Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Hansel and Gretel

I apologize for my whimsical titles. But I really did feel like Saadia and I were Hansel and Gretel when we flew from Jeddah to Paris, via Beirut. In those days, we didn’t even have the service of an air hostess to look after us. True, we had taken airplanes before, but we did so following adults around. Now, we had to figure out how to navigate the maze of an airport.

Beirut airport 1967

Beirut had a comparatively small airport, so it was not hard to follow the crowd of passengers out. There, a diplomat from the ROC embassy in Lebanon welcomed us and took us to his home. In the afternoon, another family from the embassy came to visit. It turned out they were the parents of that little boy whom Saadia and I swung and flung out onto the furniture back in Ankara. Talk about past phantoms. Which brings out the moral: do not err, for the memory of your error will never let you free!

They came supposedly to see us, Saadia and me. But, of course, they had nothing to talk to us about, and therefore chatted with our hosts on and on and on, while my eyelids gradually filled with lead. Strange, why were they so heavy? I struggled desperately to lift them and keep my eyes open, hoping against hope that the visitors would just get up and leave now. I guess they eventually did, but I do not remember seeing them do so, therefore I can safely deduce that I did fall asleep.

In Beirut, it was posh to learn and speak French. I was amazed to hear our hosts’ little boy tell his mom in Mandarin, that he had “tomber”. Yes, Saadia and I also spoke that unique blend of two languages that characterizes the tongue of immigrant children, but we did not have a funny Lebanese accent when using French words.

For dinner, the lady of the house served, among other things, cooked cucumbers. Well, cucumbers to me were salad material. They just had to be cold and crunchy. So I avoided them. But the lady was very kind and thought I was being polite. She scooped some and put them in my rice bowl. Oh, great, now I had to eat them. We had  been well drilled on the duty of finishing anything in our rice bowl, for God was sure to unleash thunder and lightning on us, if we dared disdain food while our compatriots in Mainland China died of starvation. I submitted to the torture:warm and disgustingly mushy and squishy cucumbers… ugh! I eventually managed to hide a bit of them under my bowl.

boiled cucumbers

Then, the kind lady told me to take my evening bath before sleeping. I went to the bathroom with my clothes, and tried to lock the door. People who have never traveled internationally do not realize what great annoyance it is to meet with different locks, different taps, and different gadgets everywhere. For a child of ten, it was very baffling to find that there was no slide lock, or hook, the way we had them in Jeddah. I wondered how these people locked their bathrooms. It never occurred to me that I could go ask someone about this mystery. So I just decided that they would figure out I was in there and would avoid coming in.

Ah, heaven! Warm water and pretty soap bubbles… I started to imagine stories again, and played with the foam dreamily, when suddenly, someone turned the door handle!!! What to do! What to do! I frantically beat the water with my hands, trying to be very noisy. The lady pushed the door half open, exclaimed, “Oh, you are still here! Why didn’t you lock the door?” and she demonstrated how to turn the key in the keyhole.

How to turn the key in the keyhole. Dummy.

That wasn’t the dumbest thing I did yet. I also dried myself, and happily dressed and went to bed, forgetting to let out the water. [slap head! slap head!]

The next day, our kind host took us to the airport and put us on the plane to Paris. On the plane, we relaxed and enjoyed playing with the cute trays and eating the cute packaged food. Then we arrived at Orly airport (which had not yet been renamed Charles de Gaulle.) This was in comparison, an immense maze of hallways. I held on tightly to Saadia, who had been tutored by Papa on the art of finding one’s way in an airport. My parents always thought of Saadia as the eldest, the responsible one, the reliable one, so they would give her the responsibility, as in this case, of navigating foreign concourses. Later in life, I was shocked to find out that as much as I resented Papa and Mama’s lack of trust in me, she had resented the burden and onus of always having to bear responsibilities.

The line at the immigration booth was not just long, it was unending! We were relieved to see, far away, beyond the glass partition, Uncle Lung waving at us. We waved back. And we waited on, and inched forward, and waited more, and inched some more. Finally, what seemed like hours later, we reached the immigration officer. Saadia handed him our passports. He flipped them open, and asked her something. She could not answer him. So he sighed long and loud, remarked angrily out loud why people would send children flying all by themselves without proper paperwork, what kind of irresponsible parents these were, and pointed at a desk somewhere in the back. Saadia led me back to the lobby.


“What is it? What did he say? What happened?” but Saadia would not explain. We stood in line behind a few people, in front of a tall counter, so tall that our heads barely reached its top. After another long interval, we reached the counter, but the lady did not see us, since we were too short. We were too shy to speak up and so we waited quietly, until finally, an announcement came over the loudspeaker, and the lady looked around, stood up, and saw us. Uncle Lung had squeezed through the crowd to the very exit right by the immigration booth, but we had disappeared. He waited for a while, but we did not appear. He was sure he’d seen us, so he had gone to make inquiries. I marveled at how clever Uncle Lung was!

The whole problem turned out to be that the immigration officer was looking for our visas and had not found them. Visas then were a piece of official looking paper. Papa had stapled them onto a back page of the passport and folded them neatly to fit within the size of the page. I remembered then that he did show us these visas. “Da Jieh, why didn’t you tell me that’s what he was looking for?” but I guess it was a rhetorical question. The tall air hostess led us back to the immigration booth, past the long line of travelers, and scolded the poor guy vehemently. She then handed us safely in the hands of Uncle Lung.

Today, such incidents would never happen. Not only children, but seniors, or handicapped persons, or persons not speaking the right languages, can be consigned to the care of stewardesses, who hand the duty over like a baton to the next airport or airline worker, and one is safely cared for, from paperwork to food to wheelchair all the way from departure to arrival. I cannot to this day understand how airline and airport workers could see us, two children, walking around, alone, in a bewildered manner and do absolutely nothing.


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Flying from the Coop

Around that time, Uncle Lung was transferred again to Paris, as a representative to UNESCO.  When Mama shared that information with Ambassadress Li, the latter expressed concern for our — Saadia’s and my —  education. She felt we were wasting away our wonderful French schooling in this forsaken place. She suggested to Mama the idea of sending the two of us to live with Aunt Lily in Paris. 

As far as my education went, my Arabic was pretty good for a second grader, I was getting full marks in every subject, even in Domestic Science. The school did not offer PE, which was good since my health was not getting any better. My Chinese had also improved very much, and recently Shadia and I were the only ones who were actually able to write a poem as assigned by Mr. Sui. He actually went to Papa and told him mine was outstanding. In Chinese Math, I had finally gotten over the hump of long divisions.

So Mama and Papa talked it over and made a decision. Mama wrote to Aunt Lily, asking her to pass by Jeddah on her way to Paris. Once Uncle Lung and Aunt Lily came, the two sisters discussed the situation and came to an agreement.  We would travel to Paris in the fall, and Papa was to contribute US$200 a month toward our upkeep. They left again, and Mama proceeded to make preparations for our departure.

