Monday, 6 February 2017

A Rehash, but Not Hash

I was married once before. My wife, Hala, was an Egyptian– 100%. She’s the mother of my oldest, Alexander. She was mercurial, emotional, passionate and stubborn. I was working a lot, buried in books, busy, and tending to my career — much of it at sea. That combination wasn’t good, and we found ourselves leagues apart, after time. Following an earnest attempt to pull it back together, we ultimately decided to end the chapter, close the book, and move on with our lives, separately.

I’m convinced we did the right thing. Both of us are far better and far better off, than we likely would have been. We are still quite close, we both remain dedicated and loving parents to our son, and we do, now and again, take the opportunity to drive one another bats#@t crazy, mostly over Skype, for that visual touch. She’s in Iraq as we speak, working in the big business of providing Arabic linguists and interpreters to our soldiers and diplomats on the ground there.

Oh, that Arabic language is a sweet and subtle thing. Filled with nuance, history, and the heat of Suns, this language is a challenge on many levels. Hala taught me quite a bit of it, but I didn’t learn as much as I would’ve liked.

In 1992, after grad school, Hala, me, and my buddy Rico (now an FBI special agent on the West Coast) planned a trip to El Arish, on the Sinai Peninsula. It was Hala’s hometown. I really adore Arab culture and especially the people. They are some of the kindest, most hospitable, friendliest, and proudest people in the world. We were psyched about the journey. And we arrived.

We roamed Bedouin markets in the town center, shopped for kelim’s at the bazaar, enjoyed the scent of exotic spices wafting over and within the warm easterly winds, gazed upon the sunlit Mediterranean coastline, and took the edge off our hunger with delectable Nile delta citrus — all of these things made for a great experience. But, as with most vacations (and probably life itself), the really memorable tales are borne of the unexpected, the tangential, and the serendipitous.

On this particular day, we awoke to a hot, dry, and sunny morning. I’ll say we had pickled local vegetables, spicy foul mouddamas, stacks of freshly baked eesh baladi, fruit, and tea; as that is what we had most days. Delicious. Not ones to plan, but to just let things happen, Rico and I, knowing that Hala had some personal business to take care of, decided to walk down to the Med and hang out, just a mile or so away.

But, just as we were leaving the house, Hala’s cousin, Ahmed, popped by to meet us (he had heard there were a couple of Americans in town). So, we enjoyed some more tea, and with Hala translating, learned that Ahmed would be very honored to take us around town and show us the sights while he was “doing his rounds.” Well, it turns out that Ahmed was a charcoal deliveryman. He would pile huge bags of it on his creaky wooden, donkey-powered cart, and drop it off at businesses and residences in the town. Clearly this was an experience not to be missed, so Rico and I opted to not miss it.

Ahmed sat in the front of the cart, on a tattered pillow, holding reins of beat-up rope and leather, to control this very gentle, if lugubrious, beast as it burdened stoutly on. Rico and I had no where else to go but to the back of the cart, behind the 7-foot pile of charcoal bags, and perch ourselves precariously on the stern edge of the platform, legs and feet dangling down near the dirt road below. Just like a hay-ride, but without the pumpkins. Or the hay. Perfect.

Apparently it didn’t matter that Rico and I had very little Arabic between us. Ahmed was a talker. He couldn’t see us over the pile of bags and get that important eye contact, so he compensated by shouting things loudly, probably describing that particular part of town, or gossiping about this or that passerby. So we smiled and nodded to ourselves, and shouted back “ay-wa” (”yes”) quite a lot. I’d had enough Arabic to barely get by. I knew how to say, “I’m hungry,” “I’m thirsty,” “Dark Shadows is a campy gothic drama,” and, of course, very many permutations of swearing at myself, which I had learned from my wife. I was not fluent. More like effluent.

Soon, the clouds masked the Sun, temps dropped, and we started to feel misty warm rain on our skin. Apparently, Ahmed thought the precipitation was a good opportunity to stop work for a while and go visiting. So we did. We left the main roads of the town and took a bumpy track about a 1/2 mile out and eased the donkey down a short incline to the front of a large open-front barn on what seemed to be a farmstead.

Rico and I had no idea where we were or what we were doing until a big burly man in traditional dress came out and introduced himself. He had decent English and we were able to finally figure out what was going on. His name was Mohammed and he was Ahmed’s uncle, and Hala’s, too, distantly. He grew olives and lemons, and enjoyed professional wrestling.

Well, the rain was coming down faster, introductions were over, and it was time to be more graciously welcomed. This usually involves tea, and it did in this circumstance. It also involved the company of about 15 farm workers sitting in a circle around a shisha, smoking apple-flavored tobacco and watching TV. They were sitting on the floor in the middle of this big hay-strewn barn.

The guys made space for Rico and I, and we sat down in and amongst them. On the TV was a BBC production of Othello being broadcast out of Israel. It had Hebrew subtitles. It was overdubbed in Arabic. Surreal.

The gents were very friendly. They asked us questions, translated through Mohammed, and we began a nice conversation. The shisha mouthpiece made its rounds. My turn; all conversation stopped as gazes locked onto me. Feigning experience in these matters, I smiled and tried to project a look which said, “Yeah, I do this all the time, boys.” I drew deeply and felt the smooth, water-cooled smoke surge into my lungs. I cloaked the tweak of vertigo I felt with a hearty belly laugh and passed the nozzle to the next guy, Hamza. Talk continued, and so did the orbit of the pipe. After three times around, my dizziness turned to confidence infused with giddiness.

Oh yes. I had gone native. I laughed at jokes I thought I understood. I talked about Othello and imagined people cared. I may have slapped Hamza on the back. The tobacco was strong. The nicotine levels must have been way higher than the run-of-the-mill Marlboro you take a drag on over 1 too many beers at the local tavern. I had the inevitable, “Hell, I really hope this is tobacco, and nothing else.” moment, but carried on. And it continued.

Finally, as I was looking out the barn at the poor donkey left in the rain, I decided that the entire group needed to know that I thought the animal must be sad being left out there getting all wet. So, in my best Arabic, after ahemming and declaring that I had an announcement. I told the entire group, while pointing at the beast, “Ana homarrah hazeena.” Translated, “That donkey is sad.”

After a pause, the gang erupted into fits of near hysterical laughter. Men were rolling onto their backs, grabbing their guts. Some buried faces into their hands and just shuddered with mirth. “Ah, I impressed them with my sweet linguistic skills,” I thought, vaguely aware that something may have been slightly amiss.

Well, it turns out that, “Ana homarrah hazeena” actually means, “I am a sad donkey.” So there’s that.

Rico and I left after a while, both of us gifted with the best olive oil and lemons we had ever tasted, riding on a cart being driven by Ahmed, and pulled along by the donkey, which, it seemed to me, might have been smiling.

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