Last night I dreamt that you and I stood over broken glass looking out at our ravished city. And when it started to rain you held your umbrella over our heads as the raindrops tapped on the fabric a secret code. “Can you hear that?” you asked me. “The rain is saying It’s not over yet.”
At the bottom of the hill in the shade of the bare oak tree we stood shouting our names into the distance and catching the echoes as they returned, like boomerangs, into our soft, bare hands while that mighty tree, ancient and undisturbed, wrapped the autumn breeze around its naked branches like a scarf.
Growing up, there was an unspoken rule in my household that said: On your birthday, you are only allowed to open and enjoy half of the gifts received, while the rest must be put aside.
The remaining ones would be for future use (25%) and for regifting on other people’s birthdays (25%).
And it’s not just my parents who did it.
In 1988, I attended the birthday of my friend M.S. where I witnessed him receiving at least three Monopoly sets. Monopoly is the “I have no interest in you or your kid” gift any parent could’ve bought back then. And in case anyone thought there was even the most minimal interest in gifting, the Monopoly sets weren’t even the original American ones. They were some knock-off Arabic versions.
A few months later, it was my birthday. Between M.S.’s birthday and mine, I had attended other birthdays and seen other kids receive the cursed board game as a gift. When it was my turn to celebrate, M.S. came to my party carrying a long, flat giftwrapped birthday present. I knew in my gut exactly what it was. I don’t blame him. Back then it was the parents that did all the buying.
Anyway, I ended up with two different Arabic-version Monopoly sets that day. I naturally delegated both of them to the Future/Regifting Pile.
But not before I marked each of them with my initials. Using a very thin black felt-tip pen, I wrote R.S. at the end of the copyright text on the back of the Monopoly set box, very discreetly. No one would ever notice them if they didn’t know where to look.
In the five years that ensued, I attended many birthdays, during which Monopoly sets continued to be unhappily unwrapped by Birthday Boys. And then, in 1993, my little experiment finally came to fruition.
On my 14th birthday, my other friend A.A. arrived carrying the highly expected and severely undesirable long flat rectangle in balloon-stencil giftwrapping. I knew this was the moment of truth. In one fell swoop, I unwrapped the gift, made a happy Thank You™ face, and flipped it around to look at the back (like people do when trying to pretend them loved the gift).
There they were, sure as day, the initials of my name, standing in full salute.
Over the period of five years, the Monopoly box had gone from birthday party to another; wrapped and unwrapped by disappointed children. The box was rejected to the Regifting Pile of every recipient until (because nobody’s parents gives a f***) it was regifted back to me.
This time, I didn’t put it away. This time I held onto it.
This one’s been places and now has a story to tell.
I met Amir K. when we were both 9 years old. I had just arrived to Riyadh and started my new school, and he was among the first friends I made.
Amir K. was an American Iranian kid who loved comic books. The comics he read weren’t for kids though. They had some pretty adult material.
I learned a few new things from Amir. Things I was going to learn at some point anyway, but ideally much later in life.
One day in April of that year, I learned a new concept from Amir. As always, I went home excited to share with my parents what happened at school that day.
I remember the scene: It was evening. My father was seated at the computer typing some document. My mother was on the sofa next to his desk, watching TV.
I walked up to the living room where everyone was, and, very calmly and matter-of-factly, shared my new knowledge.
“A man has a dck. A woman has a pssy. When you put them together, it’s called f*cking. And that’s how babies are made.”
I have known no greater silence than that which befell the living room that evening. My father swiveled around slowly in his chair to face me. My mother was staring at me blankly.
“Who taught you this?” my father asked, in the most composed manner ever.
“My friends Amir K.” I replied innocently, unaware of what I had just dropped.
My father paused long, figuring out his next move in this delicate situation. After what felt like an eternity, he said: “I don’t want you to invite Amir to your birthday party.” My party was next month.
Knowing that the conversation was over, I went back to my room and nothing was ever mentioned of this incident ever again.
When I was Rakan’s age, my dad took me to the Jeddah waterfront for some father-son time.
The sun was setting, the weather was cool, and the Red Sea waves flirted with the shore.
In my hand was a cup of Balila, a local street food composed of boiled chickpeas, diced pickles, hotsauce, salt and cumin. The layered flavors of it still make my mouth water to this day.
After I scarfed it down with the small white plastic spoon, we walked together along the promenade and returned to the car. By then, the sun had set and it was getting dark. As we approached the car, my father reached into his pockets for his car keys and realized that he’d left them in the car. We were locked out.
After a few moments of cursing, some of which were new to my ear, he came up with a plan. He grabbed a heavy rock from the ground and smashed the back window. Not the main window, but the smaller triangular one at the very edge of the door, surely to minimize the damage and repair costs later.
He reached in with his arm, unlocked the back door, and climbed into the car for his keys. A few moments later I was seated in the back next to the perfectly shattered glass shards, watching them glimmer under the orange street lamps all the way home.
I was in awe. That was the most bad-ass thing I’d ever seen my father do. I remember thinking “wow, my dad is such a hero!” and couldn’t wait to get home and tell my mom about it!
I wonder if my kids will ever consider me to be a bad-ass. And I wonder what their “my father is such a hero” story will be.
All morning I watched a thin arm of sunlight pick its path between branches until it finally rested its warm fingers on your leg.
Then I gazed into the perspiration glistening on your thighs until I saw visions of your future: You have beautiful children.
And while you sunbathed, I connected all your moles with invisible lines then colored in all the animals it revealed on your skin. And now that I’ve named every freckle on your face I can get up to fold the laundry.