Storytelling is an integral part of the formation of our identities. The stories that our parents and our communities tell us about themselves and the world form our first map of the universe. At some point, we begin to tell our own stories to ourselves and to others. Tell us a story you tell. Your story does not have to be either true or a story you would think to tell anyone but yourself; but the story must be your own, and its telling should have significance to you. Your story should also be significant to a listener who might tell a story about you.
France is a European fusion of culture, claiming diversely mastered specialties in its many regions and provinces. Crpes, dentelle Bretonne, languedoc, and fromages-mania are all constituent to this cultural synthesis, until you come down to Marseille. Of all things to be celebrated for, what is their specialty? “Les histories Marseillaises”, or “tall tales”. As it is told, the people of Marseille are notorious for their especially keen powers of exaggeration-sort of like me. I contest, minor embellishment must find its way in several stories I tell for audience appeal (as long as such embellishment remains consistent!). Whenever I tell this particular one though, I start off by saying “the story I shall tell you in itself is too colorfully absurd to require any ornamentation. This is exactly how it happened”:Five years ago, when I was about twelve or thirteen, still on the steps of teenagehood in Saudi Arabia, the whole family decided to go shopping at the gaudiest of places to buy anything in Riyadh! This little center had a good hardware store, and an adjacent clothes shop where you can buy anything for about a tenth of the price! Calvin Klein becomes Calvin Clein, GAP BAP, Lacoste Locaste, and several such pirated variations. My parents decided to go to the hardware shop, and told me that I could stay at the clothes shop alone. What freedom! A statement of my maturity, my independence! I went in and casually browsed through the items. Such nonchalance I felt, such joviality. Simultaneously, good thoughts gyrated the edges of my brain: I had great friends, a great school life, good grades, great family…I had the teenage dream…until I turned around. “Intah ya walah” screamed someone behind me. I turned to find that the proprietor of this voice was an overbearing man wearing the traditional Saudi thobe and ghutra, but with some black skinned coating with golden embroidery over his corpulent being, screaming muffled commands at me through his deviously twisted and untamed beard. To his sides were two policemen, awaiting their command to action. Now, mind you, I am Lebanese, and I do speak Arabic-but Saudi Arabic is so much more different than any Arabic I had heard! I could not discern one word the man was saying, until he got to the last sentence: “Yalla 3al gims”-“You’re coming with us to the gims”. “Gims” was the mispronounced GMC truck, thought to be a one-word acronym. Instantly, I knew who this man was. A matawah-a religious official with unchecked authority out to impose his interpretation of Islam on the world, with a stick. I had heard horrible tales of boys being whipped in these preferred matawah “gims” vehicles, and other such abuses. I shuddered in fear and trepidation. I had held my arm so close to my body in panic that the six shirts that I had casually draped over my arm became an attached, sweaty, crumpled mass appendage of my lower side. What law had I infringed upon to deserve this punishment? So I asked, trembling, and making an enormous effort to be understood. His stick rose and hit my shorts. My shorts?! That was my infraction?! I could not wear shorts?! My mind was in a panicked, confused conundrum: Was I to consent, or scream helplessly hoping my parents would hear from the adjoining hardware store? In an anxious spontaneity, I chose option three: I signaled with my hand for the matawah to wait, as I needed to finish my shopping! What a stupid resort, but it was the only thing I could think of. As the nonchalance that once possessed me and the trepidation that currently consumed me battled over the control of the state of my body, I mustered the courage to continue shopping. As I moved toward the trousers, my pursuers followed. As I had feigned to lose interest in this section and moved toward the belts, they swiftly entailed. The insides of my body were being shaken vigorously. Where were my mother and father?Finally, as if a prayer answered, the pursuing mob lost interest momentarily. Apparently, an older Saudi teenager was talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone, a way more significant violation than mine! This was the chance. I scurried like a madman towards the exit desperately. I entered the hardware store, my temples bursting with the hypnotic beating pulse of my heart. Where were my parents?! I rummaged the store frantically, running around aimlessly until I found my mother. I quickly informed my mother of the situation, frenetically attempting to communicate with her between my gasps for breath. My father had left the store to buy ice cream for my sisters she told me, and he had the car. This is where my friends start crying hysterically, although I think what happens is quite sad. Apparently more than a hardware store, my mother took me to the planting section. There she found a large, empty terra cotta pot. “Sit in here and hide, until I come back with your father” she said. This is material for the movies, I tell you! So I did just this, attempting to recapture my calm. My eyes peered cautiously over the rim of the pot awaiting the signal. In came my mother through the sliding doors of the hardware store. “He’s here, he’s here! He’s parked right outside here! He’s started the car, he’s waiting for you, c’mon!” I lifted my right leg out of the pot, then my left, and dashed towards the exit. Simultaneously, the mattawah came in with the policemen. But before he could say or do anything, my mother had already opened the back door of the car, and we trailed off…Who would have thought that I could have made an adventure out of wearing shorts? Mind you, this is not a statement against Saudi Arabia or its peoples. I have lived here for eight years and have learned to love it. But for a little closure, it goes without saying: “Only in Saudi Arabia”.