Written by Aleya Sharif Zadeh
Illustrated by Vanessa Bong (Vess)
When I was ten years old, my friend Mansour taught me how to laugh.
My maternal great-great-grandparents migrated from Iran in the late 1800s and settled in Al Emarat al Mutasaliha, or Trucial States. Named by the British government, the Trucial States were a group of tribal sheikhdoms in the southern coast of the Persian Gulf.
After the treaties between the British protectorate and the United Kingdom were revoked, six out of the seven states united on the dawn of December 2, 1971, to establish what is now known as Al Emarat Al Arabia al Mutahida, or the United Arab Emirates. The six sheikhdoms, now emirates, including Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah formed the union that year, and Abu Dhabi became the political and administrative capital. It was also the state in which oil was first discovered, triggering an exponential boom in production and commercialisation by the late 1960s. The seventh and last emirate, Ras Al Khaimah, joined the union a year later in February 1972.
After the birth of my grandfather, my maternal family moved from the emirate of Dubai to settle in the booming capital of Abu Dhabi, establishing our roots and flourishing in the gleam and glamour of a rapidly developing nation. My grandparent’s villa was situated in a predominantly Arab neighbourhood, and growing up there, I was able to savour the beauty of both my Persian heritage and my Arab belonging.
The year was 2007. I had just turned ten years old a week ago. School was back on again after the short break we had for the new year. I was not looking forward to being back to that daunting routine.
There was absolutely nothing appealing about being stuck in a classroom full of noisy boys who were too distracted by paper slingshots to copy the practice sentences Ms. Maryam so thoroughly wrote down on the chalkboard.
Ms. Maryam was my favourite teacher.
She taught us Arabic and made us do all sorts of fun exercises to improve our diction and penmanship. Upon arriving at school every morning, we would all form a neat line in the school yard and wait for the principal to commence the morning ceremony. Upon her arrival, everyone would turn their gaze towards the majestic flag situated right across the yard, next to the entrance of our school building. With our hands on our hearts, we sang the national anthem.
I don’t consider myself very patriotic, but for as long as I continue to live and breathe on this earth, my heart will always soften at the sound of the anthem.
After returning to class that morning, Ms. Maryam said she had one announcement to make. She looked towards the door and gestured for a little boy to walk in.
“This is Mansour, he is transferring here from Ms. Amal’s class and will be a part of our group from now on. Mansour, please introduce yourself to your peers”
“I’m Mansour!!” gleamed this loud little boy as he giggled and darted his way to his desk.
With dishevelled hair, a missing tooth and untied shoelaces, his brief and erratic introduction did not surprise me the least bit.
Ms. Maryam tried her best to contain her surprise as she watched him settle in his seat. Snickers could be heard across the classroom, but Mansour did not care. With an almost manic gleam in his eyes, he looked ahead at the blackboard, pencil in hand, workbook half hanging on top of his already messy desk, ready to get started on today’s lesson.
Before concluding our Arabic lesson today, Ms. Maryam wanted to introduce a fun exercise to the classroom. We all stood up from our seats as she called our names out, one by one, followed by this question:
“What is your dream?” said Ms. Maryam
“My dream is to become a soccer player!” shouted Saleh excitedly from across the room.
“My dream is to become a doctor, just like my mom” said Ahmed coyly.
“My dream is to win the lottery” smirked Khalid.
Ms. Maryam made her way across the room, starting from the back left row and making her way to the front. Soon enough, she landed on Mansour’s name in the student list in her hand.
“And what about our newest student? What is your dream, Mansour?”
“My dream is to fly! I want to jump from the highest mountain and soar across the sky! I want to float victoriously amongst the clouds! I want to go up, up, up!” he shot from his seat, hands in the air, eyes gleaming with wonder, mouth agape in pure gaiety.
Everyone started laughing and clapping hysterically at his comical reaction. I did not understand the appeal. I stood quietly, waiting for my turn, while my eyes followed Mansour’s every jump, every move, every laugh. Ms. Maryam tried her best to calm them down, but to no avail.
Then, it was my turn.
“And our star student of the week, Saeed! What’s your dream?”
I was suddenly conscious of everybody’s eyes on me. My face flushed and my ears were burning. I hated the attention, and just wanted to get this over with. I looked up and fixed my eyes on Ms. Maryam to calm down. After a few short breaths, I said:
“My dream is to be happy. Just like my name, I want to be saeed, I want to be happy.”
