Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The Fork in the Road

As 1973 rolled into a hot dusty summer, my GCE test scores came out: I now had passed 9 “O” level subjects and 1 “A” level subject and was eligible for university. My father decided to enroll Saadia and me in the University of Jordan while I felt uneasy about it. I had barely turned 16 in June and had I stayed in the French education system, I would still have two years of study ahead of me before high school graduation. Looking for help, I wrote a letter to my old French teacher from Noyer-Durand — and that took some tracking down since she had tra

The Faculty of Science, University of Jordan

The Faculty of Science, University of Jordan

nsferred to another school — and she advised me to sign up with the CNTE (Centre National de Télé-enseignement). Both Saadia and I did so immediately.

At the same time, my father took us to the U of J to register us. The only two choices that taught all courses in English were the English Department and the Faculty of Science. Naturally, as an Asian, we had to select Science. But the snag was that they required two “A” level science subjects for admission, while we only had one subject, which was French literature. So, we were accepted as “special students” pending our getting one more GCE “A” level science or math subject. We looked over the list of possible “A” level subjects and opted for Applied Math. As “special students”, we were allowed only three courses per semester, and a transcript afterwards. Saadia picked Biology 101, Math 101 and Chemistry 101. I also chose Math and Chemistry but took Physics 101 as my third choice. We planned to take the other missing courses during the summer. Then we ordered the books necessary for studying Applied Math on our own.

When I wrote “The Fork in the Road” as the title for this entry, I was inwardly laughing. So we had two choices: complete our education in the French system, or move on to university with a British education. We did not select either, but both. I can imagine myself walking with one foot on each path, and as these paths start diverging, I eventually had to lift one foot and fall onto just one of the two choices.


In 1979, the CNTE became the Centre national d’enseignement par correspondance (CNEC), then changed name again in 1986 to Centre national d’enseignement à distance (CNED).

We spent the summer having fun with friends, learning Chinese folk dances with Anney Ku who was visiting from Saudi Arabia, and bowling our hearts out. As September dawned, our packets from the CNTE arrived, and we started taking the service and city bus daily to the U of J which was located outside town. So we immersed ourselves into the world of study, juggling all the work we had brought upon ourselves. I enjoyed Math and Chemistry, but since I only had one year of Physics in Taipei, I struggled in the Physics 101 class. Saadia and I both loved our Math professor and we decided to ask her to tutor us for Applied Math which, we had found out, was beyond self-teaching. She was flabbergasted when we told her why we needed that extra A level. She explained that British universities required indeed two A levels for university entrance, but these being equivalent to what here were first year courses, a bachelor degree at British universities only took three years to complete. Therefore, the U of J had placed its own bar above that of British universities. She told us that since we scored at the top of our class of over 200 students — indeed Saadia led her Biology class with a 98% in the first test while I did so in Chemistry with a 96% in mine– we should write a petition to the council of deans to convert our status to “regular students” without the need for that extra A level. We loved the advice and consequently submitted our petition.

French high school studies was great in all subjects except in Math and German. I had taken a couple of courses at the Goethe Institute but this was fourth-year German and studying it meant spending most of my time flipping through the dictionary. Math was a foreign language in itself. I had no idea what they were talking about. I figured that since the last math I took in Paris was called the “New Math”, this must be more of the same. English (yes, we had to take two foreign languages) was a breeze since I’d just come through Shakespeare, Tennyson and Jane Austen. Indeed, I remember clearly our first assignment: the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice; and the next one, an excerpt from Three Men in a Boat, which I promptly went on to borrow from the British Council library.

Now named the Yom Kippur War, or the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the conflict disrupted my French correspondence studies.

Now named the Yom Kippur War, or the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the conflict disrupted my French correspondence studies.

