Thursday, September 15, 2011

Culture Share: Middle East - A Glimpse into an Uncommon Childhood

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Margaret McGaffey Fisk describes an experience she had while living in the Middle East as a child of the Foreign Service.

A Glimpse into an Uncommon Childhood by Margaret McGaffey Fisk

I am a Foreign Service brat. What this means is that my parents at the time of my growing up - most of the time my father, then both parents, and finally my mother after my father retired - were Foreign Service Officers, members of the United States diplomatic corps. I grew up in many countries (well okay not that many) but I grew up in the Middle East. And my parents, to be perfectly honest, fit the model of hippies very well. This worked as an advantage for the State Department because they got people who were fascinated by other cultures and enjoyed learning languages. These are all aspects that make a diplomat good, make a diplomat part of the place where they are, at least in my opinion of course.

One of the things that we used to do to connect to the country where we lived is go on what my parents called Magical Mystery Tours. Now, I didn't learn about the Beatles version of Magical Mystery Tours until much later. I thought it was my parents' creation and that they were so creative.

Anyway, how a magical mystery tour worked was everybody got in the car--there were five of us, my parents, my two sisters, and me - and we took turns at every intersection choosing a direction. The only part that was not random was we got to choose the starting point. In our case, this was almost without exception, "the mountains" (usually any exceptions were when Mom overruled, and the inner city tours were really just as fabulous in reality). This meant taking our Range Rover, or whatever off-road vehicle we had at the time, into the desert to climb mountains, visit abandoned structures, meet nomadic tribes or small villages, and whatever else
we could find enjoyment in on our random paths.

On one of those trips - at this point I don't remember age or which country, but we were small (I believe it was Afghanistan) - we found a minaret standing in the middle of the desert completely by itself, nothing anywhere near. Now if that happened in the States, you might think twice about it. In Afghanistan or Iran, we found a lot of these. We explored all sorts of archeological sites that were left unattended.

In this case we went up to the top of the minaret using the staircase that spiraled up its length. We looked at the minaret, we looked from it, and knowing us, we might have even tried some calls from the top. I don't remember for sure, but we enjoyed exploring this archeological site.

And then we went down to the bottom, set out our picnic, and sat down to eat.

Now the key point of the picnic in my memory is that we were drinking Coke in the old green glass bottles, something that becomes relevant later.

Anyway, so here we were drinking our Cokes, eating sandwiches, and having a wonderful time in the middle of a desert in the middle of nowhere when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, coming up over a hill...was an army.

What did we do?

Well, I don't remember specifically what I did. Probably gawked, more fascinating in what was happening than interested in self-preservation.

My parents were not so taken in by the sight. They grabbed all of us bodily, along with the picnic things and threw everything into the car. I remember all three of us were huddling in the back back, the space behind the back seat. Yes, this was before seatbelt laws and it was a lot faster to toss us in with all the picnic stuff.

Then they got into the car and drove off as fast as they could.

This is where my memories become distinct, tactile even.

I remember sitting on the hard floor of the back back with my thumb over the top of my open Coke, peeking my head up to see these soldiers charging after us. They were firing their rifles right at us, and I remember the sounds of the guns going off, and laughing with my sisters as we hit bumps that sent us bouncing toward the ceiling.

Great excitement.

And every once in a while I would pop my thumb off the Coke and swallow a sip with my mouth over the whole thing, then slam my thumb back so I didn't make a mess.

It was wonderful and exciting and marvelous.

Meanwhile my mother was twisted back in her seat screaming, "Keep your heads down," every time we sneaked a look.

It took at least ten years before I turned my own perceptions around when writing a fictionalized account for a class and saw the situation through my mother's eyes. She was not caught up in the adventure. She was sitting there seeing real guns fired at her children and trying to keep us safe.

However, that has not, clearly, changed the excitement and delight of the whole situation, a wonderful day trip into the desert that became an adventure. I guess there's no question as to why, years later when I saw it, I really enjoyed Raiders of the Lost Arc?

I have no idea what kind of person I would have turned out to be if I'd been raised in the States, but the life I did lead was full of wonderful fodder for tales like this, while giving me a grounding in the consequences of when cultures clash. Not only that, but I spent my days with ex-pat or diplomatic folks, the reason behind my current amateur philosopher status.

Thanks, Juliette, for the opportunity to relive this moment, and I hope you all have enjoyed reading something I usually recount in person with gesticulating arms and tonal emphasis.

Margaret McGaffey Fisk writes science fiction and fantasy; she lived with her family in more than one Middle Eastern country as a child, but currently resides in Reno, Nevada.


  1. Great post, Margaret. Wow. What a childhood, and what a window into another world. Thanks!

  2. I agree, Dario. Thanks again, Margaret!

  3. What a story, Margaret! It's neat that such a dangerous experience could be positive for you.

  4. Glad you all enjoyed it. I told the story to Juliette and her delightful kids, and she convinced me it was appropriate for a culture share.

    Heidi and Dario, I have to say that childhood is what you make of it. I had all sorts of adventures, some my parents only discovered in the last ten years or so ;).

  5. What a great story! Glad none of you got hurt so that it was able to remain such an exciting rather than scary memory.

  6. My guess is they were trying to scare us off, but yes, good point. Glad you enjoyed it.

  7. It's quite possible that the structures the author was visiting were indeed minarets; however, in Central Asia, there are also a number of tomb towers (mausolea) that resemble minarets, but do not have any accompanying building (mosque) next to them. That may have been what the author and her family was visiting as well.


  8. Interesting, JD. It definitely was freestanding, but I was not aware of another word for the freestanding ones. We saw many of them in the desert (most abandoned probably when the water paths changed).