, we planned to sit for without the help of any teacher. This time we got serious about it. We looked up the syllabi to make sure to prepare well for them. The French syllabus listed a good number of literature books. That was easy to solve. We visited the French Cultural Center on Jabal al-Weibdeh, took a membership with the library and checked out the books in question. They were absolutely great ones. All the Marcel Pagnol in particular, were new to me. Thus, I greatly enjoyed reading them, starting with “Le Chateau de Ma Mere”.  Later, these books were made into movies, including  “Jean de Florette” and “Manon des Sources”.

Now named Paris Circle, the roundabout near the Centre Culturel Francais, which has been renamed Institut Francais.

Now named Paris Circle, the roundabout near the Centre Culturel Francais, which has been renamed Institut Francais.

Chinese A level was a totally different affair. First, it included modern Chinese history. I knew some of it from television serial dramas in Taiwan, but the Chinese history from Secondary I covered only the early dynasties. Thus, we returned again to the library of the British Council to borrow everything we could find that covered the 18th and 19th century. The problem was that since these books were written by British authors, the bias was slanted towards Europeans.

Secondly, it did have  a section with assigned books, or rather, a single book, but the rest was totally unassigned. This meant, they could bring a text from just about anywhere. We wrote to the Mai cousin in Hong Kong. All students in Hong Kong used to take the GCE too, since this was before 1997, and Hong Kong was still British. She mailed us a copy of that book, a collection of short stories. We dutifully studied those stories, which were rather easy, and we happily assumed the rest of the paper would be on par with them.

One of the stories was the famous Sai Wong Shi Ma, or “The Old Man from the Borderland Who Lost His Horse”. Really. That’s the beauty (or the difficulty) of Chinese. Four short syllables to say all that. In brief, there was an old man who had a prized horse and a strong son.  The son fell off the horse and broke his leg. The horse in turn ran away and disappeared over the plains. When neighbors commiserated, the old man replied that they might be good things and not unhappy events. Just then, war started and the emperor drafted all able young men into the army. He also drafted all horses too.  Soon, most families either mourned their sons or saw them return without arms or legs. The next spring, the son’s leg was healed and he was up and about again. The old man’s horse suddenly returned, followed by a mare and a colt. The moral of the story (all Chinese stories have morals to them…) is that one should not feel angry or upset at downturns in one’s fortunes. An apparent disaster may actually be a blessing in disguise.

Border Elder Loses Horse, How Know Not Blessing

Border Elder Loses Horse, How Know Not Blessing

This story struck me quite deeply. To this day, I tell it to my students whenever they deplore whatever bad stroke of luck comes their way.

But to return to the A level exams: We sat in June for the French one, and both of us got A’s again. This was no surprise. If the reader has been following my previous history, you will know that I have always been excellent at French literature and writing, even in Paris, where the two of us regularly exceeded our schoolmates by at least three years.

The second Opium War, 1856-60, between China and Britain.

The second Opium War, 1856-60, between China and Britain.

On the other hand, the Chinese papers gave me a taste of what Napoleon felt at Waterloo. I believe we did fairly well on the history paper, what with the Opium Wars and such. But the language paper was totally about classical Chinese. The first section was from the book of short stories, and I did fine on that one. Unfortunately, it could only give me a maximum of  20 points or so. The next text was in recognizable classical Chinese, meaning it had the punctuation marks, you know, commas and periods. It carried 45 points. I tried my best to translate it and might have gotten a third of it right.


The cream of the crop was the final text, which boasted a possible 65 points: a huge full page monster in really ancient classical Chinese, with not a single period or comma in the entire thing. It started with: shi gong yue. I thought to myself, I can’t go wrong on these three words. I translated them as: “Lord Gong said:” The problem was since there were no quotation marks, I didn’t know when the said lord stopped saying things. Nor, for that matter, what he was saying. I bravely forged on, trying to translate maybe a few lines, and gave up after that.

Both of us got the same result: an “O”. This meant that we failed the A level, but got an “A” in the “O” level. Which actually we already had.

