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JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel. The Middle East: FATIMA !

Bedouin Bazaar Visions

Visions, imaginations, fantasies. On occasion, Shepherd mixes them all into a delicious fruitcake of a dream. So you have trouble understanding what is true and what is only true to our fondest desires. In their own way they are all rather real–what is more real than our inner, fondest desires?

I’m down in the heart of the Bedouin bazaar in the middle of Nazareth, and it’s a long, narrow, twisted, involved street.  It’s about six feet across.  And as you go step by step you get deeper and deeper into another world.  And you get further and further away from America.  And each step the smells get more subtle.  Oh, yeah, there’s stuff you wouldn’t believe that smells, friend.  Oh, yeah, and when you get a montage of these aromas, it does something to your soul.

You know, I’m a typical American.  There’s a certain point when you think you’re hip and then all of a sudden you encounter something totally alien and all your hip-ness departs.  I walk into this place, and here is this Arab sheik.  He’s got this tarbush on.  He says, “Ah, you are zee American.”

I say, “Yeah.”

He says, “Come into my shop.  Let us sit down and speak of what perhaps you would like to take home to America as a little gift.”

So we sit down and immediately he brings out this Turkish coffee and we sit at this tiny inlaid table.  Me looking at him, him looking at me.

Then he says, “What was it you desired to take home as a souvenir?”  There is a slight flicker of his shoulder and I see a figure behind in the darkness appear from behind the beaded screens.  It is this fantastic alabaster dream.  What a chick!  Whooo!  She has these almond eyes, and she just appears for an instant—and then disappears.

His eyebrow flicker just slightly.  He says, “Is there anything you see?”

I say, “Well, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.”

He says. “That is exactly what I thought.  Now let us speak.  What was it you want?”

I can see by a flicker of his left hand that it is expected of me to discuss water pipes, which are over here all piled up, marked “For Tourists Only.”

I say, “How about a water pipe?”

He says, “Ahhh.  I have superb water pipes.  I have many water pipes.  Zis one was made during the reign of the Turks.  And zis goes back to the Byzantine Empire.  And I have ozzers.”

I say, “I’m interested in ozzers.”

He says, “Ahhh, I can see you are a man of taste and discretion.”

Behind us I can hear this oriental, this Arabic music, begin to play toomdatoomdatoomdatoom.  I can hear the sound of those pipes Eioroiretoomdatoomdadatoom.  And boy, I can feel my blood boiling.

And he says, “I can arrange to have whatever you wish sent to you duty free.”

I say, “Duty free?!”

“Duty free.”

I say, “Well, he he.”

We settle back for a long moment like that.  And there is a sudden moment, a sudden instant, and once again I see this alabaster form.  This time it’s another alabaster form.

He says, “I have much in stock.”

Little did I realize at that moment that I had engaged myself in a subtle bargaining, a subtle but very, very well-established pattern.  I was about to buy, gentlemen, the ultimate souvenir.  Haven’t you, as an American, as a traveler, haven’t you wanted someday, to bring back the one thing that really said it?  Yes!  And you get it back home and it just turns out to be a rotten little vase.  Just a crummy vase, and you see them up and down 42nd Street.  And you lugged it back in your bag six-thousand miles and it turns out to be a rotten little vase.  Well, I am sitting with this Arab sheik and he says to me, “Of course, you realize, that zes things take time.”

I say, “How much?”

He says, “It depends on za sort of negotiation that you wish to enter into.  Do you wish to pay cash or do you wish to charge it?”

Little did I realize how spectacularly successful my Diners Club card could be.  Well, I am sitting with this guy for fifteen minutes and we are talking back and forth with this subtle innuendo of two old, experienced men of the world.  Until finally, he says, “Za deal is complete.  It was a pleasure to do business with you.  Her name is Fatima.  Of course you can call her anything you care to.  She prefers Fatima.”

