Many years ago, I had a ten-month relationship with a Palestinian man who was getting his PhD in political science. We were more like companions than lovers, but the sexual tension between us drove us crazy. There was only one time, early on, that we acted on that tension, and it was a disaster. Amidst our attempt at satisfaction, he fell asleep, and I left him there, alone with his own snores. He woke up after I left, confused and lonely, wondering where I went. I was furious, and it was a tremendous blow to my ego. I was very young, but I’d been through so much at that point, I was also very old. Much older than I am now.
That winter it snowed so much, that I was stuck at his apartment in the University district for three days. I hadn’t dressed warmly enough, so he lended me his black and white checked Keffiyeh. It was thick cotton. Piled around my neck, it protected me from the elements. I thought of how the Keffiyeh is most commonly used for protection against the hot desert sun.
It wasn’t really a fad yet, to wear a Keffiyeh around a college campus as a fashion statement. So a lot of people gave me funny looks. It felt as though the scarf could speak much louder than I ever could. There were people whose eyes lit up with happiness, and others who frowned.
Magid was much older than I was, and looked like a cross between Omar Shariff, and Louis Jourdan. Outside, his cigarettes added smoke to the steam escaping from his full lips. We walked through the city, beneath trees with intricate twig webs of white. We drank espresso at the Solstice coffee shop. He read the world politics section of the newspaper with his legs crossed. I wrote poems.
Mostly, we just fought all the time. But that weekend, with all of that snow, we created a cozy world for ourselves. Unobstructed by stress, power struggles, and Magid’s pain over always feeling like an outsider.
Though he had many friends, he was locked inside of solitude. And within him, always the constant conflict between East and West. To be in the West was both to avoid his homeland, and also to fight for it with the safety of distance. To be in the East was to be beaten down and humiliated. Even community, tradition, and family, could not protect him from this. He was a foreigner no matter where he went.
The same feels true of Ka, Orhan Pamuk’s main character in his richly poetic novel, Snow. Through Snow we are given a view into the struggles of the small town of Kars in Turkey, and the conflict between Islam and the State. Since a ban on headscarves for girls in school, there have been several suicides among the headscarf girls, but it is uncertain as to whether their reasons were religious or having more to do with their miserable lives.
Ka is a poet who comes to Kars on the pretense of covering the suicide girls and the political elections for a Frankfurt newspaper (where he lives as a political exile). But his real reason is to seek out a beautiful woman he remembers from college.
While in Kars, Ka writes several poems. He is snowed in, and the roads have been closed. Political tensions come to a peak. And though involved beyond what he would care to be, the events pale in comparison to the love he has found, and the overwhelming feeling that he will lose her. What is more, his Atheism is challenged by the perfect symmetry of snowflakes, and so he begins to see through all points of view. He becomes susceptible to the mystical, the charismatic, the theatrical dramas that cross the line from stage to reality.
My companion, Magid, did not seem to have a sense of faith. I admired that about him. His family was Christian, and he always said that Americans had no idea how many Christians lived in Palestine. He taught me that the news we receive here is very dishonest and biased. He took it upon himself to educate me on world issues.
There was a part of him that wanted to be liberated from his culture. But the part that was still entrenched in tradition, railed against my strong willed nature. He was both attracted and humiliated by my need for independence. Insanely jealous, with no reason to be, since is wasn’t beyond him to take another woman home, if I wouldn’t go with him.
He said he would take me to Israel, but he never did. Instead, he went alone when his father was dying. And on his way back, he was strip searched and made to stand naked in front of group of guards. They rifled through his credit cards. They confiscated his luggage, and then gave it back to him after they had stolen the gifts he was bringing back. They assigned him a guard, to escort him at all times in the airport, until he boarded the plane. He was made to feel like a dangerous criminal.
When his plane had a layover in Jersey, he called his family and found out that his father had just died. There was a sense of relief at having missed it. If he had been there, it would have been weeks of sitting in the house and mourning while all the neighbors came by to offer food and condolences. He considered whether or not he should grow out his beard as a sign of mourning. Then he decided that no, he was in America now. He didn’t have to do that.
He flew home, and when he told me all about what had happened, he cried. It was summer now, and we were eating burgers at a bar in Fremont. The sun was hot on our heads, streaming through a large window behind us.
The last time I saw him, we fought so badly that I drove him back to his street and dropped him off on the sidewalk before we could even make it to dinner. I drove away without even saying goodbye. The next day, I moved to New York.
Our story was a small pocket of my life. And in that pocket is the silence of snow, a Keffiyeh, Magid’s cigarettes and a newspaper stuck under his arm. We are not fighting the fight between East and West. We are peacefully gazing at each other from across the table with love in our eyes, while the students around us are wondering what a young girl like me is doing with a stubborn old man.
I see that Magid is living a successful life as an intellectual and writer. He is hard at work, stripping the layers off of the Westernized condescending and racist approach to Arab culture. His research has led him to express his thoughts through a historically Arabic point of view. It appears that he has returned to the East.
I will always remember that in Arabic there are over twenty words for “love” but in English, we only have one. I will remember the way that the men all danced together, and swung their hips in a subtle way. I will remember the koobideh with basmati rice and saffron. The poets and musicians; the pain and love that they expressed. The ancient culture that we could never feign to understand in the West.