My Family and other Camels

A friend recently asked me to write about my childhood.  My argument was, who would want to read it?  Mine was incredibly normal to me.  You had a camel that lived next door to your nursery didn’t you (maybe yours wasn’t called Humphrey)?  And your next door neighbour kept a cheetah, who would get stuck on the dividing wall, because although it was very good at getting up, it was too scared to jump down.


OK, well maybe I’ve been very lucky with my childhood.  Having children of my own, I can see the advantages my brothers and I had.  Living in the Middle East, the weather meant that we’d be outside most of the time.  Even when the rains came, we would rush to the top of the flat roof to feel the fat, warm raindrops soak us, then madly brush the excess water off so that it didn’t leak through to our parents bedroom.  We were totally feral children, living within the confines of our house and garden, climbing the high walls, daring each other to run fast along them, before the adjoining neighbours spotted us and told our Mum.  I only fell off once, luckily onto the top of a tree, while my friends and brother laughed, then tried to pull me up before the owner (the one we were particularly trying to avoid) came out.  Then there was the junk-yard on one side that we were strictly forbidden to play in, but spent hours exploring.  I was a total tom-boy and mainly played with my brothers and their friends.  Yes I had barbies and dolls, but I was more inclined to build a house from lego or bricks (my Dad is an architect).  My younger brother was highly competitive, so we were always trying to out-do each other.  Who could run the fastest, climb the highest, jump the longest and it would be fair to say we did some crazy things.  When we weren’t at home or school, we were usually at the beach.  One of my earliest memories is being in the sea with bright orange armbands on, and it must have been early on, because I’m sure I was swimming around the same time I learnt to walk.

Umm Bab

Like Ratty and Mole, we messed about on boats, windsurfed and swam.  Then on Friday’s we’d pack up the car and head off as a family on some adventure through the desert to camp by the sea, look for prehistoric sharks teeth, desert roses, or just to climb and play on the sand-dunes.  When you slide down a sand-dune, it hums.  A low, long, haunting hum.  Unfortunately you would then have to climb back up, sand slipping under foot, in the boiling sun, but it was worth it.  We’d experiment sliding down in groups or at different times to make the sand sing.

This is Khalid and me playing on a sand dune. What you can’t tell is it’s about the size of a 3 storey house.

Sometimes we would meet bedouin and be invited to join them for a drink and a meal.  Most of these families now lived permanently in the city, but would return to their roots at the weekends or when the rains came.  Both my parents can speak Arabic (they took lessons when they first moved there, feeling it’s important to be able to speak the language of the country you live in), so they would sit and chat round the camp-fire (well, my mother mainly listened and translated for us if we were interested. Women weren’t supposed to sit with the men, but as she was a foreign guest, this was allowed).  We would play with the kids, a large pack of us running wild outside the camp, not being able to understand a word, but grinning like mad, making hand gestures and showing off doing cartwheels and other childish things.  Children there are seen as a blessing and are lavished in attention and love by the adults, and it showed on their faces.

I recently showed a picture of my school playing field to my children.  They were shocked that we played on a big pitch of rough sand and stones.  Maybe that’s why I love living in the country, I’m still constantly amazed by the greenery.  To me, it’s magical.

My two brothers playing in the desert

We moved back when I sixteen and I think it was for the best (although the sense of homesickness took a long time to dissipate and maybe why I took Middle Eastern Studies as a degree).  As a female, the Arab world is hard and limiting.  My oldest and best friends still live there, but I don’t have any contact with them.  They are half Australian, half Arab.  As Muslims, it would not be considered proper for me to contact my male friend.  He’s a married man and the last time they came over to London and we all met up, his wife was obviously put out that I knew so much about his past and that we were talking in English (she can’t).  His sister, who I’d spent years playing with and sharing secrets with, has married into a very strict family.  I’d have to go back to see her and I definitely couldn’t take my husband to visit her.  I also have the feeling that it would also put her in an awkward position within her new family to have a western woman come to see her.  Maybe that’s me making assumptions.

Would I go back?  I’m not sure.  It’s changed and modernised beyond anything I remember.

This is the link to my Dad’s website, so you can look at the country I remember.


2 thoughts on “My Family and other Camels

  1. What an interesting and magical childhood. Loved your Dad's website too and have bookmarked it for further explorations. Sad about your childhood friends. It reminded me of when my family first moved to NZ and I became best friends with a girl who lived with her elderly aunt and uncle. They were Exclusive Brethren, in fact he was the local pastor of the sect. They tolerated my visits – were even kind to me – since Pat didn't really have other friends, although Pat and I had to eat separately from the aunt and uncle. (It seems you do not break bread with unbelievers.) Later my family moved to Tonga and I tried to keep up the friendship by correspondence but I think her aunt and uncle discouraged it and we eventually lost contact. I often wonder what became of her…

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