So there I was, walking down the dirt street toward the Dining Facility. My dusty way was hemmed in on both sides by large concrete barriers that serve as protection from mortars and very convincing guides for traffic to stay in the street.
I stepped through a break in the barrier and got on the sidewalk that runs beside a very low-slung, white-washed building of dubious origin. The sidewalk runs the length of the building, is covered by a stoop, and is walled off from the street by the backside of the concrete barriers. Yes, it's very much like a chute... and it's funny because most men are used to walking through this chute to get to the chow hall - it's the preferred route. Like cattle to a feeding trough, we don't normally notice that we are being hemmed in on all sides because of the rumble in our bellies.
I got to the end of the chute and went around the end of the low slung building. On the other side, about two doors down is a mid-sized room which has been set up as a kind of store. It's run by a foreigner and it doesn't have the same kinds of things that a regular Post Exchange would have, but it does have bootleg movies and some essentials, so there's always someone buying something. The fact that the shop is run by a foreigner and the fact that you can get somewhat local items from the store, leads most soldiers to dub the place a "Haji Shop".
"Haj" or "Haji" means "pilgrim" and is a term of respect that Arabic speaking peoples use to refer to: 1) someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, or 2) someone who is advanced in years. In the last couple of decades however, American soldiers have adopted the term "Haji" as the American monniker for any Middle Easterner - particularly Iraqis. It's today's "Kraut", "Nip", "Gook", or "Frog".
I walked through the doorway of the little shop and the man who runs it immediately recognized me. We greeted each other in Arabic. I've been here a couple times before and ever since the man found out I speak Arabic he doesn't use English with me. It's just as well, I need the practice. "How are you?" He said.
"Well," I responded, "hot!"
"Yes, hot," he said.
"The sixth month, the seventh, and the eighth month are the hottest," he said, "with the eighth comes a lot of humidity."
"Humidity?" I said, "I thought this country was dry, I didn't think there would be humidity!"
"Oh yes," He replied, "There's so much humidity here. The eighth month is when the dates get ripe too, but it's just very hot and there's all this humidity. It's like in Kuwait."
"Yeah," I said, moving away from the counter to locate the item I needed: a toothbrush.
"You've spent a Summer in Kuwait?" He directed the question at me as I stood next to the upright drink cooler beside the door.
"No," I said.
"Oh," he said getting up out of his chair and walking over to the cooler's glass door, "the humidity in the Summer is so bad the cars have to use their windshield wipers!" Using the glass as an illustration, he waved his hand back and forth showing me just exactly how the cars in Kuwait dealt with humidity.
My face registered my true amazement as I listened, observed and half-way wondered if next he would tell me about Kuwait's great fishing lakes and the monster trout he'd gotten there Summer before last, "Big as your head!"
I found the container on the shelf that held toothbrushes and selected one that had the least amount of pink on it. Walking back to the counter, I laid the brush down, but he made no announcement of price and made no move toward the cash register. We were still in visit mode and continued talking.
"So are you from here?" I asked.
"No, I am from Sudan."
"Really?!" I am surprised that this very-arab-looking man is from a region I thought was predominately black - indeed "Sudan" literally means, "place of the blacks" in Arabic.
"Yes," he said.
I then inquired whether the rest of the men who work around the post are from the Sudan as well. He responded that they are.
"I was here for six months last year," he said, "this shop actually belongs to a friend of mine that I have known for a very long time. He was here, but he is gone now... it's a very good situation for me."
I was going to ask if he had a family but never got it out. An arab interpreter came in and started talking to the shop man. They spoke in Arabic, but the interpreter kept saying bits in English for my benefit. He obviously did not pick up on the fact that I greeted him in Arabic when he walked in the door. The interpreter left and came back in just a second and then he was gone for good. By this time another soldier had walked in the door and was shopping. I needed to check out.
"I am in need of a tooth brush," I said to the shop man, holding up my choice.
"This is not a problem between you and me," he said, "it is my gift to you."
"Really?!" I exclaimed, "A thousand thank you's my friend!" I shook his hand, "A thousand thank you's." I walked out the door with a big grin on my face.
Now I am trying to think of what I can take back as a gift for the shop man... in this culture it doesn't pay to be out-given.