I do not really remember this, but Papa told me years later that I went to him and begged him to allow me to stay with them in Saudi Arabia. I solemnly promised Papa not to hit or pinch my brother ever again if he were to let me stay. I pretty much broke his heart.

But truth be told, Abdul Kerim never got much punishment when I told on him. Papa claimed to be fair to all of us children and not be “zhong nan qing nu” — give more weight to boys and less to girls. Once, after complaining about something or other that Abdul Kerim did to me, I went back to my room. Then, feeling very bad about my brother getting a severe reprimand, I returned to Papa’s study, determined to ask for clemency on his behalf. However, upon reaching the door, instead of a loud lecture and appropriate whimpers and moans, I heard Papa chatting with Abdul Kerim. “Ah, you know, girls are like that. They just like to whine and complain and tell on boys. My sisters were just the same. Don’t worry about it…” I was not so much shocked as saddened. Really, was that what Papa thought of me? And once again, the same recurring thought sprung again, maybe I wasn’t born of my parents. Why otherwise would they favor Saadia and Abdul Kerim over me?

jeddah souq

So Mama proceeded to shop for fabric and sew us some really chic clothing, which she created from patterns out of a Japanese fashion sewing magazine. One day, she took us with us to the souq — covered market — in downtown. This was summer, and even under the great roof of the souq, the atmosphere was humid and stuffy.  We walked from store to store, and Mama would chat with the storekeepers, have them pull out various scrolls of fabric, touch, rub and inspect them over, then bargain over the price, until the merchant would happily concede defeat and praise her as one astute shopper. Mama would smile happily.  The seller would pull out yards of fabric, measuring it along a yardstick, then add a bit more, fold it, and snip it a little with a pair of scissors: “Mabruk! Congratulations.” Then he would tear the fabric from the snip before folding it up and bagging it. The ceiling fans would turn round and round lazily, blowing the fine fabric powder in the stifling heat, and cause me to rub my eyes. “Stop it,” Mama would snap, “you are just making them redder!”

Indeed, I had had a number of visits to the ophthalmologist, and had had all kinds of examinations over my eye problems. I even had the ocular pressure measured with one of those machines that pressed a metal head onto my corneas. Today, this is done with a little puff of air. Pfff! and you get a reading. No lying back and having your eyelids pulled up and moving a heavy machine into your eyes… Papa guessed the redness was probably due to all that swimming in the Red Sea. No one wore goggles for swimming then.

fabric store

But to come back to the souq. We must have visited half a dozen fabric stores, and I was feeling very tired. Some strange feeling was spreading over me, something between fatigue and nausea, somewhere near dizziness or exhaustion. I pulled Mama’s sleeve, “Ma, Ma, can we go home?” Mama wasn’t amused. “Stop it! Who do you think I am buying all this fabric for?” So I stopped it, and tried to keep up the trek. But as we stepped out of that last store, I felt an immense weakness invading my limbs and innards. Saadia shook my arm, “Faw, stop it, everyone is looking at you!” I muttered faintly, “Stop what?”

And that was the last thing I remembered.

Next thing I knew, I found myself seated on the pavement in front of a store, with someone trying to force some hot sweet tea into my mouth. Mama’s face bent over me, looking concerned and worried. “She’s opening her eyes!” someone said.  It turned out I had fainted. Mama and Saadia held my arms and hauled me into a taxi. Once home, Mama forced me to lie down and take a rest. But I felt very well now, my head like a limpid pond and no more like a muddy marsh.

That was maybe the most dramatic event punctuating my ill health. I’d had other interesting happenings, including a prolonged illness related to diarrhea during which I had to eat burnt toast only. Another time, during a fever, I experienced strange feelings of distorted sensations. I would place my fingertips on the wall, and feel the horrifying slippery sensation that one gets when you slide down a vertical cliff at high speed. I would try to hold a grain a rice and get the feeling that it was a gigantic object. I would pick up the salad bowl and drink the vinegar in it — Mama did not use oil in her dressings. Heat tired me, and lucky me, we lived in a hot climate!

Finally, the day came, and Papa and Mama took us to the airport wearing dark glasses to hide their tears. We waved stonily and climbed the steps into the plane. Goodbye Desert! Goodbye Red Sea! Goodbye Dear Family!


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Typhoon in a Teacup

typhoon in a teacup

The beauty of writing one’s memoirs is, you have the choice of including only what you want to include. And so, I pondered long about whether to include the following episode in this collection of souvenirs. On the one hand, dirty laundry is best kept hidden. On the other, such occurrences mean nothing any more in today’s society, and would barely raise an eyebrow. Finally, I decided to tell it, for two reasons: First, it marked the initial milestone in my awareness that covering women’s beauty is conducive to a more stable society. And secondly, I can not explain otherwise to my readers why I developed a sudden fear of males.

Our third home was an apartment in a pink building that housed four units. The two downstairs units were offices, and therefore empty and quiet in the afternoons and evenings. Upstairs there were just two apartments, whose front door faced each other on the landing. The staircase continued to the rooftop, where we could find the only trace of life in the other apartment: their laundry waving in the breeze. That home was exceedingly private. We never saw anyone go in or out, or up to the rooftop.

After lunch and some rest time during which we expedited homework from the Arabic school, we would head to the embassy. It was situated so close that we only needed to cross our own unpaved little alley, travel down in front of the telegraph office, and there it was. Papa and Mama let us go and come by ourselves, Saadia, Abdul Kerim and I, usually on foot and sometimes on the American bicycle or on roller skates. We must have been quite a sight, with our knee-length short-sleeved dresses and flip flops, exposing hair, arms and legs for all to see, laughing and chatting on the way.

tin roof

Across the embassy was, as previously mentioned, the sheep market, beside which, across from our building and beyond, lay the Yemeni refugee camp. It was said that Eve’s tomb was there, somewhere, among the multitude of ramshackle structures and jumbles of cardboard, plywood and corrugated tin roofs. Yes, Eve, as in our mother Eve, the first woman on earth, the mother of all mankind. I have no idea why people knew it was hers, but there you are, everyone knew it was there. Somehow, maybe the word might have been passed down from generation to generation.

On the corner of the main street and our alley, was that little wooden hut store mentioned previously in the candy story.  The shopkeeper was a Yemeni, and often, a young Yemeni boy of no more than 12 or 13 helped him at the store.

One day, Saadia and I were walking back home after our classes at the embassy school. Upon reaching our building, we met my schoolmate Najwa, who lived in the next building, and we started chatting. Saadia was tired and not in a chatting mood. She continued into the building and up the staircase. After quite a while, I said goodbye to my friend and also started up the stairs. As I reached the second flight just before our landing, I was surprised to see the young Yemeni boy from the corner store coming down the stairs from the rooftop. What could he be doing here? He was wearing a strange smile and looked at me. No matter, I’ll just go on my way.

