You love expat stories? Grab a glass of wine and let me tell you about my Palestinian butcher. His name is Bashir. His meat shop is tiny, like most stores that line the streets and alleys of the town of Ramallah.
(Just so you don’t get confused, I wrote this tale while living in Ramallah some years ago. I am not now living in Ramallah; I’m in France, sitting in front of the McDonald’s using their free wifi because the Internet connection in our house was destroyed by a road crew. Oh joy.) Read on:
Just a Leg of Lamb, please
Bashir sells beef and lamb only and he custom-cuts the meat right off the carcasses hanging in the window and you get the thrill of watching it.
I love the shop’s décor: A poster with American-style beef cuts decorates one wall. An old and faded picture of a flock of sheep and their gentle-faced, white-robed shepherd adorns another, hanging slightly crooked. A third piece of art provides the finishing touch – a painting of the Virgin Mary looking vacantly at the beef cuts on the opposite wall.
Bashir is drop-dead gorgeous – thick, black hair, dark eyes, great teeth, strong chin, mid-thirties. He’d be a perfect hero for one of the romance novels I write for a living, and this exotic little Arab town would make a wonderfully romantic setting. Unfortunately, I doubt my publisher would approve of a butcher for a romantic hero. Besides, Bashir is a Palestinian. And Ramallah is Ramallah. You know what I mean. Oh, and he’s married.
Okay, to use him for a hero, I could fictionally transport him to a Greek island and make him a wealthy hotel owner. As a writer, I have that power, and it’s an awesome one.
Poor guy. In seconds flat I have stripped him of his ethnic background, his country, his profession, not to speak of his wife and three children. What’s left is an empty shell of a man, but a shell with great teeth, anyway.
Bashir speaks a fractured English, which is nonetheless easy to understand and we manage to have some Meaningful Discussions (keep reading) as he severs, cleaves and chops away. He learned English is school, and from other sources as well; he knows some interesting words.
One afternoon, having worn myself out romance-writing, I stroll into town to purchase a leg of lamb for a barbecue dinner I’m putting on the following Saturday night. I enter his shop just as two Muslim women exit with their purchases. They’re wearing ankle-length thin overcoats that cover their clothing and pretty white scarves that hide their hair. For clarification, let me tell you that many women in this town are not covered up in this fashion, and neither am I.
“Marhaba,” I say as I take the two steps up to the wooden meat counter. Bashir gives me a dazzling smile, as if he’s been waiting for me all day. He puts down his cleaver, wipes his right hand on his white coat and sticks it out to me. “Marhaba. Kiifhallik?”
“Fine, praise to God,” I say in Arabic. I know seventeen words in the language, and if you’ve got it, flaunt it, is my motto. “And how are you?”
His face collapses and he looks mournful. I know what’s coming. I hear it a lot. Life is difficult in Palestine, so little hope, so much oppression, and all he does is work work work twelve hours a day six days a week.
This is all very depressing. To comfort him I tell him that in America people work work work too. I tell him of endless, mind-dulling commutes, the astronomical cost of psychotherapy, the awful television programs. Even in America life is no walk in the park.
He sighs disconsolately. I have just robbed him of his last illusion. He waves his bloody knife in defeat.
“Everywhere,” he says as he whacks the cleaver down on a bovine leg bone, “it’s the same old shit.”
Bashir finishes what he is doing and asks if I want coffee. Mais oui! Shopping isn’t just buying things, it’s also a social occasion.
He washes his hands, spoons powdery coffee grounds and sugar into a small metal coffee pot with a long handle, and adds water. He places it on a portable gas burner to heat.
“These Muslim women,” he says disapprovingly, referring to the ones who have just departed, “they’re all too fat.” Ethnic, religious and racial prejudice flourishes everywhere, especially in the Holy Land. He explains he likes women skinny, like me. Since I’m in a death struggle to lose ten pounds, I know he’s lying, but I am flattered anyway. I’ll take whatever I can get.