We showed the test paper to Papa and Uncle X, another embassy staff member. They laughed. “But this is material one would study in the Chinese literature department of a university!” they exclaimed. Even the two of them had trouble deciphering that humongous 65-point text. “Well,” I remarked, “at least I got three words right!” Papa laughed even harder. “No, you got those three words wrong! Shi Gong means “the historian”, not “Lord Gong”. So it should have translated into, “The historian said.”

I understand that exam questions are set according to the cultural background of the language being tested. But definitely, I thought and still think that there should be more equality and uniformity among the languages. If all the material in the French exam came from assigned reading, then so should the Chinese exam. If all the literature tested is 19th and early 20th century in the French exam, then so should the Chinese one. Why should French students get to discuss literary devices and characterization of easily understood texts, while Chinese students are asked to translate 5th century texts dug out of any and all obscure documents? Is this not discrimination?


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The General Certificate of Education

We learned very fast that the whole curriculum was driven by an exam called the GCE, or General Certificate of Education. Having just alighted from Taiwan, I understood that it was something akin to the National University Entrance Exam, but for Great Britain. However, there were some major differences.

taking exams

First, the exam was not written and produced by the Ministry of Education but by a university. Actually, by TWO universities. There was a GCE, University of London, and a GCE, University of Cambridge. Not only so, there were two levels to this exam, named “O” level (for Ordinary) and “A” level (for Advanced). The “O” level was taken after Secondary Two (equivalent to 11th Grade) and ended what could be equated to High School.  If one lived in England, one would then go to a “college” for two years and study for the A levels, which would bring one up to the equivalent of the end of an American freshman year. Then one could enter “university” which would award you a bachelor’s degree in three years.

GCE O levels pathways

The second main difference was that you did not take an entire exam divided into subjects. You registered to take only the subjects you wished to sit for. We thought that idea a real stroke of genius! Now, at last we could get some kind of recognition for subjects we knew but were not taught in school! Students were expected to sign up for at least four subjects, which could be taken in January or in June.

Saadia and I browsed the subjects like one would browse the menu at a restaurant. Let’s take some subjects in January, we decided. Let’s pick subjects for which the school is not preparing us. So we signed up for French, Chinese, Art and Geography. Which Geography? asked the form. Hmm… It turned out we could actually pick the region we wanted to be tested on. Here is where a counselor would have come in really handy. I should have chosen Europe and I might actually have had a great chance of scoring high. But I reasoned that I just came from Taiwan and should therefore choose South- East Asia. I discovered a bit late that Taiwan was considered a part of East Asia, not South-East Asia.

map of south east asia

We had no textbook and no teacher. So we went to the British Council and looked up and down the aisle on travel and found some books on that region. We browsed through them. When the time came to take the test, I was horrified. I barely knew what they were asking me. Somehow I got through the papers and to my great surprise, scored a D! I had passed!

As for French, Chinese and Art, I got A’s all around, as expected.

We then signed up for the June exams, which included English Language, English Literature, Math, Chemistry, Biology, History and threw in A level French and A level Chinese for good measure. I will discuss the other subjects in good time. But I need to let the world know that I was very good at History. The teacher was British and the topic that year was European history, with an entire month alone on the French Revolution. You can imagine my enthusiasm and interest! No more memorizing lists of unpronounceable and incomprehensible reforms by Qin Shi Hwang. But discussions on the factors leading to the March of the Women on Versailles and the Taking of the Bastille. The influence of the “philosophers” Voltaire and Rousseau, the ideas brought back by La Fayette… Everything was fascinating. The teacher pinned all his hopes on Saadia and me. Well, last minute, as we were all signing up for our exams, Mama looked at the total of all the fees, and sighed. “Can’t you drop an exam or two? This is getting ridiculously expensive…”  We insisted we had to take all of them. She looked at them too. “Aha! History! What are you taking history for? You will be studying sciences. You don’t need History! Drop it.”

the taking of the bastille

Chinese children do not argue. They bend their heads and submit. So we did. And this is why I hold an O level Geography with a D, which I never studied, while I have nothing to show for modern European History, which I studied hard for a year, adored and excelled at.


