It took me some moments to realise what he was asking. He wanted some money for food.
We were at the far end of Wagenstraat, near the canal. This part of the street was a bit dark. I was standing in front of a halal kebab cafe, contemplating the possibility of dinner – having wandered there after visiting the mosque in Chinatown.
By the light from the shop I scanned his face. Homeless, I guessed. I already knew what I would – had to – answer.
“I’m about to have dinner here. Would you like to join me?” I watched for his reaction.
His face relaxed in hope and surprise. He clarified my offer. I repeated it. OK, he’s legit, I thought.
We entered the shop together. It was like a half diner, half cafe. The shop was bright and felt rather sterile. But that suited me just fine that evening.
At the corner of my eye I saw him call out to a friend, who entered behind him. A flicker of caution passed through my mind, but I went on to the counter.
The lady behind the counter looked Middle Eastern, pretty with her careful makeup. I asked for the menu.
“Order anything you like. I’ll pay for it,” I told the man. I looked through it myself, and settled on the shwarma.
“Can I have a drink as well?” he asked hopefully, careful not to assume my food offer included water. I felt a catch in my throat; I had been thirsty for hours myself today. He went to the fridge, and got two canned beverages – the second for his friend, who had sat down at a table.
The men who joined me for dinner
After a short pause, the man introduced himself. “Danny,” he said. “Like Danny-boy.” I gave him my name, which he surprisingly repeated correctly.
Danny was a Dutchman, lanky and tall, with a pot belly, short hair close to his head, his oval face wide open in expression – almost vacant. His fingernails hadn’t been cut for a while, and dirt had collected beneath them. From his speech, he seemed like a simple man. Lurus, as Malays would say. He lives in the Hague, he said, but he is Rotterdam-born.
Underneath a military fatigue jacket he wore a fleece marked Mondriaan something or other. I had seen Mondriaan inspired facades all over the Hague, commemorating the centennial of his art style, so I asked him about it. The marking on the jacket was of a school, he said.
He said to me, the kebab shop sells ‘the food of Islamic people’. But it is ‘also food for all people’, he added.
I turned to his friend, who looked uncomfortable and awkward in his seat. He was also tall, and appeared younger, but he was bald. He wore a dark hoodie jacket over a dark shirt. I asked his name – but even after repeating it, it was too unfamiliar for me to remember without seeing it written down. He was born and bred in the Hague. Danny had offered to order him something, but he had declined. Perhaps he was embarrassed.
Life presents unexpected people.
Danny asked me where I was from. Malaysia, I said.
“Oh, there is Kuala Lumpur,” he said. I confirmed it. Then he proceeded to tell me that in Kuala Lumpur there are about three quarters Muslims and 8% Christians.
It was not quite right, but it was close enough – which was unexpected given that well-educated, middle class foreigners actually present in Asia can’t usually manage to be more accurate. Certainly I couldn’t say anything about demographics in the Netherlands. So I agreed.
Danny’s eyes lit up. He suddenly started to talk fast, words jumbled and tripping over each other, meandering. From the rambling speech I gathered that he had been to the mosque, that he had read the Quran, and also the Bible and other books of religion.
I listened in half astonishment, half bewilderment. I had not expected this. You see, I also have read many of the books of religion – but where I come from, this is considered to be outstanding and rare. It is for the scholar, whose words sometimes spin around each other, whose minds are heavy with care and the weight of knowledge. Not usually associated with a fakir, seeking his Lord in a trusting, simple way.
He tried to tell me something about a sign at the mosque about Jews. I later learned from my colleague that the premises had once been a Jewish synagogue.
“Everyone is welcome,” he said earnestly. “Only you have to take off your shoes.”
I let him talk on.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him, it would not be the same if he had tried a mosque in my socially fractured country. My heart constricted – but I do not know whether in gladness for him, pride in my Dutch brethren, or anguish for my nation.
I remembered another whose experience of our rejection had shot me keenly as if I felt it for myself.
But life is as it is in the times we are in, because of things set in motion long before I drew breath. And I can only change things within my own reach.
A matter of heart
He went on, with enthusiasm, to tell me he prays too. Sometimes at the mosque, with the others who were there to pray. “To Allah,” he said. And he prays as well in other places – outside, in the tram etc.
And then Danny got up to amaze me again. He dropped to the floor of the shop in the Muslim way of prostration – to show me how he prays. Then he rose to a kind of standing posture with his hand reverently before his face in a manner reminiscent of the Christian way.
It wasn’t that I felt shocked.
Rather, it was more of a quiet awe.
No, he clearly didn’t know the full ritual prayer of the Muslims. But he has seen it and recalled some, and he does what he recalls unheeding of the judgment of others, and very likely with a heart whose uncomplicated nature may yield a sincerity greater than mine.
By reflex I recalled the narrations from the Messenger. In my heart a thought insinuated, that perhaps God loves this man’s unpolished prayers more than mine.
I was glad I chose so quickly to feed him.
“I have a daughter, in Philippines,” Danny said after some moments of silence. Blame my lack of small talk skills for the stilted conversation. But Danny seemed to want to share this, associating me and Malaysia with the Philippines, by virtue of being in the same region.
I could see him try to process my question and I knew the answer. Fortunately he only seemed to take time to comprehend my meaning, but was not offended. Thank heavens for guileless minds.
“No,” he finally said. “My ex… girlfriend.” He found the word. He told me they were in the Philippines, that she had left him to return there and he had stayed. It had been many years.
At the look on my face, he assured me, “That’s life.” I asked if they kept in touch, and he shook his head. He did not mind. It’s enough to know his daughter is all right, being provided for financially by his ex. “But because the love,” he admitted, pointing to his heart, his tone full of acceptance, “makes it hard. But that’s life.”
My eyes welled up. Life. Indeed, it’s life.
Oh, if only everyone we love would remain in our lives, I wonder if the phrase “that’s life” would typically come with a tone very different from melancholy!
“Aisha,” he said. “My daughter Aisha.”
How odd and mixed-up and achingly horrid and beautiful life can be, all at once.
The open door of good deeds
The lady at the counter announced that our food was ready, just as the two men asked me if it was all right for them to have a smoke outside.
I meant to eat in, but Danny had ordered his to go. So he took his food and the two of them went on their way.
“Your friends?” asked the lady after they left, her dark eyes curious.
“No,” I said. “He asked me for food, so I bought him his dinner.”
“I had a good week,” I added weakly, at her surprised expression. It was sort of true. I was there on a work trip, all expenses paid. Her face broke out in a beaming smile.
“Your good deed for the day,” she said approvingly, and left me to my meal.
And yet I felt as if I was the one who had received.