My next door neighbor will be moving out soon. He and his rambunctious visitors won’t be missed.
A foreign exchange student, he likely pursued some technical degree. Others residing at this address welcomed him. Not me.
Mind, nothing personal, but he must’ve found me intimidating. Purposely. Clearly intentionally.
Admittedly, I did absolutely nothing to invite him. I reserved my friendliness. Why? The noise. His and his friends’ lack of consideration. Despite his alien culture, he should’ve arrived equipped with a modicum of deference. At least until he understood the parameters of his new abode. Were the shoe on the other foot, that’s what I would’ve done.
Had he just done that little bit, I, in turn, would’ve been more than cordial towards him.
Bedlam aside, along with his general disregard of comportment, other residents who share this place more than made up for my estrangement.
Of course they would. He and his friends were probably the first Muslim Arabs they ever met.
The 9/11 attack backlash against “those devils” permeating the United States post-devastation has fairly dissipated from here. While other parts of the country proudly retain antipathy for a nebulous population a hemisphere away, the New York Metropolitan area, the region scarred deepest, has recuperated. To the point where formerly searing pain just throbs.
Before, we collectively agonized. Now only that morning’s survivors and the victims’ intimates suffer with the same immediacy. The rest of us have recuperated enough to let American inquisitiveness and generosity overcome and overwhelm hate, suspicion, whatever defensive mechanisms are usually erected to thwart strangers we believe predisposed to do us harm.
For many here defensive postures have reversed. Into curiosity. Seeking answers to unformed questions about “those devils.” Trying to make sense out of “them.” Seeing “them” through our filter so they can be properly filed, catalogued, understood, then stored until dust covered.
Some Americans fell prey to this same sort of excessive unreturned hospitality after the ayatollahs incited Iranians to storm our embassy in 1979. A breach that should’ve been answered with bombs, the Western world is still paying for that head-slapping inaction.
Having never interacted with Muslim Arabs, much less Muslims or Arabs, therefore unaware, my neighbors repeat an earlier unreturned gesture. They accepted our new arrival with bend over backwards kindness. The mushy sort given because of some misguided reflex to straighten the caricatures which skew how the Occident views the Orient.
The same video loop of raving, bug-eyed, fist-waving Islamists runs through their conscious. Instead of asking “Why should they be so angry?” the question’s become “Why are they so angry?”
The answer, Alex, is: “Who cares?”
That is on the Westerners’ part. Few of our Eastern guests ever fail regarding us as no less than infidels, no matter the courtesy extended. We don’t concern them.
Bad luck my neighbor’s bedroom aligns with mine, as well as towards Mecca. The frequency of his prayers don’t bother me. Just his timing. One of his five salats occurs daily at four in the morning. Shouldn’t he be on EDT instead of GMT+2?
I sleep through most of his incantations. Occasionally, though, his fervor intrudes into my snoring. It doesn’t matter much on weekend nights. I’ll have often just gotten in. Though if what preceded has roused a streak of mischief, I’ll unearth a porno, throw the disk in the DVD, cue a particularly, um, involved scene, put the speakers close as possible to our shared wall, and blast the volume.
On one side, there’s beseeching Heaven. On the other, there’s achieving Paradise.
Mind, I have nothing against his devoutness. It’s just that with all which has transpired (and continues to) between the West and Islam, I’d have expected a great deal more sensitivity from an outsider. After all, when we Westerners interlope on them, don’t we adjust as much as possible to local customs?
Actually this is about a lot more than some foreigner’s inconsideration.
Marion, an Arizona kommilitone, emailed recently. Watching the news, she thought she’d seen and recognized the name of someone with whom we’d shared a class at university.
She surprised me. Not her woman’s steel trap facial recollection. Or that a vague Arabic name could be dredged up after so many decades. But that part of the Mountain West has a cable system which offers the BBC!? Really!?
She needn’t bother confirming or correcting me. Unless the subject steadily curses America between damning sound bites, what other Western broadcaster will take time and make effort to interview Middle Eastern figures in depth?