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Learning English

The first evening after our arrival, the embassy held a reception to welcome us. We got to meet all the diplomatic families, who were only a handful, as well as the local staff. One of them tried being sociable and asked me what grade I would be studying.

Ah, what grade? My mind raced through all the possible answers. In Taiwan, I would be entering the second year of Senior High School, which corresponded to the Premiere in France. I knew that this level was called 11th Grade in America, but what system did they use in Great Britain? And did this school, the CMS, use the British grade system or the Jordanian one? And what was the Jordanian one anyway?


While I pondered these questions, I remained quiet. The Jordanian guest turned around and asked the closest Chinese adult, “Does she not speak English at all?”

People who have never learned a foreign language and have never been thrown into the sea, sorry, into a native speaking environment, do not understand how many obstacles and unseen barriers there are in there!

Going to school was equally fraught with submerged coral reefs. My English teacher was Scottish. And that was when I learned that the Scots rrrroll their R’s! It took me a couple of weeks to start understanding what she was saying in class.  The students spoke more understandable English, except for the two who were also foreigners: an American girl of French origin named Marguerite and a Pakistani girl named Um Kulsum.

Marguerite spoke American English, which matched the language spoken in all those American movies and TV sitcoms we watched, but she did not understand many of the words I said.  I had learned phonetics in France, and had been taught about the short I and the long I. In French, this means you pronounce the “ee”  sound a bit longer or a bit shorter. I had not realized that the short I is pronounced differently and closer to an “ay” sound than an “ee” sound. So Marguerite was very puzzled when I talked about “peekels”:  “You know, what is called “cornichons” in French… —  Ah! you mean Pickles!”  Or when I had to describe what ships were: “Oh, you mean SHIPS! Not sheep! — That’s what I said, sheeps!”

sheep or ship

Um Kulsum was the first to approach me. She was absolutely overjoyed to find other foreign students this year in her class as she had been the lone one the previous year. Unfortunately, I could not understand her accent for the first few weeks. Today, I can see that her accent was very light compared to that of many Indians and Pakistanis I have met over the course of the years. But at the time, when I could only understand slowly spoken perfectly pronounced English, it was disastrous. Here she was, trying eagerly to convey all sorts of information to me, and all I could do was open my eyes as big as possible (perhaps because it made me feel that opened my ears too… ), and give myself the air of a deer caught in headlights.

Writing was an easier task. After all, English is quite close to French.  I can see many of you, readers, shaking your head and saying no. But remember that my other two languages were Arabic and Chinese. None of those were closer to English. And since most of my English learning was traditional, meaning that they were based on written grammar and vocabulary, and since I had always been excellent at writing, learning to write in English was a total pleasure.

I tried to duplicate my feats from the French schools, but the teacher never did read anyone’s essays in class. She did, however, often circle in red the French words that inserted themselves against my willpower into my compositions. The most common culprit was the word “et”, meaning “and”, which would pop up almost every other line. Other longer words were often in my own Anglicized spelling of a French word. If  a French “acteur” became an English  “actor”, then it follows that a French “professeur” should become an English “professor”.  Many of the words ending in “-tion” were spelled the same way in both languages, and the words ending in “-ment” changed their suffix to “-ly”.  However, the rule did not always work, and I would produce very ridiculous English words now and then. Aha, I thought, “intelligemment” becomes “intelligelly” (intelligently).

english vs french

Although the teacher was usually right, I remember one particular word where finally, I managed to be right. Well, almost. I wrote something occurring “after a laps of time…” and the teacher circled “laps” and commented in red: no such word. I did look it up some years later and found that it should have been spelled “lapse”, and that derivatives exist in English such as “so much time has elapsed.”