And I say, “Fatima.  Fatima!  Oh boy, wouldn’t they love to see Fatima in Hammond, Indiana!”  Yes, Fatima!  Little did I realize that I could get her not only duty free, but I could get her disguised as a lamp.  That’s how she’s coming in.  And it is through a long, involved, subtle negotiation like that that I finally achieve the ultimate!  I don’t know how long the law’s going to let me get by with it.  I don’t know, but I’ve had that moment of fantastic success.  I’m watching now for the call from the American Express Company.  I wonder how she’ll be wrapped.  I wonder what you say when that first moment comes.  “Come, Fatima, come.”  A true slave!  Imagining this first moment was the most fun I’ve ever had.  I don’t think anybody who has ever bought a Doberman Pinscher has had as much fun as I had.

Well, I’ve made my peace and I’m going to continue to live with it.  You know it’s a funny thing about people.  When you travel out and you learn about your land, you know.  I am in the middle of this fantastic scene in a town north of Tel Aviv.  This is another time when you discover yourself.  It’s a low mud hut and I’ve been taken in by this guy who says, “So you really want to see how za native world loves?”

And I say, “Yeah!”

So we go into this place.  It’s all lit with purple lights and I can see people lounging on the floor.  There’s guys wearing tarbushes.  You ought to see an Arab when he’s in his full regalia.  They wear shades.  You ought to see an Arab in his shades.  That is an Arab in full heat.  Two o’clock in the morning.  Here they are.  They’re all in this dark place.  I can hear the tinkle of little bells somewhere in the distance.  I can smell some subtle aromas, which even by just smelling them, I know they’re illegal.  I step over these bodies.  I’m in this dark den of iniquity in the Middle East.  We’ve all vibrated to that.

And out of the darkness comes this man who runs this place and he says to me, “What is your pleasure?”  What is your pleasure?!  What are you going to do when somebody asks you that?  In the middle of what appears to be a den of decadence, of decadence beyond measure!  He says, “What is your pleasure?”  And the only thing you could think of is, “You got any Coke?”  It’s terrible being an American!  We’re very uncreative sinners, you know?

So, in the middle of all that, I’m sitting there and I can remember my mother.  I’m a little kid, see.  This is one of the remembrances that I think clouds our thinking about places like that.  I can remember my mother, she’s got this fantastic hang-up.  A hang-up on Gary Cooper.   I remember going to this movie with her—we followed it all around the Midwest.  Every afternoon she was off she’d take me to see the picture with Gary Cooper in the French Foreign Legion.  My mother had this idea in her head that if she could only get to the desert, Gary Cooper would grab her.  Or Rudolph Valentino would grab her. She could see herself being carried away on a horse.  Off into the desert to this tent made out of camel hair.

Sheik

Rudolph, the Arab sheik

and Mrs. Ann Shepherd.

For those of you who are wondering, we will be broadcasting live at the Limelight this week.  I’m going to wear my tarboosh and I am bringing my Arab slave girl down to the Limelight to make a personal appearance.  She arrived today and I’m delighted to report she arrived undamaged, duty-free, and she’s magnificent.  Alabaster skin, sparkling eyes.  Oh, by George, it’s the perfect souvenir.

the-bedouin-dancer-otto-pilny

FATIMA

•the perfect souvenir•

_______________________________________________________

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3 Comments

  1. Steve says:

    Apropos of your recent piece about the spelling(s) of Shep’s name, you misspelled his mother’s. It would be “Mrs. Anne Shepherd” not “Ann.” She also used “Anna” or “Annie” at various times in her life.

  2. Bill Welsch says:

    Gene,
    I enjoy checking your site regularly for updates. Great stuff! I’ll often listen to a Shep program from the Fathead Central project during cocktail hour, with my glass of Jameson. This evening, by chance, was the Limelight story that included the tale of Fatima. It reminded me of my own negotiation with a street vendor in Tangier last year, though my tale wasn’t as interesting as Shep’s. Thanks!
    Bill Welsch

    • ebbergmann says:

      Thanks for the comment. Please comment any time you’re inclined. The Fatima story is one of the very few travel tales of Shep that is obviously a fantasy–most of what he has to say about his trips I believe is absolutely true.

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