There’s a Picture of Me Somewhere in Damascus

My picture hangs somewhere in Damascus.

Or at least that’s what I’d like to think.

After five years of war, it’s probably long gone–ensconced along with someone’s valuables on their journey to a safe haven, destroyed by a rocket blast, or something else entirely.

Thirteen years ago, while I was studying in Regensburg,Germany, I met two Syrians. They were sitting behind my classmates and me, when we attended Bayern Munich’s opening game of the Champions League Group Stage against Glasgow Celtic at Munich’s Olympic Stadium.

It was my first and only Champions League match. Bayern won 2-1 on a 86th minute goal from Roy Makaay that, if truth be told, the Celtic goalkeeper should have saved.

I remember being impressed by the lung capacity of the Celtic supporters. They never stopped their full-throttled support and even though they were outnumbered by the Bayern fans they were louder and more boisterous than their counterparts.

The first half came and went. No goals, no real action with the exception of the noise of the crowd and the sense of anticipation, surely there’d be a goal or two.

My friends and I hit the concession stands at half time. The booze we had consumed prior to the game needed to be absorbed otherwise things would go downhill and fast.

As we reclaimed our seats, I noticed a duo sitting in the row behind us. They reminded me of some of my dad’s relatives–burly, hairy, mustachioed, olive skin tone, but decked out in Bayern gear. Maybe they were Turkish.

We acknowledged each other with a head nod.

As the second half wore on, it became clear that Bayern wasn’t at their best. When Celtic struck first, in the  56th minute, the fans weren’t pleased. Bayern might lose this game.

The duo behind us leans forward and says something in, what I decided later was, Arabic. I nod politely, understanding that they were likely speaking to how poorly Bayern was playing.

They say something else and it becomes clear I need to clarify that I don’t speak Arabic.

“I’m sorry, do you speak English or German.”

“English, english,” one of them says. “Bayern play’s not so good. Disappointing.”

It was clear their English wasn’t the best.

Attributing to the lingering buzz and new found confidence originating from our mutual support of Bayern, I ask, “Where’re you from?”

“Damascus! Syria,” they both say, adding the Syria part just in case I didn’t know Damascus is in Syria. I hadn’t seen that coming.

“Where you come from?”

“I’m American. Studying in Germany.”

“Ah, okay, my friend,” one says, nodding his head, still confused. They hadn’t seen that coming either.

“But my father is Iranian.”

“Yessss, yesss!” one responds excitedly. That was their light bulb moment. Things started to make sense. “We are brother’s, family.”

“Of course,” I agreed. “There are Bayern fans in Syria?”

“Yes, many.”

“Did you come for vacation?”

“No just for game. We go back tomorrow.”

“When did you get here?”

“This morning.”

“Short trip.”

“Yes, no enough money. Family. Work. House. Expensive,” one of them said, making the international sign for money by rubbing his thumb on his index and middle finger and sounding a little like Zorba the Greek. I was waiting for him to say, ‘The whole catastrophe.’

There was a pause in our conversation. Bayern had finally decided to show up and was having a go at the Celtic defense.

In the 73rd minute, FC Bayern forward Roy Makaay pounced on a poor clearance, hitting a first time volley from just outside the box that beat the keeper near post.

Bayern fans went crazy. My new Syrian friends grabbed me as we were celebrating with those around us. We high-fived, hugged, screamed.

Several minutes later, in the 86th minute, Makaay was perched on the right, just outside the box, preparing to send in a free kick to his awaiting teammates. He’s left footed, so his cross was swung in towards the goalkeeper. (In-swinging free kicks tend to cause more confusion and lead to more scrappy goals.)

And that’s exactly what happened. The Bayern players attempting to make contact with the cross missed getting a touch on the ball. By the time the goalkeeper dove to block it, the ball had bounced and squirted into the net. The crowd erupted. The 5,000 plus Celtic fans looked on in disbelief. My new Syrian friends and I rejoiced and hugged once more.

Four minutes–and stoppage time–later the game was over.

As the fans were filing out of the stadium, the Syrians tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned, one said, “We want picture with our Iranian brother.”

“Okay, let’s do it.”

