(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

(في هذه الظروف (جزء الاول — Under These Circumstances (Part One)

“Seventy-five dinar,” the dispatcher said.
“No. It’s thirty to the airport, and it’s not more than twice that.”
“Okay. Forty-five.”

It all seemed a bit too easy, but for sixty dollars I had hired a driver from the Hussein Bridge Border Crossing to take me into downtown Amman, and later, to the airport —more than two hours of total driving. Plus, I’d have three hours to see the Jordanian capital before my flight back to Abu Dhabi. I put my duffel in the trunk, jammed my backpack into the back seat and slid in the front.

Salim was from Palestine and had lived almost everywhere his visa would let him. He lit a cigarette and spoke in better English than my Arabic.

“How’s Abu Dhabi?”
“Abu Dhabi’s okay,” I told him. “Hot. Jordan’s so nice in the wintertime.”
“I don’t like the cold.”

After an hour and a half and several bouts of involuntary napping, I opened my eyes at the city limits, where swaths of identical square houses cover every inch of hillside. Where Jerusalem stone is white, textured, the façade of Amman is yellow and brown, its flat boxes textured only by pressing against and climbing over one another like a cubist painting.

Salim parked the car and got out to stretch, putting down his phone for the first time all afternoon. He had been almost constantly shouting greetings and instructions and accented things I couldn’t understand since we left the border. “If you don’t mind, I’ll come with you,” he said.

I didn’t mind having a tour guide — and I was wondering if this had been our arrangement — but little alarms sounded in my head. As deals get better and better (free upgrade from cab ride to private chauffeur), sketchiness increases. A $100 two-day car rental in Azerbaijan had come with an angry confrontation, a stolen iPod, and a couple hours with local police — all for no extra charge. What was the fine print here?

I opened the back door and snapped a picture of my luggage. If something went wrong, I’d have… something.

My leverage.

“Is the car locked?” I’d just pictured the scheme that would gnaw at me all day. With me gone, and perfectly monitored, any accomplice could pop the trunk and make off with my everything. With the car locked, though, at least he’d have to have a spare set of keys. The consolation that even this would be too complex for the thieves of Amman, and the knowledge that I would always have my eyes on my suspect, kept me calm enough. I weighed the dangers and decided I’d rather risk it then offend him, find another cab, negotiate another deal, and wander the streets with my baggage. No, if he wanted to come with me, I’d just guard him every minute.

Salim showed me the ancient Greek amphitheater that climbs up steeply to look down on downtown. I took my time taking pictures, scrambling up the stone stairs that lacked any trace of safety precaution. “’You go ahead,” he said. “Smoker.”

He motioned for us to check out the adjoining museum of Jordanian heritage — a rather lackluster array of diaramas and old coins dumped into trays. Is he just killing time? He checked his phone. Texted. My blood pressure rose.

“Let’s go, man.”

To be continued.

More photos of Amman somewhere over here.

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