“What’s that lousy smell?” Atyaf Samar said, even before she sat down in the car.
“Oh, you noticed,” I said, as I climbed behind the wheel. “Sorry about that. You stop noticing it after awhile.”
“Really? How long?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” I said. It was kind of a touchy subject with me. “A while.” The truth is I thought it was kind of rude to mention it. I mean, there’s been plenty of times when I’ve been in a situation that wasn’t too pleasant for me. You know, like when the guy sitting next to you smells like his shower’s been broken for a month or something. You think a lot of things, right? In your mind you come up with a million things you want to tell the guy. You’d like to hand him the “Stinker of the Week,” door prize or something. Or, buy him a bar of soap. But, you never say anything. So, now that Atyaf Samar mentioned it, I didn’t feel so bad about the smell.
Which is kind of a relief actually. I’m sure that if she hadn’t said anything, I’d be wondering the entire drive if she smelled it and if it bothered her, but now that she went ahead and brought attention to it, I just got kind of defensive. The smell wasn’t really my fault, and I had to suffer from it all the time.
So I said, “I told you.” I was a little sarcastic, actually. “I was a last minute replacement, so I didn’t know I’d be driving such an important person or anything. Otherwise, I’d have had the car cleaned, or something.”
It didn’t really faze her too much. Actually, I don’t think she heard me. Maybe I didn’t say it out loud. That happens sometimes, actually. I mean, I think it, and I mean to say, it but because it was so loud in my head, I figure I already said it, when I didn’t. But anyway, I think her mind was on something else. She just kept looking out the passenger side window, as if she was engineering an escape route, or something. I figured she did that a lot, being a refugee and all. Maybe she was worried that someone might come to cart her away or something. I don’t know much about it really. I mean, what is a refugee, after all? I never expected one to be wearing designer jeans and carrying an iPod. She didn’t look like a refugee, if you know what I mean. Maybe we’re all just refugees in this world, wandering through life. Okay, maybe not.
“So what were you doing in Detroit?” I asked.
“I live there,” she said, absently, “Dearborn, actually.” Then she turned and looked at me, as if she remembered where she was. “So what’s you’re name, Zamil?”
“What does that mean, Zamil?” To tell you the truth, I was trying to change the subject, actually. I tried to pronounce the word like she did, but my tongue tripped over my teeth.
She giggled. It was a nice giggle. “It’s Arabic for friend,” she said.
“Oh, well, that’s cool; just call me Zamil.” This time, my tongue got caught in my throat.
“You don’t want to tell me your name?” I think I was making her nervous or something. Maybe she thought I was some spy or government agent, because I was being evasive about my name. I mean, you know why I was being evasive, but she didn’t.
Anyway, I wanted to put her at ease, but then again, by telling her my name, there was a distinct possibility that she would get even more freaked out. I mean, just because she looked like a typical American, and she talked like a typical American, it didn’t mean she was a typical American. She was still a refugee, and I didn’t want to put her off or anything. Of course, then again, maybe it was only typical Americans that freaked out with my name. I guess I would have to do a survey or something.
Do you think people really tell the truth on a survey? I mean, the real truth. Or, do they try and give their answer based on the type of person they want other people to think that they are? I don’t know much about it, but from what I’ve seen most people haven’t a clue as to who they really are. You know what I mean? I wonder if there’s ever been a survey for something like that. I’m digressing again, aren’t I? I do that sometimes - you know, the A.D.D. thing.
“Hey, Zamil. You there?” she called out. I guess I was taking a long time to respond again.
“What was the question?” I asked.
“What’s your name, Zamil?” she giggled again. It was a lovely laugh, really.
“Look, I’m sorry,” I said, “I just got a kind of weird name, and I didn’t want to throw you off, is all.”
“It’s cool,” she said. “I promise not to laugh. I’ll steel myself. What is it?”
“America,” I said.
“Wow, that is pretty weird,” she said. “What, like you’re parents are a couple those reactionary, anti-immigrant, red, white and blue types?”
“Well, how is it spelled?” she asked. “Do you spell it with a ‘k’? Are they like super hippies?” I was impressed that she knew so much about American culture, actually. You wouldn’t expect a refugee to be up on all the latest counter-cultural stuff.
“No,” I answered. “It was because of a song, actually,” I confessed, “kind of their love song, sort of, I guess.”
