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.
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.
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.
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?!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.