Almost 11 years ago, I was studying
Arabic at DLI
--it was December of 2000. I had never known anything of the Middle East, Arabic culture and history or the language. On the first day, one of my professors, a man with prematurely white hair, piercing eyes and a voice that sounded as though he was made for the radio, told us we needed to learn only one word: Respect. Anything else, he said, was good to know, but ultimately unimportant.
That day, we were introduced to the rest of our teachers. The first two were from Iraq, another two were from Egypt, and one from Lebanon. They were all very different--one was a woman who reminded me of the grandmother from The Nutty Professor. She was sarcastic and witty and very plump and would laugh with a jolly laugh when you'd say something incorrectly (like when instead of saying to her that I was "born ready" I said, "I'm a ready boy!"). Another was young, maybe his late twenties or early thirties. He introduced me to hookah, to Kan Zaman
(a hookah bar in Haight Ashbury
in San Francisco) and dressed in a lot of Diesel clothing. He was a bouncer on the weekends.
One I remember in particular looked a little like the elf-dude from labyrinth
. His head was too large for his body and he always had saliva at the corner of his lips. I remember him teaching us the letter "wow" walking up to each of us and making us repeat the sound "ooo
" over and over until he looked like he was rabid. He was one of the kindest men I'd ever met and incredibly easy going. He would answer to almost anything with, "mmmm
....OK!" ("Teacher," we'd ask, "can we leave early?" "mmmm
....OK!" "Teacher, did you eat your lunch already? We're hungry, can we eat early?" "mmmmm
We laughed at his good natured humor once and asked why and replied, "mmm...well...you see..." and then went into the following story:
He was a professor at the University of Baghdad and was married with three kids. His wife had fallen in with some members of an anti-Saddam party, not politically, but professionally and personally, but because of this, she was targeted by the Baathists
. He explained to us that she had eventually been blown up by a bomb planted in their car. For years afterwards, he checked his car every day before getting into it, until one day, he was driving to work and realized he was being followed. He went home after work, sold everything, and paid to have his family smuggled out of Iraq. He took literally all the money he had and gave it to a human smuggler. The smuggler got him and his sons through Syria and into a boat to get them to Europe. He and his family were below deck when he noticed the engine had stopped. He went topside to find that his coyote had abandoned them in the middle of the Mediterranean
. After washing ashore in Turkey, where he was arrested and beaten in Prison, he was eventually released, and he and his sons worked waiting jobs until they eventually applied for, and received
, immigration to the US.
After that, he said, there isn't much that is really important enough for him not to be easy-going about. It was a conversation that changed the way I look at life.
I think back now about these people and myself, and how 11 years ago, these things going on today seemed unimaginable. That people are overthrowing governments--that the US has toppled governments--that the will of the people is spilling into the streets and overcoming regimes that have held power for decades--that my friends have been fighting for decades...these are all things that, when I joined the Army, would have seemed impossible.
But, they are not impossible, and nothing is. I try to imagine a similar change in my life as has happened to my teachers and their families a decade from now. That some turmoil or natural disaster toppled the government and endangers my family. How would I react, or what would I do, but it is hard, if not impossible to imagine. This is, however, the reality under which millions live today.
Strange to think about when my biggest issue this morning was that my roommate didn't clean out the coffee pot.