Apparently Marion thought he’d attended our Gilded Age history class. No doubt he audited. For him that class would’ve filled one torturous elective. I can only imagine an outlier’s fascination with Jay Gould, Ida Tarbell and Edith Wharton. Not many slide rule students jammed those classes. Even fewer exchange students.
Then I considered what lured the otherwise lost. Our instructor perhaps? Yes, likely the Magyar.
Sister Magyar actually. Marion, myself, some of the snarkier members of our history survey, nicknamed our flight’s teaching assistant that. A naturalized citizen, her folks chose American exile after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising collapsed.
It’s funny how tastes change. Given today’s views, she’d still be lovely, but too shapely. Aghast at the female stick figures pop culture presently esteems, our arbiters might skew Sister Magyar as a BWW. Not at all. However categorized, she amply filled the mid-1970s beauty notion.
Even now her memory still beguiles. She was a woman among coeds.
Somehow defying Arizona sun, Sister Magyar must’ve been the palest complexioned Anglo I saw my four years there. She bore a trait my late teens self recognized but owing to inexperience couldn’t name. That trait was “knowing.”
The bluest eyes gleamed from sharp features. Thing is, had she slathered on lipstick, the redder the sluttier, she would’ve been vamping. Yet some self-check kept Sister Magyar to less brilliant shades. Paradoxically these muted tints heightened her own coloring, which if rightly recalled, aroused far superior affects.
Depending on the man and his circumstances, her regard for him and his confidence, one can say she imparted grins that intrigued or discouraging smirks. Sister Magyar made a lot males double clutch. She did contempt well.
In our single semester together, I may’ve risen above her general stance towards undergraduates once. Somehow while discussing why late 1800’s social inequity and economic disparity didn’t eventually convulse America as it did Europe, I pronounced Imre Nagy’s name correctly. Hungary’s president, the Soviets executed Nagy after the aforementioned uprising.
That instance may’ve been the only moment Sister Magyar distinguished me from the slavering pack. A jarring moment for us both, certainly.
Straight, long, luscious blonde plumbed to the middle of her back. Or could’ve had she not co-opted Veronica Lake and successfully gone with hiding half her face under a shimmering fall.
Below Sister Magyar’s womanly bosom and above wide hips, a wasp waist. Mincing around in Carmen Miranda platforms lengthened her legs which better distributed those contours. She wore a uniform comprised of shimmering blouses whose plummeting dé colletage emphasized her upper torso, and pastel hip-huggers that relented their fidelity to her thighs only after flaring across both insteps.
Looking back, I reckon the stranger inside our class one of the multitude bedazzled and captured by her perfume. From other women hers would been a scent. Sister Magyar lured a distinct subset. Lured and actively cultivated. Middle Easterners of all stripes.
Then, Arizona ran rife with such international students. Of course, why not? Arizona best approximated their native countries. Hot. Arid. Barren. For the remainder of this post, Saudis, Iraqis, and North Africans will become Arabs. While there must’ve been some Christians among the Muslims, I never knew any. Until the embassy takeover, the Iranians were Persians.
A man, I don’t know what attracted Sister Magyar to them. Other than their profligate discretionary income, I mean. But a lot of females at Arizona advertised availability on behalf of conspicuous affluence. Yet she became by far the best example of having gone to extremes.
The number of Western students who could differentiate Middle Easterners was small. From Day One most of us threw the whole bunch in the same barrel. Then nailed down the lid.
This still holds true today, right?
Several years ago, I paid a client call on a Muslim. In 24 years, he was only the second with whom our company dealt. The first ones, Egyptians, loved smoking spliefs and listening to Bob Marley. Sounds like they assimilated well.
My second meeting involved someone far more buttoned up. A Moroccan, I think. Thankfully, unlike a Christian, there were no overt religious symbols proclaiming his faith. (The grander the religiosity, the likely less involved its worshipper. Cardinals and nuns exemplify this dichotomy daily.) Except for a postcard tacked upon his corkboard. Amid the jumble of notes, coupons and pictures, the item shouldn’t have called undue attention to itself. But sharp-eyed me recognized it.
The Ka’ba, in Mecca.