“Do you mind if I just call you Amer, for short?” she asked. “Hey, you know what?” she said, before I could answer. “Amir means ‘prince’ in Arabic. You want to be my prince, Amer?”
“No, I mean, Yes, I mean,” I got stuck. “What was the question?” I was getting a little nervous. I really hate when people do that. You know what I mean: When someone asks you a bunch of questions all in a row. Which one are you suppose to answer, anyway? I bet you that’s how a bunch of surveys got all messed up.
“You’re cute, Amer,” she said. This of course, just flustered the hell out of me even more. I mean, it sounded like she was flirting with me, which, aside from being a pretty rare situation in general, was even more confusing in this situation. I mean, I thought all these Arabs only got together through arranged marriages and stuff. I started getting really suspicious about this woman, to tell you the truth. Sure, she had Arab features and all. She was very pretty with dark skin and piercing eyes. But, she didn’t look or sound anything like any of the refugees on CNN or Fox, or even Al Jazeera. Or, any of the other programs I’ve seen on television, the net, or anywhere else, for that matter. Even that lady on that Nick at Night show, “I Dream of Jeanie” was starting to look a little more authentic, if you know what I mean. Then again, maybe it was just cultural miscommunication. Who knows? Maybe what goes for flirting in the Western world is just being friendly in the Middle East. You always see all those macho Arab guys holding hands with each other on CNN. And, since you always hear about Iranians hanging people for being homosexuals, it can’t be because they’re sweet on each other, at least not openly. I mean, then whole countries would be trying to kill each other over there. Okay, I know what you’re thinking, but still, they’re not killing each other because they’re all homosexuals, are they? That would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it be? I think they have much more important reasons for killing each other. I just don’t know what they are.
Anyway, I figured I better get to the bottom of this before things went too far. Not like I knew where ‘too far’ was or anything. It’s not a place I tend to frequent too often. Just the same, I was confused. And, while confusion might be my normal state of existence, this was a totally different kind. I was out of my element.
Yet, before I could even open my mouth, she hit me with another right cross. “So, Amer, it’s not like I don’t want to ‘park’ with you, but do you think we can maybe find a better place than the airport parking lot?”
So now, I was totally knocked silly. I felt like Rocky at the end of his tenth movie or something. I hadn’t even started the car yet, to tell you the truth.
“Yeah, right. We should go,” I said, as I started desperately searching my pockets for the car keys.
“They’re in your hand, Zamil.”
“What?” I looked at my hands and saw the keys. “Oh, thanks,” I said. “Sorry about that.”
“You’re new at this escort thing, aren’t you Amer?” She smiled again. This time it looked more like a lion that was having fun playing with its food. “Do I make you nervous?”
“It’s my first time,” I confessed, and then the double entente of our conversation hit me again. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make the distance. Maybe it was just my imagination. No, I was definitely in way over my head. I didn’t really know what to do. I tried jamming the key into the ignition switch. It fit on the third try. The car started, stalled, and started again. All the while Atyaf was giggling. Life is a metaphor, if you know what I mean. I hope you do, because I haven’t a clue.
As the car pulled out of the parking lot, I calmed down a little bit. I had regained some semblance of control. It wasn’t going to last long. “How long have you lived in Detroit?” I blurted.
“All my life, Zamil. I was born there,” she answered. She was smiling again.
“But I thought you were a ‘refugee?’”
Atyaf laughed. Did I mention she had a pretty laugh? “I am,” she said.
“Now wait a minute,” I said. None of this was making sense to me. I mean even CNN aside, the idea of refugees from the Mideast growing up in the middle of the Midwest was difficult to handle, if you know what I mean. I did a report in high school once on the 1951 Refugee Convention of the UN. I distinctly remember that the whole purpose of this thing was to integrate the refugees into the host country where they ended up. And once that happened, they were no longer considered refugees. I copied all of the information from Wikipedia, so it had to be true, right? I mean, you figure if her father came to America, and got set up so that his daughter was able to be more American than me (despite my name), it seems pretty silly to keep calling her a refugee, right?
“So, your father fled Palestine?” I asked.
“No, Zamil.” She was enjoying this; it was clear. But to tell you the truth, I couldn’t understand why. “Great Grandfather,” she continued. “When the Zionists invaded Palestine in ’48 he left for Lebanon. He was 19, then. Actually, he left before the invasion. His uncle had a business in Beirut, and he went there to go and work for him. But because of the “Disaster,” he wasn’t allowed to go back to Palestine.”
