Thursday, October 13, 2011

Past lives

I’m not sure my parents knew what to think when I brought Mostafa, my Egyptian boyfriend, home for dinner, on my 21st birthday.

It was 1986. When we walked into the bright kitchen I felt the urge to say, “Mom, Dad.... this is Muammar.”

I met Mostafa in Switzerland while I was "studying" abroad. I went to Zurich to study German, Swiss culture and history. I spent much of my time speaking English with my friend Gretchen, drinking and smoking in cafes, shopping for cheap scarves, and hanging out with an Egyptian and a Turk.

Mostafa was our waiter at the Cafe Odeon, an always-crowded, gay bar that-- it was said- was once frequented by Lenin and Mussolini.

When Mostafa, tall and thin, with mischievous dark brown eyes, full lips and a broad nose, approached our table, we asked him to suggest a drink. He looked us over and suggested Kir, a sweet cocktail made from white wine and creme de cassis.

As he set the drinks down, he asked us where we were from.

“America,” we said in cheerleader unison.

“His eyes grew wide. “America?” he said, pausing a moment to think.  “America is fantastic. Everything is plastic.”

Mostafa spoke Italian and French, as well as German, Swiss German, English and his native Arabic.

Gretchen and I went back to the Odeon the next night.

Mostafa told us he had been “stuck” in Europe for 11 years, ever since he ran away from mandatory military service when he was 15. After leaving Egypt, he fled to Milan, where he worked “black” in the circus, swallowing swords and eating fire. He eventually landed in Switzerland where his passport ran out and he found himself trapped in a cold, wet, xenophobic city in a country the size of New Jersey.

Rather than return to Egypt and risk prison and or substantial fine, he found a Swiss woman to marry him and he stayed in Zurich, where he cursed the long winters and served outrageously- priced gin tonics to customers who insisted he put their change on the table, for fear their hands would touch. He was 26 and hadn’t seen his mother in 11 years. I was 20 and hadn’t been away from my mother for longer than a few weeks. 

By the end of the evening, Mostafa had introduced us to his Turkish friend, Ersin. We all sat on a bench overlooking the Zurichsee, smoking and talking (sometimes in English, mostly in German) in the raw February night until it was time to catch the last train home.  

A few nights later, I went back to the Odeon alone. I was on a mission to shed my privileged -American skin and get worldly through osmosis by glomming onto my intriguing new friend. When Mostafa’s shift was over, he took my hand in his and we walked through the cold, damp alleys of the Altstadt, smoking a hashish-laced cigarette. Then he took me to a “friend’s” apartment where we listened to Om Kalsoum, drank Earl Gray tea and smoked more cigarettes.

The next morning, when my host mother asked me where I had been, I didn't know the answer. 


When the semester ended, Mostafa made me promise we’d see each other again. Back in America, feeling like a different, new person, I robotically broke it off with my childhood boyfriend of seven years.

I met up with Mostafa again in Spain later that summer. We spent two weeks eating, drinking and sleeping at the beach and masquerading as a married couple in a lovely farm house in the country. At a bull fight in Madrid, I left the arena in tears at the sight of five or six cowardly men tormenting a bloody, disoriented bull.

When I left him at the airport in Madrid, I figured we wouldn’t see each other again.


Then, one blustery evening in December, I got a phone call at my college apartment in Burlington.

“Ciao Baby,” he said. “ I’m in a taxi. I am here. I came to you.”

Mostafa in Vermont was like a mitten on the beach. Mostafa in Vermont seemed a little more exotic, a lot more foreign, than Mostafa in Europe. Still, we had a party and I introduced him to all my immature, carefree, American friends. He scared some of them with his dark eyes. He made some of them laugh with his Tracy Chapman impressions: 

“Sorry.. Is all that you can say. Years go by and still.... words don’t come easily. But you can say baby, baby can I hold you tonight. Maybe if I told you the right words, at the right time, you’d be mine.”

Was it the lyrics or the melody that captured him so. I don’t know.

He spent his days drinking espresso and making friends at an Old World Cafe on Church Street while
I worked as a ski instructor at a nearby resort. I would come home from my frozen, snowy job to find the windows of my apartment steamy. Foreign smells, foreign voices, and the sad, mystical croaking of Om Kalsoum --he brought his cassette--floating across the driveway.

Mostafa carried his passport with him wherever he went, just in case anyone asked to see his papers.

"People don't do that here," I assured him. What did I know. I had never been a foreigner in America. I was born with white skin.

I brought him home to meet my parents and to celebrate my 21st birthday. We ate my favorite meal, chicken picatta,  and then chocolate cake. My sister, Nancy, had a friend over who just so happened to speak Arabic. There we were, at a dinner table in tinytown America, listening in awe to two people converse in a language none of us were offered in high school.

Then my mother wheeled my present, a shiny yellow mountain bike, into the dining room. Mostafa watched me closely. Later, on the drive back to Burlington he said, “You are still a child.”

How silly I --  a seemingly grown woman, rejoicing in my shiny new toy -- must have looked to this man, forced to into manhood at fifteen. 

On New Year’s Eve, while traipsing, mid-blizzard, through a foot of snow in downtown Burlington in search of a party, he complained bitterly in German:

“Ich kann nicht weiter,” (I can’t go any further) he said. “Gibt es nicht ein Taxi?” (Isn’t there a taxi?) I laughed at him and pulled him further. 

Not long after he went back to Zurich, he called to tell me he was in trouble and needed to leave Switzerland. I didn’t ask him why. His voice was quiet and sad. He wanted to come to America and asked me if I would marry him.

