On a bright afternoon at the Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, I drew a sketch. The perspective was all wrong: I couldn’t communicate the sense of space on the page, and the stage looked detached from the rest of the drawing, like it was floating on its own. A young couple sat together about fifty yards away. We were the only people there. Even their whispers echoed. When they walked by they leaned over my shoulder, smiled, and asked to see the drawing.
In Roman times, Amman was called Philadelphia — the city of brotherly love — same as where I was born. Yet I wasn’t feeling much love in Jordan. Earlier that day on the cab ride to downtown things got weird. I told the cab driver “Sorry, I don’t speak Arabic,” but he got bent out of shape. It wasn’t the first time that had happened.
I was sharing the cab with two Arabs and an American, and the two Arabs and the driver made weird hissing noises and one said something like “Hey!” They discussed something angrily, looking at me, but then suddenly quieted so I couldn’t quite hear, and gave me suspicious looks.
The cab driver threw his up hands and glared at me in the rear view mirror. I asked the American in the front seat to see if the meter was on, but then the cab driver saw what we were doing and got mad again, saying more things about me in hushed tones. I asked him how he was doing in Arabic, and he muttered it back and shuffled in his seat a little, disgusted, repeating it under his breath three or four times.
Then he wanted to take me to a different hotel. “Better hotel! Cheaper hotel!” he said.
He tried to tell me that it cost 45 dinar at my hotel, which I knew was wrong, and I told him as much. By the time we dropped off the other American at a bus station, things were tense, and I decided to get out as well. The cab driver showed me the meter theatrically before I paid him, and in a loud voice he said all sorts of things I didn’t understand, probably about the meter and maybe even about me. Then he acted like nothing happened and tried to usher me back into the cab. I saw the same thing in Syria and Lebanon: people would have giant blowups, on the verge of a fistfight one minute and talking normally the next.
I walked the few miles to my hotel instead. On the way I passed a military installation guarded by police and army personnel. I was moving in a hurry, carrying a gigantic backpack, sweating and muttering to myself about the run-in with the cab driver. Two soldiers stared at me suspiciously as I headed straight towards them up the sidewalk. They leaned out from their guard boxes, weapons in hand, pointed index fingers above trigger guards. I slowed down to a regular pace, trying to look normal but half-expecting them to train their guns on me. Instead, they just looked puzzled as I walked by.
On my way back from the amphitheater, I stopped to buy green passport cases from an old man on the sidewalk. His original asking price was high, but I haggled it down by more than half. Another tourist, a guy around my age, had just bought some himself and was still standing there. Originally from Iraq and now from the States, he spoke English almost without an accent, and he translated for me when I bought the cases. He said that the old man had fled from Iraq, and sold souvenirs to make ends meet.
Suddenly, haggling that old guy down for the souvenirs make me feel terrible. In Jordan I felt like I was hemorrhaging money, but I was picking the wrong place to skimp. I insisted that he take some extra money, but he kept saying no. We passed the bills back and forth several times before the old man pocketed the money and handed me two plastic covers for drivers licenses to sweeten the deal. We shook hands, smiling, and he kept touching one hand to his chest.
As I headed back to my hotel, the Iraqi-American and I walked together. He told me that he had done a tour in Iraq with the US Army. His brother was going over for another tour soon. I thought to myself how horrible it would have been for him if he had been captured over there. I told him I had a brother who had served in Baghdad.
I asked him why people were getting so bent out of shape when I said “Sorry, I don’t speak Arabic.”
He asked me to say it. Ma’alasaf la attakallam arabi.
He laughed. “Your pronunciation is good,” he said, “They totally think that you’re messing with them. Just say No Arabi or something like that.” He explained that what I said made them think that I did speak Arabic, but just didn’t want to talk to them personally.
He told me that he was in Jordan for chemotherapy. “I can’t wait to get back to the US,” he said, “…to get back home.”
As we walked past a woman in a veil, sitting on the sidewalk with a grimy child, he dropped some change. There were only two coins, both shiny on the grungy rug, and one was his. I didn’t have any change with me.
“There are too many poor people in the world,” he sighed.
The streets in Amman all looked the same. It was hard to find my way in the big weird blend of the familiar — car horns, asphalt, stop signs, air pollution — and the foreign — unintelligible signs, guys with mustaches, noisy crowded alleys. Walking with the Iraqi-American I felt I was closing in on the right neighborhood and I saw a storefront I recognized. I knew where I was. We shook hands and I walked to my hotel.
The next morning I had coffee at a shop on the street and told the waiter: “Excuse me, I don’t speak much Arabic.”
He responded in Arabic, “You are doing okay. I understand you.”
I drank a coffee sitting in a battered plastic chair. The shop owner and I smiled as I raised my cup at him, and he sat down next to me, waiting for more customers.