Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Part 2: Jordan

on May 10, 2015

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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