We were walking through As-Salt with my new camera rig, taking pictures of the semi-ruined old town of yellow sandstone Ottoman empire buildings. It was Friday, prayer day, so the town was pretty quiet. The market was almost abandoned. We stopped in at the tourist office and the guy sitting in the corner looking at his phone was delighted.
“You are the first tourists of the day. Welcome. Where are you from?”
He offered to walk us to the mosque but we are gun shy of accepting such generous offers. They always lead to adventure, but sometimes misadventure. So we continued to wander the streets.
We heard a commotion in a building and as we tried to figure out what the situation was we were greeted by a man with an enormous smile in a giant bird costume. “Come in, come in” we declined, but didn’t leave either, and the group of men and children encouraging us grew until we could not refuse. Inside the building a sort of Christmas pageant was underway with 10 kids on stage singing, and nearly everyone else with their phone out filming the scene. We were in danger of upstaging the kids, oddballs that we were. I snapped a shot of the pageant and began the 10 minute long process of leaving, shaking hands, doing the “Welcome, Where are you from?” ritual. Everyone has a cousin in New Jersey for some reason.
As we continued our walk my huge camera got a lot of attention. Kids would run up and say “Picture picture”. Then they’d mug for the camera and damn are these kids good at it. Genuine smiles, they know the deal. Most kids sulk, are shy, self aware, but these kids should probably be starring in films for Hollywood: “Home Alone: Refugees in As-Salt”
We were trying to find a spot out of view of the taxis to hire an Uber when two older boys caught sight of the camera. “Will you take our picture?”. These kids were old enough to have Whatsapp, so we can probably get the snapshot to them. But the kids from earlier just wanted to pose for a picture so they could see the preview on the back of the camera. I’d love to get them a copy too, but I feel certain I will never see them again in my life. And if by some chance I do, I won’t know it.
We moved on, and finally got our Uber to the nearby town of Fuheis, locally famous for its Christmas display. On the way out of town three guys from the barber shop asked us to take their picture. And invited us in for Mansaf. It was our third invitation to come in for something, tea, food. But Mansaf! Tempting. The Uber was a relief from the relentless hospitality.
We assumed that the Christmas display would be right in the middle of town. So when we got out of the Uber and looked around, we were confused. Some lights, sure, and a little park in the traffic circle, but nothing like the display we expected. Google was no help, so we resorted to an old fashioned method and asked in the convenience store. There, in line to buy stuff was Tommy. Tommy spoke English and so we explained about the tree.
“I’m also American. I don’t talk in English very much though, that’s why I have an accent”
“Where you from?”
Tommy offered to give us a ride to the tree.
“Is it close?”
“It’s on the other side of town. It’s not too far”
“We don’t want to be a bother, we can just walk…”
“Well you have to go down that road” he pointed, and then furrowed his brow with the effort of the next utterance: “you go down the hill and then the first left. Then left unless. No it’s faster to go over the hill I think… Why don’t I just give you a ride. Are you scared?”
“Uh, no? I don’t want to bother you…”
And by then Tommy had produced his Illinois drivers license so that we wouldn’t be scared. I thought of John Wayne Gacy, one of Illinois’s many sons, and felt a bit uneasy for the first time since talking to Tommy.
“We’d love a ride!”
Tommy took off down the side streets, unbuckled, and looking at us rather than the road. He went the wrong way down a divided highway towards an oncoming car.
“Don’t worry, everyone does it”
Tommy’s concern was cute, but this wasn’t our first time on Jordan’s unruly roadways. The way we have learned to trust to fate in a car may slowly turn us religious.
“Why did you settle in Fuheis?”
“It’s the best town in Jordan. Mostly Christian.”
And then we saw the tree. 60 feet tall, perfectly conic, with strips of LED lights that ran vertically from base to the shining star at the peak. It wasn’t a real tree of course, but a steel structure with plastic fir boughs zip tied to the hardware mesh below. It is obviously impossible to get a proper Christmas tree within thousands of miles of Jesus’s birthplace. The tree was beautiful.
“Thanks for the ride!”
And then Tommy, who improbably appeared in our lives, was gone once more. I met a German guy on a plane once who said you meet everyone twice in life. I doubt it. But it seems more likely with Tommy. I think I might have seen him today at the mall. Who knows? But those kids on the streets of As-Salt haunt me. I’ll never see them again and I really want to know how it turns out for them. There are so many people we will never know.