I’ve never been to the desert, but I’ve seen paintings of it.
On my father’s side of the family, the only acceptable decorations are desert paintings and images of the Qur’an in fancy golden calligraphy. They live in a fortress that spans most of a residential street between East and West Amman. The white concrete houses are all interconnected, with tall balconies where my aunts and uncles monitor the neighborhood and grow mint leaves for their tea. Family meetings are held in the backyard while guests are invited to the nerve center, my grandmother’s guest room. This is where the highest concentration of desert paintings lives — a reminder that we are supposed to be wandering. It’s as if the walls are in self-denial, like they want to grow up and become tents rocked by the breeze.
When I first moved to Amman I was a child and as such was not allowed into certain sections of the fortress, like the guest rooms. My cousin Zeina and I used to sneak in and sit on the plush beige chairs and wonder what sand smelled like. We stared at the paintings, faceless figures wandering through the desert with camels and sheep, expressionless men lounging in colorful tents. On more than one occasion, we tried to pick the lock to the glass case which held a ruby-embroidered dagger. I invented stories about the dagger, that our grandfather had carried it from the southern tip of Palestine, that it retained the magic of dislocation.
At fifteen, I was not only allowed into the guest room, I was expected to be there, albeit as attendant and helper. My cousin Abbass and I hung a painting of my dead grandfather with desert in the background. He looked like a hawk hovering over the inexpressible. He stared down, as guests arrived in gold-trimmed dishdashes. I was expected to sit and listen, but my relatives spoke a Bedouin dialect of Arabic that I could barely understand. It dropped some vowels and overemphasized others. Like some kind of code. I was always impressed with how seamlessly my father could slip into that dialect.
I went back and forth from the kitchen to the guest room, carrying silver trays with plates of watermelon slices and chocolate dates and teas and coffee. Always offering the cups to guests with my right hand because the left would be a grave insult. This used to be Abbass’ job as the next youngest, now he just crosses his legs and smokes cigarettes. The guests were always middle-aged and I wondered where they came from and what they did for a living, were they wealthy industrialists playing dress-up or did they always wear the dishdashes and white gold-trimmed keffiyehs that flowed down from their heads like a billowing protection spell?
Overnight it seemed, my girl relatives stopped hugging me and kissing my cheeks. I had to yell, “Ya Sater” (O, protector of Veils) before I walked into the kitchen or living room, so they could get their hijabs on. Instead of shaking my hand they would hold their hands to their hearts, as if I’d turned leprous. Even Zeina refused to touch me and spoke to me from a distance, like we were a thousand leagues apart. Her newly acquired hijab made her seem older, like she’d been parachuted into maturity.
So I ended up spending a lot of time in the guest room. I would read the books that my Dad brought me from America, which spoke a language I could understand. My Dad and uncles would play cards for hours. Like a model of brotherhood, they would gossip and talk shit about each other and get so passionate it was hard to believe they weren’t gambling. Of course, gambling is forbidden by Allah so they’d never tell me if they were.
Abbass lit another cigarette. For a moment, I felt us all consolidating into a pillar of tobacco dust. With my father at the center, his collared shirt and khakis, flanked by my uncles who’d never been to Macy’s and dressed only in dishdashes.
“You are a moving cigarette. Look at him,” my dad announced, pointing at Abbass who was small and dark and hairy, wearing counterfeit Levi’s jeans and a black jacket, both branded Live’s.
“He looks like a prototype Bedouin,” Uncle A said and laughed so hard the midsection of his dishdash shook.
“That pockmarked face. Those ashy teeth. An essence of manliness and despair,” Uncle B added. “Who else will carry on the habits and traditions and pickup our falafel sandwiches?”
Abbass stayed silent and lit another cigarette.
“Why don’t you go outside?” my dad pointed at Abbass.
“Why don’t you go outside?” Uncle A replied. “What about your boy, eh?” Uncle A pointed at me with his stubby dark finger. “He looks like an untrimmed sheep. There are birdnests and bats on his head. Get him a haircut.”
