Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Clean sheets (T 10 - Iraq 1960s)

(This is the tenth of my travellers’ tales for my grandchildren. Iraq, January 1965) 

We had reached the street when the landlady called us back. “Oh, all right”, she said. “I’ll give you fresh sheets, you cheeky young buggers.” “For the same price?” “Yes, yes, of course for the same price!” So we went inside again and watched while she re-made the bed with freshly washed sheets and pillow-cases. Not particularly clean, but un-slept-on since they had last been bashed on rocks in the local stream. No black hairs from last night’s occupant, for instance.

She had been indignant at our indignation. “But these sheets are fresh! They’ve only been on the bed for ten days, for goodness sake.” She held out her hands for me to count her fingers. The conversation was all in fluent Arabic, at least on her side. We had long ago learnt the words for “clean sheets”, and I figured out what the ten fingers meant and signified. She made a mistake mentioning the ten days, though actually it was the greasy black hairs on the pillow that lost her the argument.

We were chums again, and I paid her in advance for the night’s lodging. We reckoned it wasn’t bad value for fifty cents. It wasn’t even the worst accommodation we’d had in our travels. What we referred to as The Bridal Suite had been pretty dreadful, in some other town along the way. It was a room with walls made of brown paper – scraps of varying shapes and sizes held together with sticky tape, from floor to ceiling on three sides with a concrete wall on the fourth. It was designed to give the most basic privacy for the rare married couple on a trip.

That “most basic” had been debased a great deal since it had been first constructed. Every male who ever rented a bed in the dormitory beyond the brown paper had poked a hole in the brown paper in hopes of catching a glimpse of female flesh. Linda swore she saw eyes peering in through the holes, and maybe she did. Good luck to them; we slept fully clothed. In those parts of the Third World, very few women stayed at public inns. The only customers were men, who all slept in the one room. Only rarely did we get a room to ourselves.

Our overnight beds were usually pretty crappy, even by the standards of the Middle East. We were travelling poor, after all. Maybe it was our insistence on clean (fresh) sheets that kept us healthy. Never in all our travels did we encounter bed-bugs.

Never, either, did we feel in the slightest danger in our sleeping quarters. We were foreign backpackers in places that had (mostly) never seen backpackers – or foreigners of any kind. The people in each slum relished the chance to exercise their traditional hospitality towards strangers who came in peace.

They jostled for the privilege of leading us to places to stay and cafes to eat at, followed us into the kitchens while we chose our food, and watched us eat it. And as often as not, bought us tea afterwards and exuded goodwill. (These are the people whose children and grandchildren our Western soldiers are slaughtering, now; you can guess whose side Linda and I are on.)

Naturally, they wondered what on earth we were doing there, and speculated freely among themselves. But they had no way to ask us, nor we to tell them. We could manage only the smallest of small talk, with much waving of hands and regular reference to the basic translation-dictionary I’d bought in London. They probably wondered about that.

The only book many of them had encountered would have been the Koran, and they knew this wasn’t that! One way or another, the book and the hand-gestures and body-language must have covered the cultural gaps, and generated inter-cultural goodwill. One way or another, we always got fresh sheets when we asked for them. In the end.