Fill It Up – Madaba, Jordan

Fill It Up
Madaba, Jordan

I was in Madaba, a little town in Jordan just south of Amman. I’d flown into Amman the previous day and picked up my rental car at the airport. My car company only gave me enough gas to reach Madaba, so the first task of the day was to fill up the tank.

The nearest gas station was a tiny cinder-block building with no glass in the windows and a single rusty pump out front. The first time I drove past it, I thought it was closed. The second time I pulled in just to look at my map, and a teenage kid came out and asked how much gas I wanted. So it really was open. Good.

I didn’t know the Arabic word for “full” so I tried to pantomime. By the way, if you’re ever playing charades and the word you draw is “full,” just give up. It’s impossible to explain the term “full” with hand gestures and weird postures. I wasted ten minutes pointing at the car, the pump, the kid and myself and repeating, “fool, fool,” with no success. The kid just stood by the pump and tried not to laugh. There were four other guys in the cinder-block building, one of whom spoke a little English. While I was pointing at the fuel pump and holding my hand over my head and jumping up and down, he called me over to have a drink. I gave up my pantomime and went inside.

Inside the building I found: a mattress covered in blankets, three plastic chairs, an old car seat, a kerosene heater, and four very cheerful young men (plus the one pumping my gas outside). They were chattering away in Arabic and having a great time. One of them was sprawled out on the mattress. Two sat in the plastic chairs. The one who spoke English squatted next to the heater and filled a teapot with water. “Welcome, welcome,” he said, “Soon we have tea.” Gas Pump Guy ran in and asked my English-speaking friend something in Arabic. “How much do you want?” he asked me. “Fill it up,” I replied. He translated, and Gas Pump ran back outside. I flopped down in the car seat and waited for the tea.

The four guys talked to each other in Arabic, and I had no idea what they were saying. They kept looking at me and gesturing toward me, so I guess I was the subject of the conversation. After a few minutes English speaker turned to me and asked, “Where are you from?”

“The United States.”

“United States?” All four of them burst into Arabic. They talked to each other, looked at me, and laughed. Talked some more, looked at me again, laughed again. After a minute, English speaker said, “Let me show you a picture.” He pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and handed it to me. The background picture was a photo of Osama Bin Laden. The room became very quiet, but they all kept smiling.

“So what do you think?” English Speaker asked.

“Um, it’s a nice phone.”

“No, the picture.”

“Yes, it’s a picture of bin Laden.”

“What do you think of bin Laden?”

I couldn’t come up with a good answer. “I think he’s in Afghanistan?”

“Where do you visit in the Middle East?”

“Just Jordan this time.”

“Syria? Lebanon?”

“Lebanon next time. I want to see Beirut.”

“Israel? Iraq?” Laughter all around.

“I don’t visit Iraq.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t think…Americans should…be in Iraq.” I hoped that was a good answer. It made him laugh, so I took that as a good sign.

“What about Israel? What do you think about Israel? Israel no? Do you like Israel?”

Gas Pump came back in and asked me for forty dinar. I gave him a fifty and told him to keep the change. “No,” he said in English, “Forty. Ten and four. Forty.” I shoved fifteen dinar in his hand. English speaker asked me to sit back down and have some tea, but I mumbled something about seeing Mount Nebo at sunrise and rushed out the door.

In hindsight, the guy probably didn’t mean any harm. He and his friends were just bored and felt like scaring a tourist. Well, it worked. I was on edge all day, but later I was more pissed than frightened. I couldn’t really get angry at him for messing with a tourist. That’s what tourists are for – entertaining the locals. Still, I feel like I lost a day of travel to paranoia. If I ever see that son of a bitch in the States, me and four of my redneck friends are going to corner him in the back of a gas station and ask him what he thinks of Jesus, George Bush, and squealing like a pig.

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