Saturday, September 20, 2008

Chapter 5: A painful drop in class

I am a busboy. I put out napkins, fill up salt shakers, wipe down tables, carry plates of food, clear tables, deliver bread and help keep the kitchen clean. There are some things about being a busboy that are fun. I can now pile half-empty plates 20-high - the customers like to watch me clear the entire table all in one go without a tray or help from anyone. Sometimes they give me a tip for that. I'm now working on devising a creative way to use trash from the tables to wipe down tables.

Today is Friday, the busiest day of the week. From midday on, the restaurant is full. It's an old Arabic house with tables in the courtyard, the diwan and some of the other rooms, and right now it is one of the most popular destinations in the old city of Damascus.

This afternoon, were busier than usual for some reason, and I was rushing to keep up with all the tables in my area. But I was working hard and getting my job done as quickly as possible. The waiter who supervises me wanted the customers to come and go faster, though, because he gets to keep all the tips that they leave with the check. So he started to get mad at me and shout at me, sometimes even in front of the customers - maybe he thought it looked good for him to act authoritatively.

There was one table that had loads of food and so many plates for me to clear. Cold dips, hot dips, salads, sambosas and kibbes, grilled meats... I couldn't clear the whole table on one trip, but I did the best I could. I got more than half the plates off and took them straight to the kitchen then went back for the rest. On my way back to the table, my waiter stopped me. He grabbed me by the collar of my white shirt and pushed me into the kitchen. He started shouting at me and hitting me on my shoulder. "You son of a donkey! You good for nothing, you can't even get the tables clean! You're no better than a dog, just laziness. Your mother must curse the day you were born!" Then he pushed me toward the wall and kicked me on my legs.

My waiter is a short fat man in his forties. The entire kitchen staff watched as he screamed and kicked. We all knew I could beat him anytime, anywhere, but I couldn't fight back, not right there in the restaurant kitchen. It wasn't the first beating I've received. I was attacked by extremists more than once back in Mosul, and I've been attacked by gangs on the streets of Damascus, but this was the first time I was made to feel worthless. The other times it was a fight between me and them: I hated it but I felt like they only bothered to attack me because I was worth something. That's what my mother always said: everyone hates Christians because we are special.

This time, it wasn't that. I was clearly the lower class, nothing more than the busboy. Even a pudgy middle-aged waiter held infinitely more status than me. I held back the tears as I thought of my father, an English professor who had translated for representatives of big corporations. He had completed school and university and postgraduate studies. In another place at another time, if my father were here, everyone in that kitchen would have treated him as an honoured guest of the restaurant. But now I'm here, and I've shamed my father's memory, because I am nothing more than an uneducated Iraqi refugee.

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