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My father had brought enough for all of us. My siblings were playing around with them and putting them on. At the time, they looked quite funny on our faces. Even my father had an uncomfortable grin. Today, looking back, the gas masks don’t provide much humor.
It was 1990. Saddam Hussein had broken the cardinal rule in the Middle East. He decided to enslave, torture, and murder people that were not his own countrymen. Many thought that Saddam wouldn’t stop with Kuwait. He might attack the country in which we resided. Naturally, everyone in Saudi Arabia was scared. There was tremendous fear of chemical weapons. My father had therefore brought everyone a gas mask, and taped shut all the windows in our apartment. All the unused electrical outlets were also taped. We tried to make our apartment as air tight as we possibly could.
In early 1991, the US-led coalition started its mission to liberate Kuwait. I’ll never forget that one night. I was doing my homework at around 9:30 p.m. when suddenly a loud wailing sound broke my concentration. I had never heard that sound before. I came out of my room and saw my parents leaving theirs. I asked my father if that was the siren and he nodded. We turned on the TV and a statement on the government channel stated, in essence, that the situation is tense in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
We went to a different room where my father told me to get under a table. I questioned how that would help if the whole building were to come down. After seeing the angry reaction on his face, I got under the table. A few uneventful minutes passed by. It was dead quiet. I was looking around and glanced outside the balcony door. The colors on the building across the street looked faded in the night.
Suddenly, there was a bright flash, like lightning, which briefly illuminated those colors. I looked at my parents and asked them if they saw that. I pointed at the balcony door and said, "there was a bright-" and then our building shook violently. Saddam’s military was firing scud missiles into Saudi Arabia. Five seconds had elapsed between that light and sound, so that missile hit the city, at most, two kilometers away.
That moment cleared the mind. There was an eerie quiet after the building shook. No one uttered a word. I was sweating and felt completely empty. Will this be the end? What is there between the building crumbling and myself? Nothing but a thin table. Fifteen minutes must have passed. I looked at my parents and said, “I am hungry.” They both looked at each other and smiled.
My father decided that we had to leave the country. He, however, would stay behind because he had a job to do. We were to be sent to our home country. The airports in the Kingdom were closed. So, we had to first travel to Bahrain via a van and then take a flight from Bahrain to our country. And thus it went. In early February, I think, my father gave the passports to my mother and we went to an empty lot where other folks were assembled as well. We had a few suitcases for ourselves. It was night time and many vans were going to Bahrain. Our journey took about 4 hours. Most of the time was taken in customs. Each passport took a few minutes to process.
We waited at the Bahrain airport for the whole night. Many people waited, for the flight was in the early morning. I was slightly and naively happy since school had been cancelled. This seemed like a vacation for me. Still at the back of mind, I knew that my father was in a dangerous situation. Chemical weapons could be used by Saddam. The real fear of that resulted in our taping the apartment shut. But what if? What if?
Finally, there was sunrise and with it the murky Gulf Air appeared. We boarded and hoped for a safe journey. We usually went to our home country once a year to visit our relatives. This time it was for a grim reason. My parents had decided to enroll me into a school there since we didn’t know when the war would end. I was told this upsetting news after we landed in Pakistan.
Pakistan is a strange country. She is full of people from every stripe of life. Of course, being a Sunni Muslim usually puts one in a safe position. Thus, we kept our affiliation private. The cogs of society are more often than not very rusty. Though, a few rupees always keep the state mechanism running smoothly.
Soon, my mom was filling out the school application. I had to take a brief entrance test, after which I was admitted. I still remember the ridiculous amount of workbooks bought for my studies. I think there was one course that required four workbooks. I had to keep up with four different languages: English, Urdu, Arabic, Sindhi. It was Sindhi that gave me the most trouble since nobody in my family knew the language. The Sindhi teacher required everyone to read a paragraph or more of Sindhi from our course book while he marked your work. I was mortified at the thought of messing up. Fortunately, nothing happened.
