“Let’s go, man.”
We took the long way back to the parking lot, every moment asking why? — why are we doing this? why are you doing it with me? Given each action, each movement, under what circumstances would they make sense? If you’re trying to rob me? If you’re just trying to hang out?
“I don’t normally come here,” Salim said about the downtown quarter. “But I like to walk with company, because of this one.” He patted his belly.
He walked me into a falafel shop — I’d mentioned I was hungry. I ordered one, then two, and Salim paid. Weird. Sure, they were about 50 cents each, but when did a cab driver ever take his fare to lunch? Either he felt it was only fair considering how many thousands of dollars of electronics and dirty sweatshirts he was going to steal from me, or he bizarrely wanted to make a nice gesture for a tourist in his city.
Whatever his game, I decided to fight back. We paused at a streetside tea vendor. I paid. Maybe if I was nice enough, and melted his heart with warm mint tea, he’d call off the hit.
We got closer to the car — or where it used to be. I paced faster, camera in one hand, Styrofoam cup of tea in the other. I saw the car. And then:
“Here, take the keys. I’m going to run to the bathroom.” No, No, NO.
I sure as shit wasn’t going to let him out of my sight at the goddamn crime scene.
“No. I can’t.” I lifted my full hands.
I knew that, although once liberating, the touch of these car keys would have me trapped. Again I asked myself why? Under what circumstances do you give a stranger the keys to your car? When they won’t have time to use them.
He just couldn’t trust me enough for this to be on the level. I mean, yes, I shared a name with his son, and he had said he didn’t have another fare until 4:30 at the airport. But I just couldn’t relax completely, I couldn’t, I…
And it was all there, as delicately perched on the backseat as I’d left it. I made some excuse to open the trunk, and found the same duffel I’d packed that morning in Jerusalem. I had proved my hypothesis, all while acting in living contradiction: yes, strangers can trust each other within the bounds of reason; no, the third world is not always out to get you just because you’ve got headphones. Yet I’d spent an hour attempting to unravel a plot that wasn’t there.
I realize that many of my most positive experiences in the Middle East are birthed in a cradle of mistrust, nourished from the placenta of learned racism. Would I act likewise with a cabbie somewhere else? Maybe. Mankind is constantly testing itself, every member of society scrutinizing every other. I’ve taken to using myself as a human subject in those tests — refusing to act on anxieties, except insofar as to prepare for catastrophe.
So, the bomb squad says, this is going to get messy.
Okay, we must say. So let’s lay down a tarp.
The very question, “under what circumstances?” is flawed, for it demands some consistency of setting, some control for the experiment. My answers to that question differed greatly from Salim’s — at least in more panicked moments — as we’d performed such different tests throughout our lives. But now I have a broader spectrum, a wider graph to use later. Under what circumstances might a cab driver hang out all day with his fare (and buy him falafel)? In Amman. On a Tuesday.
Or, when he’s robbing him.