A few weeks ago while shopping in Tel Aviv’s Carmel open-air market I ducked into a side street tchochkes shop to buy a glass carafe. Mine had accidentally banged against the marble counter top at home and cracked into pieces.
It was midday and the outside heat and humidity were starting to bear down. The narrow shop, divided by a sales rack crammed with a range of home appliance and accessory items, was cooled only by a high-powered standing fan. Cluttering the shelves, a range of inexpensive items vied for space. There were glass tea pots, no-frill wine glasses, cheap dishes sets, Turkish coffee Finjans, pots and pans, stainless steel plated silverware, dime store variety candles, laundry clips, waste baskets…Garden variety tchochkes.
As I scouted a glass carafe, I bantered with the shop owner, a tanned and fit 70-something year old man with silver hair, Coke-bottle glasses, thick lips and wearing a maroon and white Hawaiian shirt. We joked a bit about the heat, I commented about his store’s cramped quarters and, hearing my accent, he asked where I was from.
Then, while ringing my sale, he gingerly queried: “If I make you Turkish coffee, will you sit and drink with me?”
My knee jerk response was to beg off with a “have to run” excuse.
But during the split seconds of contemplation I came up with: “I have time. Why not? What’s the harm? Why not have AN EXPERIENCE?”
So I pulled up a wooden stool and seated myself behind the counter as he went to the back room to boil water. A few minutes later he returned with two demitasse cupfuls of black sludge and sat down beside me on his stool.
He introduced himself as Suleiman (Soo-lee-mohn) and told me he was from Iraq. In Hebrew, his name is Solomon. He asked my name. “What?” he repeated several times, scratching his cheek and furrowing his brow. He then shook his head and announced: “No. It won’t work. I’m calling you ‘Hellwa.'”
I laughed but didn’t protest. Hellwa means “Beautiful” in Arabic.
Suleiman told me about himself. He lives in a Tel Aviv suburb, has owned his shop for 40 years and is married. The marriage was not good, he shared, but admitted he was loathe to walk out at his age and after so many years spent with the same woman. “Sometimes it’s just easier to stay together,” he sighed.
His malcontent came as no surprise. Because unless he’s a connoisseur of new people, I somehow doubt he’d otherwise be inviting a younger woman in for coffee and re-dubbing her “Hellwa“.
But he wasn’t bitter. He was funny and his attitude was upbeat. So when he jovially started on the a man is a man, AFTER ALL, and has needs – needs his wife was apparently uninterested in meeting – I didn’t get the usual surge of: “Oh god, here it comes. THIS is going to be uncomfortable to deflect.”
Suleiman was a coffee-pal/buddy sort of guy. He told me about his girlfriend, a good girl he sees several times a week who he “doesn’t have to pay” and who is content with their arrangement.
And he asked about my situation and listened to my history in brief before serving up, as people tend to do in this part of the world, advice. Suleiman told me what type of man I should find, what type of man I should avoid and estimated the time it should take for me to “settle down and be taken care of”.
When one of his regulars, a stout 50-ish Russian woman looking for 2 medium sized drinking goblets, dickered with him on price, he rolled his eyes and elbowed me with a grin. “Okay okay,” he conceded. “You’re going to put me out of business but I’ll give you your price.”
I sat a while longer and sipped my coffee as Suleiman tended to other customers. When the cup contents were down to dregs alone, I stretched and stood to go.
“Come visit me again,” Suleiman winked and smiled before planting a peck on my cheek.
“I will,” I promised, meaning it.
It had been AN EXPERIENCE. And I don’t mind going back for seconds.