From the short series, “A Failed Adventure”
When ten o’clock struck, I stepped out of my house and back into the winding narrow streets of the Old City, determined to find the blankets I had spent the last 5 years dreaming about. I had with me, also, a list of names: people back home for whom I needed to buy gifts. From my apartment, I took the long route back to Souq Al-Hamidiyya so that I could walk by the section of the market where local handicrafts were made and sold.
After making a young shop boy’s day by purchasing 10 of the purses he was selling at 50 pounds (about a dollar) each, I found a small woodcraft shop and was invited—in English—inside. I was pleased to find a gentle older man, probably sixty, inside. He struck up conversation in almost entirely unaccented English about his collection of hand-enameled wooden jewelry boxes. I picked up a tiny red-lined box and held it up, marveling at the red and gold enameling. “I love this,” I said, “its so…” As I trailed off, he interrupted. “Yes, isn’t it cute?”
As I dropped my hand holding the box back down to waist level, the look of shock on my face must have been obvious, because the shopkeeper smiled. “You’re English is incredible,” I gushed. The word “cute”, especially when applied to an object, was a colloquialism I had never heard used outside the U.S. and Britain. “I have to ask, did you go to school in America or Europe?” He laughed with a wide, warm smile that made me feel almost at home. “I didn’t go to school at all,” he said. “But my family has owned this shop for 50 years. I have met many American and British tourists and I always tried to talk to them. More importantly, I always tried to listen to them.”
“And you,” he asked, “are you learning Arabic?” I told him about the class I was taking at the University, and my previous years of language studies in the U.S. “Let me offer you, if I may, some advice,” he said, as I handed him my crumpled Syrian pound notes. “Buy a Qur’an, in Arabic, and every day read 5 lines. Do not read more than that, you will be overwhelmed. And when you finish, you will speak Arabic and you can come back to Syria, and you will feel at home.”
I wanted to believe him as he shook my hand gently and warmly, in the western fashion, to bid me goodbye.