From Chapter 14: Bartering
Ismail and the dwarf were still lobbing numbers back and forth like hot potatoes. Their contest may have lasted just a few minutes, but to me it felt like hours. Each imperious announcement from Ismail, each indignant shriek from the dwarf drove my blood pressure higher. I could not understand why Ismail would waste his time haggling over a few coins with someone who clearly needed the spare change far more than we did…I tried to flash Ismail a look that said enough, but he was so focused on his wrangling that he didn’t even notice me. Finally, I leaned into his face and mouthed, Give. Him. The. Money.
Ismail’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. Immersed in this ancient ritual, he had momentarily forgotten all about his life on the other side of the world: his corporate job and wallet full of credit cards. His frequent flyer miles and wireless Internet access. His suburban home and his American wife.
He dug into the pocket of his shorts, pulled out a small pile of coins, and dropped them into the open palm of the dwarf, whose face broke into a victorious smile as he closed his fist over the money. He thrust a pair of sunglasses at Ismail, then retreated bowlegged and sideways through the crowd. I spun on my heels and walked briskly in the other direction.
“What’s wrong?” Ismail sputtered, struggling to catch up.
I glanced back at him helplessly. What’s right? I wanted to ask. Can you name one thing that is right about haggling mercilessly with a disabled dwarf over forty cents in the middle of a crowded marketplace? Instead I picked up my pace.
“You don’t understand,” I tossed back lamely, struggling to dislodge a single sentence from the glut of words stuck in my throat. His behavior made him seem terribly cheap and irratio- nal; it embarrassed me. But I could see that my exasperation and judgment were just as unsettling to him, and I felt that familiar wave of exhaustion and despair as I began, once again, to search for the right words to build a bridge between us, to follow language back to this partnership, to restore us to husband and wife instead of two foreigners gaping at one another with naked prejudice.
He was nearly jogging now to keep up with me, feinting left and right to dodge approaching shoppers. I stepped up my pace, avoiding eye contact, until finally he reached for my arm and pulled me around to face him.
“Do you expect me to act like a tourist in my own hometown, to give that man exactly the price he demanded? This is what we do in the marketplace: we challenge each other. We yell. We laugh. We negotiate. It would have been an insult to him to avoid bartering. Where I come from, we don’t patronize people simply because they look different.”
His words were like oxygen to my smoldering resentment, fanning it into a full-blown flame. How dare he accuse me of being incapable of dealing with difference? Wasn’t I here in this broken-down country on the North African coast, surrounded day and night by people who were different from me in every imaginable way? Hadn’t I smiled and bowed my head, drunk and eaten everything I was offered, including the gnarled and greasy jerk meat that made my stomach turn? I’d extended my hand to yet another visitor when all I wanted was solitude. I’d spent long days and nights in crowded homes, barely feeling the sunlight on my face, when all I wanted to do was slip out the door and explore the city on my own. I’d been trying my best to play the part of gracious daughter-in-law and guest, while inside I swung among mounting resentment, dizzying boredom, and bouts of homesickness as visceral as nausea. I was beginning to feel like a marionette with a frozen smile and a bright, wooden gaze, my every gesture produced by Ismail’s family and friends tugging at my strings.
And then it dawned on me: I had kept everyone here at a polite distance, had never once risked treating them like kin by engaging them in messy, authentic interactions. Not once had I clearly asserted myself or stood my ground. What would have happened if I refused another cup of tea and excused myself and disappeared behind a closed door? Or sat down next to Ismail in a room full of the men, or pulled him down beside me on the floor among the women, insisting he translate so I could have a real conversation? Instead I had approached my relatives like an anthropologist, trying my best to blend in with the surroundings while I took mental notes about their strange customs, many of which I saw through the small, sharp lens of judgment and pity.