The pillows caught my eye in a restaurant in Amman, Jordan. They were hand woven of a coarse textile like the desert they came from. Their color pattern brought to mind Native American work and I knew right away that I had to have them. They were the perfect accent to a sumptuous dining room made to resemble the interior of a Bedouin tent of a sheik of high rank. The interior lighting, made to resemble torches, gave the room a most exotic flavor. Each low table seat had a pillow for back support. It was a memorable room that deserved attention, but for me it was all about the pillows.
I barely managed to contain my inner ugly American when the manager politely declined to sell me the pillows, and claimed no knowledge of where they might have come from.
Oscar, my local guide and fixer, immediately rose to the occasion, vowing that together, we would find them. Of such dreams, small quests become grand, and while we were not quite Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, we determined to set out on our own search through lands far and wide.
The following day we must have visited every furniture store in Amman to no avail. Each time I showed the salesperson my pillow photo on my phone the response was universally the same. I could not possibly want those pillows as they were Bedouin!"
When I made it clear that I did indeed want Bedouin pillows I was met with either condescension or outright scorn. That was my introduction to the Middle East caste system and it became personal. I was not going to leave Jordan without my Bedouin Pillows. Oscar vowed that it would be so.
Now at this point I must tell you about my man, Oscar. He was the quiet, stoic type, a man of few words but each was chosen well. He was a guy who needed a shave right after he had one and he was compact and solid, like a short linebacker. His catlike movements carried an essence of danger, and if one could be at once sophisticated and feral, Oscar was both. He always wore a long-sleeved shirt and blazer but I imagined him covered with tattoos. On our second day together, I saw the shoulder holster under his sport coat, and at a military checkpoint he handed over a Palestinian passport.
Now, at the time, my knowledge of their situation was limited, but I was not naïve about the Palestinian Liberation Organization. They were founded in 1964 in Cairo during a gathering of the Arab League, and in fact one co-founder was Egyptian president Gamal Nasser, along with the more famous Yasser Arafat. Their goal being the "Liberation of Palestine through armed struggle," both America and Israel had labeled them a guerilla organization.
I was there during what was known as the "2nd Intifada." Intifada is derived from an Arabic word meaning loosely to cast off or get rid of something; in this case, Israeli occupation. This uprising lasted sporadically from 2000-2005.
Oscar's shoulder holster spoke volumes but did not confirm that he was PLO. He might have had a concealed carry permit when we were checked by the Jordanian army. When I spotted his ankle holster as he exited the car I told myself that maybe he was just a well-trained and equipped guide, and perhaps packing enough heat to defend the Alamo is normal in those parts.
Oscar was an excellent guide, full of historical knowledge and local lore; an intense but slow storyteller. He seemed a guarded man with a need to talk, but his presence made me feel secure. He showed his greatest flash of humanity when he pounded my knee with a stone-like fist while shouting, "Hah!" at one of my stories. That moment seemed to be a breakthrough for both of us. After that, we began to talk freely on subjects far and wide. We were feeling each other out like two punch-shy boxers. So, for the next few days, we toured the ancient wonders of Jordan while my pillow hunt was put on hold.
We visited Mount Nebo from whose summit God supposedly showed Moses the Promised Land. We toured Aqaba where Lawrence and Feisal defeated the Turks, then visited their headquarters camp at Wadi Rum. We walked the streets of Jerash where a glorious Roman arch once welcomed Alexander to the city. We toured the ruins of Petra on donkeys, like ancient pilgrims. We ate gyros and drank strong coffee and I marveled at how many KFC's there were with a Kentucky colonel selling fried chicken in Arabic. I decided Oscar could be a genial fellow beneath his gruff exterior, but I kept my shields up.
Two separate instances said he was either ex-military or current PLO. One afternoon we wandered into a tiny village whose name escapes me to find the streets lined with tribal men: All of them heavily armed. Oscar surveyed the scene, and hit the gas, fishtailing us straight through town. "Blood Feud," was all he said. The most telling moment took place at the crusader castle of Karak. I was approached by a gentleman in Kufiyah who was instantly strong-armed by Oscar who hustled him away. His explanation was, "We have little kidnapping problem here."
Returning to Amman he quietly announced that he wanted me to meet some of his friends. I knew then I had just been invited to have drinks with the PLO.
Then I had to check my writer's imagination because it occurred to me how stupid I would feel should he turn out to be just a well-armed and highly trained guide in a turbulent area.
