On my way to meet a Syrian Sheikh I walk past the Egyptian embassy. I notice the Egyptian flag is hanging limply at half mast. The guard is praying on the pavement in front of the embassy, his gun resting peacefully on his prayermat. He kneels just in front of his gun and bows forward, covering the weapon with his body. I knock on the window of the receptionist who explains: ‘For three days our flag is at half mast. A lot of people have been killed and we are honouring them, even though they are protesters.’ I keep walking until a taxi passes by.
In order to find out exactly where the Sheikh lives I need to ask the driver to phone him. This is an apparently normal request, just like the Sheikh on the phone said to me: ‘Just ask the taxidriver to phone me and then I will explain the way.’ I am under protection of the collective. Never will you see Arabs walking around looking on a map. They will simply turn to the next person and ask for directions. Finding the way is a collective movement there is no need to prove that you can do it by yourself, nor is there loss of face or a sense of failure when you don’t know where you are heading. The right way will find you.
It turns out his house is just outside Amman, at least half an hour’s drive. The Sheikh arrived together with his family in Amman last year. During the week he works full-time in a library. All the rest of his time, weekend and evenings is devoted to helping Syrian refugees; ‘My family’ as he calls them. Last April I joined the Sheikh on his rounds in Amman. His phone was ringing constantly; we were racing around in his car squeezing in one visit after the other. On the way we would stop to buy kilos of potatoes, rice and vegetables to be delivered to the different families. Allah Kareem, God is generous.
After phoning that we have arrived, I see the Sheikh is waving to me from his balcony. His eldest daughter comes down to welcome me. We kiss and then she takes me by the hand leading me upstairs. Ahlan wa Sahlan! Welcome, welcome! Part of a longer poem from the old times when people would travel through the desert that expresses something like: ‘Welcome in our family, there is enough food for you and your cattle can graze on our green pastures.’ I look into twelve curious sparkly eyes of the Sheikhs wife and daughters. The Sheikh greets me with his hand on his heart and his eyes are laughing. The house breaths a warm lively atmosphere. The young girls are playing the game ‘Uno’, then they are dressing up and occasionally walk to either one of their parents for a little hug or tenderness. There is homemade cake and coffee. The wife of the Sheikh explains: ‘We keeping a bit quiet because a friend of ours just arrived from Damascus last night. She didn’t sleep for fifty hours, so she needs a bit of sleep.’ Then there is a little knock on the frontdoor. The Sheikh looks through the peephole and after that, one of the girls opens the door and brings back in a plate full of fruits; Damascus plums. A gesture from the Palestinian neighbors. I say: ‘Shoubeek le beek abdak min ideek,’ just like Aladdins ancient maxim while rubbing his genie lamp and look at the door. Everybody is laughing.
At the end I make a short film of the Sheikh for an exhibition to be that is held in The Hague this Autumn: Humanity City; where people explain what motivates them to make a positive contribution to the world. While I film the Sheikh and he unravells his deeper motivations, his youngest daughter crawls onto his lap. The Sheikh hugs her warmly and continues speaking, meanwhile caressing his little one. When I leave the Sheikh waits till I have found the right taxi and the girls wave goodbye from the balcony.