My dad scratched a fingernail against the bottom of his teeth, the signal for broke.
I tried to pretend I couldn’t hear them but then I looked at Abbass and he was raising half a unibrow at me. I dropped the book and leapt to my Uncle A.
“For you, my favored uncle, I will give every last hair. My head is yours.” I announced.
Uncle A chuckled and held his cards close to his chest. “They will need lawnmowers to cut that thing.”
“They would take at least 10 JD for that much hair,” Abbass added.
Uncle A grimaced. He closed his eyes and reached for the front pocket of his dishdash. “I will leave your blessing to Allah,” he said and sightlessly wriggled his fingers in the pocket, and pulled out a 50 JD bill. I had never received that much money, even for Eid.
“Bless your hands, Uncle,” I attempted to bow.
“Don’t worry about my hands, if you come back with that hair I will put a stick up your ass.”
Abbass uncrossed his legs and pulled me out the room. We went outside and down the stairs, I rubbed my fingers on the olive tree leaves. The air was crisp and inviting. As we walked to the empty lot where Abbass was parked, I felt we were protected by big red wings springing from my cousin’s Marlboro and the red keffiyeh coiled around his neck.
“I can’t believe Uncle A,” I said, as we approached the lot.
This unfilled lot felt like the center of our neighborhood, which was in the center of Amman. There was a dumpster there guarded by stray cats with the body language of Scarface. The smell was foul but it didn’t affect the holiness of this place. For a moment we stopped and looked at the view. Back then, before the apartment buildings and skyscrapers emerged to spit on the horizon, you could look down from this spot and see most of the city, with its hilltops and roundabouts and laneless streets and olive trees and stone houses stacked on top of each other, along with the minarets shooting out of the earth like big colorful needles reaching towards the sky, like the footsteps of Father God.
“Uncle A is a badass,” Abbass broke the silence. “If the other uncles left he’d probably let us drink beer at the barbeques.”
“The breeze is nice,” I said, which was an understatement; it was beyond nice, it was worth bottling up.
“That’s because it knows it’s leaving,” he said and unlocked his white ‘93 Volkswagen Santana which had the most comfortable seats of all time. Before he got in the car, he tightened the red keffiyeh around his neck like an obligation.
“Why do you always wear the red scarf?” I asked. It was practically a patriotic symbol, a deep identification with the glorious country of Jordan.
“The black and white is for Palestine.”
“Aren’t we Palestinian?”
“Not really.” He frowned. “What has Palestine ever done for you?”
“I can’t let go of a national identity people are still getting killed for.”
“If you need a national identity so bad, why don’t you go get killed for it? It’s down the street.”
I thought about this as I climbed into the car. My proximity to destruction. How an hour or two away there were bodies shaped just like mine, starving, abused masses, hiding from airstrikes, throwing rocks at tanks. “I’d rather live.” I said and inhaled the scent of the Santana, like the deep recesses of an ashtray.
“We already have an identity, not national — tribal, much stronger, the tribe always finds a way.”
“I’ve never met them.”
“That’s because your Dad would never let you go to Sinai,” Abbass said, as he enacted the complex ritual it took to start his car. Most of my extended family lives in Sinai, in stateless territory outside the jurisdiction of the Egyptian government. “If you ever go down there, don’t tell them you’re American,” Abbass added.
I didn’t consider myself American at the time, it felt like more like I was born between worlds. I looked out the window and realized we were going downhill instead of uphill. “Are we going to Shakib’s?” My favorite barber.
“You know the tribes there have their own anti-aircraft missiles and APC’s?”
“Can we please go to Shakib?”
“Don’t tell me you want to go to that shithole.”
“My friend works there.”
Abbass shook his head and lit another cigarette then did a U turn. “You shouldn’t hang around with people like that, he’s from a different world, different reality, hang out with people from your school.”
