It is a truth universally acknowledged that tourists love camels and goats. I confess, I’m no exception. Sid Muna commented once, as ustaadh Imad was driving us down to the Directorate of Education, “Every time we pass a herd of goats, you turn your head to look!”
I especially liked to watch the sheep and goats come home. Several families would send their goats with one shepherd out of town, perhaps as much as several miles, to graze on what brown remnants were left of the grasses and flowers that had blanketed the hillsides in April. About an hour before the sunset adhan, they would return with their flocks up the roads that radiated out of town.
The shepherds sauntered casually at the back. The first time I visited my PCV friend Lynn in her village, she described to me how her elderly downstairs neighbor clucked and tsked at his flock from behind, and they just knew whether to go left or right, to stop or move faster. The sheep and goats would trot single-file on the roadway. As they passed their home pens, a line of sheep and goats would peel off to the right or left, single-file to their dinners.
Everyone else chuckled at my fascination with goats, but it was what finally allowed me to have a relationship with Osama.
No thanks to his big brother, though! On the first night I ever spent in Faiha’, I was sitting in sid Muna’s dimly lit living room after dinner, tiny glasses of hot tea set out before us on her colorful Persion rug. Samira brought out apples, oranges and little cucumbers on small plates, one for every two people in the family room.
In the middle of our conversation, mostly in translation via Abu Alaa because my Arabic was still minimal, a head popped around the corner. He was tall, with thin cheeks and bright dark eyes, and he was asking his yumma (sid Muna) for something.
“Maryah!” exclaimed Alaa, a big grin on his broad face and an elder brother’s glint in his eye. “Look!” he said, pointing at the head peering ’round the corner. “The enemy, the enemy! It’s your enemy Osama, ya Maryah!”
Poor Osama flushed red and his head popped back out of sight. He mostly stayed out of my sight for months. I would see him at dinner sometimes, but he ate faster than anyone I have ever seen — his even skinnier sister Samira was almost as fast — and would go immediately back outside. We rarely spoke.
* * *
There was one interaction with me that Osama deeply relished, though. From time to time, Osama and his father, in honor of some special occasion, slaughtered a goat. I would usually be sitting on the porch, drinking tea and visiting with the visiting family members or other guests, while the slaughter happened. Osama always made a point of parading past us with the severed head cupped in his hands before him, eyes rolled up and tongue lolling, still bloody around the edges.
I always winced and looked away.
He would find an excuse to walk past with the head again, and again, until his mother scolded him to “stop fooling around and get back to work.”
The skinned head of the goat is boiled in the jameed sauce for the mensef, along with a number of other choice cuts. In fact, the head is the prestige part with all the delicacies: the tongue, the tender cheeks, the headmeat, even the eyeballs are a prime delicacy.
One of the greatest, most under-appreciated advantages of being a woman in Jordan? That the plate of delicacies that is the head gets served to the men in another room, where I don’t have to stare into its lidless eyes while I eat. It greatly enhances my dining experience, allowing me to enjoy the culinary delight that is mensef to the fullest.
* * *
Where Osama and I really bonded, though, was over goat kids.
After school one day, passing dar Radhi’s goat pen, I saw new baby kids staggering on their knobby little goat legs. I hurried home, dropped my bags, and came right back with my camera. The only thing tourists like more than camels and goats is … baby camels and goats! I waited patiently at the wire fence, waiting for the goat babies to stagger onto their hooves for another try.
That is where Osama found me when he came home from school — squatting beside the goat pen with my camera. He was delighted! Everyone loved my camera, and Osama loved goats. It was the perfect combination. He vaulted nimbly over the wire fence into the pen, crowded with gnarled bare olive branches.
He picked up the kids, cradling first one, then both in his big palms. Their little heads and pointed shoulders leaned against Osama’s ribs, their spindly little legs dangling down from either side of his long fingers and bony wrists. He posed this way and that with them. Putting one back on its belly, he set the other on its little hooves and urged it to take wobbly, mincing little steps towards me. I snapped away with my camera.
As we went along, Osama chattered on and on about the life of goats. I did not understand most of it, but I smiled and nodded. This was more than Osama had said in all the time I had known him.
Osama’s parents — a schoolmarm and an Air Force officer — naturally had academic ambitions for all their children. They expected them all to go to university, and they wanted Osama to become an engineer. School, however, was not one of Osama’s strengths. He did okay, but his heart was not in it like his sisters and little brother, and he was not as driven to fulfill his parents’ desires as his big brother. Osama’s dreams were simple, humble. Over time, I learned that he wanted nothing more than to be a shepherd, maybe a farmer like his Uncle Mohammad.
When we had taken photos for a while when the shepherds began to return with their long lines of sheep and goats.
“Come on, ya Maryah! We’ll take more pictures.” Osama leapt nimbly out of the pen again. With characteristic clicks and sharp syllables, he led the goats away from the pen and adjoining shed where they spent their nights. With a sweep of his arm, he led me, too.
I followed Osama and his goats towards my little house, over the disintegrating dip in the low wall around my landlord’s orchard, and into my own backyard. In the deepening emerald grass, under drooping trees dripping with long, lacy strands of little flowers, Osama stalked, chased and grabbed this and that for a portrait.
The goats were unenthusiastic models, more interested in the grass. Osama would wrap his lanky arm around their necks in a wrestling hold, or straddle their skinny vibes with his long legs and hold up their heads with two hands around their long ears. As the other kids came home, they wanted to have their own pictures taken. That was fine with Osama, who had lost his interest in my camera and was just wrestling playfully with his beloved goats.
But after that day, “Osama the enemy” was forgotten, and Osama my little brother took his place.