“Wow, so he got stuck in Lebanon?” I asked. “Did he try to go back home and get caught, or something?”
“Yeah, well, I don’t know that he tried to go back to Palestine, but if he had wanted to, he wouldn’t have been allowed. That’s the point.”
“I see,” I said. “That must be awful, knowing that you can never see your family again.”
“Well, he didn’t get along too well with his father, anyway. He kind of ran away from home, when he left. But it’s the principle of the thing.”
“So, how did he get to America?” I asked.
Atyaf smiled, like she was hearing an old family tale in her head. “In Beirut, he met this girl. They fell in love and got married. Her father had some big connections with the American Embassy, and a few years later, they all moved to America. My grandfather was a little baby when they moved to Dearborn. My grandparents are still living in the same house where my dad was born.”
“So, why are you a refugee, then?” I asked. “I mean, I’m not even sure if my grandparents were born in America and I’m not a refugee. At least, I don’t think, I am.” I was confused, again. The truth is I don’t really know that much about my family history. Actually, I know absolutely nothing. I never met any of my grandparents. But I did know that neither of my parents thought of themselves as refugees. They went by a lot of other labels, as you know, but never “refugees.” Though, I guess, if you think about it, I mean, I suppose, everyone in America is really descended from a refugee, right? No one comes from the indigenous people of America. Well, except for the indigenous Native Americans, and we made all of them refugees, and put them in refugee camps, which back then were called reservations, right? So, in a sense, I guess America is some kind of big refugee camp for like the entire world, including Americans. But, then again, even most Native Americans have indoor plumbing today.
I tried explaining all of this to Atyaf Samar, but I only got as far as my high school history report, before she corrected me. She hadn’t been waxing philosophical on “the great refugee camp that is America.” No, she was serious.
Atyaf shook her head. “No, you’re talking about the UNHCR. We have a whole different set of criteria through the UNRWA.”
“Huh?” I said. I’m not very good with abbreviations. Which really sucks for me, because I’m convinced that eventually we’re only going to be speaking in acronyms, IMHO, IYKWIM. To tell you the truth (TTYTT), I really hate acronyms.
“Yeah,” she continued, “Palestinians are refugees forever. It gets passed down to your children and your grandchildren, no matter what,” she said. “It’s kind like an heirloom.”
“Wow.” I said, “So, like you can’t get American citizenship?”
She laughed. “No way. I’m as American as you are, Zamil. I’m just also a Palestinian refugee. It’s like the best of both worlds.”
I don’t think I need to tell you, but this didn’t clear things up for me at all. I was still confused as hell. However, on the bright side, it was my normal state of confusion. I was comfortable with that. There’s something soothing about a familiar environment. Even if it has the stability of quicksand it’s well, comfortable. Anyway, this whole refugee status stuff didn’t make any sense to me, but then again neither does most anything else that’s created by politicians, crackpots and bureaucrats. No, I don’t know what the difference between those three are either.
I wanted to get back to something I thought I could understand, like suffering. I was doing my share as we spoke.
“So, like your great-grandfather,” I asked, “did his family suffer? Were they, like, wiped out?”
“Nah,” Atyaf said automatically. Then she kind of remembered who she was talking to. “I mean, other than living under occupation.” “His family’s house was in Yaffo - Jaffe. It’s still there. Actually, the part of the family that stayed in Beirut ended up suffering the most. There was a civil war there, you know. That was the Zionist’s fault, too. They caused it. Now, most of the family that was there moved to America. They’re in Dearborn. The rest of great grandfather’s family still lives in Jaffe. I have about a hundred and fifty cousins.” Then, almost as an afterthought, she added, “under occupation.”
Atyaf looked out the window again. I imagined she was thinking about her family suffering under military occupation and stuff. It must be horrible, to tell you the truth. I saw this old movie once about America under occupation, called “Red Dawn,” or something. It wasn’t real, of course, but you can imagine it. Being surrounded by barbed wire, and everyone always yelling at you all the time, telling to line up, and do this and do that. You know, like elementary school or the Driver’s License Bureau, but with guns. It must be horrible, to tell you the truth. A moment later she turned in her seat to look at me. She had this real serious expression on her face, and I thought she was going to reveal some deep tragedy or feeling or something, about all the suffering over there. You know what I mean; something was gnawing at her.