The zig-zag route he drove through back streets made it impossible for me to know where we were. We entered the older part of the city and were greeted by decaying buildings, political graffiti, and trash. We turned down rear alleys where kidnapping would definitely fall within the realm of possibilities. Afternoon shadows were growing long and the city was turning dark. For one of those rare moments in my travels, I felt good that Omar was carrying guns, while wondering deep down if he would protect me or abduct me.
He parked in a dark alley and we got out to walk past the glow of cigarettes back-lighting momentary silhouettes. There were numerous gentlemen about of whom I had no doubt, could readily gut me like a fish should they desire it.
He led the way up a staircase to a rear door and knocked in what could only have been a code. The door opened to a dimly lit room that appeared like any coffee bar. Several young men puffed on hookahs, (locally called sheesha) while others played chess. A few were idly watching a soccer match. There were some older fellows whose miles showed on them but most of the room was young. Not one head turned when I entered and I could have as easily walked into the day room of the YMCA but then I saw the AK 47 in an umbrella stand by the front door.
Catching my reaction, Oscar motioned for me to sit, ordered two chocolate coffees, and called for a hookah. Drawing deeply on the sweet fruity tobacco he told me that when his company received my request for a guide he had googled me, and because I was a writer, he grabbed me as his client. Now I waited to hear if I was a prisoner or just a "detained" writer for the cause. Either way, it came to me that at the very least it might be a very cool story if my search for pillows landed me in a PLO prison.
I was surprised by the total lack of reaction when this white westerner walked in carrying a camera bag, so I assumed he had told them a writer was coming, but he denied having done this, fearing they might not like it. So he had rolled the dice and I could have been the loser. But, the best stories have always come when I'm outside my comfort zone, so if being with Oscar was good enough for them, I was going with the flow. They even told me I could take photos as long as I did not photograph anyone carrying a weapon.
No one was even remotely threatening though most of the room was packing. There were no political harangues or denunciations of Israel or the United States. No one asked if I was an American even as my own country had labeled them a terrorist organization. There was no proselytizing, no political statements, and no questions asked.
Each in his own time came to shake hands, some saying hello in halting English. I was invited to play chess, and I threw darts with great inaccuracy, but stopped short of asking to pose with an AK thinking that would come back to bite me at some point; "Commie writer joins militant terror cell!" That could be detrimental to one's career.
I sat to watch soccer not knowing what I was watching, and I shared several bowls of fruit tobacco on a hookah while monitoring all of the exits. Realizing I was no prisoner I relaxed a bit. This was obviously downtime and Oscar wanted me to see them as people, nothing more. After all, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter as my own country has proven.
Oscar did not ask me to write about them and I decided not to ask any personal questions. It was enough to take in the atmosphere. He only said that if I did, to please tell the world what I had seen, and nothing more. I told him that politics was not my genre and that if I did write of them it would only be about our time together. I gained no great insight to their cause in our brief time together, nor did I seek it, and I was not going to judge anybody after an afternoon of chocolate coffee and chess, let alone an entire political movement.
He seemed at peace with that and drove me to the hotel in the wee hours. It was only after returning to my room that night that I realized the enormity of what had happened. He had risked it all to give me that brief look inside his group. I had to believe he had studied my character during our days together and judged me worthy of a chance to see his side of things. I also wondered what would have happened had the Jordanian police or Israeli military stormed the room while I was there. We had both taken enormous chances and both got what we wanted, a true story.
I saw nothing that day to identify those men as terrorists. I have seen more guns in South Central L.A. than I did in that room. What I did see was a group of friendly gentlemen who welcomed a stranger into their midst and even allowed me to take photos, despite all the fire power in the room.
The next morning, Oscar picked me up on time and I was clear that I needed no more drama and wanted to resume my pillow hunt. He laughed as he opened the car trunk and there were my pillows! The exact pillows I had seen in the restaurant. I did not want to know where he got them.
Our journey together had been one of mutual discovery; mine of an ancient land and its people, especially an often-misunderstood minority. Omar got to see that not all westerners demonized those who shared his political beliefs.
I sent him a copy of this story as I remember it, but have heard nothing back.
I have never grown tired of the pillows on my sofa and whenever I sit among them I smell chocolate coffee and wonder how close they might have come to making me a political prisoner.
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in forty-some countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
Nomadic Voices in the Kingdom of Jordan - David Lee Drotar
Make Hummus, Not Walls - Larry Zuckerman
When in Jordan... - Shari Caudron
Common Ground in the Kasbah - James Michael Dorsey
See other Middle East travel stories from the archives
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