Najib was our waiter at the dingy, ill-lit shawarma place right inside the New Gate of Old City Jerusalem. He arrived at our table with twinkly light brown eyes, curly hair pulled into a pony tail at the nape of his neck and a tattoo peeking out from under his short-sleeve shirt. When we asked for a menu, he tugged at imaginary suspenders, rocked back on his heels and happily announced “I am the menu!” Sadly, he was not also dessert.
Anne, my travel companion, and I ordered the falafel combo for fifty shekels. Najeeb delivered it with a flourish, winked at me and refilled our waters. We were served a variety of small dishes holding hummus, chick pea salad with sour dairy sauce, shredded red cabbage, babba ganough with zucchini, fresh pita and the perfect falafel — crispy fried on the outside, piping hot, moistly flavorful and a bright, light green inside. We held hands, bowed our heads and gave thanks.
When I looked up, a white haired man with a nicotine-stained mustached at the table across from us said “Dat vas beautiful! Dat ees how eet should be!”
I said “Yes! It is beautiful to pray.”
“No — JU are beautiful!”
He rose from his table, came over to ours and offered me a drink of arrack, 50 proof anise flavored firewater to which a splash of water is added which turns it the color of very weak powdered milk. Sipped with the meal, it was the perfect compliment. I thanked him and he returned to his companions.
At the end of the meal, I excused myself to the bathroom. When I returned, my benefactor said in a loud enough voice for the whole dining room to hear “Ju are our light!”
I fanned my arms out as if doing a yoga sun salutation and said “Here I am!” while beaming benevolently and somewhat uncomfortably at his whole table of professionally dressed middle-aged men. They smiled happily.
My would-be suitor came over to our table and asked me for a pen. He wrote down his shop address and personal phone number on a napkin and handed it to me. Elie K. 26 & 28 Christian Quarter Rd. Ceramics. Jerusalem. 5-23-67-11.
“Great! Ceramics! I’ve been wanting to get some as gifts! — I’ll have to stop by for a visit.”
“Jes! I haf de beegest ceramic factory in all of Jersalem. Plees. Visit my chop. Ju call me, I come get ju and bring ju to my chop. Tank you veddy much. Ju are beddy beautiful. Beddy nice gehl.”
Anne accompanied me to his cramped shop a week later and I spent a happy hour picking out gifts while sipping thick, cardamom-laced coffee from a 2oz. disposable plastic cup. As he meticulously wrapped my purchases, Elie lowered his head and murmured in a conspiratorial tone “Are ju always with your friend? I would like to ask ju to dinner, if that’s ok for ju. Only eef dat ees ok for ju?” Casting about for a polite way to decline, I told him I would think about it. He gave me his card again, promising to take me to the best restaurant in town.
Later on, after I completed other purchases and returned to his shop to pick up my packages, he asked “Are ju sure ju wouldn’t like to spend the night with me?”
I was holding another obligatory cup of coffee. I set it down on the counter and looked at him. The shop was heavy with mid-afternoon heat and I could feel my blouse sticking to me. I moved my sweaty toes in their all-purpose sandals and tucked a damp tendril of hair behind my ear. His stained mustache moved up and down as he spoke, coffee and cigarettes enveloping me with each word. His yellowing teeth were twisted and worn and there were deep grooves on either side of his thin, wet lips. Ragged eyebrows framed small, intense brown eyes whose whites were dull and inflamed. Uneven white and grey hairs peeked from the top of his cheap, sweat-stained dress shirt. He stubbed out a smoldering cigarette and looked me expectantly.
I thanked him politely and told him I am a Christian. “Me too!” he interrupted, clearly delighted to have found common ground. With that issue resolved, we set a time for him to pick me up and I spent the rest of the afternoon shaving my legs, trying to paint my eyes like the women in the market and practicing the belly dance routine I had learned ten years before.
No…I am chust keeding ju. I didn’t spend the night with him. I got out of there as quickly and gracefully as I could, toted my lovingly and meticulously wrapped ceramics back to the hostel, wondered how Anne felt about another falafel combo and if Najib was available for dessert.