In 2008, my ex-wife and I moved into our first marital home. It was a single bedroom villa in a run-down compound on the outskirts of Jeddah. It was old and small, but it had a garden and it had soul, which was all we thought we needed back then.

And it had Linda The Ant.

We discovered (and named) Linda during our first week in the house. She was one of those big soldier ants, and we decided we wouldn’t kill her. We would allow her to pass through in peace.

The thing we loved the most was that ours was a single-ant household. Never did Linda bring in any friends or invite her insect guests to our house.

Months passed. Linda coexisted with us peacefully and watched our marriage take shape. She didn’t get in our way and we made sure not to step on her.

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One weekend morning, I went about doing some maintenance around the house. A light bulb needed changing on a floor lamp. I was one of those standard IKEA lamps with a circular base and an upward facing cone at the top.

I tilted the lamp toward me so I could unscrew the light bulb, then I noticed them.

The cone was filled with dead soldier ants. Maybe 12 or 13 of them, dry and dusty from months of sitting there.

That’s when I realized what happened. We had fallen victims to one of the most sophisticated con artist schemes ever.

It seems that over the months, there had been many “Lindas”. The ants in our house had learned that a single ant was left unharmed, and they concluded they would be safe so long as only one ant was out at any given time.

For months they hid, sending one of their own out into the house to bring back the food.

And whenever a “Linda” didn’t return, having fallen victim to the lamp cone, the ants would simply send out another “Linda”.

If you ever have any doubt about your ability to make a difference, please remind yourself that two adult human beings were once defeated by a group of insects acting in unison.

Magic Luck

It was Halloween and my parents had taken my sister and I to a children’s party  in one of the more popular hotels in Cairo. I was 6 years old and dressed up as a cowboy. I had a hat, two guns in holsters on a belt with a buffalo buckle, and stirrups on my shoes. The whole shenanigans. 

My sister was dressed up as The Pink Panther, whose gender was still under dispute I guess.

The hotel had arranged for a magician to give us the show of our lives. And boy was I ready. I was always fascinated by magic, and this was my chance to keep a close eye on the trickster!

As he performed one magic trick after the other, he asked the children to volunteer. And when the magic trick was over he would give the child a gift from a bag on his table. I saw children walking off with toy cars, toy guns, bows and arrows, dolls, everything. So when it was time for the next trick, I volunteered eagerly.

He chose me and I could hardly contain my excitement. I will get to observe the trick up close and figure it out and I will also get a toy! 

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First, the trick:

He pulled out a deck of cards and chose the Queen of Hearts. He asked me to hold my palm open, then placed the card on it and asked me to close my other palm over it and hold on tight.

So there I stood, holding the card tight between my palms, as the magician pulled out a red balloon and began to inflate and tie it. He then pulled out a pin and, in a grand flourish, popped the balloon. In its place, now held between his thumb and forefinger, was the Queen of Hearts. He asked me to open my palms, which, to everyone’s shock, were now empty.

The card had teleported!

As a child, my mind was blown. As an adult I now know that he had pocketed the card while instructing me to close my palms. Distraction; it’s what magicians do. 

Next, the treat:

As the applause exploded through the hall, it was time for my gift. He reached into his bag but, alas, it was empty. He apologized to me that he was out of gifts. I was heartbroken as I walked off and he, seeing the look on my face, called one of the waiters and whispered something to him. The waiter ran off and returned a few minutes later with… an orange.

My gift was an orange. And disappointment. My gift was a fruit-shaped disappointment.

That night in bed, I thought hard about the magic trick. I still couldn’t believe it. But then my thoughts turned to all the toys the other children got, and to the orange that now sat in the kitchen. I tried to come to terms with what had happened.

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I finally managed to console myself by saying, “Sure, it’s not a fancy toy, but hey, it’s mine. I accept my luck and I’m grateful.”  I fell asleep at peace with it.

The next morning, I woke up intending to have my orange for breakfast. It was, after all, my hard-earned orange and I was going to enjoy it. 

I walked into the kitchen and found my father sitting at the dining table, facing a plate that contained a knife, a fork, the peels of my orange, and a few drops of orange juice.

My father had eaten my orange for breakfast.

The Superhero

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I was having my breakfast at the kitchen table on that sunny morning when gunfire broke out in the valley across our building. The country had been in civil war for a decade now, and two opposing Lebanese militia were going at each other in the usual, occasional skirmishes.   

But this morning, five-year-old me decided that war was not nice, and that I was going to do something about it.

I went into my room and grabbed my bathing towel, tied it around my neck like a cape and rushed out to the balcony.

I climbed up onto the rails, spread my arms out like a superhero, and shouted at the top of my lungs. “اوقفوا القتال” (Cease your fire!) I always spoke classical Arabic, thanks to cartoons; the same cartoons that inspired me to end a civil war using only the power of my words. 

As the echoes of my two words died down, gunshots raged again, but this time in the direction of my balcony. The glass behind me shattered as bullets riddled the walls of our house. The militia were not kid-tolerant.

My mother crawled onto the balcony and pulled me onto the floor from my cape, then dragged me all the way inside. A few days later we were all on a plane leaving Lebanon. We moved to Egypt, then Saudi Arabia, then Jordan, then back to Lebanon when the civil war ended.

I learned at a very young age that some words can get you killed.. But I also learned that words alone don’t cause change. Without action, they’re just an echo. Followed by gunshots.

