People

Promises to Mr. Laughs

If I didn’t remember this person by his face, I would have remembered him by his laugh. He didn’t speak a word of English, but you could easily understand his laughter.

When we went on tent duty at our camp, we visited two other sites besides Hara Hotel. Incidentally, all three were gas stations – Hara Hotel, Eteka Gas station and BP gas station, with about 400, 50, and 150 people respectively. Mr. Laughs lived at BP station, across the highway from the others.

One night we began the tent duty too early, and started at our usual last stop, BP, so others couldn’t ask for tents just to sell them later. It was about midnight, and we arrived to find a group of a dozen people crowded around a fire. Immediately they all invited us to sit down and join in their tea drinking. It seems across Arab, Kurd, Turkish, Persian, and perhaps any Middle East culture, tea is an intensely social activity for any, all and everyone who may pass by. And the tea is of course always about half sugar.

The first night we visited them, it was already late and we needed to finish our tent run. I reluctantly declined their invitation but happily accepted the one for the next night’s tea. It’s hard to keep promises over a 24-hour period with this work, because activities are dependent on everyone’s needs, not my own.

So the next night, I eagerly volunteered myself for the late night tent duty, and my first task was to visit the chai fire. The dozen people were mostly Syrian men plus three Basque volunteers who had frequented the midnight tea for a while. The firelight shown over only half of everyone’s face, so  voices were the most defining feature of every teadrinker. We three volunteers sat down, happy to slurp up sugar water to keep us awake for the next hour and half.

My two partners stayed for only a half hour, and came to pick me up later, but I felt the warm environment, not just caused by the fire, was too friendly to resist.

In the darkness, the man with the loudest voice stood out the most. Mr. Laughs had a full head of hair and a smile that shined through his beard. He eagerly stood up from his seat to offer it to us. I’m pretty sure he just wanted to stand, he was filled with such energy.

Introductions are always the first thing – and the most fun. You find out which city everyone is from, and everyone is always curious of your own background. Mr. Laughs, however, wanted to move beyond a simple round of names. He began a guessing game with people’s nationalities and ages – maybe his way of learning English or Basque or Spanish, and our way of learning Arabic.

Regardless of people’s answers, Mr. Laughs would let out a loud wheeze of a laugh, topped off with a snicker. Mumbling Arabic to his friends and more shrills cut through the night. It wasn’t annoying, nor did it wake the people in the tents around us. Everybody let out their own laugh at his jokes, they called him in Arabic, “jokester”. He was the focus of a lot of conversation, but not overpowering.

You could never tell when he wanted to be serious, even when playing with the fire. He scolded others for throwing plastic into the fire while he did it himself. He motioned for me to throw a stick into the fire, then freaked out and held me back when I did. His smacks turned into half hugs, and when he shoved you, he grabbed you before you fell over.

Mr. Laughs was really into football. He invited me to play the next day, around 4 or 5. I told him I would be really excited to come, and I’ll try my hardest. That time, though, was usually when we got food or made packages for the next day. It’s difficult to keep a promise over that amount of time.

Despite his complete unfamiliarity with English, he was comfortable enough to walk with me alone to try to convince me to play. I told him I would do it, but I made a wincing face to try to convey the difficulty with time. We shook hands and hugged.

I saw him two days later, having missed two invitations to football. He nodded some sign of understanding when I tried to explain my predicament. I had let people down with my promises before, but only with material things. It’s somehow worse when it involves a relationship.

He had far less energy when I saw him hanging out at Hara Hotel. I only heard his hysterical laughter at tea at BP. But maybe his energy was just the result of several cups of sugar water.

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