Abed 2 and the Magic Laser Crystal Meter Staff

On a dig, it always takes a bit longer to establish a good working relationship with the teenage workers than the older people. On my excavations in the Middle East, there have always been a few guys between 15 and 18 who are trying to establish themselves in the world as competent adults while still being kids at times too. It makes it a bit difficult for me to find the right way to connect being first an older woman in a world where women are sometimes treated differently and second a foreigner. I need to be able to give them instructions on what to do while also earning their respect and getting them to trust me. Teenagers are difficult and angsty as it is in life and when you add a language barrier plus physical labor, the angst grows to a new level. They want to impress their peers and older friends or relatives in the village as well as me. Sometimes the teenage guys push themselves physically hard to show they’re strong and capable young men which can be great but not always. Filling wheelbarrows to the brim with refuse dirt and racing to the dump pile is pretty useful but attempting to carry every single ancient clay pot at once to the depot not so much.

Abed 2 was my 15 year old worker buddy. He’s not a II per se but there were 2 guys named Abed working with us and he was the younger one so by default he got called 2. At first Abed talked back a bit, nothing rude or out of line, just 15 year old boy attitude that he knows what he’s doing and we don’t have to boss him around. Okay. That’s fine. I get it. He was usually on wheelbarrow and bucket hauling duty with Faiz because of his younger age. The older men in the village get to do the more intricate actual excavating work with trowels and small picks. I quickly learned that if I asked Abed to help me with tasks instead of telling him he responded much better. Asking gave him a sense of responsibility by helping me out instead of solely performing work duties he was supposed to be doing anyway. There is a big difference between the imperative and interrogative forms of speech when working with and supervising others – lessons I was learning myself for life, not just on a dig. For instance, ‘Hey Abed, can you grab that bucket for me and dump the dirt in the wheelbarrow? Thanks!’ as opposed to ‘Hey Abed, grab that bucket and empty it.’ To my asking for help, he always replied ‘Sure Tracy! No problem.’


This isn’t just teenage angst but education in how to be a good supervisor for me. Abed tried hard to do his work and please me but sometimes I’d get frustrated. It happens. When the opportunity presented itself, I would offer Abed more responsibility by helping me plot artifacts using a complicated machine with lasers and prisms. It broke up the monotony of his usual tasks and I was able to get my work done faster. For sake of simplicity and brevity, and to prevent losing your attention completely, in simple terms we have a machine that plots object location in 3-D space (x, y, & z axes). It’s set up at a specific spot on a mapped out grid set over our archaeology excavation squares where we document its coordinates from a known latitude/longitude point. To get an artifact’s find spot, one person looks through an eyepiece on the machine in the direction of the artifact. Someone else holds a giant ruler stick with a prism on top above the object. The machine sends a laser to the prism and calculates the distance relative to its own coordinates (x,y). For the vertical position (z axis) we use the giant ruler stick and measure down it from the prism to the object. This is exactly like what Indiana Jones does in Raiders of the Lost Ark when he uses the Staff of Ra with the medallion on top and a sunbeam in the underground miniature city to locate the Ark of the Covenant. Exactly. Just replace staff with giant meter stick and sun with theodolite.

So, magic laser machine and prism meter staff scientifically explained, the story continues. I was having Abed help me document objects by being the prism meter stick master and I couldn’t get the machine to work. It wouldn’t zero correctly and I kept having to restart it. It was a windy day and wind often disrupts the stability and sight line of the machine. Whoosh whoosh whoosh. “Wind!!!” I would yell towards Abed. No really, I would, there’s a video. I also wave my hands back and forth pantomiming what wind does as I say ‘wind’ just in case someone didn’t get it. Anyway, I was frustrated and feeling dumb already when Abed was yelling back across the trench “Yalla, Tracy! Yalla!” which means “Hurry up!” That really annoyed me and I snapped at him saying I was going as fast as I could and to chill out.

Tracy and the magic laser machine. With Fala in the background below.

Eventually I got the machine to work and we plotted about 5 gazillion sling bullets. Literally. Not exaggerating at all. Maybe a little. Anyone who has seen Clemens the director talk about Hamoukar knows that gazillion is a fairly accurate sling bullet count. At some point later I told Rasha it upset me that Abed yelled at me to hurry up when I was trying so hard to get the machine to work and couldn’t. She explained that he wasn’t saying hurry up – yalla has a few meanings and can also be used to say “I’m ready.” So, Abed was really telling me “It’s okay Tracy, take your time. I’m here and ready when you are!” He had the pole lined up with the artifact and it was level (the meter stick staff thing has one of those little floaty level bubbles built into the side). At this point I felt really bad for yelling at Abed when he was just trying to help and do a good job. Because I lack Arabic language skills I took my frustration out on him. Not cool Tracy. I apologized and explained to him that I thought he was telling me to hurry up, well I had Rasha translate this for me, and then everything was okay. Actually we got along better and in the future we even made jokes out of me scolding him. When Abed would be standing around staring into space or playing on his phone, damn kids and their texting, I’d yell fake dramatic threats. “Abed! Off the phone or we’ll put you on sifter duty for the rest of the day!” or “Do you want to be in charge of catching the bugs that jump out at us from the ancient mudbrick walls?!”

Towards the end of the dig we found a few burials and once the bones were removed we were left with empty holes. I’d tell Abed if he didn’t shape up he was getting buried in the tomb until next year when we’d let him come back out and take up wheelbarrow duty once again. That’s what the feature photo is. Sometimes Abed would catch himself goofing off when he saw me give him a raised eyebrow look so he’d say “It’s okay Tracy – I’ll put myself in the hole!” It became a joke with all of my workers when Abed lost focus or got distracted and many of the guys would tease him “Abed! Get in the hole!” We all bonded over this and would laugh together.

I get it. Being 15 and doing slow physical labor in the hot sun all day would give anyone ADD. I always do my best on digs to be Tracy the archaeologist buddy instead of that foreign woman because it makes life on site so much more enjoyable, and that’s really more of who I am. I wanted Abed to remember me fondly as a good supervisor and friend instead of that bossy foreign lady. I often wonder about Abed. I wonder about all of the shabab really but Abed crosses my mind more sometimes because I met him at 15 which means he was only 16 when the Syrian Civil War began. That’s a very impressionable age. If he was trying to prove himself hauling dirt and being responsible helping me with other tasks on a simple archaeology dig, it scares me to think about what role he’s been forced to take on during the war. I always try to hope for the best for my Syrian friends but that’s not always how the mind works and negative thoughts come up too. In these scary times for Syria I pray to the gods that our little joke about ancient burial pits hasn’t become a reality.


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