Contrary to the reaction Mansour received, my comment put the entire class in a spine-chilling hush. Ms. Maryam looked at me with concerned eyes, my seatmate, Ghanim, nudged me gently, and the rest of the class shifted awkwardly in their seats. Only one reaction stood out between the solemn crowd.
Right across the room, there was Mansour, standing in his messy self, hands in his pocket, gleaming and flashing his comic smile my way.
* * *
I never paid much attention to him. Merely a week after joining us, Mansour did all sorts of things that disrupted the peace in what used to be a very orderly classroom.
Ms. Maryam tried her best to keep him under control, but that only seemed to make him worse. He would jump on top of the tables, forget to do his homework, sneak snacks into the classroom, and slip a live lizard into his seatmate's shirt. He seemed completely oblivious of his actions.
He was the little boy with a needle in his hand, bursting the safe little bubbles that we were living in.
Every Wednesday, my favourite day of the week, a new issue of majalat majid or Majid Magazine is released. In the mornings, by the traffic light, the newspaper boy would walk around from one car to the next, selling the day’s newspaper or children’s magazines and on the way to school my dad would buy me a copy of majalat majid. I’d usually keep it secure in my backpack to read after school, but on that specific day, I was too excited to wait, and decided to have a quick read before Ms. Maryam walked into class.
As I was reading my favourite comic, The Lovely Moza and her brother Rashood, a dark shadow cast over my desk. I look up to see Mansour, orange juice in hand.
“What are you reading?” said Mansour.
“Just a comic. Mind your own business, will you?” I snapped.
“What comic, let me see” Mansour tried getting a hold of the page to have a better look.
“Forget it, don’t touch my magazine with your dirty hands!” I said, and as I tried pulling the magazine away from him, he lost his balance, and the juice in his hands tipped all over my table, soaking my workbook, my shoes, and worst yet, my magazine.
I did everything in my power that day not to glare at him from across the classroom.
* * *
Later that afternoon, as I arrived home from school, I walked past the kitchen to ask my grandmother what she had prepared for lunch.
“I made your favourite, khoresh gheymeh” she said, as she scooped the velvety stew into a dish to set the table, “I also made some kashke badenjoon for your mom. She mentioned how much she was craving it last night. Do you want me to scoop you some of that as well?” she asked.
“No thank you, nana. The stew will be just fine.” I replied politely, unable to contain my excitement.
“Ok jan, but before you get started, do you mind dropping this tefal over to Mama Hamda’s house? She mentioned that her grandson loves eggplants too, so I made a little extra for their lunch as well. Her house is right across the street, the one with the blue rooftop.” She said as she handed over the tupperware.
“Sure thing, nana. I will be back soon.” I said as I rushed to the front door to put my shoes on and make my way over to Mama Hamda’s house. As I arrived at the gate, I knocked on the door and waited for someone to open. I heard rapid steps approaching the door, and just like that, the gate slung open in one quick swoosh.
Standing in front of me was Mansour. Still in his dirty school uniform. He flashed his usual crooked smile and shouted:
“Hey, it’s you! What are you doing at my yadoo’s place?”
I was fuming. Of all the people who loved eggplants, why did it have to be him?
I placed the tupperware by the foot of the gate and bolted towards our house. I could faintly hear him screaming back:
“Don’t you know it’s disrespectful to leave food on the ground!”
* * *
That afternoon, I spent exactly three hours on my homework before clocking out for the day. I was feeling too exhausted and lazy to do much, but all of that changed when I heard a loud, continuous thump on our front door.
Everyone was back home from work, and we weren’t expecting any guests. My lack of a social life meant that I did not expect any friends to knock on our door to ask me to come out and play soccer with the neighbourhood boys, either.
I walked to the gate to check who it was: my grandmother was taking a nap in the living room, and I did not want this ruckus waking her up.
Mansour. The bane of my existence. It’s bad enough that I must spend all day at school with him, why did he have to be our neighbour as well?
“What do you want, Mansour?!” I snapped.
He broke out into that irritating smile again, and said:
“Truce! I sort of feel bad about ruining your little comic book today, so I wanted to make it up to you. Me and a bunch of boys from the neighbourhood are going over to Mama Fatima’s house. She runs a small baqala and we were planning on getting some snacks from there. My dad gave me 10 dirhams today, so it’s my treat! Let’s go, the guys are waiting!” he grabbed me by the wrist before giving me a chance to respond. Before I knew it, I was running halfway across the street with Mansour and the boys, sprinting towards the baqala to beat the afternoon crowd.