I was surprised at Abbass’ classism. “Faris is fine, he’s an inspiration, he works with his hands and helps feed his family.”
“Exactly.” Abbass exhaled. I couldn’t tell if he’d lit another cigarette or had been blessed with an eternal Marlboro Red. “You know what our tribe was meant to do?”
“My head hurts.”
“Have a cigarette.”
“No, thank you.” Everyone in Amman smoked cigarettes which was exactly why I didn’t want to.
“We were meant to sit on cushions, to be sheikhs,” Abbass said, like it was a punchline.
We pulled up to Shakib’s barbershop. There was a group of shabab standing around, down the street from Shakib’s. I could smell their Marlboro Reds and they wore the same secondhand clothes that Abbass wore, misspelled brand names and all.
“What are you gonna do with that money?” Abbass asked.
“I’m gonna take Lianne out to one of those fancy places on Rainbow Street.”
“And pay for everything?”
“No, we’ll split it, she gets one of those bills everyday.”
“Don’t make me slap you.”
Abbass let me out, he said he had an errand to run and would never set foot in that shithole barbershop.
I walked into Shakib’s and his unlit yellow banner, loud rap music was playing and the place reeked of incense. Faris greeted me the way they did in the gangster rap videos he was obsessed with. He wore baggy jeans and spoke a broken English he tried to force into an exaggerated American accent.
“Faris turn that black shit off, it’s giving me a headache,” Shakib yelled as he cut a customer’s hair. Faris turned the music down. He reached for a pack of Marlboro Lights and Shakib slapped his hand down with a trimmer. “You’ve taken enough.”
Faris sat next to me. “When are we gonna go drinking together, Hamed?”
“Whenever you aren’t sweeping floors,” I lied; I didn’t want Faris to know that I hadn’t started drinking yet.
“How’ve you been?”
“My relatives are blackmailing me into cutting my hair.”
“I’ll give you the best cut to get those Bedouins off your back.”
“Faris couldn’t cut a bush,” Shakib yelled over the noise of the trimmer.
He pulled the gown off the customer and announced “Na3eyman,” which is the blessing after showering or shaving. The customer got up and went for his wallet. “Leave it on us.” Shakib joked. But the customer just turned and quickly walked out. Shakib threw his hands in the air and lit a cigarette. “What kind of idiot…”
“Why would you say that?” Faris asked.
“It’s just a nice thing you say to people, no one takes it seriously. God this nation is so fucked. Come on, Hamed.”
“I want Faris to do it.”
“Fine, its your mistake,” Shakib said and collapsed onto the couch.
I sat on the barbershop chair and Faris snipped two hairs off my head. I heard a commotion, turned around and saw Shakib sprinting out of his own barbershop — I had never seen anyone run that fast. Voices, the young men outside, yelled insults after him, calling him a worthless son of a bitch. He kept running until I heard two loud bangs and the sky shook. When Shakib heard the gunshots he immediately collapsed to the ground with his hands on his head. The shabab went towards him and handcuffed him.
I looked at Faris who was visibly terrified, I could tell he was thinking of running. Two of the men came into the barbershop and pointed at Faris. “Are you the Egyptian?” He nodded with wet eyes. “You’re coming with us.”
No one acknowledged my presence and I was left alone in the barbershop. Shakib had left his pack of Marlboro Lights, I took one, lit it and stared at myself in the mirror. I had never seen what happened if you broke the rules in Amman and lacked the connections to get away with it. I had heard of people being abducted for speaking ill of the King or doing illegal drugs, but it had all seemed so far away.
I tried to call Abbass but there was no answer, so I decided to make the trek back home on foot. About fifteen minutes up then down a hill. As I was walking up towards my house, a car stopped in the middle of the road.
“Excuse me, if you please,” said a man who poked his head out of the passenger seat window.
“Sure, are you lost?” I replied.
“Yes, I just need to use a phone.”
I handed him my phone through the window. The man looked at it for a moment. The car started to rev and they drove off.