Joshua Mark: A Visit to السلط

I went to the city while it slept and I thought it was dead. Leaving the bustling streets of

الجبيهة and the lines of shops of صويلح, the town, quiet and resting on a جمعة afternoon,

seemed nothing more than a small, countryside village nestled in the ruins of something

that used to be great and beautiful, like a child swimming in its parent's clothes. All the

shops were closed, the streets were empty and I could only guess at where a side-street

or staircase ended and someone's house began — or were there only ruins? Truly, the

high walls that still stood, the outlines of the arches, the remains of the balconies

recalled large, majestic houses. But looking down from the ledge of the next street up

there was rubble, the roofs had long since caved in and one, two, three rooms lay dusty

and bare except for the odd piece of junk, and then a chair, and a carpet, and only then

a front door, a whole roof and a standing house, lost in the imprint of its predecessor. I

walked through the streets in awe of the decrepit beauty of the houses I passed, of the

delicate window frames and broken panes, of the colored tiles and layers of dust, of the

imposing archway in that back yard which hinted at something much greater than what

stood there now. The people I passed seemed just as small, just as lost among all these

echoes of glory as their houses dud; the singers only half filling the small church of St

George كنيسة الخادر felt like the last few souls of a ghost town.

I was forgetting, however, that يوم الجمعة is a quiet day, a day of rest and calm — if not in

Amman's busy streets, at least in a place like this. Life, people were still there behind the

shades, and علي called me up to his balcony to meet this life. My first experience with

such simple generosity, my first true Arab welcome when a man saw a little tourist at the

bottom of his stairs and invited him up for coffee then dinner, قهوة سادة و حلوة و كبسة. He was

kind and generous and eager to feed me. He helped me understand what hospitality

meant in his culture, and also to understand his town. "My neighbors there, they're

Christian, and over there too, we live together". It was still جمعة and he didn't need to

speak a lot, and in the silence as he smoked and we stared out over the old town I could

now feel the presence of an entire bubbling city just taking it slow for a day. He invited

me back earnestly, then sent his reluctant son to show me the Ottoman cemetery.

The monument to the violence that broke over this small peaceful city, three hundred

boys from Ankara and Istanbul and beyond come to die for these windows and

archways. The day after Nice was bathed in blood and I had stared at the screen for

hours before the overlapping voices of the muezzin drifted me to sleep. That is the first

thing علي — another علي — spoke to me about; that is not Islam, no Muslim wants that.

His words helped. That my first host loved his Christian neighbors helped. That علي was

watching the kids run and play and scream in front of the graves of the young soldiers

who died for nothing, that helped too. Time heals all things.

He too invited me for coffee. I sat surrounded by his brother his parents his children his

wife another mother, I felt an intruder though they wanted me there I could tell. I couldn't

help but notice the women rush inside to cover their hair and mouth. I couldn't help but

notice the young woman standing in the doorway peering at me, hiding — recoiling —

whenever I looked up; when they brought me in to wash my hands she ran. I had never

seen علي's daughter though I knew she was feet away, though I knew she made the food

and coffee; her brother brought them to me.

علي on his balcony had shown me a sleeping سلط, my second host and his family, happy

and inquisitive, were the end of the day, جمعة evening, when the air gets fresh and the

city wakes up and the streets are alive. As I went back down to the bus, people walked

in the streets, sat and laughed before their dusty archways, climbed crooked steps

behind the old high walls, looked out their columned windows at the lights of the shops

and restaurants and السلط coming back to life.


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