Young boxers

The phrase “son of a bitch” had been part of my vocabulary for at least two years befpre i first got to use it.

In Grade 5, I was attending middle school in Dearborn, Michigan. It was the only year of my life spent in the US of A. We were there so my mother could deliver my brother. But then the Gulf War erupted, and we were stuck.

In October of that year, a couple of months into the academic year, I got into a verbal altercation with one of my classmates.

While I don’t remember his name, I do remember he was tall, quiet, and one of the nicer, less threatening kids in class. You could even say he was a friend.

So, as we argued over something most likely insignificant, and as the insults began, the opportunity presented itself for me to throw in my piece:

“You’re a son of a bitch.” Just like that, nothing more.

But it struck a chord with this guy. He took it extremely personally and became furious. That’s when I realized, for the first time, that the phrase actually insults a person’s mother.

With his mother’s honor now in need of defense, he tells me to meet him outside in the park after school where he, I quote, will kick my ass. I’d never been in a fight before and I was actually looking forward to it. I thought fighting was easy. I’ve seen it in cartoons and movies.

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After school, some kids gathered around to watch the fight, as kids do. He was already standing in the middle of the circle of people. I walked up to him and held up my fists like he was doing. We were 11 and we were going to fight like a couple of boxers or something.

Now remember that I liked this guy. He was a nice guy. I didn’t expect the fight to happen, to be honest.

As soon as I got close enough to him, he threw the first (and only) punch of the fight. Straight at my left eye.

“Alright, stop. I’m sorry, man. You win,” I said. And I walked off.

He let me leave. The crowd booed because we didn’t give them what they came to see. Blood.

Before you call me a coward, here’s my train of thought as soon as that punch made contact with my eye:

Oh shit, this is going to bruise. I’m gonna get a black eye. My mother is gonna see it. She’s gonna ask me what happened. I’m gonna tell her I got into a fight. She’s gonna ask me why it happened, and I’m gonna tell her that I called someone a son of a bitch. She’s gonna get angry and whip my ass. I better get home and ice this before it bruises.

As an Arab kid, I was more afraid of my mother kicking my butt than I was of the fight.

Ok, now you may call me a coward.

The thing I learned at university

During my Freshman year at university, computers weren’t in charge of everything yet. We had to add out courses manually by filling in a form with our counselor then submitting it to the student office.

It happened that my counselor was a Geology professor.

As I walked up the stairs of the Geology Department with some classmates, a group of Senior Geology students were making their way down. One of them looked at us and said, “Aw, look at those poor Freshmen. I feel so sorry for you.”

She was, of course, making an innocent joke that meant “you have so much hardship ahead of you while I’m finishing up soon.”

But in that moment, and in the arrogance of youth, I didn’t take it with a sense of humor. Instead, I responded to her by saying, “You feel sorry for us? You should feel sorry for yourself. You’re the one who majored in Geology!”

My friends and I laughed and continued on with our task.

A few days later, at an orientation event for new students, we were chatting with one of the Senior students who were assisting the organizers.

“I am finally graduating this year,” he told us. “I’ve been here seven years.”

I remember making fun of him when he walked off. “Wow! Seven years,” I mocked. “How stupid do you have to be to need seven years to earn a bachelor’s degree?”

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Long story short, I eventually graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree in Geology. And it took me not seven, but eight years to earn my degree.

Sometimes the universe will teach you lessons in the most subtle way.

But at other times, it will straight smack you upside the head!

Marbles — a meditation

Remember how we
raced to the garden
to escape
the boredom
of the living room?
And when we
were done playing
they would make us
wipe our feet
on the mat
so that we don’t bring
any crazy ideas
back inside,
but you always
had some marbles
in your pocket
you crazy, crazy girl.

Little secrets

In 1998 I joined my father on one of his business trips. Once a year, he would organize and lead a delegation of jewelers from around the world to a jewelry fair that takes place in Vicenza, Italy.

This time, I asked to join him.

Back in 1998, smoking was still allowed on the nation airlines of Lebanon. I sat next to my father as he smoked his cigarettes and I craved one, but my father didn’t know that I smoked, so I had to wait.

At one point during the flight, dad reclined his sear and dozed off. I got up from next to him and walked to the back of the plan where there were some older gentlemen chatting and smoking. I asked for a cigarette and sat next to them. Very very small talk ensued.

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We landed in Rome, then took a train to Vicenza. Then a taxi to the picturesque town of Abano Terme where my father and I checked into our hotel. The plan was that I would enjoy my time solo in Italy while my father attended to his work.

On the first night, my father asked me to join him and the delegates for dinner.

The touristic center of the town was a short walk away. The night was cool and breezy, the town was quiet, and everything was calm. We arrived at the restaurant, where the various delegates had already been seated. Only two seats were vacant for me and my father.

The seat I ended up in was between my father and an older gentleman. The same older gentleman who had offered me the cigarette on the plane. what a small world.

And he recognized me. He greeted me with familiarity. “yes,” he told my father when he introduced me. “We met on the plane.”

While maintaining a perfectly smiley face, I made every prayer known to man that this guy wouldn’t tell on me. I was sweating bullets out of fear that he would mention to my father that we had smoked together.

But he must’ve read my face or something. For the entire duration of the dinner, the whole 2+ hours, I was anxious, but it never happened. I only calmed down when the dinner was done and we were gone.

The moral is: Be careful what you reveal about yourself to passers-by.

Now I don’t tell anybody anything!