The atmosphere in Pakistan was quite tense. Almost everyone had their TVs on some news channel to get updates on the Gulf War. I didn’t follow the matter. I was busy after school. One could buy a coin for one rupee at the arcade. At the time, US$1 could buy you over 20 coins. I used up around 5 rupees everyday on that activity. I would play mostly Street Fighter till my heart was content or when the electricity went out.
Afterwards, I had enough money for a choice between sugarcane juice or chick peas. A guy would be on the side of the street with loads of sugar cane and a sugar cane crusher. A small glass of juice went for 1 rupee, the bigger for two rupees. Another fellow would be on the side of the road roasting chick peas. He had a small bag going for 1 rupee or a bigger one for 2 rupees. The bags were made from newspapers. I would prefer the roasted chick peas after finishing the fights. The choice of juice with a billion flies swarming around the sugar cane wasn’t that appealing.
Manure was all over the streets in Pakistan because of horse carriages. They were the cheapest but slowest means of ground transportation. The rickshaws were the next in line. The cabs were the most expensive. One always had to bargain with the three for acceptable rates. Only the vans and, the glamorous art soaked, buses had fixed rates. I didn’t have to bother with them since all of my little shopping errands, mainly groceries, involved walking a few minutes.
The Pakistanis have always been crazy about cricket. It’s their national passion. On every afternoon, except Friday, I would see other kids playing the game around our building. I joined in once. They hadn’t seen me before and thus were curious. I told them about our situation. After we finished, I was walking back with one kid who, out of the blue, asked me a question. “Who do you think is going to win the war?”
“The US,” I said.
“Why do you think that?” he asked.
“Since the US is more powerful than Iraq and has sent such a large force across 8 time zones.”
“No, Saddam Hussein is going to win!” he shot back.
I didn’t like that answer and asked him to explain his choice. He gave an answer that I knew was not right but my nine-year-old mind couldn’t compute as to why.
“Because he is a Muslim,” he replied.
Our apartment was infested with flies. They couldn’t be avoided. In addition to the lovely flies, we had to deal with mosquitoes. On many an occasion, we smacked them after they had helped themselves to our blood. We slept on a few blankets which covered the floor. The wall next to the blanket had the mosquito hall of fame. Literally scores of mosquitoes were plastered on the lower part of that wall. Our relatives smiled at the morbid work of art since our blood made a stark contrast against the exciting beige paint.
Good news came. The US-led war was quite brief and comprehensive. I naturally stopped going to school. In a few weeks we were to travel back to the glittering jewel of Islam: Saud’s Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is even a stranger country than Pakistan. The first and most noticeable aspect is the overpowering atmosphere. We suffered high temperatures with high humidity because we lived close to the coast. It takes, at most, ten seconds for one to automatically start sweating in that heat. Every apartment and place of work has air conditioners installed. We had three at the time.
The second aspect is the customs form one has to fill out. It effectively states in red that the punishment for drug trafficking is death, and by the way, alcohol is a drug. In the mid 90s, Listerine was banned in Saudi Arabia thanks to this Islamic policy.
The third aspect is the total blackout of women. The religious police, called the mutawa, or mutaween if more than one, enforce this policy throughout Arabia. Women must be covered from head to toe and cannot travel without a male companion. I cannot imagine the suffocating feeling women feel under their black abayas in 500C temperatures.
The fourth aspect is the azaan. All of Arabia has the azaan, the call for prayers, five times a day. The exact times vary; first call for prayer, Fajr, during the summer is at 3:15 a.m. Then follows Dhuhr at 12:05 p.m., Asr at 3:20 p.m., Maghrib at 6:45 p.m. and finally Isha at 8:15 p.m. All the mosques have the azaan. In a typical neighborhood one will have at least three mosques within hearing distance. Before long, the out of sync clamoring becomes background noise. For easily 20 minutes after the prayer call all shops, stores, markets – any business – must close itself. Otherwise, they’ll have to deal with the Mutaween.
