Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

From King Arthur to Barbara Cartland

on May 25, 2015

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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