Mama Fatima seemed familiar with Mansour, and offered to give him an extra bag of Chips Oman without a charge.
“If you promise to be a good boy, I’ll give you a cold can of Shani as well. Do you promise? I caught you sneaking up our roof yesterday. I know you like chasing our cat that lives up there and scaring her with your shilag. But I worry that she’ll jump off the roof and die. What am I going to do then?” pleaded Mama Fatima. She had a heart of gold, and everyone in the neighbourhood knew that about her.
“Ok ok fine, I promise I won’t do that again. Now can I get the Shani please!” jumped Mansour. Mama Fatima knew he did not mean a word he said, but she was hopeful, nonetheless.
After our little trip, the boys decided they wanted to ride their bikes up to the other neighbourhood and eat their snacks there. Mansour declined because his bike was broken.
I declined as well, giving them the excuse that my bike was still at the shop getting fixed. I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t, in fact, know how to ride a bike.
Mansour and I slowly made our way back to our area. The weather was too hot for us to hang out outside, so I invited him over to our place.
“Sure. Sounds good, let’s go!”
He bolted and ran towards our house.
I told my mom as she opened the house gate that Mansour will be joining me this afternoon as I watch some cartoons and eat snacks.
“What a wonderful surprise! Absolutely, your friend is more than welcome to join. You can stay as long as you want, Mansour! I’ll let your mom know that you will be joining us for dinner too, how about that?” she said enthusiastically.
Her eyes gleamed with a warmth I was not familiar with. It was my first time bringing a guest over, and I guess she was a little taken aback.
“Not friend, just Mansour.” I snapped as I walked in the gate and marched through the yard on my way towards the main house. Mansour chuckled and followed me inside.
“Take your shoes off before you enter the house.” I demanded. Mansour looked at me, confused.
“What? Why?” he replied, scratching his messy head.
“We don’t wear shoes inside the house. My grandmother says, that once you return home, you leave your shoes outside before walking in. She says shoes carry the dirt and pain of the world, and you should leave that all behind you once you enter the comfort and safety of your home, or a place you love. Makes sense?” I explained.
“Nope, but anything for you, my friend!” he winked and laughed mockingly before kicking his shoes off and walking into the house.
I rolled my eyes and followed him inside. This was going to be a long evening; I could just feel it.
After dinner, my mother insisted that I drop Mansour off to his house.
“It’s dark outside, and I don’t want our little guest to walk back alone.” she said
“Well, what about me? Who’s going to walk me back home after I drop this guy off? The sky will be dark then too, mom.” I snapped.
She gave me the side eye and talked between clenched teeth:
“Stop being rude to your friend and do as I tell you. Go on now, hurry! It’s bedtime soon so don’t dawdle.”
She said as she looked back towards Mansour and flashed him a warm, loving smile, “It was lovely meeting you today, Mansour, make sure to come by again, ok?”
“Not friend, Mansour. And he won’t be coming over again.” I muttered under my breath as I marched outside the house to put my shoes on.
As we neared towards the gate of Mansour’s house, I noticed that his pace was gradually slowing down.
“Hey, can I ask you something?” he said
“What now…?” I replied
“That day, in class, when Ms. Maryam asked us about our dreams, why did you say that?”
“About your dream. Why did you say you want to be happy?”
“Because my name is Saeed, and saeed means happy. So, I just want to be happy. My mom always says this phrase, ‘issim alla musama’ which means the beholder of the name is aptly named so, to reflect the quality of the meaning behind that name. So that’s what I want… I want to chuckle, I want to laugh, I want to know what it feels like to run aimlessly across a wide-open field. I want my heart to be filled with that unknown warmth. And I want to do all that with no fear, no consequence, no restriction. Do you know what I mean?”
Mansour looked at me quizzically then shot back:
“I have no idea what you just said, but hey, if you want to laugh, I’ll help you with that! My name is Mansour, which means the victorious one, and I’ll make sure I’ll be victorious in helping you achieve that dream buddy, mark my words!” he jolted forward, pushed the gate wide open and ran inside. He didn’t even bother to close the door behind him. Typical Mansour.
