The shop is so stuffed you can hardly walk through it. The only light filters in from the sunny street, dust covers every piece of clothing, and those thick plastic bags you might buy cement in spill all over one another. I arrive with my neighbor and his friend, two graphic design students in search of the cheap wares to augment their ‘vintage style’.
Upon the first step in the store, we simultaneously shift our sunglasses to our heads, and the horses are off. I want plain, long-sleeved shirts to wear to class. It’s quickly apparent that maybe what I’m looking for is under a pile somewhere, otherwise it’s a typical thrift store affair: dingy clothes loved then discarded alongside the loud, shimmery exaggerations of ‘style’ from bygone eras. I mean, there were items here to make any Synergy party-goer drool, the exact awful sequined jumpsuit with pockets and a hood that we all sought at Savers before every Thanksharing.
I browse about five minutes before leaving for a cup of coffee, coming back to Khalid trying on a knee-length bright red jacket, “Just what I need for the conceptual photo shoot I’m working on for class.”
The shop owner has to be seventy. Surprising that with such an eclectic mass of clothes, for today he has chosen leather sandals, khakis, and a faded collared shirt. He had been following the boys around stating the obvious, “Men’s pants. A bag of belts. That is a quality pair of corduroy overalls.” Upon my return he turns to me. “Coffee or Nescafe?” I tell him I’m drinking Arab coffee, with a little sugar, and milk. “Good, that manufactured stuff is bad for your health. Me, I only drink tea. But a cup of real coffee a day is good for your heart.” “I drink about five,” I tell him.
“Five! That’s dangerous! And you’re smoking! You’ll give yourself a heart attack.” I tell him I’m going to quit soon.
“What is your birthday?” Khaled had told me on the ride over that Ibrahim believes he is some sort of numerologist, able to read people by their dates of birth. When Khaled had told me this in the car, I was confused, and he clarified, “No, not your sign. Not your stars. Your numbers.” Oh. Same shit, right?
“If you tell me your birthday, I will be able to tell you if you will quit smoking cigarettes this year or not.” Hoping for good news and wishing to kill time while Nour checked himself out in leather jackets, I gave it to him: month twelve, day twenty-six, year one thousand, nine hundred and eighty-five.
He does a few calculations and shakes his head, does the “click” of the tongue that means “No, not at all” in Arabic, and explains, “You will not quit smoking cigarettes this year. You have tried to quit many times and you have failed, and you will try again soon and you will fail.” He looks at me sadly. “Do you drink alcohol?” Not in a while. “Good, if you drink even just a little bit, you will become addicted. You will drink even if you are a little bit sad or upset, and you will drink if you are happy. Thanks be to God! Do not drink, okay?” Uh okay. I shift my weight nervously from foot to foot, cross and uncross my arms.
“You know what your problem is? You have too much power in everything you do. People think you are here learning Arabic and learning about the Arabs to prepare you for something like the CIA or FBI, but you have too much power and do not do well with constraints. You will need to work for yourself or in a job that gives you lots of independence.” Up until this point I was getting along fine in Arabic, but I was finding my understanding of his explanations strange, so I started asking, “What do you mean by ‘powerful’….” Now he’s kind enough to provide his rough translation after reading my personality in Arabic. At this point Khalid is also standing in rapt attention, and translating when Ibrahim and I can’t reach a common understanding. “Do you think you will work for a group like this?” No, I tell him, I always speak my opinion and the CIA probably doesn’t like opinionated people.
“Yes, that’s in your numbers. You always speak the truth. Your mother gave birth to you on this day [he taps the paper with his pen], you were birthed from her kind, strong heart, and from then on she always instructed you to tell the truth, and to have great manners. She raised you to be strong and independent. You do things on your own that others your age cannot, because your mother loved but did not baby you.” He scribbled more on his page, performing some clairvoyant calculus. “Yes, you always speak the truth, but you are also an amazing talker. ‘Great, great, great talker’” (this last sentence in English). “You can sit in a cafe and if a friend of yours is being quiet, or is mad or sad, you can excite them into talking. You can talk to new people with ease. Your tongue is very powerful, maybe too powerful. You can convince people to do things, you can change their minds. You are blessed with talk. But this power you have with people is limited to when they are around. When you go home and are alone in your apartment (you live alone, right?), you get nervous fast. ‘Quick to nervous.’ Yes, when you are alone, you worry. You have trouble going to sleep. If you are tired and lay down, you sleep, but if you are tired and try to do something else first, you cannot fall asleep for a while, and toss from right to left, right to left.” My jaw drops and I just nod. As I tossed in bed last night I had this exact thought about my sleep patterns. Why did I pick up the book even though I was so tired?
“Yes, but you also have bad luck. You are not lucky! You lose things.” I am on maybe my eighth phone in five years. “When walking, make sure to look around you! Maybe someone will throw something off a roof, watch out! When crossing the street, be very careful.” Now I’m getting scared. “You are not lucky, no, you’re not. You try lots of things and do not succeed.” “This isn’t good news!” I tell him. “No, but you keep trying. You do not succeed for a while, but you do not give up. This is part of what makes you powerful. Maybe you study, then fail, then resume, then succeed strongly.” I think of the time I left Stanford for a while.
I wonder if this is the sort of reading where one can believe anything the seer says, pulling one instance out of an ocean of experience to match his description, but am also dumbfounded at how specific (and accurate) he has been on some points. Yet, I think I talk too much. Little of my hot air is powerful. But we all love a good ego-stroking, and I begin to wonder if a leather jacket would look good with the head he’s inflating. I ask him to continue.
“You get very lucky every ten years. 2006 was your last year. You will maybe not quit smoking until 2016.” God I hope not. 2006 – two quarters of sophomore year and first quarter of junior year. Worked at Argonne in the summer. Got probably my worst grades. I remember this year as unremarkable, so when he tells me, “No, you are unlucky, you will never win the lottery. Nour here, he might, but you never will,” I am suddenly bitter towards his calculations. I’ll show you. I’m going to go buy a ticket right after this.
Oh, wait. Dad, considering gambling is ‘haram’ or against the Muslim religious code, will you buy me a lottery ticket next time you get a chance? Play something with my birthday. Tell me what happens.
“Can I use your pen, and do you have a piece of paper? I want to write this down for later.” “You don’t need a pen or paper. You are very smart. You will remember everything I say. You will write it down later. I’m right about everything, no? It’s all in your numbers.” I just wear my shit-eating grin and shake my head in disbelief. “You also drink lots of water. Me? I sip it once in a while, but you, you like it and drink it all the time. Good.” My shoulder bag is in the car, containing nothing but the two-liter bottle that was too awkward to carry.
Nour and Khalid buy their new clothes. “I have no new bags for you guys. Ha! But nothing is new here. Reuse these bags, or else they fly away into the sky, like dirty birds. Too much pollution.”
“Happy opportunity,” I tell him, and shake his hand. “I’m, um, I’m going to come back. I’d like to talk some more with you.”
“I’ll see you then. God willing.”
Coming soon: details on a five day camping trip ending in getting escorted to the police station in Petra. Bedouin mountaintop apparitions, sunset yoga (above), near-death scorpion and goat attacks, and more! Tune in at the totally unscheduled time!