I said "no."

"I'm sorry, but I can't do that."


I’ve got this postcard, from somewhere in Egypt. I keep it stuffed into a book on the shelf in our office. Mostafa sent it to me many years ago, before I was married and had children. It’s written entirely in Arabic and I’ve no idea what it says.

It would be relatively easy for me to find out, but I still haven't.

There's always new stuff to read over here at Momformation. 


Anonymous said...

I'm speechless.
So beautifully written.
My imagination is running wild with possibilities about that postcard, Betsy!


Betsy said...

It is intriguing. I tried once to get it translated but, I'm not sure why, they couldn't get it. I had this sneaking suspicion/fear, he was serving a prison sentence for fleeing military service, but I could be wrong.

Jemima said...

Wow, there is no way i would rest if i did not get that post card translated,my imagination is also running wide and the postcard is not even mine... what is in the postcard??? and lovely writing as usual,almost felt i was there

Jemima said...

wild i meant..

Katriina said...

At first, I was going to beg you to get the postcard translated. On second thoughts, maybe it's better this way. Keeping it a mystery, and allowing yourself (and us!) to contemplate the endless intriguing possibilities as to what it says... Surely that's the better way to go :)

Liliana Holtzman said...

A fabulous story!

Gina said...

Beautifully written. Thanks for reminding me that it's important to remember our past lives. I forgot sometimes while I'm so busy in the "today" working and mothering. I was married before my children's father (my husband now) and I haven't told the kids that yet. I'm worried they will be mad or disappointed in me. Do I wait or tell them now? (they are 4 and 7) And why should I be worried that I lived a life before them?

Betsy said...

Gina: You shouldn't be worried, but I know where you are coming from. I'm often sheepish about talking about my life before Ian, not that it stops me, but there is no shame in having had a life, and loves, before you met the father of your children. Yet when Ian mentions old girlfriends, some of whom he was together with when I was only in grade school, I joke with him: How dare you go off to Bali with that woman. Didn't you even once think about me?" :) This is the reality of marrying and having children later in life, it seems.

Kate D said...

...mitten on the beach...cheerleader unison...Betsy you never cease to amaze and delight with your choice of words to paint such a vivid picture of such a wonderful set of memories. Thank you for taking us with you down memory lane, it's always a joy to come with you, whereever we're going...into the Pensieve (Prof. Dumbledore reference).

Betsy said...

Thanks Kate. Sometimes I think my brain is a pensieve. And I love the play on words, penser ( to think, in French) and sieve. Sifting your thoughts. Clever J.K. Rowling.

Anonymous said...

Wow! You never cease to amaze me! Beautiful writing. I felt as if I was there, a shadow in time, caught up in your foreign and romantic past. It's far more exciting than any of my past lives. It kind of reminds me of the time that you mentioned that your mother got the scarf you were admiring from an old boyfriend, whispering his name to you as if it were the secret of secrets.

You're stronger than me. I wouldn't have been able to keep myself from getting that postcard translated. Is it some secret code? Actually, you could probably translate it on the internet since there are so many sites that have translators in many different languages. Although, in another way, it seems mysterious not knowing.


Betsy said...

KiminAZ: Arabic does look like secret code. Have you seen it? It's beautiful. I will post a picture. I could never begin to transcribe it and I suspect there are many, many dialects.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic story! What made you think to share it with us today? So true about our past lives before wife and mommy....I used to be a dancer and now I bake sugar cookies for a living. Who knows what I'll be 10 years from now!

Melissa Joy

Celina said...

Betsy, I found your blog on Baby Center and followed it to your personal. Am I glad I did! I held on with baited breath waiting to hear how the story would end. I can't believe you haven't translated the card. I am truly amazed. A few other readers used this word, but it seems to be the only one that fits. Thank you for writing about something personal and inviting us all to share in it. I plan on using "like a mitten on the beach" any opportunity I get. Thanks for that. I look forward to reading. You make me want to keep blogging. Celina - Wine Cheese Baby

Anonymous said...

Arabic is beautiful! I've seen it before and it always looks more like art or some exotic ancient lost language. I wouldn't begin to know how many dialects there are or how to go about translating it. My guess would be that you'd have to find a linguistics expert. Maybe at a large local college? Or, you could scan it and email it to a linguistics expert somewhere else. But that's only if you ever decide that you want to know what it says.


Christie said...

Loved the story! I am taking collage classes now that I am 36 and feeling very lost. I am taking an English writing class and have to write a report on something from my past. If only I had your past. You have had such an interesting and full past. Your family sounds so loving and accepting. Now I see why you are such a good writer. Maybe someday I will be as good as you. Keep writing I love to read your posts.

HilB said...

First time leaving a comment and I got to say I feel so very nostalgic for your time or my own early 20' really captured something with this. I quite typically enjoy all your posts, especially anything with the family, but this is beautiful tonight.

Betsy said...

Jemima: My imagination is running wide and wild.

Katrina: You may be right.

Liliana: Thank you. All true, and more to it, but that is for another day.

Melissa Joy: I have no idea what made me share this. I had written it a while back, inspired by the New York Times Lives column, and just thought I would put it out there.

Celina: Mitten on the beach is my version of flower in the snow. Use away.

Christie: You can make anything interesting if you dig into it a bit. Try it.

HilB: Thanks for coming out of lurkdom to comment.

tricia hartmann said...

Really beautiful. I wish I had the courage to write my thoughts publicly, this is definitely inspiration but you have also set a high standard to follow. Well done, and thank you for sharing!