Muslims take great pride in their religion. Muslims consider themselves all as one superior brotherhood. The laws apply to all of the brothers equally. My father worked in a company alongside many Arabs. He sometimes spent half the weekends going to the workplace. His salary was around half of what the Saudis were paid for the same job. It seemed some brothers were more equal than others.
The fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia hold tremendous sway. For years they had blocked the sale of satellite dishes in the kingdom for fear of the diseased Western programs and, gasp, scantily clad women. In the 90s, certain dishes were allowed. This was a case where economics trumped the idiotic Islamists. Very soon Baywatch was the TV show of choice in the desert. One can imagine why.
The weekend days are Thursday and Friday in Saudi Arabia. That’s to accommodate the longer Friday afternoon prayers. I, however, used to read novels or watch old movies. There was not much on the TV. We had about ten channels at most. Most of the shows didn’t interest me.
Sometimes on the weekend, my dad would offer 5 riyals (US$1.33) to have the car waxed. The whole process would take around two hours. Once, on Thursday, I was wiping the wax off when there was the azaan for Asr, the third prayer of the day. Indifferent Arabs passed me by to the mosque with the exception of one. This bearded Saudi grabbed hold of my arm and swung me around and then started a mini-lecture in Arabic on stopping all activities and praying. In the end, he pointed towards the mosque and left in disgust. I was out in the scorching heat for a little money and didn’t expect that outburst. I slowly left the unfinished job for the prayer time and finished the work afterwards.
It was summer time. The school was closed for July and August. My dad took his vacation time. We were to visit our relatives in Pakistan by choice.
Not much had changed in Pakistan in the mid 90s. The most noticeable change was our purchasing power. The Pakistani rupee had fallen against the Saudi riyal. I was happy because my saved up money was worth more. However, our relatives were increasingly squeezed by this devaluation.
This time I was among my cousins. We used to play cricket, fly kites, enjoy the arcade games, and even a few board games. It was a lot of fun. My family lived with the relatives for the duration of the vacation. The contrast between the life in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan was stark. Electricity would go out without notice in Pakistan. Of course, the flies and mosquitoes were ever present. The tap water had a lovely odor. No question, it was unfit for drinking. There were special small taps in each house along that part of the city. We would get drinkable water in that tap for one hour every day. Even then, we later boiled that water to be safe.
Another worry was rain. One day, the neighborhood would be alright. Then, it pours overnight. The next day, there would be a river in front of the house. There was once over two feet of foul water in front. We had to go through that to get groceries. Buying groceries was not simple. One had to move about and bargain since prices are never fixed. We had all the time and would always get the lowest prices.
We didn’t have enough beds. The relatives would let my family use all of them. They would thus sleep on the floor separated by a blanket or two. They put old clothes in a cotton or wool bag. That constituted our pillows. We had ceiling fans to allay the summer heat. A few devices and lotions would be used to keep the mosquitoes away. They thankfully worked.
Almost everyone in Pakistan is delighted by mangoes. The mango is considered to be the king of fruits. For my family and relatives, the feast would come after the main course. They would literally finish off a bucket of mangoes. I find the fruit to be too messy. So, I would leave my share. My relatives certainly didn’t mind.
One of my cousins was memorizing the Quran by heart. He would sit down with his mother and read aloud the verses. He would rock back and forth while doing so. His mother had a stick in her hand and would use it to correct him whenever he misspoke. I was horrified but didn’t say anything. Other relatives inquired about my Quran reading. I hadn’t read it. “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” they said with extremely disappointed expressions. My mother joined in with the gloomy expressions. I then left the pathetic room.
One day, I overheard a conversation between my aunt and family. She had come back from a mosque. She told us about a foreign lady who had come to teach birth control to women near the mosque. She said that the Westerners were afraid of Muslims. This talk of birth control was a scheme by the Westerners to keep the number of Muslims low in the world. I knew that this statement wasn’t right but kept my mouth shut. By the way, this aunt had seven children. I am sure that Western lady must have been petrified with fear because of her.
