Us, Them, and Watermelon
“That guy in the turban in row ten is making everyone nervous. What do you think we should do?”
“We’re not doing anything.”
I peered out into the airplane’s cabin, gingerly avoiding eye contact with everyone. My co-worker was correct in her assessment. The passengers whose eyes weren’t fixed on the guy in the turban were looking at us, the flight attendants, with inquisitive expressions and lip reading eyes. The man in question was quietly reading the New York Times and was either oblivious or accustomed to the stares of strangers.
“I just told you he’s making everyone nervous. He’s making me nervous. Aren’t you worried?”
“Because the man in the turban is a Sikh, that’s why not.”
“He’s a Muslim. He’s wearing a turban.”
“Muslims don’t wear turbans. He’s a Sikh, he’s most likely from India. Everyone, including you, has nothing to worry about.”
“I’m not sure why I’m taking your word about something that could potentially be so serious. How is that you think you know so much about this kind of thing?”
I stopped short of launching into an eye rolling cultural awareness rant that would have really given the passengers something to talk about, and concluded with, “I just do.”
I chose not to explain to her that I spent some time in Saudi Arabia. At the age of nine, I was living in Riyadh, the kingdom’s capitol, a place where many a go getter American business man with a sense of adventure went to chase the almighty dollar. My stepfather was trying to make a fancy name for himself in financial consulting, so he relocated us to the other side of the globe in the mid 70’s. Our interactions with the locals continuously had me shapeshifting to adapt to their rules, their customs, their laws. As a woman, my mother was not allowed to drive a car. Walking down Jarir street in the middle of town, I was baffled by the sights and smells of the street market, where the meat for sale was often displayed hanging from a line. I would peruse the aisles of strange foods, finding delight in reminders of home in the form a jar of Ragu Spaghetti Sauce or a canister of Stove Top Stuffing. While my friends back home were playing with Barbies, I spent my idle time watching the beduoins who lived in a tent community across the street from us as they took out their rugs to pray in the midst of oppressive heat and blinding dust storms. The first Arabic that I learned was to tell them when they buzzed our intercom that we had no water to give them. It was often over a hundred degrees in the shade, but we didn’t wear shorts in public as we feared religious policemen who had been rumored to beat your legs with sticks or spray you with black paint. We spent most of our time playing it safe, choosing to hang around the business compound where my stepfather worked with other Westerners. Life at the compound defied all the locals’ rules and regulations; there was a swimming pool where the ladies donned bikinis, every one swilled booze and ate pork and smoked and swore to their heart’s content. Especially the foul mouthed New Yorkers. They loved their martinis and pepperoni. I was one of very few children and I was having a ball running amok in this house of hedonism. I was treated as an equal in adult conversations, hearing lurid gossip about my stepfather’s co-workers and getting sophisticated tips on smuggling.
“You should take my bonnet hair dryer back with to the states with you when you go visit,” implored one Boston housewife as she slathered her leathery brown skin with baby oil. “You could fill the hose with illegal stuff for when you come back. They’d never suspect a kid would do that, it’s brilliant.” Indeed, it was.
I had no bedtime and often amused myself at late night parties by tending bar for all the adults were too smashed to do it for themselves. I was having a grand time until one day the hot, stinky, foreign fun train jumped the tracks.
“You are a very good ping pong player,” said the maintenance man. The cleaning crew, the gardeners, the drivers, and the errand runners on the compound were all Arab men. They all spoke passable English and were happy to work inside for the infidels, as the infidels favored air conditioning.
“I should be,” I replied. “I hang out here every day after school.” It was true, I’d socialize with anyone who was willing to come outside to the pool area to play ping pong. The table was covered, so although it was hot, it wasn’t like the pool, where your sunburn started the second that your skin was exposed.
“I can teach you to be better player,” he said. “You just need to follow me to the back, by the changing rooms.”
“It’s waaaay too hot back there. I’m fine with you beating me, really. I’m used to it. All the grownups are better than me.”
“I can teach you to beat them. Follow me.”
He was pretty insistent and after he put down his paddle, I was all out of other ways to spend my time. We marched behind the compound, where they kept the gardening supplies and tools and such. It was an area that I was unfamiliar with, but hanging around with strangers wasn’t strange, so I followed along.
He pulled me into one of the changing rooms, which seemed odd.