We crossed paths as I reached the landing. I stepped to the right to let him pass, but he stepped in front of me, barring my way. Just as I was debating on what to do next, he grabbed me in a tight embrace and proceeded to do what could be called a kiss. Except I had no idea this is what it was supposed to be, since my parents gave me the peck type on the cheek, and this was totally not like it. I felt extremely disgusted and tried to push him away, but he had me locked in his arms, with my arms crossed on my chest, holding my school books.

Then, abruptly, he released me and fled down the stairs. I had not idea what this whole thing was about, but I knew it was a trespass upon my privacy, and I was not going to let that go unpunished. I ran to the edge of the steps and raised my books, aiming at his head. Just as I drew my hand back to gather momentum, I remembered that the books were new, and if they got damaged in the throw, I would probably get a good spanking. Thus, in that frozen pose, I stood and it was just then that the perpetrator looked up. Exasperatingly, he smiled and waved, then ran down and out.  Unbelievably, he had thought I was waving goodbye!!! I was so infuriated I could have killed someone.

Then, I got busy washing up and doing homework and forgot about the episode until dinner. “Ah!” I suddenly exclaimed, “Mama, something really disgusting happened today.” And I proceeded to tell the story of the weird boy on the landing who stuck his tongue in my mouth. Papa’s chopsticks froze in mid-air. Mama dropped her rice bowl. Then she exploded in super hysterics. “Where was your sister? Did we not always tell you to walk together?” I turned to look at Saadia, stuttering, “She went upstairs first, I was talking to Najwa…” But I was shocked to see Saadia, red as a beet, head down, and silent. Mama was quick to grasp the situation. She had that kind of intuition about us. “What? Don’t tell me, he kissed you too? Is that it? Answer me!”

Saadia was older than I was by just a year, but more mature, definitely. She understood, somehow, the sexual nature of that behavior, having probably read more books than I did. Television, other than showing news segments of the king’s daily activities, occasionally aired American movies in black and white where any intimate scene was cut out whenever a male and a female got too close together. So I had had no opportunity to learn about kisses. So she kept her head lowered, and felt so embarrassed she could not utter a word.

Mama now seemed to lose her self-control completely. She was screaming. “Why didn’t you tell us? Why are you keeping quiet? Do you love him? Then go and marry him! Go!…” I was absolutely dumbfounded. What crazy nonsense had landed on our peaceful home? Papa, his face white with anger, stood up suddenly and slammed his chopsticks on the table. He walked out of the house in a silent storm. Not much later, he was back with Mr. Chi. They called me to follow them, so I did. We went downstairs, and walked towards the other neighboring buildings. Just as we turned in the walkway toward the back of the compound, we met the storekeeper. Mr. Chi asked him in Arabic where his young assistant was. He answered that he did not know, that the boy wasn’t around. As luck would have it, no sooner had he spoken than the boy in question turned the corner of the building and appeared in full sight. Mr. Chi called him over in a thunderous voice.

Mr. Chi grabbed the boy by the collar and yelled a rhetorical question, “Why did you kiss the girls? Answer me! Why!” I kept pulling Papa’s sleeve and whispering, “Papa, he wasn’t kissing, he was doing a weird thing…” but Papa totally ignored me, lips pinched, face livid and eyes shooting daggers. Mr. Chi raised his hand and slapped with all his might the boy on the cheek. “Come on! Answer me!” Whack! Another slap! On and on he slapped the boy on the cheeks till his whole face was swollen and red. I stopped pulling Papa’s sleeve after a while since no one was paying me any attention at all. That stupid lad kept looking at me with a silly smile, which infuriated me so much I would have slapped him myself had I dared in that electric climate.

Then Mr. Chi lectured the boy and the shopkeeper loud and long, and we finally trudged home. Papa thanked Mr. Chi profusely, offered him a towel to wipe his sweat, and water and tea to quench his thirst. I was sent to my room. Next day, Papa delivered a strong and stern lecture to the two of us, “Never, ever, allow any male to get too close to you! Understand? ” We nodded.

That episode left me such a strong impression that I became extremely afraid of any male, even my familiar playmates. The next time we all played together, Hamid grabbed my wrist as we fought over some toy or other. I thundered at him, “Hands off! Take your hand off! Keep away from me!” Astonished, he asked, “What’s wrong with you?”  I did not know what was wrong, or that anything was wrong. I just knew that any male in close proximity was a very frightening prospect.

That fear was to grow bigger and larger and more gargantuan by the month, and create an enormous phobia for years to come.


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A New Sister

We children thought life couldn’t be any happier. Even the teasing and ogling at school had stopped. Saadia and I, and now Shadia as well, were accepted as normal human beings by the other students. We had even made a number of friends, and our Arabic was fluent enough to allow us to chat and have conversations. I even remember one day, seated on the cement pavement of the school yard,  launching into a description of life under the Communist regime in Mainland China to my friend Najwa, a pretty dark head with big black eyes, thick curly lashes, fair skin and two thick braids. I became so engrossed in my storytelling, punctuating it with gestures and theatrics,  that I did not notice the crowd that had gathered around us in gaping attention. Not until I ran out of breath and story material, and raised my head.

life under communism

Mama and Papa never had disagreements, quarrels or arguments in front of us, so we thought them absolutely blissful at all times.  But Mama had not been as happy as we thought. Despite her close friendship with Mrs. Chi and Mrs. Sui, as well as Mrs. Ma, Mama must have felt occasionally like she lived in a forgotten corner of the world. She had immensely loved Paris and traveling throughout Europe. In this desert city, despite being by the sea, life was very different. One day, she even forgot to hide her personal feelings behind the bedroom door. In plain view of her children, she sat by the dinner table, tears rolling down her eyes. I did not know how to react and what to say. So we said nothing. It never happened again, but I never forgot that crack in her usual smiling facade.

It was also in Jeddah that I saw Papa cry for the first time in my life. He was sitting in his study, elbows on his desk, holding his lowered head between his hands, and sobbing. Loudly. That scared me. My perfect all-knowing father, whom nothing could faze, crying?  He told me years later the reason. It was during his campaign against the Made-in-China goods imported by Ma BuFang’s followers (see the post on the King of the Northwest).  One of the Taif businessmen had broken the cease-fire and started selling Chinese goods again. Papa called him and ordered him to come to Jeddah and have a chat. I’m sure he felt like a general or a judge, with the aura of authority floating around his head. The merchant agreed to come in the next day.  As fate would have it, the car he rode in flew off the highway that spirals down the mountainside from Taif to Makkah. He did not survive. Papa felt like he had killed him.

road to Taif

Around that time, we found out we had a little sister coming soon! Mama said babies grew in your abdomen and then you have to go to the hospital and the doctor will make an operation and take the baby out. And as proof, she would show me a scar on her belly.  Now, I think it might have been an old appendectomy scar, but we were well fooled.