Just as they did in France, the teacher assigned us essays on a variety of topics. I tried hard to elicit some kind of response from her about my great writing skills. I overdid myself in descriptions of immense skies and rolling plains, I desperately invented vivid horror scenes — in one case involving the gigantic shadow of a witch on a centuries-old wall that would bleed when stabbed — but all to no avail. British phlegm prevailed.

Literature was a bit of a challenge at first. But once I got over the Shakespearean terms for Twelfth Night and the nineteenth century long-winded sentence structure of Northanger Abbey, I started enjoying reading them. Here, I must insert some comments on the teaching of literature in high school. In the US, many teachers simply assign books to students and then discuss them or receive written reports about the books. This allows them to “read” as many as 8 books a year. The truth is that most students are quite unable to read even a single chapter, and rely on their Cliffs’ Notes or Sparks Notes to understand the content. In the British (and French) system, the teacher actually reads these books. Out loud. We read in turn too, and on the spot, as they appeared, we discussed word nuances, implications,  foreshadowing,  ironic twists, and so on.

All in all, my English did improve fast, and I managed to win the British Council English Award at the end of the year for best writing, an English dictionary of modern phrases.


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Snowball fights and traveling coins

Further up the same street where the ambassador’s residence was located, we found an apartment perfect for us. It was really the upper floor of a two-storey house. The lower floor had the front yard and the gate, while the upper floor had a smaller gate opening onto a long and narrow side yard and into the side door and the staircase. The side yard was tiled and boasted a single pomegranate tree that struggled to stay alive. Upstairs, the apartment was a foyer surrounded by the rest of the rooms: formal dining-room, sitting room, master bedroom, bathroom, bedroom 2, bedroom 3, small water closet, and kitchen. From the landing, one door opened onto the formal dining room and the other onto the foyer, which became our regular dining room. We also had the use of the roof, which had a small storage room on it, and which we used primarily for hanging our laundry.

Just like all other houses, it was built of limestone blocks, hacked unevenly on the outside. This made it easy for little monkeys like Abdul Kerim and me to climb up the walls by grasping the jutting asperities of the rocks. I only climbed from the roof onto the storage room, but Abdul Kerim actually could climb from the little veranda off the dining room all the way up onto the roof! The other use of the roof was for neighborhood snowball battles.

I found this recent picture online. It looks like rooftop snowball fights have survived till today in Amman!

I found this recent picture online. It looks like rooftop snowball fights have survived till today in Amman!

In the winter, the Amman weather turned bitterly cold, and it would sometimes snow.  For snow to blanket the city, a rare occurrence, it would take quite some blizzard. But the great reward was that everyone would be off school and work the next day or more, until the streets were cleared. The year of the great snow, 1973, we were off for nearly 10 days! In the meantime, everyone went crazy, adults and children alike.  We all played on the roof, at first building a snowman, but eventually started throwing snowballs at one another. Suddenly, some snowballs hit us on the back, and we realized that our neighbors had attacked us! Soon, all the neighbors from all four sides were pelting one another with snowballs, and finally, we started targeting the rare cars that dared venture in the streets at a snail’s pace!

But I run ahead of my story! The first order of the day was to get all of us children registered in schools. For Saadia and me, Papa chose, upon the advice of the other embassy folks, the Ahliyah School for Girls, also known as the CMS — Christian Missionary School. For Abdul Kerim, he enrolled him at first in a public school for Grade 5, where my naughty brother wrought havoc. If my memory serves me correctly, he once turned in a test paper with a large scrawl across it in Chinese: I don’t know! So the next year, Papa moved him to the Islamic College, a private Arabic medium Islamic school. Papa insisted that this was his chance to learn Arabic, a unique skill that has today served him only too well in his career! I think Iffat was enrolled in the CMS kindergarten, but she was also transferred to the Islamic College by First Grade. Nadia was too young still and got to stay home.