“These Muslim women,” he says again, “they do nothing all day, just sit around and eat.” His own wife is skinny, he tells me, even though she doesn’t do anything all day either. She has no job. She’s just at home with their three small children, doing nothing.
Coward that I am, I remain silent. In my own defense, allow me to say that I have tried to enlighten him on this particular issue on previous visits when he has made similar comments, but he prefers to remain in the dark about the trials and tribulations of motherhood. I expect he needs primal scream therapy, or at least to read Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Then again, I am here to buy a leg of lamb, not do social work.
The coffee is boiling, foaming, and ready. Bashir pours it into a Styrofoam cup and hands it to me. Now I need to let the grounds settle for a minute before drinking it. We discuss my meat requirements and he disappears into his cooler because the lamb carcass hanging in the window has already offered up its hind legs.
I sip my thick cardamom-flavored brew while Bashir gets my order ready. He talks about his wife, his children, and his house, which he owns without a mortgage. We talk about cooking, which is one of my passions, and he says his wife is a very good cook. He touches his finger tips to his puckered mouth to illustrate how good. I am relieved he’s so appreciative of this wife’s kitchen skills, even if she doesn’t do anything all day. He decides I should meet her some time and I agree that that would be very nice.
“How about now?” he asks, taking me by surprise.
It is four in the afternoon and I have nothing to do apart from going back to work and write a passionate love scene.
To tell you the honest truth, I’ll do almost anything to postpone writing a love scene. That’s why I’m hanging out with a hunky Palestinian butcher, drinking coffee rather than sitting in front of my computer. (You think writing romance is easy? Hah! You should try it some time.) So yes, why not now? I ask myself. Be adventurous! Seize the opportunity! Go visit the butcher’s wife.
Bashir wraps up my meat and puts it in a plastic bag. After I pay him he wipes his hands on his coat and off we go. He stalks out of the shop, leaving the door wide open and calls out something to a person across the street. He points out his car to me, just down the street.
“How far is your house?” I ask, trying not to feel like I’m doing something really, really stupid.
“Oh, not far,” he says, and opens the car door for me like a true gentleman. It’s an ordinary small car that looks a bit worn and defeated, like a lot of things do in the West Bank. We drive through the narrow, twisting streets of Ramallah, Arabic music wafting in through the open window, as well as the scents of exotic spices, shwarma meat, roasting nuts, and exhaust fumes.
I’m wondering what my friends in Holland and the States would say if they could see me now, driving off into the unknown with a handsome Palestinian in a bloody butcher coat. On second thought, I don’t need to wonder. I know.
We’re out of town now, hurtling along a narrow mountain road with a dramatic view of the desert. Villages cluster in the valleys, and I hear the call to prayer coming from a nearby mosque.
Not much grows here, and it’s rather awesome to see the endless barren landscape stretching out as far as the eye can see broken only by a few ancient, gnarled olive trees.
Where is he taking me? It would probably make sense to worry. Maybe I’m being kidnapped to some Bedouin tent camp to be kept hostage. What if Bashir is not the sort of butcher he pretends to be?
Maybe unspeakable things are going to happen to me and no one will ever find me. No one even knows where I am now that I foolishly got in the car with a man who might have evil intentions, a man who is now taking me away from all I love and cherish.
Well, what do you want? I’m a writer. I make things up for a living. My imagination has a mind of its own. And in case you are wondering: I’m a year away from owning my first cell phone. I’m a late bloomer.
“Where do you live?” I ask casually.
He waves into the desert. “There. Not far.”
He said that an hour ago, or so it seems we’ve been driving that long. Perhaps I should be crazy with hysteria right now, jump out of the car, scream for help, but somehow I can’t make myself. Bashir has a such a gorgeous smile, and such good hair. He should be in the movies. What’s not to trust?
To be continued next week… (I know you don’t have all day.)
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Have you ever done something on the spur of the moment that really wasn’t a very smart thing to do? How naive or suspicious are you? Do you believe in intuition?