Papa took Mama to the hospital one bright summer morning: June 7, 1966. The three of us played with Legos on the bedroom floor. Legos have since evolved to pre-designed sets and then to robotics. But back then, they were quite simple, and, to quote Anne with an “e”, gave much room for imagination: base planks,  a few primary colors, the 8-dot brick, the 6-dot brick, the 4-dot brick and the 2-dot brick; a few long bars, and, marvel of all marvels, wheels with rubber “tires” around them in a groove. I “discovered” the concept of gears through these grooved wheels, and used a system of rubber bands to make various machines, such as a bar to close and open a parking lot. All our buildings had no roof, thus allowing us to design the interior as well, and move our little people in the buildings. The 8-dot bricks were adults, red for males and white for females. The 6-dot bricks were teens and the 4-dot bricks were little children. That day, I had proudly built a U-shaped home, with the central section on a floor above the other two. Cars could park under it, and my geared gate controlled the access to the enclosed courtyard. I had stairs going up and down that upper floor.

lego blocks

And then, Papa came home, flushed with excitement: “You have a new little sister!” We jumped and screamed, forgetting gears, gate, and stairs. Abdul Kerim was a bit disappointed, since he craved a brother for a playmate. But Saadia and I were absolutely on cloud nine! A real live doll to play with. That beat a Barbie any day. We visited Mama at the hospital. Mrs. Chi had brought her chicken broth, a must for Chinese post-partum care, but she had little appetite. We drank most of it, relishing the taste of homemade food, which we missed.

Papa named her Iffat, after Queen Iffat, King Faisal’s fourth wife, the one who was well educated, and spurred girls’ education and modernization. Her Chinese name was Mai Tai-Hwa, Hwa being a symbol of China. Saadia and I were by then 10 and 9 years old, and were given the jobs of assistant nannies. Well, I must own that it was Saadia’s job more than mine. We got to change her diaper and feed her, and Papa got to lull her to sleep at times, singing and humming Brahms’ famed Wiegenlied.

queen iffat cultural center

Iffat was a big-eyed little wonder of a bundle of joy, who would have been labeled ADD today. She toddled everywhere lustily and ate everything except her food. One day, she woke up from her afternoon nap and started experimenting with the taste of her diaper contents. Another day, she opened the front door while we were all resting after lunch, toddled out, and disappeared. When Mama found out that she was missing, the three of us got punished. On our knees! Saadia and I lowered out heads, appropriately feeling guilty and sorry for not having looked after Iffat properly, but Abdul Kerim walked on his knees to his room, pulled a Tintin book down, walked back on his knees to the punishment grounds, and proceeded to read and laugh.

Papa and Mama called for reinforcements from the embassy, and all the adults roamed the neighborhood, calling and hollering.  Eventually, the police brought her home, unscathed, just a bit sweaty and happy from her roving adventures.

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Suicide and Discipline

While we lived in the second house, the grey boat shaped apartment building, two things happened which were maybe unnoticeable to outsiders, but definitely life-changing turning points for me.

The first concerned discipline. Up till then, Mama had been the primary discipline handler in our family. Papa discussed encyclopedic topics with us, played with us, read with us, and checked our report cards. Mama, on the other hand, was the nurturer, the hugger, and the punisher. Apart from the famous chocolate episode, Papa never ever even tapped us. Mama, however, was very generous with her hand. She would slap us — quite painlessly, actually — on the buttocks, hips, shoulder, back, arm, whatever body part was handy at the time. She would also use her knuckle to knock our heads. These were automatically dispensed if we dared “talk back”, or show disrespect in any form. Until one warm afternoon. That moment is still deeply etched into my memory, so earth shattering was its impact. I was around eight years old, and was supposed to be sweeping the floor. I do not remember what I had forgotten to do or done wrong, but Mama had been nagging and nagging while I reluctantly pushed the broom here and there. Enough! Enough! Stop it! I had had it. In my head, I talked to myself, “talking back” impudently to Mama all those words that I longed to shout out but never dared to. So here I was, sweeping and sassing in my head, when suddenly, inadvertently, those words actually came out of my mouth! I froze in horror! O. M. G.! How did they escape from my tongue? I winced in expectation of the slaps or knocks. But none came. I stole a look at Mama. She was sitting in her chair, busy sewing, and acting like nothing had happened. But I was very sure I did say those words out loud! I heard them! Did she not care any more? Surprise overtook shock and I stayed frozen for a while. Then I resumed my sweeping, totally blank and stunned. Mama had not reacted. Mama had not reacted. I talked back and Mama had not reacted!

Years later, I asked her about this episode. She did not recall the exact time but said that she and Papa had had a talk around that time and had decided that we, the girls, were growing older and bigger, and it was time to stop using physical forms of punishment. I myself do not endorse physical punishments today, however, I must say that up till that memorable afternoon, I had been an obedient and cooperative child. Did my teachers not repeated it again and again on my report cards? Well-behaved, well-mannered, just too shy. What lucky parents!  But sometime after that, I discovered I had turned into a bad-tempered brat, with a volatile temperament, and given to flights of rage.

slam door

I clearly remember another tell-tale episode in the third house, on one hot summer day.  The whole family camped in my parents’ bedroom during the summer, since that room had an air conditioner. Our mattresses were covering up all the available floor space around Mama and Papa’s bed. Something bothered me — I cannot even remember what that could have been —  and I flared up. I actually shouted quite rudely, apparently to the air around me, but obviously intending it for my parents. Then, frightened by my audacity, I turned and ran out of the room before a reprimand or rebuke could reach me, verbally or physically. I slammed the door, made for the bathroom, slammed again its door as violently as I could, locked myself in, and sat on the toilet cover. There, I felt as if in a sanctuary. Let them sweat and try to get me, I’m just not coming out. I remained there maybe an hour, or maybe three. I am not sure. But I finally emerged carefully, and tiptoed back into the bedroom. My parents were lying on their beds, reading magazines and newspapers, and not paying me any attention whatsoever. Just like nothing had ever happened.

Papa and Mama probably meant well. They were recognizing in me Papa’s temper and thought it wise to let me be. But I now see how unchecked behavior whirls into a vicious cycle that climbs higher and higher and spawns a new character. That year gave birth to a new me, one that was given to temperamental flights of rage, and which caused my family years later to nickname me Mu Lao Hu,  the “Tigress”.

The second event which quietly changed my life also happened that year.  It was an evening, hot and humid, like all evenings in Jeddah. The window was open, and the lilt of Arabic music floated up from the coffee and tea house below. I had been pondering a lot about God, life and death.

heaven and hell

Does God really exist? Does Heaven really exist? Does Hell really exist? Do our good and bad deeds really count and decide our destiny in the afterlife? What if all this is not true? What if there is nothing after death? How could I possibly know? What should I do then? How could I live on, not knowing what to follow as my compass? I looked up into the dark night, and the stars, and wondered. A scientist at heart, I decided that the only way to know was to experiment. How? Well, what if I jumped out of the window right now? I could then die, and find out right there and then, whether there was really an afterlife, and whether God really existed. The thought was so appealing that I came as close as possible to the window and leaned out. But then, what if I did not die? What if I broke something? Ouch, that was bound to hurt. On the other hand, maybe I would die after jumping out, but what if there was no heaven and no God! Then what? Too late to come back and enjoy this life a bit longer.

