Refugees I’ve Known: The Iraqi Boyfriend

I don’t remember his name. For years, I’ve referred to him as Ali.

When I was seventeen, I decided that world peace was within my grasp. (You know how seventeen can be.) Two trips up into the Swiss Alps provided my inspiration.

It started over a Raclette dinner in Zermatt in December, 1998. All the country’s Rotary Exchange Students had gathered from across the two Rotary districts of Switzerland. It would be the last such bi-monthly gathering for the students from the southern hemisphere. My American friends and I had been watching them enviously since we arrived in August. The Aussies, the Kiwis, the South Africans, the Brazilians and Chileans…. Someday, we told ourselves, when we were in the second half of our magical year of youth exchange, we would be such brash, bold, fascinating people, just as comfortable in our own skins, right? (Not necessarily.)

After dinner, all the outgoing students gave three to five minute speeches about a particular aspect of their year abroad, in the language of the community they had lived in, which was universally German. The subject of perhaps the fifth little speech was the Eurotour, and that was when my Thai friend Bow, who was living in Geneva, leaned towards me. “I want to know about this,” she said in English. “I’m still deciding whether to go. Do you think you can tell me what they’re saying?”

I didn’t think much of it. I speak English, my German is pretty good, no big deal, right? “Sure.” I began what I now know is called whisper interpreting – listening to the Aussie’s speech, and muttering the translation in Bow’s ear.

After a while, I realized that the Swiss ROTEX, who had been abroad themselves the year before, were turning around and staring at me. Peripherally, I saw one of them lean close to another and ask, “Who is that? Is she Swiss? How is she doing that?”

And so, I learned that I had a gift for simultaneous interpretation. It’s said to be a skill that can be trained but not taught – either your brain is wired to think in two languages simultaneously, or not. I’ve since taken coursework in simultaneous interpretation for both German and Arabic. It’s supposed to be difficult, but both professors commented on the unusual fluency with which I took to the task.

Then, perhaps a week later, six girls in my Swiss town were renting a chalet in Rosswald in the Alps for a week of snowboarding before Christmas, and they invited me along. I protested that I had never been snowboarding before, but they promised they would teach me. Someone even had a board and some boots to loan me. And they tried, but this is the girl who had done double gym class the year before – four days a week! – and still failed bowling. They tried as a group, in pairs, individually, until it seemed to me that if I hadn’t learned by then, I was just going to ruin our nascent friendship if I kept them off the slopes much longer. I retreated to the chalet to play chef and read books.

One of the girls, Ana, was dating an Iraqi, a couple years older than us, who was an Asylant – an asylum-seeker. I knew the word because the news had been saturated with the issue of the Kosowarasylanten that year, the controversial Muslim Albanians seeking asylum in Switzerland at the height of the Kosovo conflict.

Ali’s father, Ana said, had published pamphlets against Saddam Hussein, which had led to his family’s flight and banishment from Iraq. This sounded like a fascinating story, and we all wanted to meet him. We told Ana to invite him to join us after work on Friday for the last couple days of our trip.

Our vacation, however, happened to coincide with Operation Desert Fox, an air campaign which raged for four days in December, 1998 … the week before Clinton was impeached, which may be why so few Americans are aware of it. More bombs were dropped on Iraq than any other single week between the Gulf Wars, part of a Clinton Administration campaign that expanded Bush 41’s strategies, and set the stage for Bush’s 43’s invasion.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was notorious for exploiting his people, and many of the critical military targets during Operation Desert Fox were next to or shared buildings with residential and commercial spaces. As a result, the apartment complex where Ali’s grandmother lived was hit by American bombs, and they had not heard from her in the days since.

At first, Ali refused Ana’s invitation. “I don’t want to make the American uncomfortable,” he said.

When she relayed her conversation to me, I was heartbroken (with maybe some lingering annoyance for all those months of being held to task for my philandering president). This wasn’t about Americans and Iraqis, and even if it were, I should be the one making him uncomfortable, not the other way around. “Tell him,” I said to Ana, “that we all have grandmothers we love, and I would really like him to come.”

Ana came back the next day from the outdoor payphone at the foot of the piste that ran through the middle of the village to say that Ali was coming, and that his grandmother was okay. She had been visiting cousins out in the countryside and had no idea that her apartment building had been hit. As soon as she realized her family must be worrying about her, she called.

Ali arrived Friday night, a slight young man with oak-dark skin and a quick smile. We played board games, drank beer. In the end, it was no more awkward than any three-bedroom chalet with six 17-year-old girls and one of their boyfriends….

Those two weekends in December 1998, though, changed everything for me. I had a gift – for languages, and for simultaneous interpretation – and I still believe that the key to peace lies in individual people cultivating relationships across cultures, across political differences, even between perceived enemies. And that December, I resolved to use my gifts to do just that.

And though I didn’t pursue Arabic as an undergraduate, I got to it right after.

For Ali.
And for Ali’s father, brave in the face of oppression.
And for Ali’s grandmother.
Allah yarHamha – God have mercy upon her, as Americans likely never did.


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