Before getting down to tacks, I asked had he completed his hajj. The pilgrimage to Mecca able Muslims are obliged to make. His expression brightened. If someone had walked in that moment, he or she might’ve believed a long-lost friend of his had suddenly reappeared.
He never asked whether we shared beliefs. Instead he happily told me he’d performed the journey twice. The second time for his father. He radiated humility after I commended him for having so honored his father.
What dutiful son doesn’t seek fulfilling his father’s wishes?
As we reverted to business, I wondered how many of his colleagues even extended cursory interest about that aspect of him. Did any of them see the cube, a shrine where tens of millions of Muslims annually expunge their sins, for its significance to him?
Even money those who noticed the object first mistook it for an amusement park attraction.
With Sister Magyar, only Sons of the Desert rated her favorable exchange. She never bothered disguising this preference. She permitted no other possibilities.
At the time who speculated seriously about why she preferred them? Shouldn’t it have been obvious? Trans-Am her sponsors’ chick magnets of choice. Generous stipends greased their entries into flash clubs whose prices would’ve staggered ordinary students’ budgets. Besides, as chauvinist as they likely behaved in their homelands, America had a natural way of intimidating and diminishing them. Unaccustomed to openness, tolerance, and individualism, they sought the familiar, and if not familiar, then readily accessible wherever they went.
Sister Magyar fit that bill. And those greenhorns were grateful.
More than mere plaything, maybe she saw herself as a teacher. Or better, an interlocutor. Or perhaps through them at that time she lived out her dewy, innocent captive being ravished by sand bandits fantasies.
Doubtlessly the pampering a rush for Sister Magyar. Whereas her presence, her attentions, what she yielded in return, ought have convinced any apostates of heaven’s promise delivered. Although our hangouts were night and day, weekend night glimpses of her bright visage inside the growling black fuselages of some swarthy minor potentates’ once-removed sons were commonly noted.
I figured the Arab hunkered in our class one of the financially needier ones. No rich sheik’s son he.
Friday and Saturday nights, that cat was cracking books, bumming cigarettes, having morose conversations with others in the same way outside squinting in boat, wishing he could’ve been doing what passed for exuberance. Our classroom, its alien subject, the closest he could get to grazing the hem of Sister Magyar’s garment or inhaling the air she breathed.
Poor fellow should’ve aimed higher. But he didn’t know how.
Until seeing her, he never even dreamt of a Sister Magyar. She couldn’t exist from where he came. Yet there she was. A lunge and she would’ve been in his grasp! But here’s the paradox: in his having, he wouldn’t have known how to properly treat her.
What’s the difference between Arabs and Persians? The latter had a culture.
Before their countrymen egregiously breached etiquette by storming the American embassy in Teheran then smashed decorum altogether by taking hostages, the Persians made it clear who they weren’t. Being mistaken for Arabs made them cringe.
Sand shouldn’t get into everything. Especially between ears.
Unlike the Arabs, Persians fancied themselves as elites. They knew life. Or thought they did. Anyway, living interested them and they exulted in it. Superstition, secretiveness, furtiveness, those crumbs were left to the Arabs.
In comparison, the Persians adeptly bridged the Occident-Orient gap. Westerners could socialize with the less reticent on individual or trusted group bases. Although forgoing dorm parties and happy hours, they’d congregate en masse (mostly staying among themselves) at discos or, after enough trust gained, loosely mingle with vetted Americans. All the while one never shook the sense those times always akin to toe-dipping rather than cannon-balling.
Were invitations ever extended to be his or her guests, they should’ve been prized, and these moments snatched. In their own off-campus lairs, guards lowered, rattling Farsi predominant, outsiders gained much warmer associations. Through Fahrenheit and proximity.
Sometimes those events recalled the shipboard cabin sequence from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. What floor space or level surface wasn’t occupied? Add to physical compaction nearly choking cigarette smoke, clashing perfumes, sweat, and wafts of Johnnie Walker and Jack Daniels. Was it far-fetched to think exchanges could tickle on the molecular level?
A few far less crowded times I got to hear doggerel passed off as poetry. See? Being known as literate does have pitfalls.
