I met this man, Haroun, in front of his shop last week while I was out exploring the streets of Aqaba. I probably wouldn’t have noticed the small dingy hole in the wall selling a haphazard array of dusty trinkets—but like most of the tourist-friendly shop owners here have learned to do, he called out “Welcome” to me as I passed by, making it impossible (or at least very rude) for me not to stop.
Haroun, like many dignified Middle Eastern men his age, was dressed in a crisp white thawb. He offered me a seat on one of the plastic chairs next to him (those of you familiar with Middle East hospitality know “insist” is more like it). As I would learn on my repeated visits throughout the week, it was common to find Haroun sitting out here with other shop owners and neighbors. He instructed a young man standing nearby to bring me coffee.
Although I tried to use my Arabic as much as possible, Haroun’s English was quite good. He struck me as someone who was self-taught: learned but inquisitive, offering more questions to the conversation than answers. The conversation naturally gravitated to the problems of the region and the rise of extremism.
“I am a Muslim, but I respect people of all religions,” he said. This is true, judging by the variety of people I would find sitting with Haroun outside his shop throughout the week.
We talked about a lot of things, but Haroun was particularly interested in my work of “writing about my experiences in the Middle East to help Westerners get to know the real people of the region.” This peaked Haroun’s interest, and he gave me a card with his address to send him some of my articles.
Eventually, I needed to move on, but I wanted to buy something at Haroun’s “museum,” as his card called it. I chose a set of “worry beads,” which is very common to see in the hand of a dignified Middle Eastern man. I liked the idea that my set of worry beads—my dignified-man accessory—would come from this man.
“How much is this?” I asked.
“How much would you like to pay?” Haroun replied.
I ended up paying more than I would have normally settled for, but sometimes, especially here, the relationship is a more important than the deal. Later, Haroun would mention that I was the only customer he’s had all day. I’m glad I chose relationship.
Eventually, I needed to move on. Haroun asked me again to send him my articles, which he would remind me of yet again later in the week when I brought Elmarie to meet him. Each time, there would be somebody else in the plastic chair next to Haroun, and each time somebody would be giving up their seat for me, and somebody getting me coffee. Each time, Haroun would call me by an Arabic word:
It’s an Arabic word that gets used a lot here, but there’s a reason for that.
It means “My friend.”