That year, Ramadan, our holy month of fasting, started on September 28. My long-standing health problems make fasting particularly difficult for me as I become thirsty very quickly. We went on struggling with our two-pronged studies when suddenly on October 6, the Syrian and Egyptian military forces attacked Israel.  One direct result was the shutting down of the post office. And this in turn directly resulted in our being unable to continue with our correspondence course with the CNTE. We had been receiving weekly printed handouts for the first four weeks and were supposed to switch to textbooks thereafter. The textbooks never arrived, so we were unable to do our assignments. Moreover, we could not mail out any homework or test anymore. I must confess that I breathed a sigh of relief. We now only needed to concentrate on our university courses.

Although the war was over as suddenly as it had started, the post office did not resume regular service until January. By June 1974, our textbooks finally arrived. So did a letter notifying us of our having failed the year since we had not been submitting assignments.  On the other hand, the Council of Deans finally approved our petition, while we failed the GCE A level Applied Math exam which we had registered for but not studied at all. In the summer of 1974, Saadia and I took the missing classes from our first two semesters and became regular students the following autumn.

This is how I entered university at 16, despite my best efforts not to.

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All Asians are Doctors and Engineers

That year in the Ahliya School for Girls was not just a year of learning English, re-adapting to the diplomatic life, and cramming for the GCE “O” levels. It was also a year of vaguely wondering what to plan for the future.

I remember trying to figure out what major I should study in university. First, I decided that it must be something I liked and enjoyed. I considered literature and foreign languages, but immediately rejected them. Did I not learn four or five languages without ever taking them in college? On the other hand, many classic authors had never earned a literature degree yet managed to write timeless jewels. So, although I did envision some writing some time in the future, it was obvious that I would not need a degree in literature for that.

The view that artists, musicians and writers are beggars...

The view that artists, musicians and writers are beggars…

The logical path lay in the sciences. I say logical, because if you were born in an Asian family from a developing country, there were only so many choices of professions, all of which stemmed from the sciences. I remember telling Mama that I wanted to grow up and be an opera singer, to which she promptly replied, “musicians are beggars.” OK, then, I will be an artist. To that, she also answered, “Artists are beggars.” I then turned to my third love, literature. “I will be a writer!” and like a broken record, Mama repeated, “Writers are beggars.” Frustrated, I asked, “So, what profession is NOT a beggar?” She did not even pause for thought, “A scientist. Scientists make money.”

Sign found in Shanghai during the 1920s in foreign concessions.

Sign found in Shanghai during the 1920s in foreign concessions.

Her way of thinking was the widespread belief in developing countries then, including Jordan. China had sunk from the glory of the Ming and early Qing dynasties to the ignominious loss of land and power in the 19th century because we had fallen behind in the sciences. Wrapped in self-righteous isolation, the Chinese system of appointing government officials up till then still relied on the imperial examination system, which tested scholars from all over the country on the classics, not on modern sciences, which were not taught at all. It took the Opium War, the burning of the Summer Palace, and the signs in the Shanghai foreign concessions stating “No dogs and Chinese allowed” to shake a number of young reformers into importing Western education wholesale. In particular, special importance was given to Math and Science, since they were what made Western countries powerful. Science graduates, especially professionals such as engineers and doctors, happened to also pull very high salaries, thus proving that in practical modern life, only sciences were worth studying.

doctors and engineersThough Jordan and China were at opposing ends of Asia, the notion was exactly the same there. There used to be a saying in the 1970s that you stepped over doctors all over the place but could not find a plumber to fix your toilet. Indeed, just about every single extended Jordanian family boasted a minimum of one doctor and one engineer in that era when every family had an average of 5 children. Many had 9 or 12. Thus it was that Saadia decided to study medicine and I decided to study architecture.  Of course, she is not a physician today, nor am I an architect. Individual decision has nothing to do with God’s plan for your life.


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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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Memory versus reality

So, I just got the great idea of checking my diary versus what I have written so far. Interesting how those golden years shone in my memory with certain pretty stars, and my diary speaks of other things.

The diary my third aunt gave me in 1970, and that I have kept till today.

The diary my third aunt gave me in 1970, and that I have kept till today.

