Being bussed around in a foreign country isn’t my preferred method of travel. So when we had a free night in a touristy town in the desert, I went for a walk to find a conversation.
Outside a souvenir shop, a man stood smoking next to a rack of trinkets. After a bit of conversation about the origin of the items (they were mass-produced, he didn’t know), he invited me into the shop for tea with any friends I could convince to come.
Of course, conversation was the lure, tea the bait, and money the goal. But I was still in control of my money and he seemed friendly enough.
They said they needed ten minutes to make tea, so I rounded up everyone I could (only three others) and returned ten minutes later.
From floor to ceiling hung knickknacks, display cases looked like treasure chests whose shining under a light would entrance any pirate. Signs, of course, that much of the merchandise was cheap and inauthentic.
Another man emerged from a hidden staircase with a platter of glasses and steaming teapot.
Conversation was slow. It began with asking origins. We gave ours, they said they were Bedouin but they had trouble remembering the name of their group.
The two men – who were not much older than I was – went by their nicknames. Omar, whom I met first and had the best English, was Assad (lion). Mahmoud, who retained an aura of silent pleasantness, was Sagur (falcon).
They brought us upstairs, where a glass-walled room and walls decked in rugs made the store look like it belonged in New York City. This was clearly a place where they could try out their salesmanship.
We worked across the room, trying on hats, examining the detail of the carpets, drinking more tea, playing each instrument we saw.
What do you guys do for fun here?
We can’t drink, so we smoke.
There’s weed here?
The only thing that seemed to catch my eye was the antique room inside the glass. Each item seemed it could have an interesting story. Two decaying pistols, an intricate metal bracelet, and most surprisingly, a heavy sword decorated with black and gold. When I asked though, the “story” went no further than “old bedouin.”
The bracelet being ornate enough, I bought it. Others also bought trinkets.
We had finished purchasing what we wanted, but Omar kept talking, so I pressed on. What do you think of the King?
Do you know what the 51st state of the US is?
I didn’t expect a question in return. They didn’t know what Puerto Rico was, so that answer was wrong.
Israel. The king is not our king. He does not do enough for the Palestinians. He is too nice to Israel.
Strangely, the conversation pivoted to ISIS. It gave me a shudder but drew me in. Assad believed there would be an Islamic State as there had been in the past in about 8 to 12 years. He was careful to mention that ISIS did not like Americans. I said I knew. He asked what I thought about Islam.
It’s a hard question to demonstrate genuineness with, so I flipped it. I asked what he thought of Christianity. He gave a surprising analogy.
Religions are like the fingers on your hand. Each one is the same, but they look different. And they all come from the same place.
A man who seemed unbothered by the spread of violent Islam but emphasizing that all religions are the same.
As a farewell, they offered to give us nicknames similar to ours. I only remember my own; Eagle, but hopefully not an American Eagle.