Makin' Groceries, Makin' Friends!

In New Orleans, people refer to shopping as “making groceries.”  In Nablus they should just call it “making friends.” 

We execute grocery runs twice weekly for our intern abode.  In the past two and a half weeks, I’ve volunteered, been assigned, or otherwise just gone to the market at least a half dozen times already.  This is not unintentional.

Making groceries in Nablus is an exciting process.  First comes the phone call to our friendly driver Munir who appears out of nowhere in his always spotless taxi.  Hopping in Munir’s cab begins an adventure in culture, language and, well, friendship.  An enthusiastic teacher and overall personable man, Munir is quick to extend a greeting in Arabic, remembering my name ever since I offered it the first time we met.  From greetings, Munir gently eases the conversation forward, speaking slowly and clearly, always pushing the limits of my fledgling Arabic vocabulary.

The first stop on our tour de food is Sami’s fruit market.  Like Munir, Sami needn't have met me more than a single time to greet me with a warm welcome from then on.  His smile is infectious and his warmth keeps the open-air shop cozy, at least in spirit if not temperature.  Before reaching for a bag, I reach first for Sami’s large and calloused hand that he inevitably extends across the counter.

For all I know, Sami’s perch is permanent, wedged tightly in a narrow passage between the counter, which holds the electronic scale, a fruit vendor’s sole instrument of necessity, and a row of canned goods behind.  Sami’s girth extends almost from counter to back wall, but, then again, so does his smile!

I bump around the small market with whomever is on grocery duty with me, collecting small green bags of fruits and vegetables, piling them on Sami’s counter.  When we are finished collecting, the tallying begins.  Having yet to start my formal Arabic lessons, I look for vocabulary wherever I can, and Sami's checkout counter makes for a fantastic impromptu classroom.

Sami, like Munir, is a willing and able teacher.  As he gently sets a bag down on the scale, he asks me first to name the contents in English before sharing the Arabic counterpart.  Soon, hopefully, I’ll beat Sami to the punch, offering him the Arabic word before it passes his lips. . . though I might have to keep glancing at my hand scrawled cheat sheet for the next few weeks!

We hump two or three bulging bags of fresh and colorful produce across two busy streets to a little supermarket.  Walid, the proprietor, greets us with only the slightest grin which suits his dark mustache and always-black outfit well.  Unlike Sami, Walid is reserved, contained, calm, though equally helpful and undeniably kind.  When a can is just out of reach, Walid finds another that previously escaped my view.  A moment’s hesitation when looking at a shelf brings him quickly to my side for assistance.

When I eye a big white painters bucket filled with pickled peppers, Walid and his colleagues are all too eager to offer me one.  In part to satiate my obvious desire, and, likely, in part to see my eyes swell up at the incredible heat!  I don’t mind as I am usually offered a cooling pickle shortly after, but, not of course until the burn has already crept up to my forehead and down to my stomach!

From Walid we collect a half-week’s worth of dry and wet goods.  Milk, eggs, bread, lebneh, juice, pop, salty cheese, Corn Flakes (Nestle, not Kellogg’s, sorry Battle Creek), red beans, white beans, chick peas, canned full, and, my favorite, a half kilo of fresh ground espresso.  The later Walid does not carry but is happy to procure for us, sending his assistant out into the evening to fetch a small bag of this finely ground chocolate colored powder.  The coffee arrives a few minutes later, freshly ground, still warm in the bag.  Walid is sure to let everyone sample its warm aroma before dropping into our growing pile of goods on the counter.

Like at Sami’s, and anywhere else we use group money to make a purchase, a receipt is requested and made out by hand.  The Arabic words followed by unfamiliar numerals look like some sort of ancient poetry, written solely for our eyes!  In a way, it is.

By the time Walid begins drawing up our unique culinary poem, Munir has usually reappeared and begins loading our many bags into his trunk.  If we are late, he has no problem spending a few minutes exchanging words with the other men in the store.  His friendliness is clearly not reserved for TYO Interns only.

Back in his car, Munir inevitably asks where I would like to go.  I do my best to eek out “I will go to TYO,” in Arabic, the transliteration of which I won’t dare to try!  Driving slowly through the night, Munir approaches each turn cautiously, asking me what to do next.  “Left or right?” he implores and I do my best to respond, setting off a string of laughter from any other Arabic speakers in the car.  Munir does not chuckle, but sees to it that after a few attempts I’ve corrected, or at least mitigated, my pathetic pronunciation.

No, my language acquisition skills are nothing to write home about and picking up Arabic isn’t going to be a walk in the park.  But as for making friends here in Nablus, well, its about a easy as makin’ groceries!

- Adam

Adam is an intern at TYO Nablus.