Rasheed is 14 years old and he is sitting in the back row of the Palmyra-Homs minibus when we climb on. After Brent finds a seat, the last available place is between him and and old man at the back, so I squeeze myself in, to the kid’s obvious delight.
I suppose for a 14 year old Syrian boy, having a foreigner sit down next to you on the Palmyra-Homs minibus qualifies as cause for excitement and a guarantee of entertainment for the otherwise dull 2–3 hour journey ahead – at least, the expression on his face and his intense interest in my every movement suggests so. I am the journey’s entertainment. The Playstation Portable of the Middle East.
We have caught the bus with seconds to spare – a feat achieved by having our taxi driver pull up in front of the bus to prevent it from pulling out – and I have the last available seat. Or so I thought, not having counted on the moulded plastic chairs which would soon be installed in the aisle of the tiny bus for passengers picked up along the way. Once those are full, additional passengers sit on the steps, or the floor, or hang on as best they can.
Up in the back row, Rasheed and I are getting on famously, although wordlessly. Not so the old man on the other side of me, who does not understand that salaam alaikum represents the vast bulk of my Arabic vocabulary, and prattles away at me, using the popular technique of endlessly repeating the same question in the hope that eventually it might make sense to me. The fact that he’s sitting on my deaf side as well doesn’t help.
Rasheed also speaks only Arabic, but his body English is easy enough to understand: You wipe your brow with a handkerchief and fold it before putting it back in your pocket? Hilarious! he mimes. You bring your own water in a reusable bottle rather than drink the free tap water available on board? Wait till I tell my friends!
He seems interested in the book I’m reading, so I show him the cover and explain, in English: “Hemingway. He’s rather good.” Not much recognition for the name but he’s smiling and making ‘thumbs up’ gestures at me, so I guess he approves.
Once we get out on the highway, the bus is getting too bumpy to read, so put the book in my bag and pull out the iPod, to escape the incessant Arabic pop music blaring over the speakers in the bus.
The bus is hurtling suicidally through the Syrian traffic, which seems always to be a kind of death-defying pandemonium where lane lines are just a suggestion and the only universally adhered-to road rule seems to be “always give a toot on the horn before doing something batshit crazy and risking your life and everyone else’s”, so I’m listening to some calming jazz to quiet my anxieties, and Rasheed’s interest is unabated, so I pass him the redundant ear bud and we share a little Chet Baker together. He sways his splayed fingers back and forth to the music in the hep-cat style, but after a few seconds he passes the earpiece back to me and shakes his head: Chet Baker’s not his style.
Eager to please, I mime hang on, I’ll find something you’ll like and flick through the playlists looking for something that might appeal to a 14 year old Arabic kid sitting up the back of the Palmyra-Homs microbus as it hurtles across the Syrian desert toward Homs, or death, whichever comes first. Got it. Put your earpiece back in. You’ll like this.
So let’s dance through all our fears,
War is over for a bit,
The whole world should be movin’ through your heart.
Your disco, your disco, your disco needs you…
Rasheed’s eyes widen and shine, and we start laughing and dancing in our seats, sharing a moment of Kylie-ecstasy so much like, and so different from, all the others I’ve shared before.
So in a few years’ time, when Kylie is about to embark upon yet another concert tour to the Middle East, you’ll know where it all started.
(Photo above: on board the Palmyra-Homs minibus. Click to enlarge.)