Next, realizing that our English was probably not up to par, Papa hired a tutor, who was an English literature teacher from the de la Salle College, the boys’ Christian private school. This was our first introduction to Shakespeare, through Twelfth Night.  I had always been a top student in English, both in Paris and in Taipei. But this was another language altogether! We struggled hard with the thee, thou, thy and thine business and practiced writing essays. I remember clearly one particular essay that he corrected for Saadia, telling her that children are more important than luggage and therefore she should have written, “they got off the train with their children and their luggage,” not “with their luggage and their children.” We both kept politely quiet.  Even I, the lesser skilled writer of the two, could have told him that it was the use of irony. The parents were so frazzled that they treated children as luggage, and the lesser in importance of the two. As for me, I remember making him laugh with my statement that I admired the Germans and the Japanese because of their resilience and quick rebound after losing big time in World War II.

twelfth night

Arriving in Amman in  late May meant that all schools were winding up their school year and summer was on its way.  Saadia and I  spent the summer getting being tutored in English, while Abdul Kerim and Iffat spent it getting to know the neighborhood kids. Outside our bedroom windows, there was a large vacant lot where the children from the vicinity came to play soccer and any other game that children engage in. My brother and whoever was free, would lean their elbows on the window sill and watch their games. Soon, Abdul Kerim started shouting silly words at them, whatever Arabic he could come up with. They responded in kind, and eventually asked him to come down and join them. Looking back, I realize that a houseful of sisters was not exactly the most attractive play alternative.  No wonder, he became a regular part of the band of boys that roamed the vacant lot and the alleys around the house.

There were many of these alleys branching off the main streets. Usually, they were not paved and wound into intricate networks among the houses that covered the hillside. One of these opened right next to the gate to our house, and as such was usually shaded by the apartment building next door. This made it a favorite playground in the summer. One year, the little neighbor boy, Hussam, knocked on our door. “Er Jie,” he asked — for they all called me whatever my brother called me, Second Elder Sister — “Is this a Chinese coin?”

I looked at it. Wow! It was a Qing dynasty coin, copper, probably, with a square hole in the middle for people to string them together. On it, I recognized the words Qian Long, the name of the famous sixth Qing emperor who ruled from 1735 to 1796. “Where did you find it?” I queried. “Oh, we were playing marbles and digging a hole, and found it there,” the boy replied with a shrug.

I was totally dumbfounded. So, a merchant from the Middle East traveled all the way to China in the 18th century, along the famed Silk Road, and returned home to sell silk and porcelain, and maybe tea as well. Then out of his pocket fell this coin, which lay dormant for another two centuries, until some little boys played marbles and gave it light again.

ancient chinese coin

I quickly reviewed mentally what I had in my little treasure box. “I can pay you half a dinar for it,”  I offered nonchalantly. But Hussam was sharp. If I was willing to pay for it, it must be worth more! “No,” he grinned instantly. “Too little.” And off he went.

Of course, I am kicking myself today for not going to my father and borrowing more. I did ask Hussam recently, with whom I reconnected thanks to the Internet, what had happened to that coin. He had absolutely no recollection of it. At all.

When I mentioned this to a Chinese some years ago, she said carelessly, “Oh, we have plenty of coins dating back to Qianlong in China…” I could not believe my ears. Of course, there would be! But this one was not found in China. It was found thousands of miles away from China. It had traveled through mountains and seas to get to its resting place! And if it could talk, it would have had many tales to tell.

When I interviewed years later Liang Dan-Feng,  a famous Taiwan watercolorist commissioned to paint Jordanian landscapes, she said to me, “Jordan is such a wonderful land. You walk on history and priceless antiquities everywhere you go.” I could not agree more!


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Ghosts and gold-rose sunsets

Also living in the same three-story residence was the cook and one of the expatriate students, a certain Chen. The cook, Li, was tall and heavy, with a northerner’s big nose and large eyes, and a slight stoop to the shoulders. He had asked Chen to come stay with him because he was scared of the empty house after the ambassador’s death.

scared of ghost

Well, you might think that a big and tall man would be the last person to be scared of ghosts, yet I’ve seen it more than once. Fear of the unknown has nothing to do with one’s real-life size. Saadia and I got all the ghost stories first-hand, from Vincent Kao, the Assistant Military Attache’s son. He appeared in the yard with a friend, strolling around as if in a public park. We watched him from the second floor window, wondering who he was. Soon enough, we made acquaintance and started chatting.

