Copyright © 2002 by Rawi Hage, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
My name is Ahmad. I arrived from Egypt on a rainy day. Only the clouds and noises of the waiting taxis met me at the airport. I came to study engineering in graduate school at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. I lived not far from the university, where I shared an apartment with a man by the name of Farboud. Farboud was a quiet man who had come from Iran on a sunny day. He kept to himself, cooked his own food, read a great deal and hardly talked about the past. I must admit that his presence helped me a great deal in adjusting to that foreign land, and I will be grateful for him for the rest of my days.
I met Pamela at school; she was my English teacher. The first day I went to class, she asked me for my name. She repeated it on her lips twice, and checked it on the paper with a long wooden pencil. Her white skin and soft features made me look at her a long time and without any shame. After class, once, I approached her and looked at her in silence. She ignored me, adjusted her folders and left.
Months passed and I did not see a woman in my bed. I ate what I cooked, walked to classes, and tried not to think of my home and my friends in Cairo.
I met a South American student once who invited me to his home for a party. There in his kitchen I saw Miss Pamela again. She had on a short skirt. She was talking to a man with a white beard, and she held a plastic wine glass between her fingers. I stood and looked at her with that same look. Her short skirt looked appealing to me; her manners were foreign, and subtle, so I looked at her freely. She was engaged in a serious academic conversation with the man who had on a dirty sweater and looked like a professor, the kind that neglected his appearance and boasted about his intellect and knowledge. I stood there and stared at her, examining her legs, her firm buttocks, her blue eyes, and her assertive manners. I was drawn to her out of lust, respect, and colours. Yes, her colours and mine. When she caught my eye, she looked me straight in the face, which made me look away and stare at the microwave, drink from my cup, turn in circles and do anything to make myself invisible again. She left the man and approached me. I watched her, I waited, I felt paralyzed.
She stood right in front of me and said, "It is not polite to stare at people like that. Women here do not like it. I do not know about where you come from, but here things are different."
I smiled and I said, "Yes, I was staring at you because where I come from, even the moon accepts an admirer's glances."
"And where are you from, my foreign poet?" she asked.
"How long have you been here?"
"You must be very lonely to look at people that way."
"I only looked at you."
"That makes you even lonelier than I thought."
"You are hard on yourself."
"No, but frankly I am not interested in men now. Especially not Middle Eastern men. . . . Weren't you in my class last year?" she asked me, staring me in the eyes.
"Yes, I was."
"Yes, you were. You are the one who sat at the back and gazed at me."
"It did not stop me from getting a good grade."
"Did not stop you from making me uncomfortable. . . . I was in Egypt once," she added. "We crossed from Israel on a bus tour."
"You saw the pyramids . . ."
"Yes, and the people."
"Yes, those things too." And she smiled. "You know," she said to me, waving her drink and pointing her finger at my chest, "not all Western women are looking to get laid. And especially not by men who look at them like that."
"I think you are afraid of seduction. How would people meet and approach if they did not notice each other?"
"Ha! Seduction? What seduction? You look like a wolf waiting for his prey."
"And you look like a dungeon with closed doors, submerged in darkness and fear."
"Well, you look like a thirteen-year-old boy who is about ready to masturbate."
I was embarrassed by her bluntness and I started to laugh. I looked away and then back at her.
She was still looking at me with a triumphant look.
"Shocked?" she asked me in a mocking tone.
"No," I said. "I feel pity."
"Feel pity for your own kind," she said to me.
"My kind takes more than a camel trip and a tourist visit to know, Professor."
"I talked to people too. I saw what I saw. I am an observer too," she said to me.
"You are arrogant," I said. "It is your kind's way. You come to our land like taking a trip to a zoo. Fascinated and protected by bars."
"Not used to assertive women, heh?" she asked.
"No. Not used to arrogance," I replied. "I have to leave."
"Maybe we will meet again, my humble friend who gazes at women with those big eyes," she said. "I would like to talk to you more about that."
"I am sure we will meet," I said. "It is inevitable."
Weeks passed. I studied. I prayed. I walked. When Farboud's mother died in Iran, I stayed with him in grief and silence. We recited Qur'anic verses and took long nostalgic walks. Farboud never cried and never slept.