Yes, we did keep up the habit of writing our journals, though they were more weekly or monthly entries rather than daily ones. When we arrived back in Taiwan, all the relatives gave us gifts. My third or fourth aunt gave me a beautiful little diary book, good for a year, with a hard cover and lined with embossed red velvet and the golden characters Beautiful Life up front. It even had monthly divisions with picturesque photos on one side and little essays on positive character traits on the other.  On top of every page, there was a little quote and a cute drawing. To top the whole, it even had a blue ribbon I could use to keep the page!

My first entry, upon arriving in Taiwan, was about the cockroaches! Yes, my dear little nemeses from Jeddah were here too, with a vengeance! I can tell I still wrote very much in French romantic style then (and in French still):

“August 1, 1970. I arrived in Formosa on July 27. I am really happy to see my family again and my only terror, it is the cockroaches (babarottes) also known as “blattes”, I think. The other night, I was so frightened that I rolled myself well in my bed cover. Result: heart tight with anguish, body dripping with sweat, I managed to fall asleep only in the early hours of the morning. So, last night, I went to sleep in Mama’s room…”

Speaking of cockroaches… They were of the big, huge, black variety. My old flying friend that triggered my cockroach-phobia. I guess they should not have been a surprise, considering the humid and warm climate as well as the open sewers that ran along the sides of all streets and lanes. They loved the kitchen and the bathrooms best, though no room was immune. I thought Papa was quite the hero, for one day, Mama managed to make him mount a campaign to eradicate the ones in the small bathroom  under the stairs. Papa armed himself with a few cans of insecticide, a large tall broom, a brush and pan set, and a pair of slippers. He marched triumphantly off to war with us clapping and cheering him on. He shut himself in the small bathroom and we heard thumping and stomping, spraying and slapping, and finally after what seemed an eternity, he reappeared, victoriously brandishing a trash can filled with hundreds of the filthy little pest. I promptly ran away from the disgusting sight.

lots of cockroaches

One day, I was showering in the bathroom in the evening. Just as we did in Jeddah, I would sit on a little stool in the bathtub, scoop hot water from a plastic bucket with a dipper, and pour it over myself. I picked up the loofah to soap and scrub myself, and to my intense horror, two huge ferocious dark cockroaches crawled out of it. Faster than it is taking me to type this, I threw the loofah on the floor, jumped out of the bathtub, and out of the bathroom, totally regardless of who was in the house at the time… and oh yes, I was screaming too, all the while… Papa and Abdul Kerim chivalrously killed them for me.

And finally, to top it all, I drank cockroach tea one day.  Mama always had a large cup of tea half filled with green tea leaves at the ready. She would brew a new cup every morning and refill it again and again with hot water throughout the day and night. One morning, I was quite thirsty and grabbed the first container of liquid I saw, which was Mama’s tall cup, still partially filled with leaves and cold tea. I gulped it enthusiastically, until, as the liquid drained out and the leaves gradually dried up, I saw a large dark mass dead among them… Well, I’ll spare you the screams, and retching, and spitting that followed… Needless to say, I never ever again picked up an unknown cup of liquid or placed one anywhere near my lips.

Another interesting discovery transpired when I flipped through the 1970 entries in my diary. Now that we are all adults, and not only that, we are all parents, and I am even a grandparent, I suppose it is all right to admit certain things I am not proud of from my childhood. Here is an excerpt from the entry of August 13, 1970. Which, by the way, surprised me a lot, because I always thought I was a very good elder sister, loving and protective toward my younger siblings. Here we go:

My brother, Abdul Kerim, back in 1970

My brother, Abdul Kerim, back in 1970

“… By the way, in his (Abdul Kerim’s) journal, he said that ‘in the past, his second elder sister used to love slapping him, but nowadays, she only did so occasionally, and that it didn’t hurt either.”

Really? I thought it was my brother who one day slapped me and got away with it even though I ran to tell Papa about it. In my memory I never ever slapped him. Well the next comment makes things worse…

“Evidently, since I dare not overdo it. Then in conclusion, he said that he loved me still anyway. That really touched me.”

Dear Brother, if you read this, I want to officially apologize to you for ever raising my hand to you. I’m sorry!

I'm sorry


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