He was between Saadia’s and my age (I think), and was a thin, gangly, not very tall but very talkative boy. I could understand his curiosity about us, since I also always tried to find out who else in the embassy had kids my age. But I certainly did not condone his lack of formality or respect for authority. So he told us to beware of the ghosts. Ghosts? We asked. Ah, yes. They were haunting this house for sure. The cook had heard doors open and slam closed all by themselves for no good reason. Well, we reasoned, the wind, of course. Ah, but how do you then account for lights turning themselves on and off, heh? We had discovered the night before that the light switches were dials that we had to turn(dimmers)  and that could flip back. Misfunction, then. The spring in the switches. Ah, but then, how do you explain that a line of candles would burn in such a way as to form an inverted V? What? You know, the end candles burned lowest, and the middle candle tallest, forming an inverted V… Well, maybe the air flow… Aha! You see, you see, it was ghosts! I was getting tired of the game. But he kept on. And that’s not all. If you pour hot water into a thermos, how long does it take for it to cool down? Hey? Tell me? A few hours? But the cook would find water totally COLD a few minutes after he just poured it in!


Well, methinks the cook was so flustered he must have poured cold water into the thermos to start with.  I told Vincent a few stories myself to top him off. I told him about the woman tortured and killed by the Gestapo in our Consulate second floor bathroom in Paris. But, I went on majestically, we are Muslims, and therefore ghosts don’t even bother us!

And that was another thing about which I felt peacefully happy. Being Muslim. All of a sudden, what had been a weird peculiarity in non-Muslim countries became an asset in a Muslim country. The call to prayer, the adhan, was beautiful and floated down from the nearest mosque five times a day. In fact, we could hear not just one mosque but several. Amman is a very ancient city, built on seven hills. We were on top of the hill named Jabal Amman, then the poshest district in town. All the diplomatic families lived there. And from the top floor windows, we could admire an amazing view of hillsides covered with rosy limestone houses.

amman, gold pink hour


I call those stone blocks rosy. But they were more tan than rose pink. The tan had a rose tinge to it, it is true and at sunset they reflected this gold pink hue which reverberated into the air, which then filled up with dozens of adhans gracefully lilting and interweaving their notes as the purple night descended.

I could not believe such a beautiful place existed: Amman.


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Part 2: Jordan

If anyone has been following this blog, I apologize for the long vacuum. It wasn’t for lack of material to write about, nor was it due to death of inspiration. My story had now reached a certain stage where I needed to refocus. So far, the story had been that of my childhood wanderings, and the resulting struggles with schooling. The anecdotes from that part of my life have been retold so often to my children and students that writing them down was an easy matter. However, from this point onwards, things started moving in a different direction. I finally came to the conclusion that if this story were a book, that was Part 1. And now, on to Part 2!

part 2

A little footnote: May I formally state that from here onward I shall start using fictitious names to protect the privacy of many people who are still alive (I hope) and might read this blog.

So then, Papa, Mama and our three younger siblings went ahead to Hong Kong, while Saadia and I stayed in Taipei for an extra week or so.  We rode with them to the airport to see them off, and in the hustle and bustle of the moment, I slammed the taxi door onto Mama’s hand. Doors in those days were not as softly insulated and cushioned on the edge as they are today. The metal cut into her finger, and she bled profusely. I screamed in anguish, while Mama calmly wrapped it in her handkerchief, told me to stop it, and continued unloading the luggage.

