Three Tattooed Men

Jabal al-Hussein, Amman

There is a form of politeness in the Arab world that I find curiously British. Its expression is found in that no matter who you are asking, and no matter how they are, the answer to the question how are you is more often that not alhamdulilah — thanks to God. One might ask someone stony faced, or evidently sick, or who you know to have had bad news, but the answer is always likely to be the same. It is the equivalent, I think, of the British not bad.

Of course, expression takes over. The enunciation, or rhythmic spacing of the syllables becomes key. From the triumphant tumble of al-ham-du-lil-ah said with great energy and force, to the flat hamdullah whose sound barely registers, it is often not difficult to tell how someone is really feeling.

It must have been like that with me, one night in March, when I flagged down a taxi in Jabal al-Lweibdeh. Relationship issues had me down, and I was feeling unmoored, you might say, distant from Amman and the people in it. How are you, the driver asked, and I replied, without enthusiasm, alhamdulilah. I saw, from the corner of my eye his head turn towards me, look at me in profile, and then ask — really? You don’t seem good to me.

He was hard to age — anywhere between 30 and 45, perhaps. His navy sweatshirt, track pants and baseball cap were typical of a utilitarian fashion favoured by Amman’s working class. The orange light from the streetlights cast deep, moving shadows as we drove, and they picked out the roughness of his face. His skin looked deeply textured, scarred, perhaps, by acne, or something else.

His cab was an old one, creaky, the fake leather encasing the gear stick cracked. He sipped from a plastic cup as he drove, and smoked cigarettes with a kind of tender force. We got talking, and it emerged he had relationship trouble as well. Four years of trouble, in fact, that had ended that night. Do you know what I did? he asked me. I closed the phone and I deleted her number. That’s it, she’s gone.

He told a familiar story, one of passion joined with escalating arguments that finally he could not take. She lived far from him, in another neighbourhood in east Amman, and he did not expect to see her again. We talked about the pain that the next months would bring, and I tried to offer him hope that he would come out the other side, that there would be someone else.

It was at the Wadi Saqra junction, as his hands flicked back from the steering wheel to pick up his cup, and light another cigarette, that I noticed the tattoos. Clusters of dark shapes hard to make out, without staring, in the taxi’s gloom. I was sure, though, by the time that I left him at my house, that they were a myriad of hand-poked tattoos, shapes and words too blurry to make out in the dark.

Here in Jordan, tattoos like those mostly mean the owner has been to prison. It seemed to fit this man with his worn body, his directness that gave out onto vulnerability, the physicality with which he drove and smoked. But I lacked the courage to ask.

The next time I saw similar tattoos was in a dove loft in Ashrafiyyeh. A friend and I were walking in the neighbourhood, spending a weekend day — the first properly hot day of the year — exploring. In contrast to west Amman’s flat, uninspiring sprawl, Ashrafiyyeh is a tumble of houses. The city’s highest point is up there, topped by the black and white stripes of the Abu Darwish mosque. Further down are lots of churches — amongst other denominations, there are Iraqi Christians in the area, waiting for new lives abroad. We met one, from Mosul, who had just got his asylum in Australia, and never intended going back to Iraq.

My friend and I had just descended a long set of straight stairs on our way back downtown. Before they turned in on themselves and descended to the alley below, there was a small landing, ringed in with iron fencing. The gradient of the slope was such that this perch was at the same height as the roof of the house opposite. Encased with wire mesh, we could hear the birds inside. Suddenly the door opened in the side of the loft, and I was almost face to face with the man standing there, who invited us in.

Two men were inside, and they pulled out chairs for us. The chairs were covered in bird shit, of course, but they found us bits of cardboard to cover that with. We sat and they shouted down for a kid to go the shop for 7-Up, and we talked a bit and I asked about the birds. These never got out of this big cage, they were expensive, too much money simply to let go flying around. Their most valuable was worth $5000, a grey specimen I found underwhelming. Much more to my taste were a pair of brown birds, big things with great ruffs about their neck, who threw their feathers out as they stalked around, pinning smaller bids to the floor.

One of the men was the owner of the birds, the other their full-time caretaker. Originally Palestinian, the owner did most of the talking. He told us he was an alcoholic, had been drinking for twenty years, and needed at least 300ml of whisky or vodka a day to get by. It’s my big problem, he said, I can’t live without it.

His caretaker was quieter and smaller. His legs were so thin they looked drowned in skinny jeans, and his trainers might have been a child’s. Wearing just a dark t-shirt on his top half, I could see his arms were covered in tattoos, as well as a large burn that gave the crook of his left arm the look of plastic. His hands were canvas for smaller symbols, collections of dots and single words. His forearms and biceps bore more ambitious, though still crudely executed, pieces in a lexicon of tattoo standards — hearts, women, bits of Arabic I found too difficult to read.

We sat for a while, amidst the stink of the birds, and listened to the owner talk. Eventually the kid came with the 7-Ups and they were passed up the ladder into the loft, and we drank them, and I felt that there was something more to be asked when the owner said of the caretaker, now he just spends all his time with the birds. The caretaker was staring straight ahead, and smoking, and I did not have the courage to ask him about that something else.

I left my friend downtown, and waited in the road for a taxi. The sweat from walking was drying to salt on my body, and the evening was coming down. Saudi tourists drove past in a 4x4, their kids standing up out the sunroof and shouting as they moved through the wind. Finally flagging down a cab, I got in, and noticed straightaway that in one of those scarcely believable coincidences the hands that grasped the steering wheel were covered in tattoos.

I looked idly from the window at two women waiting for a bus near the National Museum, and the driver told me that they were not whores. Angry, I said I didn’t think that they were, but then he explained that the area is where Amman’s sex workers gather as night draws in. We chatted more, pleasantries, until as we took the underpass under the Fifth Circle, I plucked up the courage and asked — I know that in Palestine, most people with tattoos like those have them from prison. Is that the case with you?

He paused for a moment, then said, right. He kept driving, but pulled up his sleeves to show me more, and not just more tattoos, but also the shiny patches where, in a staggering act of self-harm, he had burnt off some that he no longer wanted. The names of women who had wronged him, for example. I did all this while I was very young, he said. When I asked him how prison was, he let out a low whistle and just said, hard. A petty criminal in his adolescence and early adult years, he explained that he had left it all behind when he got married and got kids. Now he drove this taxi, but the marks of his past where still there for his passengers to see.

It is not unusual now to see younger Jordanians with tattoos much like those in the west — Instagram dictates tastes here too. The slick flicks of angels’ wings, though, are nothing like these marks of an energetic tribalism, announced with all the disregard of youth. A series of statements about the now that was then, without thought for a future that might change.

Now, when I think about those tattoos, I think of that man, sitting quietly with the birds, and I wonder if the burns on his arms were the marks of a wave that had broken over him, and receded, and, having receded, I wonder just what was left.