As I was turning around to leave, I spotted Mansour from the corner of my eye, kicking his shoes off before entering the main house.
It happened the following week. I was home from school and since it was a Thursday, I did not bother getting any homework done. I walked aimlessly around my room, trying and failing to find something to do. I skimmed through majalit majid but found no interest. I had already read it cover to cover. I made my way towards the kitchen to see if my mom and grandmother needed any help making halva.
“No jan, I don’t want you near any of these hot pots while we cook. I’m worried you’ll hurt yourself. Why don’t you go outside and play with your friends? If you like, you can invite them over later this evening to have some halva.” My grandmother replied.
I nodded and made my way towards the gate. I don’t have any friends, I thought, but I do have a Mansour. Maybe he’ll keep me company.
I walked around for over an hour across the entire neighbourhood in the sweltering heat, looking for Mansour, but there was no sign of him anywhere.
As I approached Mama Fatima’s house for the third time now, I spotted one of Mansour’s neighbours, Salman, and approached him, hopeful, that he might know where Mansour is.
“I don’t know, but my brother Faris said he saw Mansour sneak up onto Mama Fatima’s roof a while ago. He’s obviously up to no good again.” He said before riding away on his bike.
Lucky for me, Mama Fatima was too busy with all the children lined up outside her baqala to notice me sneaking up to the roof. After climbing three flights of stairs, I finally made it onto a vast open space with nothing but an old broom at the corner.
I saw Mama Fatima’s fat old cat walking around aimlessly, but no sign of Mansour.
I paced the large space for clues until my eyes landed on a pair of sandals, neatly placed on the side, close to the edge of the roof. I walked towards them only to notice that these were Mansour’s sandals.
The sun was almost blinding. I squinted to look up and saw a cluster of clouds dancing about the clear blue sky. I quickly jerked my head back down to cover from the sun’s harsh rays. My eyes landed back on his sandals.
Slowly, I took off my own sandals and slipped my feet into his. As my feet landed into his sandals, the pressure applied released a series of consecutive “pop” sounds coming from the sole. The cat, which was pacing around my far left, shrieked, and jumped, all fours hanging in the air, and the hair on his back standing like thorns. The shock from beneath the sandals made my heart race. I jumped in unison with the cat and stared ahead in bewilderment.
A few seconds in, my racing heart began to calm down and a waft of cool air brushed against my hair. I let out a huge huff of air from my chest followed by a hearty, vibrating sound:
When I was ten years old, my friend Mansour taught me how to laugh.
- Saeed is a male Arabic name that translates to “happy”.
- In Farsi, nana is used to refer to one’s mother or grandmother.
- Jan is a Farsi word that means soul, and is used as a term of endearment between people, to refer to one another as “my soul.”
- In the United Arab Emirates, the Tupperware brand Tefal was very popular in the early 90’s, therefore many people from the older generation collectively refer to Tupperware as Tefal. It is considered a slang term used in Emirati colloquial Arabic.
- Yadoo is a colloquial Arabic term, specific to the Gulf region, used to refer to one’s grandmother.
- In some cultures, people believe it is disrespectful to put certain things such as food on the ground, as food is considered a blessing and should not be disregarded in that manner, but rather put on an elevated place such as a table. The only time it is permissible to have food on the ground is on a sofra, which is a meal that is prepared and presented on a dining cloth on the floor for people to gather around and eat in a traditional setting. This seating arrangement is common in many cultures and is not specific to Arabs or Persians.
- Baqala is the Arabic word for grocery store. In the United Arab Emirates, many families used to run mini snack shops in the back yard of their villas, which were usually run by the house elder, who did not work an office job but was rather home all day. They were run as a family business, however do not exist anymore as larger marts and groceries have taken over neighbourhoods.
- Dirham is the official currency in the United Arab Emirates and is denoted as AED. At the time of writing, 1 AED is about $0.40 AUD.
- Shilag is a slang term used to refer to Pop Pop Fireworks, which was something many children loved to play with, particularly during national occasions, such as National Day, Eid or during the Arabian Gulf Cup season. Children would purchase some from the baqala and play with them in the neighbourhood streets. They were used as a form of celebration.
- In the early 2000s, working days used to be Sunday to Thursday, and weekends would fall on Friday and Saturday.
- Halva translates to "sweet" and is a Persian dessert that is made on special occasions.