They handed the camera to my classmates, who took several pictures. After that we went out separate ways. The Syrians, who knows where. My classmates and I off to find our way back to Regensburg–which is another story entirely.

In the eight intervening years, between that evening and the start of the Syrian Civil War, I didn’t think about those guys very often. Every once in a while, I’d tell this story, but it was usually as an aside to a larger story about going to my only Champions League game and never the central narrative.

But over the last five years, as the Civil War consumed the country and the death toll continued to rise, refugees fleeing to any place deemed safer than where they were, takfiris streaming into the frontlines, atrocities by all sides being reported, I can’t help but often think of them. That story, that interaction, has overtaken the Bayern v Celtic game and become the focal point of that evening.

Where are they now? Are they safe? Did they flee Damascus? Or is their neighborhood one of those that is relatively safe? Were they apart of the protests? Did they want to oust Assad? Or were they supporters of his government? Did they defect and fight on the side of the Syrian Free Army? Or were they conscripted into Assad’s Army? Or did they join forces with one of the Islamist groups? Were they killed in battle? Did they make it to Europe? Are they free to watch Bayern games? Do they remember meeting me? Did they tell friends about their meeting me, when they showed them pictures from the game? Did they hang our picture on a wall or their refrigerator? Did they take it with them when they fled? Are they safe now?

Part of me knows, I’ll never find any answers to those questions. In the meantime, I wait. Hoping they survived and are still watching FC Bayern games.

Can You Tutor Me in Spanish?

“Hey, Shams! Can you tutor me in Spanish,” one of my now fraternity brothers asked me during my pledge semester.

It was the spring of 2002. I had, against the wishes of my father, decided to follow in the footsteps of my maternal uncles and older cousins. They all had joined fraternities while studying at the University of Kentucky (UK).

The previous semester, my roommate, Greg, and I had made a pact that we’d join a fraternity together. Unfortunately, Greg, didn’t come back to school for the spring semester. I was left to join “Greek life” on my own.

I can’t honestly tell you what exactly about “Greek” life that I found so enticing, but for some crazy reason fraternity life appealed to me. Was it all the parties? Maybe. Was it the aura of confidence and machismo? Possibly. Or was it the often proclaimed idea of “brotherhood”? Perhaps. Regardless of what it was, I was going to join a fraternity.

For those of you that don’t know, you can’t just walk up to a frat house and ask to join. There’s a whole process that each potential new member must follow. The first step is Rush Week. That’s kind of the meet and greet of the fraternity world. Each frat tries to sell you on why they were better than the others. And each rushee tries to impress one or several fraternities. Each evening the fraternities have different events, cookouts, bowling, movie nights, mixers, etc. At the end of the week pledges that have made the cut will get invited to what some fraternities call a “smoker”–or in the case of my fraternity the “Mystic Supper.” This gives the rushees one more opportunity to impress in a more formal—I use that term loosely—setting. The next day is what is known as bid day. This is when brothers from each fraternity hand out invitations to the ones lucky enough to have met their fraternity’s criteria. It’s actually quite rigorous, but you know I can’t really get into it since I’m sworn to secrecy and all (I’m half joking, but seriously I can’t tell you).

Prior to Rush Week, I had already whittled my choices down to three fraternities: Alpha Tau Omega, Lambda Chi Alpha, and Alpha Sigma Phi. I had known people in each of those fraternities and the others on campus hadn’t really appealed to me. Going in the plan was to join Lambda Chi, my uncles were brothers at the UK chapter, so it seemed like the right choice.

I ended up choosing Alpha Sigma Phi. It’s a choice I don’t regret. To this day I still keep in touch with some of the brothers. There are even some living in the DC area. We meet up from time to time, share laughs, and retell stories from our time at Murray State.

“Well, if I could speak Spanish, then yeah, but I don’t, so no, I can’t,” I responded, half laughing, half confused about why he thought I’d be able to help him. “Who told you I could speak Spanish?”

“That’s what everyone thinks. You’re fluent in other languages, right?”

“Ummm, No. I speak English, that’s it.”

“So you don’t speak, like Italian or French, or whatever they speak in the Middle East.”

“No, unfortunately not. I’m just a regular American when it comes to that.”

