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The Sandwich Man

I’m not great at languages, but I’ve travelled enough in less industrialised countries to value the importance of friendly greetings. So the first things I try to learn in the local language are “Hello” “How are you?” “I’m fine” “Yes” “No” “Please” “Thank you” and “I’m vegetarian”. Did I mention I’m rubbish at languages? Well, my pronunciation sucks too!

Luckily the old man in the sandwich shop in Balata – a refugee camp just outside Nablus in the west Bank – was incredibly patient, and after a series of mimes by us both, and me trying several variations on saying “Ana Nabeti” he seemed confident he knew what to make me. Another thing I’ve learnt from travelling is that normally trusting the locals is a good bet! I was right – shortly after he disappeared into a side room out wafted the delicious smell of omelette. I happily handed over some shekels and received a paper bag of neatly wrapped herby omelette in pitta bread and went off with my packed lunch to monitor an IDF checkpoint nearby.

The next day I returned to the sandwich man. He smiled and I relished the ritual of exchanging greetings – there’s little that is really so urgent that its worth not acknowledging the humanity of each other. He offered me another “birdie” and I agreed, trusting him – correctly once again as this was the word for the omelette. It was really nice to have this personal exchange – we had very little shared verbal language, but I clearly really liked his sandwiches, and I also enjoyed the relaxed ritual of seeing him. We connected over just that daily small exchange – the odd looking English speaking stranger who probably inadvertantly broke local custom and the patient old man who crafted my daily lunch.

His little sandwich shop was in many ways typical of the ways that Palestinians scrape a living out of their circumstances; he’d remodelled the front room of a hastily made dwelling of cheap construction materials. But the walls in the room had many small bird cages. Two contained small birds that I think were budgies, but the rest were empty. As I became slightly more confident in Arabic, and anyway wanting to deepen my connection with him, I brought up the subject, pointing to one of the birds and saying the arabic word for “nice”. It had clearly been the correct topic to bring up as his eyes brightened and we had a small interaction, most of which I didn’t follow but seemed to be about how the birds were pretty and sang cheerfully. He went over and put some seed in and he had that demeanour of the happy pet lover.

But then he pointed to the other cages – the vast majority that were empty, and his face dropped. I fumbled in my poor Arabic, but could only ask him “ok?” and he mimed someone pushing into the shop, taking out a gun and shooting at the cages – I could see that there was bullet damage to the walls of the room, espec behind the cages, but this is remarkably unremarkable in Balata refugee camp.

The next day I asked an English speaking Palestinian to come with me and got the full story. During one of the many times that Israeli soldiers entered Balata, with their tanks churning down the main streets, some of the soldiers had come into his shop. They’d seen that just the old sandwich man was there, and then, as many 18 year olds would given weapons and social sanction, had opened fire on the budgies in their cages.

It wasn’t my lack of Arabic that made me as speechless then, as I am now, writing this 8 years later in English.  It was being faced with how easy war and nationalism makes it for one person to casually destroy what makes someone else’s life worth living.

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  1. Jon_from_Shef
    April 18, 2011 at 5:36 am

    Thank you for this story.

    I wonder what we do to people with nationalism & national service?

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