Winter came. The masses took their coats and wrapped them around their bodies to keep warm, and walked the streets. The trees rejected their leaves and decided to stay naked in defiance and protest in long rituals I am not to judge. Once Farboud came back home accompanied by a young woman; both were drunk and giggling.
I went to him in silence and whispered in his ear, "I am glad to see you happy again, my brother." I laid my arm on his shoulder.
"Oh my friend, don't you know the saying of the poet, Oh wounded bird that dances in tears and pain."
That night I left the house and walked to the library. I worked until it closed and then walked the streets of my new and foreign city, aimless. The cold dim lights walked by me. I passed closed stores with flickering neon signs, empty parking lots, long and high buildings of the successful and the powerful, houses that needed a fire and some paint, and beggars' hands that needed warmth and change.
I finally entered a bar, and passed a man with muscles who guarded the door, a girl with green hair, a bartender, a long wooden bar filled with beer glasses, red stools, and faces hidden in laughter, seen in different circumstances and barely heard. On my left was a curtain. I waved it with my hand, opened it and entered. I saw a room filled with young men and painted women, dancing the polka to music of an old band high on a stage. The band was surrounded by bright red curtains, and glittered under a few spotlights hung on ropes and metal. Two old men and an older woman were chanting and playing old German songs. Men and women were dancing badly. Pamela was there, clapping her hands and laughing. I watched her. I gazed, I sinned, I stole and watched her again in defiance of all her beliefs and taboos.
She spotted me and ignored me. I watched her and waited. Somehow I knew that she would come. Like a spider, I spun my web and waited. She danced and flew by in someone else's arms. I watched her. She was all smiles. Her skirt flew and showed her white luscious legs; her straight hair changed colors, catching reflections of the changing lights. I drank beer. And waited. Of course she came, slipping through the crowd like a lizard. She faced me; she smiled and looked me straight in the eyes as she always did. I offered to buy her a drink. She declined.
"It won't consist of an obligation of any sort if you accept," I assured her.
"I do not believe you," she said. "What are you doing here anyway?"
"I am on an anthropological study -- an observation of the locals and their ritualistic behaviour," I said, which made her laugh out loud.
"Kind of like a National Geographic trip?" she asked.
"Yes, in a reverse direction this time, of course."
"And what do you think, Doctor?"
"I think everyone here is a bad dancer and that you people cannot dance your ancestral dance anymore."
"It is hot in here," she said. "Why don't you finish your drink and walk me home, Mr. Traditional, scientist, poet from another land."
On the way she grabbed my arm. I kept on walking, not sure whether that was an invitation or a test . . . a trap . . . an insignificant friendly gesture that women assume in this land.
She invited me in for coffee and I went up to her place. She took off her shoes and asked me to do the same. She acted in the utmostly confident way, talking about the place, her work . . . the classes . . . a monologue that went on for a few minutes.
I sat on the couch and gazed at her, confused and dying to touch her again. She brought the coffee, set it on the table, sat next to me and ran her fingers through my curly hair. She smelled of soft perfume and clean sweat. I touched her, and she closed her eyes.
"Slowly," she repeated to me. "Slowly . . . "
The next morning I woke up in her bed. She was away and nowhere to be found. I found a note next to my coat: Please close the door on your way out.
When I called her the next day, she asked me not to call again. When I asked her for the reason she said people like us could never be together. Last night was wonderful, but do not call again.
Years passed. I graduated and decided to go back home. I went back all in triumph. Now I am an engineer and people call me Bach Mouhandis. My father was proud, and my mother could not believe her eyes. I got a job at the American University of Cairo, teaching mechanical engineering.
I met my wife Hanan one evening over at a friend's house. A few weeks after, I asked her to marry me and she accepted. I have two beautiful daughters now named Zahra and Amal. We live a comfortable life surrounded by family and good friends.
One day I received a call from Farboud. He said that he had been looking for me for years and had found my telephone number on the Internet. The next day he sent me an e-mail from Minneapolis, where he had finally decided to stay and get married.
Attached was a picture of his two boys and his wife Pamela.
Photograph copyright © 2001 by Rawi Hage, Pinhole Photography, Quebec, all rights reserved.