Friday, April 11, 2014

The lesson Rihan taught me

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 4/2/2013

WHEN I WAS 6 years old I had a pet goat named Rihan. He was my best friend.
Rihan was the offspring of goats that belonged to my grandmother who lived not far from my family in Madinah. She gave me Rihan while my cousin received another goat.
Rihan was all mine, which meant that he was my responsibility. This is no small thing for a 6-year-old. I had to learn how to feed it, take care of its needs and make sure he had all the attention that he deserved. He was my family. I was his mother and he was my son. I raised him since he was a baby still breastfeeding from his mother.
At my house we had a huge backyard. I had my dad build a small barn to give him shelter in the corner of the yard where I grew some vegetables. During the summer my entire family slept outdoors and Rihan used to sleep under my bed. During the day and evenings we’d play in the backyard. I had a bicycle and since my parents didn’t allow me to play in the streets, I rode my bike in the big backyard with Rihan following me wherever I went.
We both loved fig rolls and Rihan followed me around always demanding more. I would eat half a fig roll and he would eat the other. He refused to stop following me until the whole package was empty.
Every other day I gave my baby a bath. He was one fat, happy and fluffy goat. For more than a year, I did little but play and care for my little buddy, whom I regarded as a family member.
Around this time my mother, who was never properly educated, had finished primary school through adult education. This was an exciting moment for the family and we decided to throw a big party and invite the extended family.
I don’t remember whose idea it was to buy Rihan from me, but my dad ultimately offered SR 200 for him. Now, SR 200 is a lot of money for a little kid, but I somehow it didn’t feel right to sell my friend. I wasn’t convinced this was the right decision, but the adults in the family put pressure on me and I didn’t want to disappoint them.
On the day of the party, my dad loaded Rihan into the back of his truck. I insisted that I go with him. I hopped into the bed of the truck and wrapped my arms around Rihan neck. I felt then, as I do now, that he knew what lay ahead for him. I tried to feed him, but he refused to take the food. I continued to hug him and nuzzle his neck, but he seemed frightened. He was not his playful self.
I had changed my mind about giving up Rihan, but it was too late to turn back. In the desert, where my family had set up a big camping site, my dad took Rihan from the truck to behind a tree. Rihan was crying. I was crying. I heard him scream while my dad slit his throat.
I cried my eyes out that day, and then fell into a deep sleep. Sometime later in the day, my mom and dad woke me up and told me to come for dinner. I didn’t want to eat, but they insisted. I sat on the ground in front of the lavish meal and ate the meat. I then threw up.
My parents offered me a new goat since my grandmother had another batch born. I refused the offer.
A goat is a goat, but in a child’s eyes that goat is something entirely different. A pet, yes, but often another member of the family. Pets teach children responsibility, but it also teaches a child love.
I was put in a position to make a decision that I was entirely unprepared to take, but I can’t really blame my parents for what happened. Adults often do not realize the importance children attach to animals and how vital animals are in a child’s small world.
When I was 12 years old, our family moved to another apartment. I owned a cat at that time, and my mother told me I couldn’t take it to our new home. I left the cat behind with regret, but it didn’t hurt the way I had lost Rihan because I always felt that I was a party to his death and suffered guilt as a consequence.
My brother, who lives in the United States, recently complained to me that my 4-year-old niece is cluttering up their apartment with too many belongings. He sent me a photo of my niece’s dolls, clothing and toys piled high in the corner of her bedroom. He asked whether he should move the stuff to the closet and throw out the worthless things.
Absolutely not, I said. They were her things and her world. It was not a decision an adult should make because he had no idea what importance she attached to certain things. Only she would know, and as a preschooler she was not likely to share with her parents what she considered her most cherished possessions.
My niece now begs my brother for a cat. He refused her, but I’m thinking that when she returns to Saudi Arabia, her aunt might just get her that cat.
I owe it to the memory of Rihan.

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