That thought did it.  I straightened myself and went back to my chair. Better stay in this life and live it even though I did not know for sure that God existed. What choice did I have? I had to go on believing in God and pray and do good deeds even though I was not sure, not really really sure that all this was for real.

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The Red Sea

Jeddah, after all, is a port city. And occasionally, Papa had to deal with Chinese sailors, or Chinese ships. Once, all of us, families from the embassy, were invited to tour a Chinese ship from Taiwan.  I was struck by the neatness and cleanliness of every single room and even the deck! I even got to see the captain’s room and the pilot’s cabin. But I guess I never had a sailor’s heart, because no, I did not hanker for a try at the wheel. We took plenty of pictures and went back ashore.

Another time, we were invited to take a little cruise around the bay of Obhur on Mr. Fuad’s  little yacht.  Mr. Fuad was an American convert, who later married the daughter of one of us Chinese Muslims, Imam Dawood Ting Chung Ming. He had sunglasses and a little goatee, and welcomed all of the embassy crowd on his boat. I loved the feeling of wind in my hair, and the blue of the sky meeting the blue of the sea. The adults chatted and joked and laughed and took pictures.

sailing on the Red Sea

My favorite view of the Red Sea was not around the port area, but much further north of the city, in an area named Obhur. Now and then, the embassy families would pack a picnic  and caravan to the seaside compound there, where we had a cabin. We would change into our swimsuits and jump into the sea. The ladies occasionally put their toes in the water, but our dads had a great time snorkeling or teaching us to swim.

Papa took it upon himself to coach Abdul Kerim, who was very scared of the water.  There are several approaches to how to teach any skill. There is the step by step approach, slow and steady; and there is the sink or swim approach, which believes that a human being will naturally flail his arms and legs in just the right way when faced with death in water. Papa tried the second approach. Abdul Kerim got a good soak, a good fright, and a lifelong fear of water. Never mind that the whole incident happened in three or four feet of water. He loved the swings better than the sea.

obhur cabin

I need to interject my own little philosophy here. Papa wasn’t quite wrong. But he gave up too quickly. In order to eradicate a fear using the sink or swim method, one must carry it out thoroughly, up to the part where the person reaches the reward: swimming or floating happily in this case. Going through the dunk and the swallowing of salty water is all right if one actually manages to float at the end. But if one leaves the water after all the fearful sequences, without floating, then one carries only the memories of fear and starts the vicious cycle of building a phobia.

As for me, I didn’t really learn to swim. Wearing old tennis shoes,  I learned to float in a swim ring and even once in an inner tire tube: the king of all swim rings! and I learned to propel myself in various directions, and to lie back and enjoy the sunshine, the breeze and the water. I learned to throw water on my playmates and collect seashells. We would run towards the cabin when our mothers called us for feeding time. Then we would play on the old rusty and cranky swings, throwing our heads back and trying to surpass each other in height. We loved collecting hermit crabs. We would fill a paper bag or a bucket with them, and have  a lot of fun pulling the crab out of its shell. My students today tell me I was cruel and naughty.

hermit crab

Was I? The world was our playground, with its fauna and its flora. And we learned through our games. Torturing animals? Pulling hermit crabs out of their shells was nothing compared with catching flies. I practiced and became pretty good at catching flies back in Ankara. It was more fun trapping a buzzing and dizzy fly on the window pane than studying. I would then slowly open my palm and observe my prey. Scientific observation. What does a fly do if it cannot fly? I would pull one wing off. Ah, it buzzes and goes round and round in a circle, just like when you row a boat with only one paddle. What happens when you pull off both wings? What happens when you pull off a leg?  What happens when you squeeze it on the abdomen? I screamed when a string of little whitish gooey rice-like grains
came out, and started wriggling around. I ran and hid, so grossed out and scared I was. That totally cured me of torturing flies. Never touched one again except with the safe distance of a fly swatter.

house fly


This then was the life of the expatriate elite then in Jeddah in the late ’60s. We were rich enough to not only have two air conditioners, but also to order American goods from a catalog. Papa bought us roller skates, a bicycle, and a toy log house, just to name a few. We took the skates to the embassy compound, to play with after class, and all the kids learned to roller skate. We also pushed the bicycle to the embassy compound, and everyone took turns learning how to ride it. Somehow everyone mastered the exquisite balancing skills required to ride this contraption in no time at all, with all of us holding the bicycle with the learner on it. And as usual, I was a slow learner and just could not balance myself well enough to get the bike going.  Finally, I was the only one left who still required the other five to hold me. They tired of the game and all ran off to play something more amusing. Only Abdul Hamid stayed on, and still held the bicycle for me. We were near the front end of the compound, and I tried one more run. OK, you hold tight onto the seat, and don’t let go! Right, left, right, left, I pedaled. Hey, this is now steadying… it is actually moving nicely… and faster! I hollered to HaMi, “Don’t let go, OK, don’t let go!” and pedaled harder. I heard his voice far behind somewhere, “OK, I won’t let go…!” What?  far behind? I looked back, and there he was, smiling widely, miles away! “No! You let go!”  He shouted, “You made it, you are riding now!” But I panicked. No… No…! I found out, in that fraction of a second, that the side yard of the embassy had a slight slope going down from front to back, and it never was flat ever, and that my bicycle was going faster and faster down that slope. I could squeeze the hand brakes, but would that not throw me overhead if I braked too suddenly? Too late. I was already reaching the bottom of the slope and would now smash head on into the front patio of the Chi home. I tried to turn my steering handle to the left. Turn, turn, turn! Not too abruptly, not too sharply, turn! Ah, too late! I forgot that the staircase to the ambassador’s upstairs quarters sat right there! Wham! I slammed into the whitewashed brick wall surrounding the bottom of the staircase. And found myself on the gravel, nursing a long cut along my leg and thigh. Hamid arrived out of breath and pale. “Are you hurt?” The rest of the gang arrived too. “Faw! Faw! Are you OK?” I was furious. “It’s all your fault. All of you. I held you when you were learning, but you all deserted me!”


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The Candy Story and Slipping under the Bamboo Curtain


jeddah 1930s

The overall atmosphere of a utopian society was so etched in all of us that small derailments absolutely horrified us. One afternoon, Abdul Kerim came home from his daily playtime at the embassy compound with a smug smile on his face. He was holding his arms around his belly, which protruded in a strange way under his shirt, which was as usual tucked inside his shorts. He beckoned to me in a conspiratorial manner, “Hey, Er Jieh (Second Elder Sister)! Come and see what I’ve got!” We went to our room and Abdul Kerim pulled his shirt up. Out rolled candies, gums and other goodies onto the floor. A whole stack of them. My eyes went huge. “Di Di (Little Brother), where did you get all this?” My parents did not believe in weekly allowances, so we never had any money on us, unless we were sent on an errand. “At the little shop downstairs! I told them that Mama would pay them back later.”  Buying on credit! Well, well, well! My brother was certainly ahead of his time!

