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  • March 2009
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The case of the missing branches

It had been a bad day already.

The toilet was broken. The kids were nutty and hard to get out the door by 7:30 AM.  At school I had a test and a presentation.  After school Victoria and the kids were locked out, so I had to leave a study session early and make the long trek across town to unlock the door.

Walking down the block , I noticed a ton of branches in the dumpster. Bushy green ones that looked kind of familiar. I rounded the corner onto our side street and thought something looked odd about our garden but couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

I entered the gate and immediately realized that our trees had been stripped bare to about 5 or 6 feet above the wall. Where there once had been a natural screen of green blocking the view from the street into our garden there remained only tree trunks bearing the scars of branches brutally turn off. My stomach flipped and my heart skipped.Who could have done this?  I just looked at the blank garden wall and the open expanse of sky above.  My blood was simmering and on its way to a boil.

I needed to find Joe, our building super.  I was sure he must have seen something.  (No his name isn’t really Joe.)  Like most building supers here in Jordan he’s Egyptian.  Which means he doesn’t always get treated very well, and he works his butt off to make a substandard (even for here) living.   His family of 5 gets two rooms to live in (not a full apartment), and he gets 10JD a month from each of the tenants.  For this he is constantly helping us with all the menial things of life like taking out garbage, keeping the building and outside area clean, making repairs or finding someone else who can, etc., etc.  To generate extra income he pays bills for an extra $1/bill, schlepps gas canisters for people’s stoves (for 50 scents) and washes cars for $1 a wash.  He’s almost always cheerful and if he doesn’t know how to get a job done he knows someone who does.  It seems like Joe is always available, except on Friday mornings when he goes to the Coptic church across town.  Otherwise if he’s not around, the call of “Ya, Joe!” goes out and usually sooner rather than later he is found.

That day I didn’t have to look far.  He was walking up the side street outside of our garden gate and greeted me with his usual smile and a wave.   He offered me a typical greeting in Arabic which I ignored.

In Arabic I asked him, “What happened to our trees?! Did you see who did this?! What was the problem!?”

“Oh no problem Mister,” Joe smiled.

“But who cut the trees?”

Joe’s smile faltered, “I cut the trees for you. Very good, yes?”

I was shocked.  The green grit covering his forehead and shoulders should have tipped me off, but I hadn’t even considered that Joe would be the culprit.  It seemed so unlike him to do such a thing without asking first.  I was so angry. I didn’t even know what to say.

“Mister, is there a problem? This good for trees.”

“oh, really?” It was all I could manage to say.

“Oh yes, very good.” I think he really believed it.

“Really?” I walked to my door and unlocked it.

“Mister are you angry from me?” Now, truly, I love Joe.  He’s a great guy and it’s a good thing too. I just looked at the trees.

“Mister? Are you angry from me?” I usually find it slightly amusing the Arabs say angry “from” instead of angry “with”; not today.

“Well, it’s just that before no people could look into our garden and now anyone can look into it,” even more than the shoddy job, I was mourning our loss of privacy.

He paused and looked at the trees. It was as if a light was being turned on verrrrry slowly. “Ohhh. Mister, I am very sorry.”

Unfortunately sorry doesn’t bring back tree branches or privacy. I didn’t tell him that.

I stewed about it most of the afternoon as we were getting ready to host a dinner party for a friend returning stateside and I was waiting for the plumber Joe had arranged to come fix our toilet.  Meanwhile Joe the Super returned an hour later.  I walked out into the garden to see what he wanted.

“I am very sorry Mister for the trees. In one month maybe it will be ok.” We both looked at the gaping whole between the two trees and people walking by on the street. Joe rubbed his jaw, “Ok – maybe in three months. Those trees grow fast.”

I don’t think I said anything. I might have grunted. He said, “Maybe four months.”

I said, “yeah,” and just stared at the neighboring building and the blank sky and had visions of children hanging over the wall and watching us in the garden. The sun beat down on us and it was as if the temperature in the garden had already gone up several degrees.  I could tell we were now in for a hot summer.

He replied, “Maybe I can hang a curtain above the wall.”  A suggestion that given our neighborhood is not as strange as you might think.  Two of our neighbors have “porch curtains.”  I think both have opted for the bright yellow and blue stripes. Nice, but maybe just a tad 2001 for my taste.

“No, no, no, I don’t want that.”

“Mister, I am very sorry. Are you angry from me?”

I sighed. “No Joe, it would be impossible for me to be angry with you, you are a good man, but next time you need to ask me before you do anything like this.”

He nodded and smiled, “Ok I will ask next time.”  There was a silence as we stood.  Perhaps we were mourning the lost branches.  I may have been thinking something along the lines of, “There will be no next time!”  Joe finally said, “Is your wife angry from me?”

This time I smiled, “No Joe.”

“Ok, thank you Mister, you good, very good. I am very sorry.  The plumber will be here soon.”  With that he turned and left the garden.

I went back inside and sighed again. I made up my mind that they were just trees and, like hair, they will grow back. And then I thought about the end of the story about the prophet Jonah …

5 Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”

10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:5-11, NIV)

I realized I didn’t have any right to be angry about the trees. I didn’t tend them or make them grow.  They were here when we arrived and will hopefully be here when we leave.  I’m sure that there are many more things to be concerned about in the great city of Amman than a few branches from the trees in my garden.


9 Responses

  1. Hey Brian – I can so picture every expression on your face as I read your story – looking down at your shoes every once in a while – but your gesture of patience towards Joe is one of those wonderful moments where we can extend grace to another – and is an opportunity lost forever when it is not taken – or rather seized – what an inspiration you are. Yes, the trees will eventually grow back (what kind of trees are they?) and look at the bright side – it sounds like the night sky in your backyard just opened up for some excellent star gazing!

  2. […] on things.  Anyway, Brian wrote a post a little while back that I just got around to reading.  I suggest you read it, because honestly, what I say next is kind of all about that.  It may or may not make sense […]

  3. Sorry it took me so long to read the story. (You’re not mad from me, are you?) 🙂

    But I agree with Ray, Stanford and Kel. It’s an excellent story that says a lot about how we can see things in a very selfish light sometimes. Especially given our privileges. Like you said, he lives in an under-appreciated and undervalued role, and for him, he’s only thinking of service (that it was good for the trees, and therefore good for you – trying to please).

    Yet we in privileged places in society (be it wealth or status, or whatever) tend to be so greedy, when we have things like privacy, or time, or freedom or whatever. We foolishly believe that because it can be taken away, that we need to fiercely protect it, and that it’s our right or duty to be angry when those things that make us privileged are threatened.

    Yeah, man… good stuff. Thanks.

    In fact, I think you’ve just inspired me to write something now. Thanks!

  4. I really appreciated this story. It’s so easy to stay stuck in anger and frustration about things that we mere mortals have no control over. It’s a good reminder. Thanks

  5. I love the Jonah reflection

  6. Hilarious! (to both Rebecca and RK)

  7. I so respect your patience with you friend….you are a good man B…but just so you know…some hair doesn’t grow back. Miss you guys alot…the inebriated alligator remains on my ceiling.

  8. Could this be how your mother felt when you shaved your head to look like Seely in college?

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