The world according to Mahmoud

by Henry Sherrell

“My brother from another mother, how are you?”

He loves to talk. A young man with dark summer skin lurches a hand towards me.

I find it difficult to brush off people, a required skill for most tourist destinations. Ten seconds of chit-chat and he wishes me well on my adventures, sensing my discomfort.

Recognised the next day, he approaches again.

“My brother from another mother! How are you today?”

He exudes warmth. A massive smile plastered across his face. I say I’m having a great day.

“I’m Mahmoud.”

His English is near flawless. He tries to sell me a tour. Proud of myself, I decline his perfected pitch.

Far from disappointed at another rejection, he asks if I know this building. Did I know it was built over 1000 years ago?

He offers I must visit the Palace, “it has over 50 rooms!” he says, amazed that such a building can exist.

This precocious young man is more than your standard street hawker. Quasi-ambassador would be a more suitable title.

His boss spots him. He lingers slightly and then departs, with a firm handshake and warm laughter.

I pass by Mahmoud multiple times. My hostel is less than 500m from the tram stop, a space that is his office. He patrols the pathway, knows the stones inside out. He sees the route people take before they have decided themselves.

By day four, I have decided to take Mahmoud’s tour. Smiles, winks and handshakes have worn me down over the past three days. I feel like I am the one making the decision to purchase the ticket but thinking about this later, this is far from the truth.

I buy the ticket. It is $10 more than the alternative. He promises the experience is better. He tells me how to get the good seats even though I have the cheapest ticket.

Selling a ticket is an opportunity. An excuse to sit and talk without being moved on by the unflinching stare of his boss.

In less than five minutes, I learn much about this person, his thoughts of the city he lives in now and how the world works.

He is Kurdish. His family is from Syria. He came here en route to Germany and has stayed. At first he travelled around but now works to support himself.

“My pay is good. My boss is good to me. I get holidays. But I don’t have any insurance because I have no papers.”

This simple fact prevents his next step.

“I don’t have any documents. I want to go to Germany, where I have family.”

He speaks of the opportunity to work in a rich country, earn a living.

“You don’t need any help from the government. You don’t need papers. My community will support me.”

Why not stay in here?

“You only need to go 10 minutes that way. You see over 75 per cent of this city is poor.”

Seamlessly he moves onto world affairs.

“The Prime Minister, he is smart. I don’t like him, but he is clever.”

He pivots slightly.

“The events in last year, they happened because also of Islamic rebels. They are making things hard for everyone.”

I don’t say anything and he expresses his thoughts about radical Islam.

“What they (ISIS) are doing, this is not Islam. Murdering, killing people. How can they say this is Islam? I hate them.”

“If I met one, I would slap him to death with my hands”, gesturing just how intense this slapping would be.

Mahmoud cannot contain himself to one topic.

“Do you know where the fighting started in Syria?”

“Aleppo?”, I offer incorrectly.

“Hah! We call them the pussies of Syria because they joined in the fighting last. The fight started with the Kurds. My friend (points to another young man), he is from the town where it all started!”

He is proud of this. But talk of Bashar al-Assad draws a seething response.

“He could have just left. Gone somewhere else and everything would be better. But he stayed and now nothing will be good for 50 years.”

He also laments. “Now they (Aleppo) fight and we don’t.”

Pointing out his friend has awakened a dormant thought.

“My friend, he knows 12 languages. I only know four. He is teaching me Spanish. But I watch too much TV. Not enough study. I’m watching the New Ellen show. Have you seen it?”

I don’t have the opportunity to say anything before he springs up. His boss has seen him.

“My boss, he says I talk too much! I have to go. Enjoy your tour.”

The best part was already over.

Henry Sherrell works for a non-profit on immigration policy in Australia. His research interests include the labour market and migration, migrant rights, the impact of migration in the Pacific and settlement patterns of migrants. He writes at Value for Money, an immigration-themed blog, where this post originally appeared

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