Ali Almajnooni: Balls in Armpits


Olivia Arthur, from “Jeddah Diary”: Saudi girls playing with sparklers in the night during Ramadan, 2010. Source:

As I was preparing to pay for my purchase at a clothes store, the salesman touched my hand—suggestively. He did not apologize, nor did he shrink in embarrassment. Instead, he looked me in the eye, and I discovered that his eyes were fluttering slightly.

As a matter of fact, I was by no means shocked at the man’s touch. I have gradually grown accustomed to this kind of behavior. First are the unnecessary, sugary words, the persistently stalking steps throughout the shop, and then the obnoxious, abhorrent touches. Although it had happened many times before, yesterday I was baffled as to what to do. Maybe it was because my little brother, Abdullah, was really close too me when this occurred. He was leaning against the white wooden cashier stand, idly tracing with his fingertips the floral lace of my drapey overcoat coming out of the front of my unbuttoned abaya. He was standing on my left, and I felt the tickle of his fingertips in the midst of my bafflement.

The salesman made no effort to pretend that it was an accident. I was not sure whether he had noticed my reaction or, if he had, what sense he made of it. But it did bother me, for the first time, that my brother had not noticed when the salesman touched me. He was supposed to. He was supposed to protect me. That is exactly why he was with me.

Abdullah failed to notice, but it was not because he barely perceives human interactions unfolding around him as a rule. It was not because he usually gets bored after an hour or two of shopping. And it was not because he is shorter than the cashier stand. None of this. My brother did not notice the man’s assault for one reason: an eleven-year-old boy is too young and innocent to be be in the world of adults, where touches and looks can be invasive and threatening.

Aside from Abdullah’s inattention, the possibilities open to me were limited. It was not a good idea to make a scene. The mall’s security guards were busy controlling  entry to the gates, and the shops do not have cameras installed. Plus, Abdullah would report any unusual happening to Fahd, my other brother, who would report it to my father, and this might cause me to lose my right to shop.

Fahd and Abdullah are both my juniors. My father named them after the two late kings of Saudi Arabia. Fahd, twenty, graduated from high school two years ago and, thanks to his terrible grades, joined a community college, disappointing my mother’s ambition that he join the military service. He stopped attending classes as soon as my father bought him a decent pre-owned Toyota Camry. Having nothing else to do, he spent his time playing soccer, his sole passion. His position in the team as a goalie has made him an extremely important member whose absence is unthinkable. Because my father requires him to accompany me whenever I needed to shop, Fahd began to take Abdullah with us so that he would grow into the role of guardian. Fahd was happy giving me rides as long as I paid him in the form of petrol gas for the car, or by buying him dinner.

Fahd would drop Abdullah and me and then go back to the south to catch his team. We would arrive at the mall before the asr (afternoon) prayer ended. We could still hear the prayer from the microphones of the nearby mosques. Since the mall would not be open yet, we would have to sit at the steps of one of the gates, torn between the blaze of the sun and the cool breeze sneaking out from under the glass doors.

In the mall, Abdullah would try very hard to play the role he was assigned. He would make every effort to look husky. Since he could do nothing about his height, he would inflate his chest and raise his chin. Owing to the stiffness he injected in them, his arms would rise as though he had two imaginary balls tucked right under his armpits. I soon learned that the way to vanquish those balls was to pass by a video game shop. That is why I always asked Fahd to drop us at Gate 6, where the video game shop was located. The shop is where Abdullah would give up, at once, all pretensions of being a man: vigilant, husky, and protective. I always passed by that shop as early as possible during our shopping time, knowing that the buzzing sounds being emitted inside the shop would emasculate him.

No matter what happened after the visit to the shop, the imaginary balls did not return. I became the sole witness of their disappearance. Witness to the benign masculinity embodied by Hulk, Superman, Batman and other heroes in whose presence Abdullah, unhinged and drooling, would abandon his own fragile, short-lived masculinity. It is like the last brick in a vulnerable construction. It cannot be amended after coming loose. It uncovers the very base of the whole edifice.

Due to some health problems related to the tummy tuck surgery he had undergone, my father applied for early retirement last June. Since then, each afternoon, he would walk or drive to an old friend’s real estate office and stay there until the sun went down. Sometimes he would even ask my mother to make coffee and he would take it with him in a straw basket. At night, when nobody in the house was interested in listening to his news of the burgeoning business of real estate on the outskirts of Riyadh, my father would watch television until he went to sleep. Then, he would save his thoughts about how rumors from the Ministry of Housing caused real estate prices to soar and plummet for long family car trips or weekend breakfasts, when everyone was present and unable to leave.

So, this is how it goes. Father would ask Fahd to accompany me while he spent the evening at his friend’s office. Then Fahd would ask Abdullah to accompany me while he played soccer.

Abdullah is in his fifth grade. He is the most sensible among the male members of my family. Because I help him study and do his homework, he spends most of his time in my room. Often, he would finish his homework and fiddle with my stuff. He once asked me if he could wear makeup. On these occasions I would look at him and then look in the mirror and then back at him. I would ask him to fetch a white ghotra and iqaal, and then I would apply makeup to his face and paint his lips. Then, I would adjust the ghotra and iqaal over his head and ask him to look in the mirror. He would snicker without saying anything, and soon enough this became our secret. Even my mother does not know about it.

At the mall, however, it is hard for Abdullah to recall his own image with the white ghotra and the red lipstick. It would torment him, I guess, to recall the time he spends in my room. To recall that I help him do his homework. At the mall, he inhabits the role he has to take on, balls in armpits, even though that role doesn’t quite fit him, a male guardian for a grownup sister.

I want Abdullah to be a man, too, yet a man different from the one my father and brother want him to be. I want him to accept my protection until he becomes enough of a man to notice the suggestive looks and comments of other men. I want him to be a man whom I can buy candy and video games, a man with no balls in his armpits.