MR. FAROUK AND THE PETUNIAS
Petunias have flowered for me in gardens around the world, bringing their diehard spirit and vivid color to the most inhospitable patches of earth. They have personality, flair, survival skills and unabashed shameless style and color. The very same qualities I admire in people.
The biggest challenge to my petunia cultivating skills was Amman, Jordan. A wrought iron gate tangled in sweet smelling jasmine opened to a flight of white marble steps leading to our home in a small Arab village. Honeysuckle rambled along high stonewalls and palm trees cast welcome shade and shadows on the red earth. Mr. Farouk, our Palestinian landlord, brought the requested number of containers for plants and said he knew just the place to buy the very best petunias. Mr. Farouk loved petunias, the dark reds, purples and deep pink made his eyes shine. Not for him showy pink and white stripes, or wishy, washy yellow. I had found a soul mate.
Bedouin women stopped by, leaned on the gate and smiled at my petunias tumbling in a riot of color down the glistening marble steps. Their colorful gowns no match for the brilliance of the flowers. Servants, with large cans of kerosene balanced on their head, paused to peek through the gate. Construction workers, Egyptian Arabs, en-route to collect mail from a shoebox located in Abu Ali’s corner grocery shop slowed their pace and nodded approvingly. In a slight breeze the petunias nodded back.
Each evening at five o’clock a mob of hairy faces with piercing coal black eyes pressed up to the gate, staring intently at the flowers. After a whack on the rump by a shepherd the goats reluctantly followed him, along with a flock of sheep, to their nightly shelter in an olive grove.
Returning home one afternoon from Amman University I saw a small crowd around my gate. Pointing urgently the crowd parted as I approached. My beautiful petunias were flattened. Dozens of cats and their kittens snoozed, washed faces or lay flat on their backs legs waving in the air, enjoying a siesta among the cool leaves and flowers. Sitting on the steps with Mr. Farouk we looked in despair at the containers of crushed petunias.
Mr. Farouk clapped his hands and said, “Halas! There is nothing to be done. To keep out the cats it is impossible.”
I wasn’t about to give up, I had fought fiercer battles. For dinner that evening I cooked spicy lamb kebabs. My thought turned to the flattened petunias as I twirled a wooden barbeque skewer through my fingers. Abruptly I stopped eating, grabbed my purse and dashed off to the corner shop of Abu Ali. I had the marauding cat situation covered.
After a good watering the petunias revived. The next day I set off for the University feeling very confident there would be no cats sitting on the flowers when I returned.
Mr. Farouk and I sat under a palm tree sipping sweet, strong Turkish coffee and admiring the colorful petunias tumbling once again down the white marble steps. How he laughed when I told him of my solution. Wooden barbeque skewers planted pointy end up in all the containers.
“Damned clever you British,” he said between chuckles.
How surprised those cats must have been when they leapt up for a snooze among my petunias.
One sunny afternoon, while dispensing saucers of milk to the cats as compensation for spiking their siesta spot, I heard laughter and ululations from my neighbor’s garden. The high pitched, wavering trilling of women grew louder. A beautiful bride dressed in layers of filmy white lace appeared, I was beckoned over the fence to join the celebrations. We were toasting the bride and groom when a very plump Palestinian gentleman standing next to me slipped a hand under his voluminous robe and whipped out a very large antique pistol. In perfect Arabic I told him “I am British. Please do not shoot me.” In perfect English he replied, “I will not shoot you my friend. The bullets are for the celebration.” Everyone covered their ears as he fired the gun skywards.
I cannot believe that someone, somewhere in that little Arab village did not get shot for there seemed no occasion too big or too small that did not require a volley. I never quite got used to all the celebratory gunfire.
People of vastly different customs and cultures were drawn together by a single common thread, the love of a flower. Flamboyant, gaudy with a never say die spirit, the irresistible petunia.
The winter I left Amman no rain fell, water was rationed and drought gripped the region. A poignant last line in a letter from Mr. Farouk read, ‘Halas! There will be no petunias this year.’
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