Thursday, October 13, 2011
I’m not sure my parents knew what to think when I brought Mostafa, my Egyptian boyfriend, home for dinner, on my 21st birthday.
It was 1986. When we walked into the bright kitchen I felt the urge to say, “Mom, Dad.... this is Muammar.”
I met Mostafa in Switzerland while I was "studying" abroad. I went to Zurich to study German, Swiss culture and history. I spent much of my time speaking English with my friend Gretchen, drinking and smoking in cafes, shopping for cheap scarves, and hanging out with an Egyptian and a Turk.
Mostafa was our waiter at the Cafe Odeon, an always-crowded, gay bar that-- it was said- was once frequented by Lenin and Mussolini.
When Mostafa, tall and thin, with mischievous dark brown eyes, full lips and a broad nose, approached our table, we asked him to suggest a drink. He looked us over and suggested Kir, a sweet cocktail made from white wine and creme de cassis.
As he set the drinks down, he asked us where we were from.
“America,” we said in cheerleader unison.
“His eyes grew wide. “America?” he said, pausing a moment to think. “America is fantastic. Everything is plastic.”
Mostafa spoke Italian and French, as well as German, Swiss German, English and his native Arabic.
Gretchen and I went back to the Odeon the next night.
Mostafa told us he had been “stuck” in Europe for 11 years, ever since he ran away from mandatory military service when he was 15. After leaving Egypt, he fled to Milan, where he worked “black” in the circus, swallowing swords and eating fire. He eventually landed in Switzerland where his passport ran out and he found himself trapped in a cold, wet, xenophobic city in a country the size of New Jersey.
Rather than return to Egypt and risk prison and or substantial fine, he found a Swiss woman to marry him and he stayed in Zurich, where he cursed the long winters and served outrageously- priced gin tonics to customers who insisted he put their change on the table, for fear their hands would touch. He was 26 and hadn’t seen his mother in 11 years. I was 20 and hadn’t been away from my mother for longer than a few weeks.
By the end of the evening, Mostafa had introduced us to his Turkish friend, Ersin. We all sat on a bench overlooking the Zurichsee, smoking and talking (sometimes in English, mostly in German) in the raw February night until it was time to catch the last train home.
A few nights later, I went back to the Odeon alone. I was on a mission to shed my privileged -American skin and get worldly through osmosis by glomming onto my intriguing new friend. When Mostafa’s shift was over, he took my hand in his and we walked through the cold, damp alleys of the Altstadt, smoking a hashish-laced cigarette. Then he took me to a “friend’s” apartment where we listened to Om Kalsoum, drank Earl Gray tea and smoked more cigarettes.
The next morning, when my host mother asked me where I had been, I didn't know the answer.
When the semester ended, Mostafa made me promise we’d see each other again. Back in America, feeling like a different, new person, I robotically broke it off with my childhood boyfriend of seven years.
I met up with Mostafa again in Spain later that summer. We spent two weeks eating, drinking and sleeping at the beach and masquerading as a married couple in a lovely farm house in the country. At a bull fight in Madrid, I left the arena in tears at the sight of five or six cowardly men tormenting a bloody, disoriented bull.
When I left him at the airport in Madrid, I figured we wouldn’t see each other again.
Then, one blustery evening in December, I got a phone call at my college apartment in Burlington.
“Ciao Baby,” he said. “ I’m in a taxi. I am here. I came to you.”
Mostafa in Vermont was like a mitten on the beach. Mostafa in Vermont seemed a little more exotic, a lot more foreign, than Mostafa in Europe. Still, we had a party and I introduced him to all my immature, carefree, American friends. He scared some of them with his dark eyes. He made some of them laugh with his Tracy Chapman impressions:
“Sorry.. Is all that you can say. Years go by and still.... words don’t come easily. But you can say baby, baby can I hold you tonight. Maybe if I told you the right words, at the right time, you’d be mine.”
Was it the lyrics or the melody that captured him so. I don’t know.
He spent his days drinking espresso and making friends at an Old World Cafe on Church Street while
I worked as a ski instructor at a nearby resort. I would come home from my frozen, snowy job to find the windows of my apartment steamy. Foreign smells, foreign voices, and the sad, mystical croaking of Om Kalsoum --he brought his cassette--floating across the driveway.
Mostafa carried his passport with him wherever he went, just in case anyone asked to see his papers.
"People don't do that here," I assured him. What did I know. I had never been a foreigner in America. I was born with white skin.
I brought him home to meet my parents and to celebrate my 21st birthday. We ate my favorite meal, chicken picatta, and then chocolate cake. My sister, Nancy, had a friend over who just so happened to speak Arabic. There we were, at a dinner table in tinytown America, listening in awe to two people converse in a language none of us were offered in high school.
Then my mother wheeled my present, a shiny yellow mountain bike, into the dining room. Mostafa watched me closely. Later, on the drive back to Burlington he said, “You are still a child.”
How silly I -- a seemingly grown woman, rejoicing in my shiny new toy -- must have looked to this man, forced to into manhood at fifteen.
On New Year’s Eve, while traipsing, mid-blizzard, through a foot of snow in downtown Burlington in search of a party, he complained bitterly in German:
“Ich kann nicht weiter,” (I can’t go any further) he said. “Gibt es nicht ein Taxi?” (Isn’t there a taxi?) I laughed at him and pulled him further.
Not long after he went back to Zurich, he called to tell me he was in trouble and needed to leave Switzerland. I didn’t ask him why. His voice was quiet and sad. He wanted to come to America and asked me if I would marry him.
I said "no."
"I'm sorry, but I can't do that."
I’ve got this postcard, from somewhere in Egypt. I keep it stuffed into a book on the shelf in our office. Mostafa sent it to me many years ago, before I was married and had children. It’s written entirely in Arabic and I’ve no idea what it says.
It would be relatively easy for me to find out, but I still haven't.
There's always new stuff to read over here at Momformation.