I exploded through the door into the office I’d been painting. Already the past hour or so had begun to take on a hazy, if eerie, dream-like quality. I had no more than closed the door and moved two steps away when Abozaky came into the room.
“There you are! We’ve been looking everywhere for you, where have you been?”
I considered my answer for a full five seconds. If I tell him where I’ve been, he’s sure to think the cheese has slipped off my cracker.
“If I tell you, you’re going to swear I’m nuts! Let’s wait for the boys to go home and I’ll tell you all about it. I’d rather keep this just between us for now…”
“Well, they’re getting ready to leave now, that’s why I was looking for you.”
We walked with Osama and Rami to the garden gate, wished them a good night and watched them disappear in opposite directions as they wended their ways home. I leaned against the old wrought iron gate and heaved a sigh of relief.
“There must be five million houses in Amman, and we chose this one. After what I’ve just experienced, I’m beginning to wonder if it was the other way round, and the house chose us!”
Abozaky gave me that look I’ve come to know so well. It was the look that said ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but I’m not saying anything just yet…’ He looked at the house and garden as he waited for me to continue.
“You know, Abozaky, I’ve been to three county fairs and a hog-calling, and I’ve never seen anything like I saw today. I’m not even sure I can describe it to you, and I’m damned sure you’re going to think I’ve lost my mind!”
He grinned at my country southern expression and slowly digested my words, looking at me with a mix of curiosity and concern. I could almost smell the brain cells burning as he tried to imagine what transpired in the room I was meant to be painting all afternoon.
Settling down on the doorstep, I gave a detailed description of everything that I had seen and done during the past couple of hours. Abozaky’s expression went from curiosity to incredulity to what I perceived as outright disbelief as the story came out in rushes and pauses.
Stories of ghosts and djinni and such otherworldly beings are not uncommon in this part of the world. In the few years of living here I’d heard dozens of them already. Haunted caves, portals to the world of the demons… you name it, I’d heard it already.
“I grew up here in Jabal al Taj…” His words trailed off. Just as I began to wonder if he planned to say anything else, he resumed talking. “I’ve never heard of anything about this place you said you were in.”
Abruptly, his expression changed. I could see the light in his eyes as his imagination raced.
“Let’s get down there and check it out!” He grabbed my hand and started to stand.
“Wait! I don’t think we should. I’ve only just left there. I’ve already told you I promised to come back after a few days, so let’s not impose on his good nature by dashing back down there right now. Let’s wait exactly two days and call on him again. Deal?”
He reluctantly agreed, but I could tell he wasn’t very happy about it. In an effort to appease him I agreed to show him the stair down to Mustafa’s door.
We examined the crack around the bookshelf as I described again how I’d discovered it. He was as fascinated as I was by the mechanism that activated the door. We questioned how such an old system of what must surely be pulleys and gears could still be in operation.
I moved his hand to the appropriate shelf and asked him to press against it and watched his face light up with delight when once again, the door moved into the wall and began to slide open. I grabbed the flashlight and descended the stairs ahead of him, stopping from time to time to examine the walls and stair risers.
When we reached the bottom, I described how I had discovered the ‘keyhole’ that opened the door to the apartment below.
Once back up in the house, with the entrance securely closed we began to excitedly discuss the possibilities. Abozaky, who knew the lay of the land far better than me started a verbal tour of the area immediately surrounding our new home.
“How does he come and go? There must be another entrance to that place, but where can it be? Think Abozaky, think!”
“As you know, old Amman is built on seven hills. They’re riddled with caves, just like the rest of the country. You’ve noticed hundreds of them as we’ve traveled around, and we’ve even been in a few of them. There are plenty of caves on Jabal al Taj, let me just think what’s close to our place.”
I fell silent to allow him to take a mental tour, and smiled quietly to myself as his head moved left and right, eyes looking skyward concentrating on each street. After four or five minutes, a small smile stole across his face and I knew he’d figured it out.
“There is a small cave entrance behind Uncle Abdullah’s house! The entrance is small, but the cave itself is pretty big. Uncle decided not to close it when he built his house and the supermarket so he could use it for storage and for shelter back during the wars. If we look around inside that cave, I bet we would find a tunnel that leads to the apartment below our place.”
It sounded perfectly logical. Abdullah’s house was no more than five hundred meters or so from ours. Getting in and out unnoticed would be a piece of cake for Mustafa.
Satisfied that we’d solved the mystery, we gathered our tools and drove back to our rented flat. Cruising through the darkness of Mahatta and up the winding road I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more than we imagined about my discovery. Why would a man, a relatively young man at that, choose to live in an underground flat completely unknown to everyone in the neighborhood? How could it be that he is not a known member of the community?
Nearly all of the families who inhabited Jabal al Taj had been there for years, many since 1948 and a great many more since the Six Day War in 1967. It was a very close-knit community. It was barely possible to pass a little gas bubble without it being known and discussed within hours. So, to live completely incognito in such intimate surroundings just didn’t seem likely to me. Hell, it didn’t even seem possible!
My mind began to fill with questions and I knew I couldn’t rest until I had the answers to all of them.
*More to come…*