Colin’s drunkenness, the reward for his nightly surfeit of Guinness, makes me embarrassed for him in front of my Jordanian friends. But I wonder if Mustafa and Khadija understand what his slurred speech betrays? Like almost all the Muslims whom I meet, they take a dim view of alcohol. Yet their disapproval can only be general since they experience alcohol’s effects neither in themselves nor in family and friends. So maybe they give Colin a pass, simply thinking he is tired, and I have no need to avoid meeting their eyes.
He had only stopped to say hello and to give Mustafa the result of a football match he’d watched on television; he and Mustafa share a passion for Manchester United. After Colin went upstairs, we continued to sit in the courtyard below their third-floor apartment. She had come up with the idea of taking advantage of the air conditioner that leaked water out of their window down the outside wall. So Mustafa built a low brick wall all along the width of their apartment and packed in soil. She put in bougainvillea, which the Arabs call “crazy plant” because of its unruly growth in every direction, and climbers which now reached almost to their window. Together, they combed the quiet town’s endless beaches, on which the Gulf of Oman’s receding tide deposits conch shells whose symmetry and complex beauty would have stated, to natural philosophers until the time of Darwin, an irrefutable argument for divine creation.
Big shells lined the top of the planter box while smaller shells and small plants ornamented the hallway outside their door, where the surprising artistic flourish had first aroused my curiosity about its tenants when I went to visit a Canadian friend in the next apartment. I marveled at all their work to decorate an apartment which they might occupy for less than a year, in case their teaching jobs at the private college around the corner didn’t work out. Even in the half-light cast by the moon and by one or two of their neighbors’ apartments, the sudden flush of Khadija’s pale skin showed up clearly against the white background of her patterned headscarf.
“But you see, it’s not work,” Mustafa protested. “We enjoy doing this and we hope our neighbors enjoy it also.”
He is small, trim, pale like Khadija, with a carefully maintained two days’ growth of beard. He makes a fine match for her even with the eye-pouches that I attribute to his smoking habit. As he lights another Gauloise, it is his turn to blush because I tell him that their sons, nine and six years old, will grow up handsome.
“That is all from Khadija.”
His eyes followed her to the gate opening onto the courtyard, which she unlocked for another British neighbor who had sworn mildly while fumbling with his key. Roy curtsied, unsteadily but gallantly, and then gave her a military salute before weaving his way inside the building.
As she sat down with us again, Colin reappeared, cloyingly perfumed and with his thinning hair still wet from the shower.
“May I shit with you? It was sho rude of me before not to ash—not to inquire—about your day. And look what I’ve brought!”
On the table next to Khadija’s date cake and glasses of Pepsi, he set down a pot of coffee, four mugs, and a tin of English biscuits. He seemed to have shed some of his drunkenness and to be working hard to eliminate the rest.
“How were your shtudents today? They’re very weak compared to Jordanians, aren’t they?”
In a tone that suggested resignation had long ago crowded out exasperation, Mustafa repeated his speech to me from earlier in the evening: with few natural resources other than its people, Jordan must educate them well for export, particularly to the rich countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Khadija’s father, an electrical engineer, retired last year after decades of work in Saudi Arabia, whose people despised him but paid him well enough to support his purchase of a big house on the outskirts of Amman. She and Mustafa and their sons stay in that house every summer, when their teaching jobs in Oman or elsewhere on the Peninsula—Qatar for four years, Dubai for another four, and Saudi Arabia for two—allow them to flee the impossible temperatures.
“I don’t know how I can teach these boys physics or how my husband can teach them chemistry!” Khadija sounded less resigned. “Sometimes I want to say to them, ‘Please, ask your parents to let you study tourism management. It’s so much easier for you!’ The schools here don’t prepare them for physics and chemistry.”
She and Mustafa regarded the local school which their sons attended as a glorified playground. So he did most of the cooking and housecleaning so that she could tutor the boys, using textbooks she had brought from Jordan.
“But Khadija,” her husband said. “The young women are much better students. You must take your satisfaction from teaching them.”
“That’s true.” For perhaps the first time since I had met her, she looked me straight in the eye. “But I’m afraid that I waste their time. What company will hire young women scientists when men also need jobs? They will be wives to men who work hard all day at jobs that their wives could do better. The men will come home and want dinner and good conversation. So I should teach these young women what I don’t know how to teach: poetry and literature!”
She tucked an imaginary stray lock of hair under her headscarf and turned to look at Mustafa, who tried again to calm her down.
“The Middle East is changing, Khadija. We have the eyes to see what is happening in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, all over. You teach our sons so they will be ready for the future, and the young women students have a future also—maybe one that is very different from what you say.”
We heard another neighbor at the front gate, so we paused. The whistle told us it was Graham, an Australian, whose temperance I could count on. He opened the gate with no trouble and looked over at us to assess the situation. He made a careful study of Colin before nodding and going inside the building.
“That bloody gate,” Colin said, “looks exactly like the front gate that a good mate of mine in Bristol had. I only remember because of the time he chained his wife to it so she would watch him change a tire. She absolutely refused to learn how. But after he’d had a few pints one afternoon, inspiration struck ol’ Davy like lightning and he made her a captive audience—a bit like some of the students here. And it was absolutely pouring rain!”
The Jordanians’ eyes, wide open at first, now searched the ground. Colin had lost his slur and recovered enough judgment to see his mistake. He stood up with his tray of coffee and biscuits.
“Well, that’s enough for me. Early morning class tomorrow, so Colin must be off. I’ll see you good people later.”
I rushed to fill the silence that Colin had left behind. “So, Khadija, my wife tells me you’ve invited us to visit you in Amman this summer. Your father’s house has room for us?”
She smiled brightly. “More than enough room. You can come?”
“And Jerusalem is near,” Mustafa put in. “It is sacred to Muslims and also to Christians, so you must go there.”
“Jews also,” I said. “Jerusalem is sacred to Jews.”
“No.” He shook his head sternly. “The Jews have no history in Jerusalem except as guests who take a house away from its owner.”
“But the Temple. . .”
“Invented!” He raised an angry finger. “Invented in order to give an excuse for their theft! My family does not always live in Amman, you know. One day Jewish soldiers came with guns and told my grandfather that his home in Jerusalem was now their home. It was only a small house, built on land where our family lived for hundreds of years. What could he do? And still the Israeli army tells this to Palestinians today and kills the ones who don’t do what they say!”
Mustafa dropped his hand and took a deep breath. “I am sorry, Don. It is better if I don’t talk about this. Please: I can bring you more Pepsi?”
He took my empty glass and stalked off toward his apartment. Like she had done after Colin’s story, Khadija stared at the floor of the courtyard. Yet this time it was she who broke the silence.
“Do you think my husband believes what he says about the Jews and Jerusalem and the Temple?”
I hesitated. She had asked an honest question, though, and she deserved an honest answer.
“I don’t know. But I think that if he does, then he has forced himself to believe it. The theft of his family’s home does not make the story about the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem a lie.”
“Yes. It’s as if Mustafa has a wound. It is a very bad wound that will bleed all the time unless he can put some medicine on it. His lie about the Jewish Temple is just medicine.”
Khadija paused for a long time before she continued.
“Do you think maybe this medicine is not so healthy? Do you think it is also a kind of poison?”—Don Stoll