Memoir Part 3: Idols, Khor Fakkan, and Fujairah

We learnt Islam in schools from Kindergarten.  We memorized the short Surahs (chapters of Quran) and recited them like Christmas carols.  We heard short stories of the prophets and day dreamed about them.  And we studied the Seerah (personal history) of the Prophet at a very young age and it was our bed times stories or in some cases, fantasies.

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The story of Prophet Ibrahim destroying idols and leaving the ax on the biggest idol was depicted by illustrations such as this in children’s book.

One of these short stories is the story of prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and how he destroyed the idols of his people during their festival, in which he pretended to be sick to be left behind.  Another story was the Prophet (the prophet here forth will mean Prophet Mohamad) destroying the idols surrounding Kaaba after the “Opening of Mecca” (the word opening – fateh in Arabic – is used for Islamic major conquest).

 

You have to be a son of a United Arab Emirates native male to be considered an Emiraty or to have the UAE citizenship.  An Emirati mother won’t do, nor is being born there.  It is a tribal society with all the pride and prejudice that come with its definition. Only about 11% of the country’s population are Emiratis.  The majority actually (0ver 50%) are a working class South Asian … that is Indian, Pakistani, Bangali, Afghani, and others.   We as foreigner Arabs were called “expatriates”. Most Emaratis and expatriates had servants, and so did we.  We had a servant whose name was Leila, from Sri Lanka.  In my opinion, it was just a modern form of slavery.  The abuse of human rights inscripted in the work contracts for those servants is shocking, although the economic value to them is great. 

 

At any case, Leila was a hindu, and I walked to her room with my brother Moe when in Ajman when I was about 7 years old, and found her kneeling down to one of the african antique wood sculptures my mom bought for our living room. She was practicing her religion, but given my little child indoctrination about idol worshipping infidels, and the influence of all the “idol destroying” heroes of my childhood, add to that a lack of education about tolerance, I found it an opportunity to do what Prophet Ibrahim did, and me and my brother Moe attacked the idols and smashed them across the wall, destroying them, and shouting “ALLAHU AKBAAAR”.

 

Leila cried, probably not because of our blasphemous act, but maybe because she thought she will get in trouble. My parents had a confidential talk with her. But then,   we had a good traditional warm from the oven slipper beating (Arabs don’t use grounding as punishment)  by our Mom for destroying her living room ornaments.  

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In 1982-1983,  a new branch of National Bank of Abu Dhabi was opening in a small village called Khorfakkan, and my father was promoted to be a branch president and requested to move to it.  A very important chapter of my childhood started in this small city surrounded and pushed by mountains into the dark blue of the Gulf of Oman.  I was moving to Grade 2, and my brother Moe was entering kindergarten.  There were no private schools in Khorfakkan.  The closest city with a private school (25 minutes drive) was Fujairah.  The tales of two cities unknown to most humans at that time started for me and my brother Moe.

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Memoir Part 2: Jesus, WOW, and Ajman

With a look of despair, Jesus looked down at me from his big wooden cross that was

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Abu Dhabi Rosary School Sisters

mounted on the wall next to the principal’s office at the Rosary School in Abu Dhabi. That was my first encounter with Christianity.  My parents, wanting to give me a better education, enlisted me for Kindergarten in 1980, into a catholic school that was known for its rigorous education.  The headmaster was a Lebanese nun, so my parents–being Lebanese themselves–got along really well with her.  I don’t recall anything afterwards except bleeding from my ear.

