From the almost-finished series, “A Failed Adventure”
The next day, I made plans to hit up some of the city’s most tourist-friendly attractions. First, I visited the Ummayyad, or Grand, Mosque. Next, I headed to Al-Azzem Palace, both visually stunning and amusingly entertaining. I was distracted by the long display descriptions, which I first read in full in English and then tested my Arabic by stumbling through the translations. Before I knew it, the time had passed 3 in the afternoon. I headed over to ‘Omr’s shop, but when I got there he was gone. I felt bad for having missed our appointment, but needed to continue my day.
And continue I did, as I went in search of the last item I needed to buy for my family back home. My father and brother had asked specifically for Damascene steel, which was remarkably hard to find in a city once made famous for it. But I managed to find a small shop displaying antique damascene steel daggers and letter openers. The proprietor, a heavy-set middle-aged Beiruti popped out the door. “Come in!” he said. He knew right away that I was an American. He asked if I had traveled to Beirut, and I responded that I had not. “I love Syria,” he said, “but I do miss Beirut. They are much less conservative there. People can do what they want.”
After presenting me with dozens of options to choose from, I chose two small daggers and haggled him only a little to lower the price to 900 pounds each. But before I could pay him, he began bringing out refurbished antique jewelry. I was astounded at their beauty. “Would you like to try them on?” he asked. I asked the price, but he insisted that I try them on now and we would talk price later. He picked up a jade-beaded chain from which hung a huge silver medallion. As held it, rubbing my thumbs over the engraved Arabic characters, he closed the shop door, revealing a mirror on its back.
“Here,” he said, “ I’ll help you put it on.” He clasped the chain around my neck from behind and encouraged me to look in the mirror. I sighed as I admired it. “It’s beautiful,” I said. “Yes,” he agreed as he stepped between me and the mirror, looking me up and down like I might expect from a ubiquitous gay salesman in New York. “It would look even better in America, if these were up here, like this,” he said as he grabbed my breasts and lifted them up to a Whitney Houston-like look.
I didn’t know what to do. I stepped back immediately, and looked uncomfortably at the floor. I had never been in such a situation before and was feeling small and guilty. But he moved on as though nothing has happened. I moved back toward the closed door as I tried to count 1800 pounds out of my wallet to take my daggers and go. “Wait!”he said. “please, let me give you a gift.” I refused, but he took out a tray of rings and looked quickly through them. He handed me the silver and turquoise ring as I pushed my two thousand pound notes at him and rushed out the door.
I tried to hold it together as I worked my way back to the house, fighting back tears. I struggled to get my key in the door before Bruce, my 40-something roommate, opened it. “Well hello,” he said, smiling, before sensing anything was wrong. “Oh, is everything ok?” I forced a smiled and walked slowly to my room, then lay on my bed and let the tears fall. I was already homesick. I felt alone. I scheduled a return flight to the U.S. for two days later.
I slept for several hours before waking up with a growling stomach. I looked out my window and saw the Umayyad Mosque glowing against the dark sky. I knew it wasn’t smart to go out this long after dark, but I hadn’t any food in the house. So I decided to go for more ice cream. Along the way, I passed the Lebanese shopkeeper, who waved and smiled at me as he closed up his shop for the night. I continued quickly to the market for a little comfort food.
The view of the mosque from my room at night
I took the long way back to my house, through the shops, restaurants, and falafel stands that lined the outer edge of the mosque, taking in the safety of heavy foot traffic and the beauty of this bustling city I was both sad and relieved to be leaving. Suddenly, I heard my name called out from the line of an orange juice stand. It was ‘Omr.
“Sarah, Sarah, “ he said, “I am sad you did not come by my shop today.”
“I did!” I exclaimed. “I’m sorry I was late. You were gone by the time I got there.”
“I had made a reservation for us and everything. You did not come. I know that Americans say Arabs are liars but that is not true. You think I am a liar, but I think you are a liar.”
“I am sorry, really. And I don’t think you’re a liar, I’ve never heard anyone say Arabs are liars. I’m sorry, I have to go home now, it is late and I have to be up early in the morning.”
“No, you don’t have to be up that early, I’m sure. Please, you can make it up to me. Let us go out. You can stay up for another couple of hours and still get up early.”
I continued to protest, until finally making a deal that I would join ‘Omr for one drink before I needed to go home. He agreed that we would go to a restaurant near my house. But as we walked, he started again to hassle me about my missing our appointment that evening. When we reached the corner of my street, I stopped. “‘Omr,” I said, “if you are just going to give me a hard time about this, I do not want to go. I have not had a good day.”
‘Omr took my hands there in the street. “Sarah, I am not trying to give you a hard time,” he said, and just as I was about to continue walking, he put his arm snuggly around my neck and approached my face to kiss me, right there in the Old City. “Nonononono,” I stuttered quickly and turned my head. He rushed off angrily.
The decision to go home was the right one.