Anyway, all she said was, “Hey, Zamil, can we stop at McDonald’s or something? I’m really starving.”
McDonalds? I guess she was compensating with food. Suddenly I had a really weird thought. I had an idea to cheer her up. “Hey,” I said, “What do they call a ‘Quarter Pounder with Cheese’ in Palestinian?” I asked.
“A Royale with cheese,” she answered.
“Really?” I was flabbergasted. There’s another word you don’t get to use too much, you know. It’s a cool sounding word, though. I think we should use it more often, really. Sometimes, it’s the only word that fits if you’re really paying attention to what’s going on in the world today. Anyway, after my initial shock at her answer, I said, “You know that’s what they call it in …”
“France,” she said. “Yeah, I know. Maybe, you can give me a foot massage, too, huh Zamil?”
“Huh?” I became flustered again.
Atyaf laughed. She still had a nice laugh. “Just teasing you, Zamil,” she said. She looked at me, with a concerned expression as shock and fear sucked the life out of my face. “I saw the movie, Zamil,” she said.
I began to breathe again.
“Actually,” Atyaf said, “there isn’t really any ‘Palestinian language.’ Everyone speaks Arabic, like all the other Arab countries. But I don’t know what McDonalds calls stuff there. I guess it’s the same as everyplace else.”
I was confused again. I mean, if Hungarians speak Hungarian, and French speak French, shouldn’t Palestinians have a language called Palestinian? Of course, Americans don’t speak American, they speak English, but then there really isn’t any one ethnic group of people called “American.” We’re kind of just one big collection of everyone else’s leftovers. I guess it kind of goes back to my whole ethnic food problem. I wanted to ask Atyaf what was ethnic Palestinian food, but she seemed fixated on getting a burger. When I brought it up, she said I was too deep, and she couldn’t think about it right now. She had to get some food inside her. They hadn’t served anything on the flight. I figured it must have been for security reasons. Maybe they didn’t trust people with plastic knives and forks, or something.
Of course, they could have used the spork, right? I saw a special on T.V. once on how they use it in prisons and stuff. Tell me the truth, do you get the spork? It’s kind of weird if you ask me. I once took one of those Buzzfeed questionnaires, “Which Utensil Are You?” It said I was a spork. I wasn’t too happy about it, so I tried to take the quiz again, but by the tenth time, I gave up. I really didn’t want to be a spork. I mean, a spork tries to be both a spoon and a fork, but because it’s really neither it kind of fails miserably at both. It’s kind of a sad piece of cutlery, if you ask me. Though, I suppose it’s better than being a “splayed” or a “knork.”
I pulled off the highway, thinking about the starving refugees on CNN, civil war in Lebanon, and what Alisa Cooper would make of all this. Then I got to thinking, and wondered if maybe we should order take-out for her, too. Then I figured that, she probably had plenty to eat, seeing as how she was setting up the reception and all. They usually have food at receptions, don’t they? I wondered what they were serving. Maybe, they had prepared traditional Palestinian food, or something. Though, come to think of it, they probably wouldn’t start eating it. They’d want to wait till Atyaf Samar got there. Of course, there’s a McDonald’s on campus, too. There’s McDonald’s everywhere, really. They probably even have McDonald’s in China and in refugee camps. That’s probably where everyone goes when they need to use the restroom, on account of the indoor plumbing and everything. I bet the lines are really long.
I don’t know about you, but I was beginning to figure out that not everything was the way it’s presented on CNN. I wondered if Mustafa was a refugee. Probably. The guy got all the breaks. I bet Alisa Cooper finds that attractive, too. I mean, according to Atyaf that would make all their kids refugees too. She’s probably already picking out the curtains and everything, you know. Man, I was really getting tired of Mustafa. He was unstoppable. I didn’t have a chance, really. I don’t know, maybe I’d be lucky and he’d hit it off with Atyaf Samar. If they ran off together, then maybe I’d have a chance at Alisa Cooper. Probably not. Muslims probably can marry as many women as they want. I saw that once on Larry King or something. I’d probably lose out to Mustafa with both of these women. Anyway, I decided to buy Alisa an order of fries, just in case. You never know. At least I never do. Not till it’s way too late.