One day, Um Shakur asked if anybody wanted to join her going in to Madaba, the nearest city. With my limited language skills, I rarely understood the purpose of her errands. Sometimes it seemed like she was going to Madaba just to buy things readily available in the tiny dukan down the street from her house. Sometimes she visited people whose relationship to her family I couldn’t quite place. Sometimes it was literally just a drive around with no stops at all. Like many aspects of my life in Jordan, it was usually a mystery.
But it was probably going to be more exciting than hanging out with nine bored kids and various cousins, so I said yes. And then I had an idea: I’d realized after arriving in Namus that I was very nearly out of money, and Um Shakur would be driving right past my bank. I asked her if we could stop so I could make a withdrawal.
To my surprise, she looked a little distressed by what I thought was a fairly innocuous request. “Stop to get money at the bank? This will be a quick trip to Madaba. The bank will take half an hour.”
“I promise, it won’t take more than a minute,” I said, not quite understanding the problem.
“It never takes just a minute. There will be too many people in line at this time of day.”
“I wasn’t going to go in,” I clarified. “Just use the — the –” My Arabic failed me. “The place outside the bank where I can get money fast.”
Um Shakur still looked pretty skeptical. But when we got to the bank, she pulled up outside… and then she jumped out to accompany me as I walked into the ATM. I made a quick withdrawal with her watching my every move, and was done in what was really probably sixty seconds.
When we got back in the car, Um Shakur said “That was interesting! I never knew what that thing was for. Banks are such a problem, but that thing was pretty good.”
“You’ve never used an ATM before?”
She gave me to understood that she had not, but also that she wasn’t sure it would work for her.
“Oh, it’s easy,” I assured her. “You just have to fill out this form and they give you a card. Then you can get your money any time.”
“Yeah, but you have to have money in the bank to withdraw it,” she said.
I sat quietly with that Cultural Moment. Then I said, “You don’t have money in a bank? Where do your paychecks go?”
Shakur, wedged cheerfully beside me in the rickety old car, snorted. “My mother has nine children! We eat her paychecks!” His mother laughed.
“But Abu Shakur’s paychecks?” I asked. Abu Shakur worked far away — I think in Iraq — and came home for a few days at a time, on a schedule I could never figure out.
Um Shakur grinned and said “Wait and see.”
By the time we got home, Abu Shakur had actually arrived, and was lounging on the front stoop drinking tea and waiting for Asra to make him dinner. I happened to know that Um Shakur was expecting him and had been excited that he was coming, because she had told me the night before that I was going to be sleeping with the kids the next night, instead of in the oddly unused master bed. (They weren’t my proper parents, but that was still more than I wanted to know!) But she barely nodded at him and he didn’t stand up.
We joined Abu Shakur under the trellis and he and his wife and son talked for a while while I daydreamed. Trying to follow conversation got too exhausting sometimes and I had become very good at entertaining myself in my head without looking too rude — I think! But I was drawn abruptly back into the conversation when Asra’s head appeared at the kitchen window and she said something sharp to her mother.
“I did not forget to buy grape leaves!” Um Shakur snapped back. “They’re right there on the table.”
“More grape leaves,” Asra grumbled, “I told you we needed more. I’ve made this big pot of stuffing and I’m out of grape leaves. What did you go to Madaba for anyway?”
“I felt like it!” Um Shakur exclaimed. “And we needed to go to the bank. Quit whining, this is not a big deal.” She stood up and began vigorously picking the leaves growing right over our heads. I was mildly surprised by this, because grape leaves usually came marinated or soaked in brine, cleaned and prepared somewhere other than in front of me. But Um Shakur stuffed a wad of fresh vegetation through the bars in the kitchen window, where they fell onto the floor. “See? Grape leaves. Use those.”
“Gross,” Asra muttered, but she picked them up and vanished again.
“Speaking of the bank!” Um Shakur said, turning to her husband and telling him the saga of my magic card and the fact that I was able to procure money instantly. He seemed intrigued.
“She’s smart, that American!” he told Um Shakur. Abu Shakur never spoke directly to me if he could help it. The problem was his profound shyness rather than sexism or nationalism, and we had a companionable relationship. I would tell stories and Abu Shakur would comment on them to his wife. It worked for us, what can I say.
“So I said I’d show her your paycheck,” Um Shakur said.
“What makes you think I brought a paycheck?” Abu Shakur asked, even as he was sitting up and rooting around in his pockets. He pulled out a wad of cash, but in a country where cash is color-coded, I could see it wasn’t much. Fifty bucks, maybe less. Um Shakur tucked it under the bodice of her dress.
Then he pulled out a bracelet. It was the bright, “Italian” yellow gold popular in Jordan, beautiful soft links intertwining. Um Shakur put it on and held her wrist out to me. “See?” she said. “Paycheck.”
I assured her it was beautiful. “But what happens when you need to buy something? You can’t buy bread with that.”
“Of course not. I’ll sell it in a few days. It’s just much easier for Abu Shakur to carry this than cash.”
“But it is beautiful. Won’t you be sad to sell it?”
She shrugged dismissively. “I’ll wear it for a couple of days, then I’ll sell it. Next month he’ll bring me a different one!”