We hesitate at the unlit stairwell
but two men sitting in the dark
nod and point us upwards.
Four flights up we reach
al-Sendebad: open on all sides,
Abraham’s tent in concrete.
We sit on plastic chairs
overlooking streets, square, park,
noisy with people in the cool of night.
We are the only visitors here.
Everyone else is local, a regular.
They wear pants and caftans, sport
mustaches and checked kefiyyahs.
I am the only woman in sight.
Two men play backgammon; two
cards; everyone talks. One man
juggles pipe with cellphone,
old world with new.
Thumbing our Berlitz we eke out
requests for hot mint tea and a nargil.
The waiter gestures, raises a brow,
confirming we really do want
what tourist literature translates
as “hubble-bubble pipe.”
The tobacco, cut with molasses,
smells sweet as the honeysuckle
that blooms at twilight.
With their thick mustaches,
backgammon and smoke,
these men remind me of my father.
I imagine him here, nargil trailing
from his lips, scattering dice
on the table and moving stone pips
across the board. He doesn’t play
in person since Philip died,
just online games with strangers
now and then fast words
in the chat window, “What’s wrong,
U still there?” Some of his opponents
are Arabs, Saudis he says, maybe even
Jordanians. Looking out at Amman
at night, listening to the men laugh
and play, I wish my father were here.
Maybe the smoke and coffee
would add up to a common language.
First published in The Wisconsin Review, Vol. 38, No. 1, fall 2003.
Beth's drawings of mint tea and sheesha made me think back to my first trip to Amman, Jordan, in 2002. That, in turn, led me back to this poem. I wrote this in 2002 shortly after our return home.
2002 was before I had my first digital camera, so my photographs from this trip are all prints in an album -- the kind with sticky pages and clear plastic overlays. Twelve years later the plastic overlays are brittle and breaking, and some of the photos don't want to pull free from their pages. Although there were no photos from the nighttime coffee shop visit which sparked this poem, I scanned some of the best ones from the album. If you're interested, you can find them here.