“What! An Arab in this house? You’ve got to be kidding.”
Startled expressions all around the card table made me forget what was trump. I had not expected to break up the game when I mentioned that we were expecting a guest the next day.
“How many oil wells does he have?” “What will you do with his harem?” “Where will you stable his camel?” Good-natured jibes popped like grease on a griddle. In the sting of their humorous spatter, I began to doubt the wisdom of allowing the twain to meet. East and West, eyeball to eyeball, right here in my own house.
At the school where my wife taught English, the counselors were forever trying to persuade teachers to take in foreign students. They called it “total cultural immersion.” Housing foreign students was a problem for the school, even though the students were quite willing to pay for room and board. Some could just not find housing with American families. “The perfect couple,” the counselor had called us. “With all that extra room, too.”
Three extra bedrooms to be exact, and a very empty family room, since our three sons were scattered all over the world. Two weeks had passed since our talk with the counselor. Everything was ready for our guest.
He arrived the next day. When the doorbell rang, the last thing I expected to see was a tall, red-haired fellow, built like a football lineman, with fair skin. Not my idea of an Arab at all. “I, Ghassan,” he announced with eloquent economy. I opened the door wide and put out my hand, but he didn’t see it, I guess. He followed me down the hallway toward the room we had prepared for him. “Like diz,” he said, looking around, “but where TV?”
Hmm...he’s direct, I thought. Well, no problem, we had an extra one in the other room.
If I had met him on the street, I would have taken him for an American student at first glance, but his neat sport coat and tie, his brightly polished shoes with inch-high heels gave him a foreign look, and he reeked of strong-smelling aftershave lotion. I noticed the heavy gold ring on his little finger. There was definitely a strangeness about him that went beyond his heavy accent.
“Cloz.” He clipped the word and swept his hand up and down his body, then pointed to his one suitcase at his feet. “Airplane steal cloz.” He held up a thumb, then his forefinger, and indicated his bag. “Two,” he said. I nodded to show I understood. Poor kid. He probably had missed one of his bags at check-out.
“Sure. We’ll go get it at the airport tomorrow. It will be okay,” I reassured him.
“No okay!” It sounded like a command. His chin lifted in what I came to learn later is a typical Arab gesture of negation. “Airplane steal cloz. Trouble.” It was a firm assertion.
Trouble for whom, I wondered, but smiled and nodded without arguing the matter. “Okay, Ghassan.” I tried to put as much hearty welcome into my words as possible. “Would you like a…” I had almost said “a snack,” but thinking of the language barrier, quickly changed it to “some food?” Much later I was to learn that he would have understood our English word snack, for in Damascus, Ghassan’s hometown, there are many “snak” shops.
“Food.” The way he said it was a definite assent, and he emphasized his agreement with a single downward nod.
“Come.” Our dialogue was beginning to sound like something from an old Tarzan movie. He was on my heels all the way to the kitchen.
I opened the refrigerator and gestured toward some fruit. His chin came up in that singularly distinct movement of denial. He bent down and looked into the box, then pointed to a squat bottle of fruit juice on the top shelf. “Sure,” I agreed, and reached for it, but he was too quick for me. He grabbed it and tipped it toward his lips without touching the rim. I had never seen anything like it before. He didn’t spill a drop, but it disappeared down his throat in gulps. Poor devil. He was thirsty, I thought. Must be all that heat and sand over there where he comes from. I realize now my own ignorance of his country, but my own education was to come later.
“Zank you, sir. Go room now.” His accent was gutturally deep, his movements precise, and he had such an erect posture that I almost expected a click of his heels and an about-face. Then he surprised me. He shoved out his hand toward mine. We shook hands for the first time. He headed back down the hallway toward his room.
He remained there throughout the day. I looked in on him once to find him bolt upright in a chair in front of the television set I had brought from the other room. He was watching a rerun of I Love Lucy with somber eyes, then suddenly threw back his head and chuckled. He turned toward me in the doorway. “I like Luzy. Luzy crazy lady. See Luzy Damascus TV.” I was amazed. Later, hearing his deep-throated chuckle again, I thought, Good for you, Lucy.
In succession, Mumtaz, a fellow Syrian, came to join Ghassan, and Bahram, a Persian, came, too. “Not Iranian, but Persian,” he emphasized in almost perfect English. Iran is a political designation, he told us, and he preferred being called Persian. He spoke Farsi, while the two Syrians spoke Arabic, so when they wanted to converse, they resorted to English.
When Bahram arrived, I mentioned the Shah to him and was surprised to see my wife shaking her head at me in negation behind him. Bahram politely explained that his family had sent him from his country, purposely, because he had fallen into disfavor at the University in Tehran. He was a second-year student in architecture and quite an accomplished artist. He had slides of a huge mosaic he had worked on for the university’s dining room. He enlarged the projection to show us the details depicting some of Iran’s history. In the lower left-hand corner there was a figure holding out a rice bowl. Bahram explained that it was his way of protesting for the poor in his country. Since the Shah was scheduled to visit his university and was expected to view the mural, officials at that institution had sent him home to his parents. Besides, Bahram wore a six-pointed star on a gold chain around his neck. He was Jewish, he explained, and a minority in a land of Muslims.