“Oh, for some reason we all though you did.”

“Hahahaah, okay, man. I’ll take it as a compliment,” I said, ending the conversation.

I determined that being half-Iranian categorized me as being fluent in many languages. It probably made it easier for people to wrap their head around what I was. How on earth were they able to process the fact that I was an Iranian-American that grew up in rural Kentucky? ‘He must speak multiple languages,” I imagine them saying both to themselves and their friends.

To be fair, though, it probably helped that I was friends with many of the international students at Murray—mainly the Middle Eastern students. So, I guess they just assumed because my friends were Middle Eastern, that I had to be able to speak their languages too.

It became a running joke that I knew every Middle Eastern student on campus—I didn’t, but I knew quite a few. There were Turks, Arabs, Central Asians, but only four Iranians (including myself). Of the other three, one had grown up in Murray and the other two were on student visas and really didn’t hang out with other students. Needless to say, we didn’t form the 2000’s version of my father’s Murray State Iranian Rat Pack.

Once when I was sitting with my fraternity brothers in the cafeteria, one of my Bahraini friends comes strolling in. We’ll call him Mohammad—I think that’s actually his name, but time has led me to forget. One of my fraternity brother leans over and jokingly—and not expecting an answer–asks, “Hey Shams, do you know him? Where’s he from?”

“Yeah, he’s Bahraini. His name is Mohammad. We have econ together.”

The table erupts in laughter.

“You really do know all of them,” he responds with an emphasis on them.

I could have been offended, but at the same time I realized I did spend a great deal of time with my Middle Eastern friends. To be honest, I hung out with them because they were my only outlet to understanding a culture I had longed to be a part of—even though they weren’t Iranians. Many of them just accepted me as if I was one of them. They allowed me into a world where I felt, for the first time, not guilty of being Middle Eastern—I wasn’t the novelty, I was just like everyone else. We played soccer together, talked about culture, and what it was like living in America being Middle Eastern. I was thankful for that.

To this day, I’m still in contact with a few of them. Although most are back in their home countries, social media allows us to keep in touch—even if it’s every six months or so.

I thought my supposed persona as a multi-cultural polyglot had been squashed after that conversation during my pledge semester. It wasn’t.

A few years later, I started dating a girl who was friends with some of my younger fraternity brothers. As a joke, I had put various cities in the Middle East as places where I had lived and worked after/during college on my Facebook profile. Honestly, I can’t remember all of the cities, but I think one was Ardbil and another was Samarkand. And my voice mail was in German—a language I learned during undergrad, not because I’m some international man of mystery. Apparently, those things only fueled the origin-myth surrounding brother Shams.

After a few dates, she mentioned something about being thrown off by my accent when I called the first time. We had only interacted a few times before that, so I guess she had forgotten that I actually had a southern accent. Which, according to my Aunt and a handful of others, is now non-existent, although my current girlfriend would beg to differ.

“Well what did you expect? I grew up in Bardstown,” I said after she told me about being surprised.

“I mean, yeah, I remembered after I had heard your voice, but for some reason I had it in my head that your accent was different,” she said.

“What do you mean,” I said laughing.

“Well, ‘they’ said that your family were some sort of political refugees,” she responded timidly. “They” will remain undefined.

I couldn’t help, but laugh. The myth that had made my other fraternity brother think I was a polyglot, had morphed into a new myth that made younger members of my fraternity think my family came to the US as political refugees. We were somehow well connected in the upper echelons of the Middle Eastern political refugee circles—whatever that means. Basically, I wasn’t to be fucked with. Seriously, that’s what she said. I was apparently, “scary, well connected, and dangerous.” Again, whatever the fuck that means.

After she told me this, I wondered why she had decided to go on a date with me—and then subsequently go on more dates with me. She said something about being intriguing, but more so that after our first phone conversation she realized that their stories, the made up narratives about me, were just that…made up.

I’ll chalk all of this up to the fact that there aren’t many Iranians in Kentucky—or immigrants for that matter. In order to process my confusing, and often conflicting identities, they had to create their own myths to describe who/what I was. None of them were true, however, but all of them were rather comical and amusing.