On a recent trip to the Middle East, one of my childhood dreams came true – exploring the ancient Nabatean ruins of Petra, Jordan, the red desert sands of Wadi Rum, and the rich, healing muds of the Dead Sea. Click here to see my photos of Jordan.
In Petra, I was particularly taken (meaning both charmed and ripped off) by a young Bedouin urchin. Walking through the ruins early one morning, she came running after me screaming “Hey mister, hey mister!” As I turned towards her, I steeled myself for yet another sales pitch. “Hey, mister, you forgot your smile.” That stopped me in my tracks. We laughed together, but it was really when she introduced herself as Magritte that she really caught my attention. Not a typical Bedouin name, by longshot. What was weird was that, just moments before, my mind had recalled a random conversation from months earlier in which Magritte, the artist (of This is Not a Pipe fame) had come up. Coincidence?
I decided to hire her to be my guide and, hiking together over the next couple of hours, I learned a lot from that little girl. Like, appreciating her curiosity about my camera, battling with my fears that she’d steal it (she didn’t), or that she’d break it (she came close). Or how a little punk survives ‘on the streets’ as it were.
When we reached the top of the mountain, Magritte took me to her lean-to, where we gathered a few twigs and, adding a scrap of rubber, made a small, smoky fire on which to boil water for tea. We shared the cheese sandwiches I had brought with me and then, finishing up our morning meal, Magritte insisted that I look her assortment of local jewelry for sale.
Despite being, nearly without exception, the dregs of the dregs, I offered to purchase a few pieces. I loved how she calculated the price … in English, counting … $10 for this, $8 for that, $8 for that. With each piece worth about $0.50, max, she was setting me up to negotiate from a base of hugely inflated prices, all with a perfectly straight, poker face. She was good. After extensive ‘negotiations’, in the end I agreed to a hugely-overpriced total of $30 but … I didn’t have change for my two, $20 bills. I had correct amounts in Euros and British Pounds, but she wasn’t biting. It was $USD all the way. She was wearing me down, and in the end, I said “Here, take the $40.” But she had her thieves pride, this girl. “NO,” she insisted, “we agreed on $30!” The only solution was to give me another expensive necklace to call it even.
“If anybody asks you what you bought from me, just tell them you bought this bracelet for $1″, she said, thrusting one last gift upon me and, even more quickly, secreting the $40 into her pants before any of her neighbors could see it.
I tried to imagine any of my nephews – all a few years older than Magritte – surviving for a day, let alone a lifetime – out here in dilapidated shelter, the intense heat, needing to rely on wits alone against poverty, lack of education, and God-only-knows what else. Hell, I tried to imagine myself under such circumstances. I couldn’t.
The bracelet broke within hours, but I wear her necklace to this day, as a reminder about a little girl, a survivor, a teacher … my teacher.