Enter Ahmad, the kindest man I've ever met

Note: make sure you read the previous post before this one.

As we were wandering around the now sun-lit ruins, a man wearing blue jeans and an orange collared shirt approached us and said, “Hello. Could you take a picture of me with my family?”, in accented but very clear English.

Of course, we obliged him. His family was made up of himself, his wife, who was covered in black cloth, save her face and hands, his two sons, and his daughter. After thanking us, the man asked, “Would you take a picture together with my family?”

Again, we obliged him. I suggested that we move to the shade where Linh and I had been sitting before, as the Syrian sun was starting to make me sweat. Linh sat with them on the bench in the shade and I said “One... Two... Three”, and took a picture.

The man in the orange shirt then began to talk with us. We told him we were from California, that we were on our honeymoon, that we had gotten to Qala'at Samaan on a service taxi. He told us that he was an English teacher in a nearby village, that he and his family come to Qala'at Samaan about once a month, and he introduced himself, his wife and his three children.

We talked for a while, and it became apparent that Ahmad (as we now knew the man with the orange shirt is called) is a very curious man who relishes any opportunity to talk to foreigners, both to practice his English and to gain knowledge about the world. He asked us many, many questions, about us, our families, American society and customs.

The two questions that I remember most clearly where the ones that most embarrassed me. He asked if we were married, and we lied and said “Yes”. We had been continuing this lie since we first got to Lebanon, and every time it came up, I was reminded of the fact that I am just not accustomed to lying. In Lebanon we lied to Mazen, our hotel manager, who we later learned himself has a girlfriend and would have been totally fine renting a room to an unmarried couple. Here we were talking to a man with a wife completely covered in black cloth, a man we would learn later is what I consider a religious conservative.

The other question I felt embarrassed about was, “Mister Gary, may I ask, what is your salary?”

This time I felt embarrassed about telling the truth. “I am very lucky. I work in the computer industry in California, so I have a very high-paying job, much higher than most people”, I tried to preface it, so that it seemed less outrageous. “I get paid eighty-five thousand dollars a year.”

Just for the purposes of comparison, that's about seven thousand a month, not counting taxes. About four and a half after taxes.

“My salary, as a schoolteacher, hmm, in dollars, is about three hundred dollars a month”, said Ahmad. I didn't ask him about taxes; perhaps the reader can imagine my reluctance to discuss paychecks further. Still, Ahmad did not seem offended or upset at how much money I told him I make.

Ahmad told us that he met his wife at school, but not in the same way that I met my pretend wife at school. Ahmad was his wife's English teacher. He saw her in his class, and he took a liking to her, and told his parents as much. They contacted her parents, and the two sets of parents arranged a meeting. According to Ahmad, if the man and the woman don't hit it off in the series of supervised meetings that ensues, it's perfectly acceptable to abort the courting process. Thinking about it now, though, I wonder how much freedom his wife-to-be really had to say no.

Despite marrying an English teacher, it seems Ahmad's wife couldn't really speak any English at all, but we communicated a bit through her husband. After sitting and chatting with him for at least an hour, we started talking about how and when we were going to get back to Aleppo. Ahmad kindly declared “I will take you to Aleppo, but first you will come to my house and eat with my family”. Once again, I felt completely unprepared for this stranger's kindness. We were surprised and flattered and amazed, and tried to show it, and we accepted his invitation.

Ahmad led us down from Qala'at Samaan to the dusty parking lot where his vehicle was parked. I look at it and am a little bit surprised that a family of five came in what must be the tiniest pick up truck on the market. Ahmad suggested that I should ride with him in front, and Linh, his wife, and three children would sit in the bed of the truck. Later, Linh informed me that as soon as the truck got moving, Ahmad's wife covered her entire face with black cloth, so that no skin from head to toe was discernible. As Ahmad drove, he and I sat in the only two seats in the car. We men talked about cars, the terrain, farming, and life in Ahmad's village.

He was telling me that his car is Russian, and that Russian cars are very popular in Syria because they're inexpensive but are hardened to survive the cold winters.

“Oh, does it get cold here during the winter?”, I asked. It seemed so pleasant, even a little warm outside, that I couldn't imagine Russian-levels of cold resistance being necessary here at the western end of Syria.

