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  • My Pepsi was warm. The scarred and dusty bottle had never touched an ice cube. Soda was often warm in Taif, Saudi Arabia but I was used to that. 40 years later my wife wrinkles her nose when she catches me drinking a warm coke.

    "How can you do that? Doesn't it taste awful?"

    "It's soda pop, honey - it was born awful."

    Taif was a small town in the early 70s and the suk was the only distraction I had outside of the American compound. Street food was cheap and tasty, and there were a couple of shopkeepers I liked to check in with: one sold rock'n'roll cassette tapes and the other was a toy vendor. At thirteen I was too old for toys, but he also stocked "Wild Geese" fireworks from Germany, finely crafted bottle rockets a thousand times more powerful than what I had back in the States.

    One this particular day I parked my Suzuki 125 on the edge of the suk and waded in. I stopped and bought some falafel and chased it down with a warm Pepsi. I wiped my greasy fingers on my faded Levis and looked around the market.

    It was a busy day, which was good, and I didn't see the Muttawa anywhere, which was even better. The Muttawa were religious police that went around enforcing morality, keeping the women covered, the sexes separate, and everything on the up-and-up with Allah. The particular Muttawa I was trying to avoid was a grizzled old mullah who had hit me with his cane the week before. I was zipping around the suk on my bike when I should have been walking, plus I was an infidel boy with long hair and mirrored shades trying my best to look like a thirteen year old Peter Fonda. As I flew past him, he slashed out and caught me across the back. Pretty quick for an old man but that's what a lifetime of experience will do for you. There were many things I liked about the market but the old mullah wasn't one of them.

    The toy vendor saw me coming and had my "Geese" ready. All that was left was the haggling. There was never a price on anything; you always had to ask, and each week the selling price was too steep. The conversation went back and forth until I had to walk away in disgust, only to be lured back and offered last week's price as a special bargain, just for me. It was a game played to pass the time and to reaffirm that everything in life was a social contract. I handed over my rials with many heartfelt thanks and stuffed the pyrotechnics into my backpack.

    Just as I was leaving the suk, two young soldiers ran up and grabbed me. Hobbling up behind them came the old mullah chattering away and wagging his long boney finger at me. I struggled to break free but the soldiers held me tight. The mullah got close, his breath was horrible and he was angry. I didn't understand a word he said but I knew I was in big trouble. Out came the shears. He grabbed my long hair and pulled hard. He shoved the shears in front of my face, snapping away for emphasis. Then he let me go and smacked me on the forehead. The soldiers shoved me back into the crowd and I ran to my bike as fast as I could.

    Back home I burst into the house full of righteous indignation. I told my father about what had happened and how much I hated that old mullah. Dad listed quietly, then took me down to the company barbershop for a haircut. A very short one.

    The next week I was down at the suk again minus my hippy hair. Peter Fonda had been replaced by a clean-cut Kansas boy. I saw the old mullah and the two young soldiers standing by a tea house watching the crowd. The old man saw me too and gave me the evil eye. The soldiers both pointed at me and laughed. As I went past them the old mullah said something but I kept my head down and kept walking.

    # # # # # #

    Image of my son... with long hair.
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