The first winter rains hit Za’atari refugee camp a few weeks ago. Heading in for my second day of field reporting, I anticipated encountering tensions over winter aid distirbution– namely caravans, the boxcar-like structures that are supposed to replace all tents by the end of the year.
As I walked around with Jared Kohler, an Amman-based freelance photojournalist from Michigan, I spotted only a few pools of standing water. But nearly every tent we passed bore evidence of flooding. Residents had placed their mattresses on top of their tents and strung up blankets and clothes to dry.
Waiting for her bedding to dry out, one old woman beckoned us over to her tent. I went in for my series of stilted “nice to meet you” kisses. Her daughter boiled some coffee and everyone gathered around. We had intended to interview this old woman about her living conditions, but our storytelling roles reversed the moment I asked if she knew how to tell fortunes from coffee grounds.
Upon arrival to Jordan, I had shared an airport taxi with an Iraqi man who had planted the idea of coffee ground fortunes in my head. He had insisted that we stop for an industrial-strength cup of Arabic coffee at a roadside stall at 3AM and peaked my curiosity with the story of his own encounter with this vanishing tradition. So when I sensed the potential before me at Za’atari, I decided to trade in journalism for a bit of magical realism.
The coffee was thick and bitter. In my haste to get to the bottom, I accidentally drank some of the sludgy grounds that slosh along with that last drop of liquid. I flashed Kohler a quick smile to make sure my teeth weren’t peppered with grounds before handing over my cup to the old woman sitting in front of me. She stuck her finger into my cup to spread the grounds up around the sides of the cup. She did the same with Kohler’s cup, than set them aside to drip-dry on their saucers.
After a few minutes, she picked up my cup, now ringed with residue, and began peering into my future. Her first question for me: Why are you so angry?
Her candor caught me off guard. Considering the fact that I had found the means to self-finance a month-long reporting trip to Jordan, I didn’t really feel that I had cause to be angry. I was well aware of the fact that, at the end of the day, I would climb back into Kohler’s car and we’d drive back to Amman, where I’d have the freedom to choose what I’d want to eat for dinner, take a warm shower and sleep in a bed.
In contrast, this old woman told us she had been living at Za’atari with her mute daughter since May. Her son and his family lived in a tent five steps away. Sitting in a wheelchair that afforded her limited mobility in a gravel-strewn camp, she told us she had slept outside last night to avoid the dampness that had sunk in to her tent during last night’s rains.
Her situation highlights just a few of the hardships that roughly 113,000 refugees living at Za’atari endure. On top of the physical and material losses, nearly everyone I spoke with also mentioned human loss – friends, family and neighbors who had been claimed as casualties of the conflict.
Concentrating on my coffee grounds, the old woman told me she saw a bed and suspected someone in my life was sick. Put on the spot, I had become the vulnerable subject, trusting a stranger with my story.
“Yes,” I confirmed, “My dad has cancer.”
I still get rattled, at times, when I acknowledge my dad’s condition aloud. We weren’t forced to leave our home and all our possessions to live in a tent in a desert. We haven’t lost loved ones to indiscriminate bombs and shells. But we do feel a shared sense of helplessness against circumstances that are beyond our control and a heightened awareness of the fragility of life.
My war-weary fortuneteller told me to “be a warrior” and assured me that my dad’s health would be restored, if he followed her treatment regimen. For 15 consecutive days, he is to read a verse from the Koran over a plate of seven dates and then eat them.
Both dates and the number seven hold special meaning in Muslim tradition, and are thought to hold healing qualities. Even though I wouldn’t admit it, I had also bought a magic lamp souvenir a few days ago, looking on my own for a bit of fantastical healing power to bring back home.
I’d call on anyone to help cure my dad, from Allah, to a magic genie, to oncologists back in the States. Sitting across from my fortuneteller inside Za’atri, I realized there are many facets of life as a refugee that I may never fully understand. Furthermore, not even the best-written article can make amends for the loss many of these refuges have sustained. But we are alike in more ways than I’d originally anticipated; and simple interactions, like getting my fortune read from coffee grounds, can serve as a gateway into our shared human experiences.
Through story and fortune, we shared a moment of escape from the hardships of reality in an unlikely setting. For that, I am grateful.