The little shop downstairs was a small wooden shack maybe no more than two by two meters, with a front window whose shutter could open down and turn into a counter, and shelves on the inside walls. It was a pre-fabricated mobile store that could be found everywhere on street corners in those days, and were usually owned and operated by Yemenis. This one, right outside our apartment building, sold candies, soft drinks and other daily needs.

Although I had sworn myself to secrecy just a few minutes ago, this was no ordinary secret! Thievery led to having one’s hands cut. This was an enormity. A crime. I had to help him out of this. And indelible  traces of that day in Ankara, the Day of the now famous Chocolate Story had etched themselves forever into my soul. I looked sorrowfully at my little brother, “Abdul Kerim, I am so sorry! But I must tell Papa and Mama about this. I’m so sorry!” Abdul Kerim’s face changed. “But you promised! You promised!” he protested, with tears in his eyes. I could not bear his look. I know we were best friends and best playmates, but this was no ordinary game. I walked out of the room with the step of a traitor. I told my parents.


The reaction was immediate. And intense. Mama gave Abdul Kerim her purse and ordered him to go downstairs and pay off the bill first. Then he was ordered into Papa’s study. He had to kneel down and endure a lengthy lecture delivered with forceful stormy tones. Then he had to raise his two hands up straight, vertically in the air and stay thus until further notice. I felt terribly bad and tried to keep away from the scene during the punishment session. I truly do not remember whether he got any slaps on his hands with the fateful steel shoe horn. But by the time my father went to mind his business elsewhere, I stole into the study and tried to hold my brother’s hands in mine so he would not get too tired. “Abdul Kerim, don’t worry, I will hold them for you. Just rest a bit.” But he snapped back, “Just go away! I don’t need you!”

I moped in my room for hours.

As Saadia grew more and more withdrawn, Abdul Kerim and I had become closer. He was now older and able to join me in games. We were great pals and played and quarreled with great gusto.  I remember one day when we fought once again, and even the dreaded curse, “You Communist you!” did not cut it. So we decided to pinch each other. I said I would not cry and he said he would not either. So there we sat, each pinching the other on the arm as hard as we could and both holding back our cries and our tears.

Boys are definitely more daring and naughty than girls. I was a handful, but he topped me in everything. Once, when we started getting bored from the lack of excitement at the sheep market, Abdul Kerim said to me, “Er Jie (Second Elder Sister), shall I call out to them?” That scared me. “No, you wouldn’t! Anyway, you don’t know their names…” Abdul Kerim laughed.  “I will just say, Mohammed! There is always a Mohammed somewhere in the crowd anyway.”  I shook my head in disbelief. Abdul Kerim bent through the open window and  yelled at the top of his voice, “Ya Mohammed!!!” and quickly squatted down under the window so no one would see him. I was a fraction of a second slower, slow enough to see some of the people in the sheep market look up and around.

Another time, he came home at sunset from his afternoon play in the embassy compound in a whirlwind, quickly trying to disappear into his room. But Mama was quicker, “Come back here!  Why are you running so fast?” Abdul Kerim was forced to face Mama, which is when we all noticed his shirt was greyish and crumpled. This was before the era of T shirts, and boys wore crisply ironed white dress shirts, even for play. It turned out he had fallen into the turtle pond, which was filled with green algae. Abdul Hamid and Nuruddin had tried helping him out by taking his shirt off and wringing it as dry as possible, and Chi Mama had given him another clean shirt to wear. But he was too scared to face Mama, so the boys had sneaked out and tried shaking and waving the shirt in the wind to dry it out. He then put it back on and walked bravely home, trying to look as normal as possible.

Abdul Kerim was named Ren Jieh in Chinese. Papa later told us that he had communicated secretly with his family in China starting from the years in Paris, and that upon his request for a name for his newborn son, Papa’s uncle had bestowed the name “hero (among men)”.

Today’s children do not know anything about the Iron Curtain or the Bamboo Curtain. They cannot fathom a prison the size of a country and total ban of communication between two parts of one nation torn apart by war. People in Taiwan could not write or call or send telegrams to their relatives across the Taiwan Strait, and vice versa.  For Papa, who worked for the government, trying to reach anyone in Communist China would have been tantamount to betrayal and opened him for serious investigation. Inside Mainland China, people could not leave of their own accord, unless they attempted to escape across the fenced border — which many did, at the risk of their lives.

bamboo curtain

Papa had written home, pretending to be doing business in France. He had found out  that his elder sister’s husband had been imprisoned then sent to hard labor, then later committed suicide some time after his release.  Soon afterward, his father had passed away. His younger sister and her husband, both involved in the music industry, she as a music editor and he as a performing tenor, were hard hit when the Cultural Revolution erupted.  They too were sent away to hard labor and their two children were left in the city to fend for themselves.  Papa had assumed that his brother, the Communist cadre, had escaped tragedy. Alas, no one in Communist China did. Even my uncle, who had joined the Communist Party in its infancy, was reported as disloyal by a close friend and sent to twenty years’ hard labor. 

Unknowing of the details of life under the Communists, Papa wrote letters asking about his family’s well-being, and whether they remembered to fast as good Muslims should.   His elder sister replied that they were all very well, and yes, of course, they remembered to fast, and indeed did so every day of the year. Muslims only need to fast during the month of Ramadan, so this was a secret message that they were really starving.  Papa asked whether they were in need of anything. His brother replied that they were not in need of anything since the motherland could provide them with anything they needed. Papa did not know that Uncle was already in trouble then and that those letters to and from a Western capitalist country were scrutinized for hints of wrongdoing or simply incorrect thought. That reply from his brother broke his heart more so than his sister’s description of their situation. He locked himself in his room and wept.

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Black Magic and Islamic Law

Papa’s dire threats about no music in Saudi Arabia evaporated in the hot desert sun. I occasionally reminisced regretfully about that toy guitar I gave away in Beirut. Although Saadia and I had no more piano lessons since Paris, I definitely started to develop my singing voice in Jeddah.  Mama’s music lessons and her song book spurred me on to compose my own songs. She must have noticed something, for she entered me in the singing competition when Ambassadress Li organized a Children’s Day celebration on April 4. We Chinese don’t just have a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day, we also have a Children’s Day (April 4) and a Teacher’s Day (September 9).


Embassy functions were mainly of two types, the ones for the non-Chinese which counted as work, and the ones for the Chinese community, which counted as fun. Or what we would call today networking.  Our community was really comparatively small, just a dozen families or so, but we still made up a great contingency for that memorable Children’s Day. We had a series of outdoors sport competitions in the yard outside. Papa had ordered from America a set of bow and arrows, so there was an archery competition. Then a running competition. I failed every single sports competition, feeling miserable. My health was still poor and I had very little stamina or endurance. But after the crowd moved upstairs to  the ambassador’s living room for the indoor events, I won the singing competition. I felt so great to be good at something that I remember that feeling till today though I cannot for the life of me remember what the award was.

