Pleased To Meet You
George doesn't understand why anyone, especially a twenty-five-year-old quarter Syrian living in amenity-filled America, would want to go to the Old Country. "Don't you ever want to see where your mother and father grew up?" I asked him once. "No," he said, "why the hell would I want to go back to that dirty poor country?"
A thirty-five-year-old Serbian refugee who now resides in Holland spends half the year on the dole. The other half he uses money he saves from unemployment checks to go to Calcutta, where during the day he volunteers at Mother Theresa's shelters and at night he smokes strong hash and talks to homeless men on the street.
I've never felt unsafe in any country except my own, and this has only happened in Philadelphia and New York, in predominately poor, black communities, where I felt that my white skin made me stand out.
The only time that I've ever been jumped by anyone for no reason happened when I was nine years old. I was at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, Michigan, where my brother and I took piano lessons on Tuesday nights. During my brother's lesson I went to the bathroom and, after, was walking back down a wide, dark hallway. Two boys, who were probably thirteen or so, were walking toward me and I knew something was about to go down. But I passed them, holding my breath, feeling relieved. Then suddenly I felt my legs going out from under me and my head hitting the cement floor. They'd tripped me from behind and then kicked me once. I heard their laughter grow quieter as they walked away and I lay there for several seconds before getting up, walking back and then taking my lesson.
A man in Lebanon told me his name was Tony, though I'm sure that wasn't his real name. He was about fifty years old I'd guess. When he found out where I was from he said, "I love America! It is best country in the world!" He then told me he used to live in New Jersey. "Why did you move back to Lebanon?" I asked him. "Ah," he said, smiling, "I was arrested and deported. I cannot return until five years time." "Why were you arrested?" I asked. "Selling the cocaine," he said, then added, "America is best country! I love America!"
My cousin, who is half Syrian, has a saying about African-American people: "You can take them out, dress them up and give them a job, but a nigger's still a nigger."
In Thailand a tuk-tuk driver told me I could pay two hundred dollars to fuck a girl and then kill her.
I shared a room in a fly-ridden, five-dollar-a-night hotel in Beirut with a Syrian guy named Kahlil. Kahlil told me he was thirty years old though he looked over forty. He'd just been released from jail in Denmark where he was busted for carrying a suitcase full of cocaine on a train out of Copenhagen; the cops were doing a random search and it was his first time carrying. Kahlil was telling me this story while we ate dinner together on his bed. He handed me Spam and olives on crackers and said he had escaped to Denmark because he didn't believe in joining the Syrian army. Then he handed me a napkin with an address on it, telling me I should visit his family in Syria. I asked Kahlil what would happen if he tried to cross the Syrian border. He smiled like a little boy and said, "I'd go to jail for twenty years. At least."
The two questions I received the most in the Middle East were: 1) Do all Americans think Arabs are terrorists? and 2) What do you think of Michael Jack-sown?
In Vietnam the first cyclo driver who gave me a ride had no nose and only one arm. One of his legs had been amputated from the knee down. It was hard to look at him. After a week I saw him again and it was much easier to look at him; I'd grown accustomed to seeing what chemical weapons can do to the human body. This time he pedaled me to one of the many bars called Apocalypse Now where a left-handed prostitute named June beat me two out of three, knocking the eight ball in the side pocket to win.
Before passing through customs I stood waiting for my backpack to come spinning around the claim belt at LAX when a big black guy in a security uniform asked to see my passport. My head was cleanly shaved and I had a beard. A wool saddlebag I'd bought in Damascus hung over my shoulder. I handed the guy the little blue book and he flipped through its pages, looking at the ink markings. Then he stared right at me. "Where you coming from?" he asked. "Nepal," I told him. He put on an angry stare and said, "Nay-who?"
About the author:
Derek Loosvelt recently received an MFA from the New School. He was born in Charleston, South Carolina and grew up in Detroit. He lives in Brooklyn.