This afternoon I went in to Irbid with two things on my shopping list: a heater and a wool shawl. Shawl wasn’t that hard — I simply went into all the stores on Eidoun Street that had pretty shawls in the windows. Wool was a bit harder, since I don’t actually know the word for that in Arabic. I could tell that the pervasive shawls are mostly synthetic and if I’m going to spend that much of my limited funds on an article of clothing I really wanted wool. In retrospect this seems silly, but the little things start to mean a whole lot to you here, and I was just bound and determined to have wool, damnit. So, yeah, I ended up traipsing into and out of every women’s clothing store in Irbid and, yeah, bleating like a lamb and doing sheep-charades. But hey. I left with a wool shawl, thanks.
I was more successful with the heater. Or at least I thought so. I headed for the teachers-only store run by the Ministry of Education and the bouncer, as usual, tried to keep me out because I obviously don’t look like a teacher. Inside I bought some small housewares items and a little space heater. It’s basically a big brown box which somehow facilitates the burning of canister gas and points the heat in your general direction, assuming you’re sitting right in front of it, which I fully plan to do.
The heater is newer and appears safer than the scary propane one Um Shakur has down in Namus. There will be one obvious drawback to this: the exterior frame of Um Shakur’s heater gets so hot that she can use it as a sort of broiler. I’ve seen her roast eggplants on it and the baba ganoush she mashed it into tasted only vaguely of propane. And once she managed to bake a small cake simply by placing the pan on top of the heater and covering it with tinfoil. That could be handy. But I know my strengths and weaknesses and a scalding-hot metal box in my house is inviting serious injury, so I’ve opted for one that looks a bit safer.
So the problem with mine, for now, is that it’s empty. This made it much easier to heave into a taxi and drag into my own courtyard and house. But I only have one gas canister: the banged-up, rusty one my landlord left attached to the two-eye stove-cooker-thing when he moved out. It’s been lurking under the counter since, daring me to go to bed without double-checking that its valve is closed. Eventually it is going to run out of gas and force me to figure this situation out. I’ve just been lucky that it hasn’t happened yet!
It can’t be that hard to buy gas. I’ve seen the gas trucks rumbling up and down the streets of Dir Edis for months. But until this very evening I didn’t really process two things about these trucks. Unlike other merchants, the drivers don’t call out their wares or prices on a loudspeaker so you can’t hear them coming. And I’ve actually never seen anyone stop one of these trucks and conduct business with them. Maybe I’ve misunderstood what they’ve been about all along?
It is really cold outside and it’s doing this weird not-quite-rain misting thing that makes it relatively unpleasant. But I am Ahab and I am going to catch my whale. So I wrap my new (wool!) shawl around me and go out into the courtyard to see if I can figure this out. I open the door and peek out: no trucks coming. At the very edge of town where I live this isn’t that surprising. But surely one will come eventually.
It’s fully an hour before I’m ready to admit complete defeat — and even then, only because I’ve realized I’m not on the right traffic route. Standing awkwardly on a bench and peering over my privacy wall, I’ve actually seen three trucks approach my house from the north and then turn back towards “downtown” Dir Edis one block away from my house. I suppose I could have run out into the street and waved frantically at one of the trucks but I’m pretty sure that isn’t a Thing Ladies Do. But it is getting wetter and wetter and I am getting colder and colder and I’m just starting to seriously consider unladylike behavior when, miracle of miracles, the psychotic-bird-tweeting doorbell goes off.
I scoot across the courtyard and open the window in one metal gate. I’ve learned that I have to look down when I do this, because my neighbor (and boss!) Amira will send over one of her small children now and then and they are just short and not, in fact, pranking me by ringing the doorbell and running away. Tonight it’s the tiniest child but one, a little girl named Deanna. I don’t think Amira sends Deanna over because she’s the least important and visiting me is scut work. Rather, I imagine Amira and the older women laughing themselves silly as they send grave little Deanna over because she takes the assignment so very, very seriously. I am a foreign entity and she is a budding diplomat and visiting me is No Joke. I try very hard not to giggle at her myself. Sometimes she will even be coaxed into my home and unsmilingly accept a bag of potato chips or a piece of American candy before scampering off again.
Tonight Deanna is holding a plate of steaming stuffed cabbage leaves. I adore Amira’s malfoof and in my cold, wet state have never been gladder to see a plate of them. Deanna asks me if I want them — as if I were likely to say no! — and soberly promises to return later for the plate. She’s turning to leave when I decide to seize the opportunity she presents.
“Hey, Deanna, I have a question,” I say, and she tries valiantly to mask her apprehension as she nods for me to go ahead.
“It’s just, I can’t make any of the gas trucks come here, and I don’t know what to do about it. Can you ask your mother?”
Obviously I haven’t said this in grammatical Arabic, and just as obviously this tiny child hasn’t developed an adult’s ability to parse my gibberish into something comprehensible. She looks puzzled and even more apprehensive, so I try again. I wheel the little heater over and show her that it’s empty and say “Look, no gas. In street no gas car. Mama help?”
Deanna looks relieved and bursts into a stream of Arabic I completely don’t understand. Then she turns and dashes out my gate and over towards her house. I can only hope this means something like “Oh, sure! I’ll take care of it!” rather than indicating that I’ve just committed some hideous faux pas.
To be continued…