Mama was such a tower of calm and comfort… except for that one time when I saw her scream and run from those baby mice. Once, she was in such a rush to cook lunch that she chopped off the tip of her finger with the meat cleaver, that well sharpened essential tool of the Chinese cook. As I screamed in panic, she told me to shush, took one quick assessing look at the tip of finger and nail dangling by a shred of skin, and quickly raised her cleaver again. Chop! off went the bleeding flesh. Into the garbage can. She wrapped the remaining bloody finger in a handkerchief and ran to the doctor’s clinic at the corner of the block. Apparently, he told her she should have kept the tip and he would have tried re-attaching it. With my present medical knowledge, I wonder.

cleaver 2

A week later, it was our turn to leave. The day we went to the airport, a group of Saadia’s classmates ditched class to go see her off. As luck would have it, an air raid drill hit the city just as they were on their way. What with sirens blaring and all traffic coming to a stop, the poor girls were herded into the nearest air shelter until the drill was over. They figured it was too late to make it to the airport, and headed back to school. Meanwhile, we sat through the drill in the waiting room at the gate, while our flight was delayed and rescheduled.

Hong Kong looked much like Taipei, except it had even more crowded streets, highways that looped between high-rise buildings, and everyone spoke Cantonese. We were staying at the home of my great-uncle Mai. This was a certain Mai Jing-An, a decade or more older than Papa, who was a businessman, and stayed part of the year in Taipei. Papa had met him at the Taipei mosque and after chatting and researching their generation names, had figured out that a few generations ago, the two had shared a family line. Thus, they called each other uncle and nephew from then on.

Great-Uncle Mai was, however, a graduate of an Islamic school back in China. This meant that he was qualified to be an imam, could read and write classical Arabic, and was actually quite fluent in the art of Chinese-style Arabic calligraphy. Today, this has been recognized as a separate style of calligraphy and named the “Sini” Arabic script. Actually, Sini simply means “Chinese” in Arabic. We had a beautiful scroll on our sitting-room wall with “In the name of God the Beneficent the Merciful” penned by Great-Uncle Mai, with flowing black ribbons inked with bamboo strips.

chinese islamic calligraphy 2

His wife and children lived in Hong Kong, in — what else — a skyscraper, one of the many that dot the suburb hillsides. At that time, the family ongoing business was that of wigs. And as a friendly gesture, they gave us a few wigs as presents. They were great for playing dressing up, and a few years later, Abdul Kerim actually managed to fool his own friends with one of those wigs. When they came knocking on the door asking him to go out and play, he actually looked them straight in the eyes, and patting his wig, said he was Fawzia, the second elder sister (me), and that Abdul Kerim (himself) wasn’t home. They all believed him!

black wig

After the short interlude in Hong Kong, we flew on to Kuwait where we spent the night. As was her habit, Mama had divided all the belongings that she managed to get onboard into bags that she made us carry. We all grumbled and sweated under the weight of those bags. I feel humbled today by Mama’s resourcefulness and ashamed at my childish selfishness. Wherever we traveled, we were never short of change of underwear or clothing, toiletries or food. We never thought to ask how all those necessities came to be available. Having now lived through the same experience, I still feel overwhelmed at the thought of packing for a family of seven.

In Kuwait, I saw Mama smile and nod at the airport employees, pointing at us and saying, “Muslim, Musulman, oui, yes, Mu-si-lin…” and in response, the staff, from immigration clerk to customs officers all smiled and marveled, “Chinese? Muslims? Welcome! Welcome!”  I always felt embarrassed by her attempts at sweet talking, but I must say, I would unashamedly enjoy the consequent ease and comfort.

All night, I felt the hotel room was like a ship, still rolling on the waves. The next day, off we flew to Amman. We arrived at night, and the welcoming group of embassy staff herded us into several cars, whisking us to the ambassador’s residence. Since the ambassador had passed away, and his family had left, it made no sense to put us in a hotel. And so, we all slept in soft beds in a spacious and comfortable house that first night.

pink roses

In the morning, I walked out onto the backyard terrace and took in my first sight of Jordan. It was May 1972, and blooming roses filled the garden. Their sweet scent perfumed the cool air,  invisible birds tweeted from their perches in the trees, and butterflies flitted around the blossoms. I have never forgotten that moment. The sky was intensely blue overhead and life was wonderful (since I had left schools and exams behind).

Thus it was that I fell in love with Jordan.


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