Oh, you want to know about that?! Ok, so at this point, this will turn PG-13, so if you have any children around, stop reading aloud (it would actually be weird if you are doing so!). Here is the story: I did something wrong.  I wrote the letter WOW in Arabic from bottom up (Yes! We do have a letter WOW in Arabic, and we also have a letter YAA!!!!, but you will never learn these cool letters because they come after the letters KKHAAA and TDHAAAD and GHghayn so you will probably give up early on in the Arabic alphabet before you get to them).  Apparently, there was an international agreement that I missed  that resolved to

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Rosary School in the 80’s

write  the WOW from top to bottom. I was called to the blackboard. I think that was the first public performance in my life.  After I finished writing the WOW, the teacher stared at me in anger! She fumed! I couldn’t understand why.  It is the first letter of my name, so I was sure I wrote the right letter.  –  She came up to me and snatched my ear with her fingers, pulled, twisted, and squeezed with the all the might that the Lord Jesus Christ has bestowed upon her.  Her fingernail went into my flesh and I bled.  Well, now I write my WOW from top to bottom, so well done Sister!  My father actually came to school and all I remember is his stance at the door with his black suit and his manly full moustache next to the headmaster, while the teacher apologized to me in front of the class.  I don’t know which experience was more traumatizing to me: the public ear-pinching or the public apology of my teacher who will continue to teach me for the rest of the year in humiliation!

As a branch manager of the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, a newly expanding government bank in a newly formed country (1973 was the formation of the United Arab Emirates), my father had to move a lot, accepting promotions and managing new branches.

In 1981, we moved.

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Sand and beach … that is what fills my early childhood memories in a place called Ajman.  Amidst  that canvas of sand and salty beach under the scorching sun, I can barely recall other memories. They are all happy images of playing on the beach between the sand and the sun. I went to the Ajman Model Elementary School in first grade.  I recall nothing from the school, except my box of pencils and instruments that had the Arab World map on it.

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You see, we were raised with the notion that all  of the Arab World was one world which we were the citizens of. We have been submerged into concepts of Pan-Arabism and Islamic identity from childhood, and this was the way in which we perceived the world.  This ideal happy vision of one Arab world, with no borders,  intertwined itself like a vines over our innocence.  Both chattered together once we were at an age that required a passport.

Wait, I have a memory that I think I should not skip: of when I broke the idols and shouted “Allahu Akbar”.  Here is the story.

Memoir part 1: Electra, Blondes, and Snapchat

Electra …. My parents were living on a street called Electra when I was born in Abu Dhabi in the winter of 1976. Well, there is no such thing as winter if you are living the United Arab Emirates, but for the UAE residents, if  you are not getting a heat stroke, then it is probably Winter. The street name is probably the only memory I have kept from my parents talking about my birth.  It was, and still an interesting name to me.  Sounds electronic, psychedelic, minimalist, and perhaps little erotic. A kind of prolific name for my future. Electra is definitely not Arabic … and if it was a girl, it would be probably a blonde thin girl that looks like emmm… perhaps Uma Thurman.  

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There is a completely different stereotype of a blonde in the Middle East and a blonde in the U.S.  While, and I completely disagree with it, nevertheless I see the humor in it; The blonde in the US is a reference for that over privileged, unintelligent, blatantly stupid, overly confident, white girl.  In the Middle East, it is a reference for the Western beautiful classy sexy and clean, yes clean, woman.  There is an irrational obsession with love of blondes among my people in the Middle East. Although the contrast is high when you place a blonde, lets say next to Abdulrazak, a Bedouin friend of mine … but you rarely see it happen.  It remains a fantasy for the vast majority of the dreaming teenagers of Arabia.  People are always fascinated with the less familiar.

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I don’t remember much of my first 5 years old naturally … and recording a video at that time was something that only the TV station had a capability of doing.  If you could afford the heavy machine that is the video recorder at that time, you would have to pay a lot for it, carry it on your shoulder like a bazooka, and it will break soon… believe me … it will break.  I say that to the privileged Snapchat generation today who have no value given to the recorded media (hence it disappears in 24 hours forever).  The memory of their lives is what they preserve in form of videos and photos, and their brain memory will not keep up with time, and there is a value in one’s history and background.  Many of what we experience during our lives have its roots in our history and childhood, and sometimes it takes reflecting back all the way to understand ourselves today.  Well … just when taking videos and photos became readily available, kids now are choosing to take photos only that disappear.  Hence, if you ask a teenager today about any of his or her childhood pictures … they probably have none  … unless their parents have Facebook!  I will probably come back to hate more on Snapchat later on.  For now, let’s jump to the 80’s.