“Put out your arm,” he instructed me. “I’ll teach you how to hold the paddle.”
I extended my arm and he came up behind me, standing with his arm extended likewise. I was tall for a girl of nine, so his chest was pressed up against my back. His extended arm behind my extended arm, he moved both of our arms together in a fluid motion, like when one serves at table tennis. Why couldn’t he have just shown me this out by the pool? He put his other hand on my breasts. Then I understood the secrecy. He was still moving his serving arm with mine and discussing technique, as if that part of his body negated his other hand making its way up and down the length of my torso and underneath my shirt. I turned slowly to face him and kicked him in the nuts, as I’d watched a lot of R rated movies and it just seemed like the right thing to do.
I ran back to the compound, my parents were alerted, and there were many discussions about me, without me, behind closed doors. From that point on, I was excluded from everything. There was no more pool time, no more ping pong, no more unsupervised hijinx. It was determined that the situation wasn’t as kid friendly as once hoped and I was enrolled in an all girls’ boarding school back in the states. On the endless flight home, I found the flight attendant to get me something to drink as I wasn’t feeling well. She asked, “Can you explain to me exactly what’s wrong?” I was unsure where to begin as her face was swallowed in a gray tunnel and I fainted in her arms in front of the drink cart. I awoke to a doctor stroking my hair and saying, “You’re going to be okay.” I didn’t believe him. I arrived unceremoniously at my new home, which ended up being less like “Facts Of Life” and more like “Girl, Interrupted”, with regular bullying, hazing, and beatings from the older girls on my dorm floor. I didn’t consider being a tattletale as I had lost all faith in authority figures. As it was happening, I let my mind go blank, as it didn’t seem that fear was a viable option. At the age of ten, I felt that I walked alone.
As I grew older, I met many others who felt the same way and often we walked alone together. But I felt a certain disconnection between myself and the rest of the world, like everyone else had the answers, while I struggled to understand the questions.
I started flying for living in May of 2001. It was a happy go lucky gig at first, certainly appealing to my sense of wanderlust. But that September, everything changed. I returned to work as soon as the airspace opened up and soon found myself flying out of Providence, Rhode Island. The plane had three passengers who all watched us doing the safety demonstration with unprecedented and anguished consideration. The pilots called us to look out the window as we flew over Ground Zero; I was speechless as I saw the patch of earth where the towers once were, a place I had visited years before, now razed and smoldering in what looked like the set of the most horrible movie ever made. As I took in the devastation, I let my mind go blank as it didn’t seem that fear was a viable option.
My carefree position passing out peanuts was rewritten without notice. It became a world of suspicion, a world of vigilance. Bag searches. Shoe explosives. Watch lists. Liquid restrictions. Underwear bombers. Us. Them. Hatred. Fear.
Over the last eleven years, I’ve struggled to make sense of it all. More often than not I am reticent, grappling with questions that I cannot answer. But when I find myself overwhelmed with confusion about the unknown, I close my eyes and go back to the beginning, to a cherished recollection from my childhood.
I am once again in Arabia, a girl of nine, standing in a field filled with fruits and vegetables and flowers. My parents are at some sort of social function and the kids are left to run free outside. Although I am usually surrounded by American kids at school, in this case it’s all Arab children, children of the hosts and guests of the party, none of whom I’d ever met before.
There’s one girl who can speak some English and she insists that I amuse everyone with the English word for everything that she points to.
“زهرة!”, they yell at me. “Flower!” I yell back.
We proceed to run through the field, pointing and yelling.
This goes on for awhile until we stumble upon a watermelon. One of the boys spots it, wrestles to pick it up and says, ““بطيخ”. To which I reply, “Watermelon”.
All the children erupt in laughter and started pleading with the girl who can speak English. She turns to me and says, “They want you to say it again.”
“Watermelon”. More uproarious laughter.
“Watermelon!” I am confused as to what was so funny about this, but, hey, give the people what they want.
“WATERMELON! WATERMELON! WATERMELON!” I’m shouting at the top of my lungs as they all lay in the dirt convulsing with laughter. I know that we’re all making a mess of our clothes and we’re going to hear about it later. I also know that I don’t care.
“WATERMELON!” At this point, I can no longer talk as I am in hysterics along with them, rolling in the dirt with strangers who have just become friends. Laughing the way you do as a child, snot bubbling from your nose, shaking from head to toe, gasping to take in your next breath.