But something else fascinated me and started a new hobby that day. In the luxurious setting of that embassy living room, we had a Magic Show. Ambassadress Li called on some volunteers, like Saadia and Shadia. Which explained to me why, the day before, from the top of the back stairs, she had called them one at a time to her living quarters. Upon their return, we would pester them with questions, why did she call you? What did she say? and they would mysteriously say, “nothing.”  So, Ambassadress Li announced a game called Black Magic. She sent Saadia out of the room then ask a guest to pick an object in the room. She would then call her innocent volunteer back and point at various objects, “Is it this one? Is it that one?” And magically, she would know exactly which one had been selected. Well, Saadia later did disclose the secret to me, and here I am telling the whole world the secret to this black magic: It was not the type of question or words used. It was simply, as the title suggested, “black” magic. If she pointed to a black object, then the next one would be the correct one. I was so enthused by this magic show that I started looking for magic tricks in Papa’s shelves and trunks of books but alas coming up empty.


Even though there was music on television and on the radio, and no one ever threatened to put me in prison because I loved singing out loud, Islamic law was indeed present, alive and well in Saudi Arabia then.  Papa had told us about stealing and having your hand cut if you stole back in Beirut and that tale of the man’s fingers haunted me still for years. When taking the garbage out across the street to the dump on the vacant lot (at the first house), I would tread around the huge pile, and look around for treasures.  People throw away all kinds of things that to me were wonders. Here in the US, there are garage or yard sales, and today, there is eBay and Craig’s list. But then and there, people just threw them away, and not in bags either. Disposable plastic garbage bags had not yet been invented. So I would carefully look around, make sure no policeman or nosy neighbor was looking, and furtively pick up the wanted item and stuff it in my garbage can, while pretending to be throwing something away.  Then I would walk leisurely, pretending nothing was happening, and once home, head to the kitchen, and pretend to be cleaning the garbage can, and then stealthily, quickly stuff the treasure in my hand or under my clothes, and run to my room. For who knows, my parents might give me away and the police might find out somehow. I certainly did not want my fingers or hand cut.

For that did happen for sure. Mama told of one Friday when Papa took her driving downtown in front of the courthouse, specifically for checking out the truth of this matter. Executions and hand cutting were advertised publicly in the paper, and usually carried after Friday prayers. She said how scared she was when she saw a pair of hands hanging overhead in front of the courthouse. Another time, she and Papa went to watch an execution, which caused her to nearly throw up.

But in defense of Islamic Law, life was definitely very safe in Saudi Arabia then. People were more in touch with real feelings, and the atmosphere was one of a gigantic village. In Makkah, the merchants and shop owners would throw a piece of cloth over their wares when the call for prayer sounded, and head to the Holy Mosque. No one would dream of stealing the gold bracelets, necklaces and earrings on display in the open air.  Upon their return from prayer, they would remove the fabric cover and resume business as usual. Papa kept telling and retelling for years after how amazed and flabbergasted he was at the sight.

Once, as we were crossing the sheep market on our way to the embassy, we saw a little newborn lamb suckling from its mother. We were mesmerized and kept saying how cute and lovely it was. The bedouin who owned it smiled benevolently at us and picked it up, then tried to hand it to us. He spoke in Arabic too difficult for me to understand. He seemed to be saying, go ahead, take it, it’s yours. We looked askance  at Papa, oh, please, could we, really? But Papa said, no, absolutely not. That is too much of a gift. Later, after he recounted the incident to his colleagues at the embassy, they told him he should have accepted it. Never cross a Bedouin and never refuse a Bedouin gift. Why, we asked. Well, it seemed that that was very offensive. But at the time, all I could think of was, see, Papa, you should have accepted that darling cutey of a lamb!

suckling lamb

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Our stay in Saudi Arabia turned out to be beneficial to our family in more ways than one. Under the influence of his co-workers and friends, Mr. Abdullah Chi, Mr. Yaqoub Ma, and Mr. Sui, Papa gradually became more religious. Islam became more open at our home, contrasting starkly with the secretive rare prayers that Papa offered in his room under lock and key back in Paris.  Now, there would be a prayer rug constantly folded in Papa’s study and he would attend Friday prayers at the mosque.  He would on occasion wear a little white cap that identified him as a Chinese Muslim. I remember him displaying proudly an Arabic newspaper one day with him in a large picture on the front page shaking the hand of King Faisal. He had led the Hajj (pilgrimage) group from Taiwan to meet the king, so he was dressed in his most spiffy black tuxedo and had his little white cap on. Mama gasped and had a fit, “Oh, my goodness! I told you not to stuff your camera in your back pocket. Now look! Front page and everyone sees you with a hump on your buttocks!”

white muslim cap

Papa also decided it was time to give us some religious education. So he taught us how to make our ablutions and how to pray. He instructed us on the five pillars of Islam. He told us to remember we were Muslims, of the Sunni sect, and following the Hanafi school of thought. That meant little to us, and it was enough to remember we were Muslims. For once, this was not out of the ordinary, and we would proudly wear our religion in school, feeling as one with the rest of the girls. Our food, which stuck out like a sore thumb in France, was not even an issue here, since all meats were slaughtered the Islamic way and no pork or lard or alcohol was to be found anywhere. Identity, prayers, and dietary rules. That was it. Reciting the Qur’an was inculcated at school. Whether at home or at school there was little discussion about the attributes of God or the principles of Islam or even the differences or similarities with other religions.

The most exciting event, religiously speaking, was the pilgrimage. This was a duty incumbent on all Muslims, to be performed once in a lifetime. For people living in other countries, it is a costly and painstaking endeavor. Here we were, living right there, next to Makkah. So Papa thought it would be best for us to perform it too, although we were still children. Meaning, we still had the duty to do it later in adulthood, after making our own intention to do so, and paying for it ourselves. I actually performed then the Hajj twice, on two consecutive years.

Mama sewed us white ankle length dresses with long sleeves. Abdul Kerim got to wear nothing but two unsewn white towels like all other men. One around the waist like a skirt and the other thrown over one shoulder. Men get a lot of nice cool bodily ventilation during the five days of pilgrimage.  So it is only fair that they get to do most of the chores too.

The first year, we stayed in white tents like everybody else. But the second year, Papa ordered from America a camping tent, orange and blue, made of sturdy nylon, just for our family. We were very proud to look so modern, the one spot of color in a sea of white. Well, we regretted it soon enough. These American tents were firmly and tightly sealed on all sides, including to the ground. Although we started off happily playing with the zipper door, we soon kept it open for ventilation. The tent turned into a brightly colored oven. It was so hot in there that  we had trouble sleeping at night, even with the door and window open. During the day, we just wandered off to the main large white tents, which were dozens of degrees cooler. I assume it is due to several factors. First, white reflects heat. Second, the lower edges were kept off the ground by about six inches, and the tops gracefully arched into peaks, creating a natural current of air that circulated throughout the entire tent. I guess that centuries of trial and error beat modern technology. And American tents were probably designed for cold mountains rather than hot deserts.