“Oh yes”, said Ahmad. “It snows very much and gets very cold.”

I was looking out at the rocky, hilly terrain, dotted with olive trees, trying to imagine it covered with snow, when Ahmad stopped the little truck and started chatting with a teenage boy and a couple of girls who had been walking along the road. He greeted them warmly, and then they jumped in the back of the tiny little truck.

"They are my students", he explained. "I will take them back to our village."

A few kilometers more of bad roads leading through the hilly, rocky countryside brought us to Ahmad's village. There were small houses that looked like enlarged versions of the cement blocks from which they were built scattered across a hilly stretch of land, dotted with Olive trees and connected with dirt roads. We came to an intersection and Ahmad stopped the car to let his students out. As we wound through the dusty village, we saw lots of little children running around, and some old ladies watching out collecting wrinkles.

We made one more stop, this time to pick up food for our lunch. A few minutes later, we finally arrived at Ahmad's house. It was a long cement block that would have been undeniably ugly were it not for the large Arabic script along its front-facing side and a terrace of grape vines overhanging the entrance.

We entered the simple, one-room house and sat on the floor while Ahmad's wife prepared lunch. At our previous stop, she had bought two pre-cooked chickens and a giant bag of pita bread. She laid out the chicken, bread, olives, and some chopped tomatoes and cucumbers on the mat in the center of the room, and invited us to eat. We learned that the olives, tomatoes and cucumbers were from their own front yard, and that they usually only eat meat about once a week. Learning this, I rather bashfully helped myself to my fill of food, using no utensils other than the delicious pita bread. After a few minutes of eating Linh and I both stopped, despite our hosts' insistence that we should eat more; more of the chicken that they were too poor to eat very often themselves. We insisted that we had had our fill, and Ahmad's wife put the food away for them to enjoy another day.

After finishing the food, there was a satisfied post-meal lull in the conversation. Eventually I started looking around inspecting my environment and I noticed that the entire time we were sitting on the floor, eating, Ahmad's television was on, sitting off to the side, but raised above our heads. On the TV was a bearded man speaking energetically into the camera, looking a little bit like this television sheikh. I asked Ahmad about it.

"That is a famous sheikh from Egypt. He is talking about the Qur'an", explained our host.

"Oh. Do you watch a lot of Egyptian television?", I asked.

"Yes. We have a, uhm, a satellite, we get many channels for free. Many programs are made in Egypt. There are some channels that you have to pay for, but those are mostly bad channels that we don't want to watch."

"What kinds of things do you watch?"

"There are many programs. There are many different famous sheikhs, and there are movies; Egyptian movies and American movies. Some of the movies have sex in them; we don't watch those. Some movies have fighting and explosions; these I like", said Ahmad, smiling. I couldn't help but laugh at this, my stereotype of the average American parent's aversion to sex and acceptance of violence embodied before my eyes, there in Syria.

We sat there on the floor for a few hours, watching Ahmad's wife play with her children, and engaging in a what seemed to me to be a very thorough exchange of information. "In Syria, how many children do most people have?", asked Linh.

"Some families are very big. I have 5 brothers and 2 sisters", replied Ahmad. Then followed the inevitable mirror question from Ahmad, "What about in your country? In your family?"

And so it went on for a long time, interrupted several times by Ahmad deciding that he had to be even more ridiculously generous. Once he gave us a bag full of hand-made Syrian soap. A bit later, he gave us some decorative cloths to cover a dinner table or a television. Still later he gave us a tiny little decorative broom. At that point I started thinking, Maybe he's got all this junk and he sees an opportunity to get rid of it. But honestly, the generosity was just astounding.

In our discussion about our families, we learned that Ahmad's father and one of his brothers work at a government-run slaughter-house.

"Oh", I said, not really knowing how to respond.

"Would you like to go to the slaughterhouse?", asked Ahmad.

"Uhh...", I said, turning to Linh.

"When are we ever going to see a slaughterhouse in Syria again?", asked Linh.

"Okay, I guess we'd like to go, if it's not inconvenient", I said.

"Yes, Mr. Gary, just let me call my brother and ask him what time we should go", said Ahmad.

This day was getting stranger and stranger.