A Somnambulist in Amman
By Michael Reid.
It’s Christmas day and I have a hangover. Last night was feasting, innumerable family names, gifts, Johnny Walker Reds, opinions and laughter. The morning after is spare, simplified, unhooked. Last night was an event and now I’m freed from consequence, I’m just the froth on a wave of nausea. It’s glorious.
I’m sitting on some steps in the downtown area of Amman, under a surprisingly hot winter sun, clutching a coffee I just bought from a man on the street who faintly snarled as I ordered in my poor Arabic. I’m rapidly tapping a pen against a notebook in irregular rhythms. Soon my friend M- will get in touch with details of the resumption of her family’s celebrations.
I flick through my notebook, with all its incomplete images, so many vague yens or intentions. I come across an Arabic phrase told to me by Tareq, a warm acquaintance from Damascus, where I have recently been living, Thank God it is from X and not from me. That’s how he translated it for me. Tareq the Kurd, with whom I was conversing in English in exchange for some orientation in Arabic. I visited his flat a few times, a rather sparse place with tawdry furniture. Red walls. Brown carpet, in places thick sometimes to knotted, in places worn. Very little clutter. None of those objects by which we ward off transience, or in which transience is given perhaps undue poignancy. It may have been temporary, I don’t know, but nonetheless the flat was in the same building as several others owned by his family. Sometimes he entered his mother’s flat briefly while we were en route to his own but he was always peculiarly careful not to let me see inside, twisting himself around the door in such a way that the interior was never exposed. The only family member I met was a little nephew who was often playing in the surrounding streets, and who always smiled at me in such a way as to suggest we were both in on some joke, what I can’t imagine but I smiled back in the same way. It was this nephew that was the star of the story Tareq told me to illustrate the phrase, here figured as ‘Thank God it is from the school and not from me.’
In the story the nephew is on his way to school. He feels the jut of his notebook in his backpack against his back, as if it is reproaching him for not finishing his homework the night before. He’s prolonging the journey, scuffing his shoes, kicking up dust on the road, dreading the stern look of his teacher. He wants desperately to turn around and run as fast as he can in the opposite direction but knows that that way the equally stern look of his mother would await him. As he reaches the school, still caught in the dilemma, he sees a few other kids staring at a notice posted onto locked gates. A power failure means that the school is closed for the day. And so he is granted reprieve from the decision and the blame and the phrase takes possession of him, ‘Thank God it is from the school and not from me.’
A man emerges from a shop on the passageway in front of where I’m sitting. The man is holding his hand in the air just above himself, looking a little downwards as at something hanging from a thread, invisible to me. I realise that it must be a spider. Very carefully the man carries the spider across to the other side of the passageway, to a dark opening into an anonymous building, and gently attaches it to a wall there. I smile and try to make that smile a gesture of solidarity. The man doesn’t notice. I don’t mind. I wonder if I wouldn’t want to sit here all day, waiting, watching, barely visible, if it were possible to remain in this state of suspension.
Almost as if in response to this reflection, my phone vibrates. A text message. I stub out my cigarette and lean forward to read it. Get here as soon as you can. Dad’s taking us out for lunch. I smile, not at all resentful to be sprung out of my waiting. Imagining the feast ahead, the many dishes, the many flavours, I leap down the steps with a cheerful air and head to the main road to hail a taxi.
The third taxi that passes stops for me and I get in. The driver has a lean face, with a quiet air, different to the jowled and gregarious drivers I usually encounter. His eyes don’t dart here and there, they seem at rest. And melancholy. I feel immediately hopeful that this driver won’t try and rip me off.
I have been ripped off numerous times on this trip, when I failed, through ignorance or a norm of deference, to muster the right degree of certitude, the exact counterfoil to the driver’s own. I feel a sort of moral pressure to conquer this certitude and a great deal of shame when I fail to achieve it. Only two days before, on my first journey uptown, I was overcharged. That driver had been effusively welcoming. He beamed at me with that fraternal cheer I recognised as linked to the region’s sense of hospitality. He knew the neighbourhood I asked for but not the address, at least in my pronunciation of it. So we stopped at a hotel, where a young receptionist phoned the home I was heading to and relayed precise directions to the driver. I tried to tip him but he shook his head, shrugged, then spread his palms and said, ‘Welcome to Amman’. He and I both got a kick out of that moment, playing host and guest in a quotidian drama of courtesy. The driver, in the car, then drew me a map and wrote out the address in Arabic. No doubt he was feeling the demand of his own role in the drama. No doubt also he was by means of this absolving himself of his imminent con, as well as eliciting a trust that would smooth its way. He drew and wrote with a trace of nervousness, a hurriedness, but I was too elated by courtesy to take note. So elated that I tried to leave him a large tip five minutes later when we had reached M-’s house. He shook his head, pointed to the metre and claimed a different unit of currency for the reading, dinars rather than piastres, multiplying the price tenfold. I tried to refuse to pay but couldn’t perform the necessary deductive conviction. Finally, I paid half and walked to M-’s door reproaching myself bitterly.
However ignoble the inconsistency, though hardly of an uncommon kind, I do really think that something of the driver’s conviviality was independent of his con, even if just the habit of hospitality. By which I mean to say also, my enjoyment of it was not entirely annulled by the reproach I felt afterwards. Nonetheless, I am glad of this new driver’s reticence, even shyness.