1966 truck

Pilgrimage was one of the times when we felt that all adults had turned into children too.  It started off on the embassy grounds, with one or two trucks, with our red, white and blue flag stuck on both sides of the front windshield,  idling loudly. These were large trucks but open like pick-ups, with the side railings looming up to five or six feet. The men piled into the trucks and hung onto the railings. Then the chanting would start. Male voices are always used in opera for soldier choruses for a good reason. When you hear large groups of men chanting in unison with all their lungs and enthusiasm, “labbaikallah humma labbaik! Labbaikallah shareekalakalabbaik! Innal hamda, wal ni’mata, lakawalmulk, laaaa shareekalak!”  then a feeling of strength, unity and passion to achieve something is born and floats around the entire caravan.  We, the womenfolk and the children, of course, rode in our family cars. But, since the windows were kept rolled down, we would enjoy the breeze and the chant. Somewhere along the way, the men would tire of chanting, and the chant would dwindle and stop now and then, only to be reborn upon the next bump in the road.

In the 1960s, the highway from Jeddah to Makkah was nothing like it is today. It took two hours to drive to Makkah on a regular day, and the entire day during hajj time. On the way, our trucks would join a huge caravan of trucks carrying multicolored flags, some grimy and dusty from long treks from other countries.  The actual pilgrimage takes place in several locations. The campgrounds are in Mina the first day, on the plain of Arafat the second day, and back to Mina for the remaining three days. Sometime during those last three days, you have to return to Makkah and perform the tawwaf (walking seven times around the Kaabah)  and Sa’ee (running seven times between two hills); on top of that, you had to go to the three “devils” (jamrat) incarnate — stone pillars, and throw seven pebbles at them, pebbles which you had to have picked up on your way during your trek between Arafat and Mina. All this is done by around a million people dressed in white.

The Kaabah in the Holy Mosque, Makkah, 1960's

The Kaabah in the Holy Mosque, Makkah, 1960’s



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Coca Cola and Origami

the twist

Formal diplomatic functions were certainly less frequent than in Paris or Turkey. And all of a sudden, we children were not needed so much any more. No more watching the older kids practice the Twist while waiting to get on stage at the Salle Pleyel.

There was an International Ladies group that our mothers were members of. Mama especially loved networking with the Japanese and French ladies. It gave her the opportunity to show off her fluent Japanese and learn fashion and sewing tips from France.  She actually joined one of the French ladies as her assistant seamstress, and helped her duplicate the latest Paris fashions and sell them to rich Saudi ladies, usually princesses. The first time that Mama attended a function in the palace — Saudi royal parties were either all male or all female — she came back full of stories. The Saudi Queen and princesses had all been dressed in French gowns flown in straight from Dior or Chanel, and the party had been held in the gardens and the entire place smelled very fragrant. It turned out that the maids had been spraying the garden with French perfume! (Air fresheners had not yet been invented, or at least not available in Jeddah.)

One day, the International Ladies held a huge festival. Now, I can only assume it was related to Halloween, because the weather was rather cool and we had all made a huge mistake. For once, we children were involved. We were told to all dress up in national costumes, so we did. Upon arrival and being told to walk onto the stage, we found out that all other children — mostly Westerners — were dressed as robots, doctors, fairies, princesses and so on. No national costumes except the lot of us. The robot won first place.

I loved the Japanese booth, which was a sort of tent hung with dozens of paper cranes made of beautiful gift wrapping paper.  They fascinated me!  One lady in kimono was teaching how to fold them and I learned there and then how to make them.

origami cranes

Once home I started making cranes and hanging strings of them everywhere in the house. That spurred Papa to teach me a few other models: a gorilla, a boat, and an airplane. The gorillas were the best, they were wonderful. They were easy to make, only a few steps more than the “cocottes” we made in Paris, and the best part, they could be used to wage war! We made big gorillas as generals and commanders, and small ones for foot soldiers. We stood them in formation, then used the left over paper to make ammunition: thick paper bars folded in two. With a thick rubber band held tight between the left thumb and middle finger, the “bullet” was hooked in front of the rubber band and pulled back. Releasing it caused it to fly off. The game was to take turns shooting “bullets” at the enemy soldiers. Fallen men could be removed to a shed where they would “recover” for so many turns. If the general got hit, then it was game over, the enemy would win.

Of course, eventually, Abdul Kerim and I would get over excited and started shooting the bullets at each other especially if we felt our general was unfairly hit. Saadia would keep her nose in her book and ignore us.

Saadia hit puberty rather early for those times, at around ten years of age. She later told me how scared she’d been to find blood in her underwear, and how when she finally told Mama, all Mama did was to hand her some pads and an elastic belt with two loops, and said, “From now on, you will have to wear these every month when it happens.”  However, at the time, I had no inkling of all this drama, and could not understand why Saadia stopped joining us in our games and would stay home and read.

Papa’s status was higher in Jeddah than in his previous posts. I believe he was then First Secretary.  So we started hosting dinners at our home. We had moved out of that cockroach infested home which was too far from the center of action, into first the grey boat-shaped apartment building across from the sheep market, and then finally into the pink apartment building a stone throw from the embassy. Papa had requested from the ministry that Saudi Arabia be classified as a hardship post, like African countries. When that got approved, he received an extra US $200 per month. That made us quite rich, compared to others. We had TWO, not one, air conditioning units: one in the living room for the guests, and the other in my parents’ bedroom.

Dinner parties meant Coca-Cola time. Mama bought them by the case. These were luxury items, and so we were not allowed to drink them normally. But during dinner parties, we opened an untold number of them and served them to the guests. Mama allowed us to drink some too, so we would gorge ourselves on that sparkly little black drink and keep opening swirly bottle after swirly bottle.

coca cola crate

Mama started hiring help as well. I remember in the grey building, we had an old Yemeni lady with sagging empty breasts who would invite her own friends over whenever Mama was out. She would open Coca-Cola bottles and serve them to her guests. We were shocked. She was eventually fired.

Then in the pink building, we had a young Yemeni boy named Ali. He was a part-timer and would be especially there on days when we had company. I loved that because doing the dishes had been my duty up till then. I had gotten it down to a science. I would make sure to empty and soak everything, with plates, bowls and large serving dishes separated and piled together. Utensils would soak in the pots. Then I would soap a pile at a time. I got very good at rinsing with one hand while placing on the rack with the other. Pots were the best because I could pretend they were cauldrons and the yucky liquids in them were various magic potions.

Every time I invented some new labor- and time-saving trick, I would demonstrate it to Mama. “Mama, Mama, look! See, I can carry ALL the plates AND ALL the bowls at the same time this way, all in just one trip!” Mama would glance up and make always the same remark, “Lazy people come up with lazy ways.”


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