I used to think I have a reasonable memory of faces.
I remember random faces from the past, strangers that never crossed my path in other ways than through some meteoric quirk, quickly shot down in the sea of their anonymity.
An old Irish gentleman I once saw in an airport calling the waiter ‘boy’.
An American marine drawling invitations to prayer on the edge of a swimming pool.
A Saudi driver emerging grim-faced from a coffee shack on the side of a dusty road.
A crying toddler, the English father slamming down his thick book in simmering fury at the disturbance, the Spanish mum fading under a sun hat, grandma singing softly to herself .
They are all revered exhibits in my inner museum of strangers.
But coming to the Middle East has dwarfed my museum to the dimensions of someone’s old shoe box left near the Prado.
What I used to label as a reasonable ability is in reality quite sub-standard. People here never forget a face. They say they don’t and they don’t. Ever.
I went to a little Red Sea resort a year after first spending a couple of days there. The waiter put down an empty lemonade glass and greeted me with a wide smile.
“Hello! You were here a year ago! You like hummus!”
As indeed I do so I proceeded to create new memories of my appetite.
I once left a bag in the corner shop. A month later, I went back and the guy handed it back to me as if we’d parted 5 minutes ago.
People here care about faces. They scrutinise every centimetre of unknown skin until it is so firmly implanted in their memory that the combined bulldozers of time and new- foreigness can’t possibly dislodge it.
In Egypt I once spent a morning walking around extremely busy Islamic Cairo.
Later the same day, I happened to be back in (roughly) the same area.
A guy I had never seen in my life stopped me:
‘You’re back! Why?’
‘How do you know I’m back?’
‘I never forget a face.’