Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Snowball fights and traveling coins

on May 13, 2015

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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