Chapter 4. Taurus Strikes
Zemunke Family House in Lamu Town 1980
Maskat made it across the coffee shop, through the small local market, and finally under their house’s wet laundry that had the distinct stale smell of the centuries-old home. He walked in quickly towards the gigantic studded wooden door that was the front entrance. The door had two sides, characteristic of the Omani culture and each side of the large wooden beast was three times Maskat’s size and weight. Around the door was a large looming arch carved out so precisely and intricately. His grandfather once told him that it takes ‘8 men and 8 months’ to build a door like that.
He held the large crescent brass doorknob with both fists and turned it clockwise. His heart fluttered and sunk as he realized that it was locked - the most definitive sign of him being late. An instant rush of guilt passed through him as his body tensed in response to the fear of what his father’s wrath would unleash upon him.
Maskat could almost hear the sounds of the 8 men who carved the door laugh scornfully at his incompetence as the weight of the door slammed into his reality. He ran quickly to the left side of the house and knocked slowly on his sisters’ window.
“Khadija! Khadija!” He whispered anxiously, as he heard his younger sister’s steps get closer as she scrambled inside. Khadija was incredibly beautiful ever since she was a little kid. Her large plump cheeks and blue eyes created a stark contrast to her dark skin. She was only five years old at that time.
“Where have you been! Baba is very angry” she said in a very soft calm voice. The bored look on her face normalized the tension in his gut very quickly.
“I needed to help Jay with something,” he said as though explaining to her would make it better.
She helped him through the arabesque window, and into the living space where both she and her older sister Asha slept. Maskat was the eldest, but Asha was always regarded as a mature and responsible sibling. The room was directly connected to the common courtyard area around which the old Islamic house was built.
Maskat walked slowly across the niches that were almost transparent and he could see his whole family look back at him. He walked towards the dining table, took a seat next to Asha and the silence could be cut with his table knife.
“Maskat, a man is known for two things: his word and his discipline. You have broken both” were the words his father chose to start what would surely be a classic sermon.
Mr. Zemunke was a strict disciplinary and a respectable Chemistry professor. His job as a university professor gave him unparalleled charisma and made him very influential to his kids. He had a great balance between work and family and made sure he spent enough time with each of his three kids.
He had teachings for each one and never got tired of telling them how to live their lives perfectly. People’s expectations of the chemistry professor always got to him and his children were direct extensions of his existence; They had to fulfill society’s expectations of him.
“You are late again, Maskat. There will be no going out to the beach next week. Family time is sacred, son. If you do not learn how to respect it, there will be no going out again.”
“Jay suggested we take a new route back which got us lost.”
Professor Zemunke had both his hands on each side of his finished plate, and his eyes locked down on Maskat’s face. He kept a few seconds of silence to let Maskat realize how weak his response was, and let his own words sink into his soul as Zemunke prepared for a great teaching opportunity.
“What do Jay’s suggestions have to do with your behavior? Why did you not suggest that you go on a route that brings you back home on time? You are letting your friends run your life for you. You can not be like a piece of paper in the ocean, with each wave taking you in a different direction. Each wave confuses you, shakes your values and your discipline. This Jay is always getting you in trouble anyways. That kid is no good for you. You need to find friends that will make you better, son. There are many better kids in school that you ought to spend time with. Sam and Peter are excellent boys with great parents. Why don’t you be friends with them? They can help you focus and be better at school.”
“But I don’t like spending time with them, dad. They are so boring” Maskat retorted with a poorly concealed resentment.
“That is because you are antisocial, son. You are at an age where you are quickly becoming a man, and you need to spend time with adults to learn how to be one. From now on you will be joining our barbecues with our friends and anytime you miss Friday prayers, you will be banned from sailing! Understood?”
Mama started taking the dishes off the table into the kitchen.
“Yes,” Maskat said in a broken, half-spirited voice.
He barely kept it together as his father stood up and left the dining table, after which Maskat broke completely into deep sobbing tears and found himself slamming the dining table furiously.
“ WHY CAN’T YOU LISTEN TO ME! YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT SOCIAL! I HATE YOU!” Maskat screamed into the ground as though Baba might not think it was directed at him.
Baba looked over his shoulder and locked his vision on Maskat. The fury was jumping out of his eyes. The fury of losing control over and respect from his son boiled deep in his soul and Maskat’s words felt like a most humiliating slap on the face - one which the professor had never experienced before.
He turned around, went to the courtyard window, and pulled an old piece of rubber that hung out from its place as the summer heat dissolved the glue that tied it deep in the windowpane.
Zemunke swung with all his might, straight at Maskat’s right arm. It felt like a live snake had drilled straight into Maskat’s tiny body and he was jolted into a paralysis that made it impossible to even breathe. At first, he couldn’t even find the power to let a cry out and Zemunke assumed the hit was not hard enough.
“Don’t you ever talk back to your father that way! You hear?! You must learn to respect those that are older than you!” He lashed another two even stronger swings with the piece of rubber onto Maskat’s back.
Maskat shrieked and started shaking.
“Men don’t cry Maskat! Men don’t cry!” He was about to unleash the strongest swing of all before Mama ran into the courtyard and screamed.
“PLEAAASE! STOP!” Putting herself between them, she got on her knees facing Zemunke.
She kneeled in front of him crying and begging with her palms together as though Zemunke was God and she was praying he’d stop this venom that had seeped into their home.
The beating stopped, but that day changed the whole family.
Maskat learned that reasoning or talking back would only beget trouble, and he learned to handle his father’s threats and sermons in silence. He would boil on the inside, and keep it bottled in, lest he triggered his father.
Professor Zemunke was a very pleasant guy most of the time, but when he got angry the world would seem to stop revolving. His loud and deep-pitched roar of anger was only known to a few, and his family was by far its most frequent audience.
If he was not obeyed instantly, the rage was transformed to a beating and Maskat was the greatest subject for it, although the middle sister Asha was also given a beating with the edge of his shoe and he had also seen his father threaten his mother before for not having prepared dinner when he was back from work.
Those moments were terrifying but rare. They all learned how to deal with him and to obey Prof Zemunke’s orders.
“I knew I was marrying a Taurus, and so we must do whatever it takes to keep him happy and calm. No one wants an angry bull in the house” Mama would say.
She was a source of strength for the whole family but had a special relationship with her son and firstborn child. She spent a lot of time with him as he grew up and was a source of comfort to him, especially after one of these disciplinary outbreaks.
As soon as Maskat walked in the big Omani front door, the magical possibilities of the beach were transformed into expectations. An expectation to study things he didn’t want, to say things he didn’t mean, and to be around forced friendships that he didn’t like.
Maskat was never religious, and despite trying hard “to do the right thing” and the expectations to grow up as a good Muslim, it never resonated with him. This made it even harder to express himself to his dad and ultimately the relationship grew passive and silent.
Many years later, he would listen to these words from Pink Floyd and memories of that day and that ‘silent’ era with his father would come rushing through his brain.
“There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship smoke on the horizon
You are only coming through in waves
Your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying
When I was a child I had a fever
My hands felt just like two balloons
Now I've got that feeling once again
I can't explain you would not understand
This is not how I am
I have become comfortably numb”
Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb, The Wall.