The Monopoly set

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.

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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.

The big news

Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

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.


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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.

The sunbather — a meditation

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.

The megaphone

Photo by Oleg Laptev on Unsplash

In the next few days I will turn 41. Before I do, I leave you with this story from my 40s, and it happened only last week:

Shortly after the lockdown was lifted, I took the boys to grab a drive-thru from McDonald’s and eat it on the grass by an artificial lake. There aren’t many other options outside the house at the moment for their age.

They each ordered a Happy Meal and received the same toy: A small plastic megaphone with a built-in metal coil that gives your voice an echo. They loved it. Leil was the first to give his a try. “Let’s get this party started!” his voice boomed through the megaphone. The funny line comes from a cartoon he’s been watching daily for weeks now.

After they finished their meal, we head back home and I hung out with Rakan in bed, trying to get him to take a nap. He brought his megaphone. Not a good idea.

While rest, I suddenly felt the urge to fart, so I asked him to give me the megaphone and farted into it, creating a loud bellowing sound that cracked my son up. He’s 5. It’s so gratifying to crack up a child, even if it’s with immature bodily sounds.

As soon as he had finished laughing, I shouted into the megaphone. “Let’s get this FARTY started!” He rolled over in other fit of laughter.

A side effect of aging is that fart jokes will not make my kids laugh forever. The day will come where the boys will groan at my antics and feel embarrassed by my dad jokes. So while I can still make them laugh, I will do whatever it takes.

So, here’s to turning FARTY one!

Where I hide behind books

Summers in Riyadh were not very eventful. We lived in a gated 2-storey building with its own pool, so really all I could do was swim a few hours a day. As for the rest of the day, to avoid the boredom, I would read.

I would read. That sounds so cool and sophisticated, no? But I didn’t read like that. Nope.

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My father had a 1973 edition of the Merriam Webster dictionary. I read that. I would start at the preface and read it, word by word, page by page, to the end of the appendices. Every summer for 4 summers.

Then we moved to Jordan. I started Grade 10.

It was easy to pick on me: Everyone knew everyone since they were kids. I was new, Lebanese, spoke English, and had all the vocabulary. And I didn’t feel the need to prove my manhood by fighting.

After the first few weeks, I learned that I cannot escape the mockery in class but I could avoid the playground bullying by hiding in the library. So I did. I went to the library for both recesses. Each was 20 minutes long, so I would have 40 minutes a day to myself.

And since I was in the library, I might as well read. So I started with The Encyclopedia Britannica, letter A. By the time we left Jordan two years later, I had read my way through to letter N.

Looking back, I can confidently say I’ve not been an honest reader. I hid behind the books. I used them to protect me.

The police academy

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In grade 3, my primary school arranged for us to visit the police academy.

It was a wonderful trip filled with many events, including the mounted police demonstrating their horseback maneuvers and, the one that stuck with me, the canine team.

The demonstrations took place on a patch of land that was set up to look like a street setting. The police dogs were so well-behaved and would help locate some hidden items under boxes and in trash cans.

Then came the part that wowed the crowd. One policeman dressed up as an assailant attacked the dog’s owner with a knife. The dog jumped up in the air, bit the attacker’s arm, and brought him begging to the ground.

The actor playing the criminal had a very obviously padded arm, but we didn’t care that we could tell it’s an act. The drama and viciousness of the canine were enough for us nine-year-olds.

Little did I realize how that day would change me for decades.

It happened very gradually. I started exhibiting small signs of fear around dogs. At first, I would just be around them without touching them. Then it got to where I would be extremely afraid of any dog within eyesight.

Then, as I grew older and could analyze my internal dialogue, I discovered a teeny tiny belief that I had acquired at the police academy years back: I was convinced that the police used dogs because dogs can smell your guilt. They just know when you’ve done something wrong.

This lasted with me for two decades. They say opposites attract but my ex-wife was also afraid of dogs. And she had it way worse than me. A real phobia.

One day in 2010, we were walking into a supermarket in Spain. Outside the supermarket a giant dog was chained to a pole while its owner shopped inside.

My ex-wife was paralyzed with fear. She couldn’t walk past the dog into the supermarket. So I told her I would hold the dog while she went inside. I approached the dog and, with trembling hands, started to pet its head. “You’re gonna be fine,” I reassured myself.

Nothing happened. The dog couldn’t smell my guilt (and by then I had done so many bad things in my life).

From that day onwards, I would continue to place myself between my ex-wife and dogs everywhere, or distract them while she passed by. Over the next couple of years, I got over my fear of dogs.

I guess you can fake it till you make it.

Also, could teachers please take better care around children’s imaginations?!