I hold up a piece of paper bearing the address and map and, feeling lighthearted, immediately begin trying to chat to the driver in English, who looks uncomprehendingly at me but smiles. I switch to Arabic. ‘Kiifak?’ The driver says something back I don’t understand. Regardless, I continue, chatting playfully in extremely broken Arabic, telling the driver my name, where I’m from, that I like Amman. ‘Enta min Amman?’ The driver nods. ‘The other drivers I’ve met here have been Palestinian,’ I say in English. The driver doesn’t respond, most likely not understanding. He offers me a cigarette. ‘No, no, I’ve just had one,’ I say, before remembering that after months of smoking straights, I’ve finally managed to find some rolling tobacco. ‘I smoke this,’ I say, showing the driver the packet. ‘You know? I roll my cigarettes.’ I mime rolling. ‘You want one?’ I ask, gesturing towards him. The driver smiles and nods. I happily roll a cigarette and hand it to the driver, who studies it for a second with an expression that I hope is admiration. I beam at him and offer a light. ‘It’s Christmas Day today. You know, Christmas?’ The driver nods, though without it being clear that he understands. ‘I’m happy.’ I smile at the driver convivially.
I am happy. I wonder at it. It is not quite that it is Christmas, or more than this somehow, more than the joy at seeing my friend, the previous night’s success, the approaching meal, or the freedom of my hungover untetheredness in a strange city. It is a happiness with aspects but not provenance. It is also a dream. Later, in M-’s family’s kitchen, dazed, not being certain of what happened, I will wonder if I was there at all.
‘I’m going to celebrate with my friends. My friends are Christians. Are you a Muslim?’ The driver nods. I smile. ‘You’re not celebrating today then.’ The driver, likely not understanding, does in fact smile in a quietly celebratory manner.
We pull of a main road and into the neighbourhood where M-’s family live. With a lurch, almost of dread, I realise that the pleasant ride is about to end and that I will have to face the possibility of an argument. I look over at the driver’s soft face and try and imagine it hard and insistent. I decide I would rather not prolong the moment. ‘You can drop me here, this is fine.’ I point to a gap between parked cars, opposite the corner of the road I’m heading to. ‘You can stop here.’ The driver pulls over. I tense, ‘How much?’ The driver points at the meter and mutters a price in Arabic that I understand as correct. I sigh. Thank God it is from the driver and not from me. I hand the money to the driver, along with a generous tip, and he looks at me a bit taken aback. I nod to him. ‘Shukron. Thank you.’
I start to pull the handle to open the door and the driver lightly touches my shoulder and says something in Arabic. I look at him questioningly. The driver points in the direction of my crotch and says something else. I frown slightly and say ‘Penis?’ almost as though I were confronted with a language student forgetting the name of an ordinary classroom object. ‘Penis,’ says the driver, in a thick accent. ‘Aasif, I don’t know what you’re getting at.’ The driver points at his own crotch, ‘Penis.’ I shrug, feeling bewildered and turn my body to leave. The driver takes my hand gently and puts it on the bulge of his crotch, ‘Penis?’ I quickly remove my hand, laugh, shake my head and, with an expression of amused disconcertedness, say, ‘La shukron,’ no thank you, and get out of the car. Strangely, as if we’d just exchanged perfectly ordinary pleasantries, I wave goodbye to the car as I cross the road.
Turning my head, I see that the driver hasn’t moved, and I pick up the place slightly, until I see in the distance M-’s family’s house, whereupon I drop it again, now out of sight of the car and not quite ready to assume a bright, friendly, familial smile.
Did I smile too much? Did I signal something by it? Did my excitement lend allure to my foolish chatter? Was I flirting? Of course, I am attractive, I think. And occidental, perhaps suggesting license, even licentiousness. An impression that would be wrong but not entirely wrong, just as with the impression of ignorance and affluence that likely encourages the con from other drivers. Also, I think, I roll great cigarettes. Unbidden, the ridiculous Freudian association of cigarettes with penises comes to mind. Penis. Penis? I giggle, then feel suddenly vulnerable. I tremble slightly. Was I just sexually harassed? But I’m sure that’s the wrong way of thinking about things. I wonder what the guy was thinking and where he might be. Perhaps he’s jerking off somewhere, I think. Forehead creasing, I test myself for anger, summoning the image of the driver before me. All that swells is sadness and confusion. I try to shake it off. After all, why shouldn’t he jerk off. And why shouldn’t he make a pass, I think, it didn’t hurt me. I remember how lightly the man touched my shoulder, how gently he took my hand. I look at my hand. Did I squeeze? I’m pretty certain that I didn’t squeeze. Would it matter if I did? I look at my hand strangely, as if uncertain what its participation in the moment might mean for it. I have the impish compulsion to lick it but suppress it, before an impulse against squeamishness causes me to drag the three middle fingers of it over my tongue. They don’t taste of anything. I try to imagine the difficulties faced by men picking up men in this city, the furtive glances, the subtle signs, the secret zones – there must be cruising grounds like everywhere else. I suddenly become aware of the possibility that I could have jerked the man off. A body is capable of doing whatever a body is capable of doing. I look at my hand again. What is this hand capable of? I remember waving goodbye, out of convention, habit. What is it that decides what a body does? I felt so happy earlier but what good was that happiness, if it wasn’t innervation? I am almost at my destination. I think of my friend. What am I going to tell her? What happened, I guess. But what did happen?
I reach the house, assume a bright, friendly, familial smile, raise my hand to the knocker and bring it down.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Reid occasionally writes things in an effort not to dream himself out of existence.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 6th, 2014.