The Dukan

There are probably a dozen dukan in Dir Edis. By and large, I don’t shop at any of them. This is something we learned in training and from more experienced volunteers. It’s true that the tiny shops in the villages are much, much more limited in stock than their equivalents in Irbid or Madaba. But there’s also always the risk of offending someone by shopping at one person’s cousin’s shop instead of another’s cousin’s shop. And there is a 100% likelihood that whatever you buy will be reported and analyzed ad nauseam in village gossip. I have little enough privacy. So I do my shopping in Irbid, thank you very much.

Today, however, I have miscalculated. I had a lot of stuff to carry back from Irbid, and I decided to buy my eggs closer to home. But after dropping off my packages and picking up exact change, I discovered that the dukan I usually use in a pinch, the one nearest the mosque, is closed. Apparently its owners have gone on the hajj and won’t be home for a month.

So here I am, eggless, with “eggs” definitely on the menu for dinner.

There’s another dukan at the other end of our little alley. I’ve walked past it countless times after I get off the bus, although I’ve only gone in twice. An old, old woman sits in the doorway every day. She has replied to my greetings and small purchases with a wordless, grave nod. She isn’t really that scary. And I know she will have eggs.

Unfortunately, I’ve miscalculated here too. The old woman is missing, and in her place is an even older man, sitting on the stool and focusing intently on the prayer beads he’s ticking through his fingers. He barely looks up when I approach, so I walk past him into the tiny dark room. This particular store is the size of a bathroom in the US, barely a room at all, with eggs and a few dirty bottles of laundry detergent and shampoo on shelves on the wall. I do as I always do when there isn’t a counter separating me from the produce. I take the top flat of eggs, festooned with bird poop and little feathers, and carefully carry it to the door. I set it down on the doorstep. And I hand the old man two quarter-dinar coins.

“Those eggs are half a dinar,” he says.

I’m confused. Usually when I’m confused it’s because I’ve done something wrong, but I really am pretty sure here that the two coins in his weathered brown hand are quarters. Two quarters is a half, right? So I say, stupidly, “Yes. Half a dinar.”

“So this is not half a dinar,” he says, holding his palm out flat and showing me the two quarters.

“I… yes, half a dinar,” I say. I don’t want to be rude. He is so, so old. Maybe his eyesight is bad?

“No!” he exclaims, pointing a finger at me accusingly. “Half a dinar. This is eight cents.”

I’m pretty sure they don’t even make four-cent coins any more, if they ever even did. In fact, the denomination equivalent to a “cent” is so devalued in Jordan now that it’s barely even used. I carry no coins smaller than five cents. The coin in the old man’s hand are definitely not four-cent coins. And he’s definitely getting madder by the second.

“I’m sorry,” I say, as politely as I can. “That is definitely half a dinar. It’s two quarters. It’s the same thing I give the hajja when I buy eggs here. Wallahi.

“No!” he says, again, with even more emphasis. “Half a dinar, nothing else.” He reaches behind the doorway and pulls out a cane which he uses to pull himself to a standing position, and then thumps on the ground as he bites out “Half. A. Dinar!”

“Okay, look,” I say, deciding to cut my losses. “I’ll just put the eggs back. I’ll come back tomorrow with a half dinar coin. I’m really sorry I bothered you.”

“Absolutely not!” he says, with several emphatic cane-thumps. “I’ll call the police. You can’t come around here and try to give me eight cents for sixteen eggs.” Before I can fully process what he’s said, he turns back to the street and croaks “Police! Police!”

It’s at this point that I notice the small group of amused onlookers just across the street. I blush hotly, but at the same time am grateful to notice two things about our audience: they’re older guys, not teens; and one of them is Jameel. Jameel is always grave and reserved, so I’m a little surprised to see a wicked grin playing around his mouth as he quickly comes to my rescue.

“Grandfather, Grandfather,” he soothes, although I know for a fact this man is not his grandfather. “It’s okay. Let me see the coins.”

The old man thrusts his palm out to Jameel, grumbling again about the two four-cent coins.

“No, Grandfather, look,” Jameel says, holding one coin up practically to the old man’s eyeball. “That is the number four. But see the number one over it? It’s one fourth. It’s a quarter. They are two quarters.”

“Eight cents!” the man insists, waving his cane at Jameel threateningly.

“Look, okay, look,” Jameel says, taking a cautious half-step back. “Give me the two four-cent coins, okay? This foreigner lives in my household. I’ll pay the difference.”

This brings the old man up short. After a beat, he shrugs and says, “Fine. But I want a half dinar coin.”

Jameel quickly pockets the two quarters and procures a shiny new half dinar coin, which he hands over with a half-bow. “Here you go, Grandfather,” he says. “And don’t worry, I won’t let her come back here again.”

I’m pretty sure the old man says “Humph!” as literally as anyone I’ve ever heard. He drops back onto his stool and glares at my back as Jameel hustles me, and my eggs, towards our house.

“I don’t — what just happened?” I manage to choke out, mid-hustle.

Jameel chuckles. “That one isn’t well,” he says. “He’s very, very old. He has a lot of problems. Just… don’t go back there, if it isn’t the old woman, okay?”

I have absolutely no problem promising him that I will not.

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