The few weeks with the relatives were memorable. The time came to say goodbye. We were to go back to the land of Saud.
I went to a Pakistani school in Saudi Arabia. The only choice in our course material was the language of instruction. Urdu and English were the two choices. Except that, everyone took the same courses. My instruction was in English. The rooms for students were fixed. It was the teachers who changed the rooms after each period.
Each classroom had two air conditioners. The students in my class numbered from 30 to 50 in different years. Each classroom had 4 to 5 columns of desks with 5 to 6 rows for each column. Each desk could fit two students. Even then, the school could not meet the demand for students. That’s why the school had two shifts. The first from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and the second from 3:15 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Yes, the evening shift was shorter. Most of the upper year classes were in the morning shift.
Not much teaching took place in the Pakistani school. Almost all the teachers simply regurgitated the material found in our books. For typical homework we had to write the material from the books in our notebooks. Such was the case for all the courses. We only copied and memorized the history of Islam and Pakistan, the various prayers in Arabic, the numerous feats of science, and the various stories in Urdu and English. Most of us never learned them. Such was the art of "ratta." Sadly, students even memorized the math problems for homework. They could instantly write the solutions for the math problems they had seen before. Yet, the same problems with different numbers would confound them.
The students did all this useless work out of fear. The punishments could be quite severe for tardiness. Sometimes a teacher would leave for his succeeding class and the next teacher would be late. Meantime, I would do a little of my homework. However, the noise level of the class would get out of control. The next teacher would storm in and ask everyone to stand up and raise their hands. Then, he would leave and bring back a thick stick. He would then go around the room and tell each one of us to lower his arms and show him the open palms. Our hands would be hit anywhere from 1 to 9 times; the punishment depended on how much the teacher liked you.
The same punishments were handed out for not doing the homework and performing poorly on a test. It was this fear that drove me to finish my school work. When I was in the evening shift, I would start my homework at around 9 or 10 p.m. and often continue till 3 a.m. I often committed to memory entire chapters from my science book without understanding a single paragraph. I could perfectly write out entire stories from my Islamic studies but I didn’t know what they meant. I could recite the prayers in Arabic without knowing their meaning. Such were the rotten fruits of fear.
I vividly remember one incident. Our Urdu teacher was once talking to a few students in the front of the class. A few rows back, a student was causing a ruckus. The bearded teacher told him to shut up and he piped down for a few minutes. The teacher called him by name the second time and again he was quite for a short while.
Finally, the teacher had had enough. He got up. The entire class went silent. He went over to the student and started slapping him. The student covered his face. The teacher started to slap and punch him on the neck and the back with each hit more forceful than the last. The kid sitting next to the student got up from the desk and stepped away. The teacher kept on brutally beating the student. The student started crying and fell to the ground within the desk. The teacher grabbed the front of the desk with his left hand and the back with his right. He then started to kick the bawling student. He kicked him for about 20 seconds. He then went to his desk while swearing. No-one said a word.
That was the last class of the evening. The brutalized student wailed all the way to home with visible shoe marks on his white shirt. Soon, practically everyone knew what had happened. A few days later, the same bearded teacher seemed quite miffed. He said that while he was shopping, the few Pakistani shopkeepers around the school had asked him to go easy on said student because he was devoutly religious. That was the sum total of the outrage. The only reason these Pakistanis uttered a few words was because the said student was a spellbinding Quran reciter.
It is no secret that Muslim parents themselves hand out medieval punishments in the home. They don’t expect much pity from the teachers in school. A teacher could be cruel to his pupils for decades without as much as a telephone complaint. These people show such tender affection to their loved ones. I shudder to think of what they would do to the hated kufaar.
A life changing event was to occur. Up till then, I had lived in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. My mind had been imprisoned by fear and ignorance for all this time. The Land of Trinity would completely shatter the cage.