the plane in which Fr José and Fr Esteban were travelling descended gently on the runway at Damascus airport, in Syria. The two Comboni Missionaries were going to study Arabic before moving to Sudan. A taxi driver took them to the address they had written on a piece of paper. They rented a room, unpacked their luggage and decided to take a look around the neighbourhood. They were hungry, but how to find their way in that maze of streets seemingly without pattern? Besides, the only words they knew were “Salaam alaikum”, not enough to put together a dinner. Better renounce it.
The next day, after Morning Prayer in which they recited the psalm that says that “all the forest animals come out” in search of food, they agreed to take to the streets. One would write on a notebook the names of each street they passed, while the other would be on the lookout for a bakery. The search was successful, although at some point Fr Esteban, absorbed as he was writing the street names, fell into a pit of garbage which he had not seen—but without consequences.The following day, they attempted a second sortie. Father Esteban wanted to buy a brush, because “with all this dust on us”, he explained to his companion, “we look like homeless people.” They asked for directions to a priest of whom they had the address. He warned them: “When the shopkeepers say a price, insist on paying only half. That’s common practice, everybody knows it.
They entered a bazaar. They looked left and right and finally saw the brush they sought. They pointed to it. “Two and a half pounds,” said the shopkeeper. Due to lack of knowledge of Arabic numerals, our two understood that the shopkeeper had asked six pounds for the brush. So, after a moment of hesitation, they said, “No, three pounds.” The shopkeeper too had a moment’s hesitation, then retorted: “It costs two and a half pounds.” Stubbornly, the two insisted: “Three or nothing.” They wrangled back and forth. Eventually the shopkeeper gave up. They paid, satisfied, and departed with the brush.
A few months later, when the language of the Prophet had become more familiar, the two stopped one day by the bazaar where they had bought the brush and saluted the shopkeeper. “Oh yes, I remember you”, he said, “because in my life I’ve met all kinds of people. However, customers who insisted in paying more than what I was asking, I had never found!”