I lack aptitude for any kind of pentameter. Still do. Yes. No rhythm. But prose? Younger, I enjoyed renown for transforming well-sourced though badly written tech papers into English.
Some of the higher compliments this student ever received came from reading slide-rule instructors’ comments on fronted efforts. To a man, the submitters’ style and clarity surprised their teachers. Mind, these guys spoke English better than passably. Else Arizona never would’ve accepted them. Orally none of them would’ve been out of place in the Bronx. But transferring that fluency to paper? Forget past and present perfect tenses. An English crucible is distinguishing “through” from “trough”; “though” from “thorough”; and my favorite, “burrow” from “borough.”
If I’d understood their course material, instead of avoiding D’s or failure and settling for B’s, maybe I could’ve scored those guys A’s. And yes, coin of the realm creased my palm. Unless she’s one smokin’ hot babe, happy hour tabs just don’t pay for themselves.
Despite my inability to appreciate verse, there were rewards. More in the telling than the tales.
Invariably one of the braver Persian coeds served as translator. As a rule, in public they shied around Western men. Heads down, eyes averted, statements short, voices low. On campus demure dress the order of the day. (Headscarves wouldn’t blossom until the Islamic Revolution consolidation.)
Away from strangers, amid comforting acquaintances, drab rags got ditched for tight shiny fashions. Chaste countenances got chucked too. Saying they leapt from mousy into vivacious is no overstatement.
If an evening still warm enough, and a pool availed, women barely noticed in mufti around campus, their words and interaction having been frugal, joined their countrymen in noisy frolic. Voices had to be louder than stereos. Being heard above amplified Persian melodies and cranked stadium rock demanded yelling.
Could our diverged cultures have been plainer? Western men sported baggy trunks. Persian peacocks girded themselves in snug crotch slings. Had their female guests been European, no doubt they would’ve gone topless in order to equal exposed skin. Unfortunately that Arizona pretty much compelled no visible female crowns. Therefore bikini tops of the skinniest strips complied to community standards.
Like clothes making the man, who wears swimsuits determines their effects. Bound in modest one-pieces, the women from Shiraz paraded statelier, unforced appreciations. Maybe concealment heightened interest. Liz Taylor to Jayne Mansfield. Less over the top yields to more imagination, no?
A few times after splashing and toweling off, then settling into drinks or mellowing out with bones or bongs, some schoolboy deluding himself (it was always a guy; I guess women confide among themselves or confine intimate expulsions to diaries) he could be his generation’s Khayyam, would ask permission to declaim. You know, in front of people.
Awkward as we Westerners found these requests, our hosts must’ve seen them as our parents had when Judy and Mickey gathered the kids and wanted to put on a show. Suspend disbelief, gussy up the barn and strike up the band.
Nonetheless, years on, worlds obliterated, attitudes hardened, I confess pleasure in having heard gibberish translated into striking metaphors and vivid allusions. Then again who did the telling could’ve enhanced those dreams and aspirations. Isn’t it always better when a woman gives voice to a man’s innermost yearnings? Particularly if her accent summons the sweetness of cherries and the delight of figs upon the tongue?
Marion interjected here. Knowing the timeframe, she asked where she’d been during all these peeled grape, lounging on chaises, have them bathed, perfumed and brought to the tent occasions.
Tee ’em up like that …
Saturday nights while I mixed with cosmopolitans, Marion killed time and brain cells keeping company with her shitkicker date. Whoever her meatstick was that week.
Instead of possibly idling poolside, she and “Dusty” attended that evening’s Aggie House soiree. There, they helped drain the party’s garbage can full of grain-alcohol infused punch. After stumbling but long before passing out, anybody able to slur might break out into either “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mothers” or “Heartbreak Hotel.”
In either case, the party never really got going until a ruckus erupted. These usually caused by an indiscriminate buckle bunny who was finally rewarded once she diverted some cowboy’s attention. Forever to his accompanying honey’s swinging and hair pulling consternation.
Of course Marion had posed her question rhetorically.
The Iranian Islamic Revolution changed the manner of casual cross-cultural pollination. The five o’clock shadows of Persian men grew into beards. Though not an epidemic, women wearing head scarves increased. Their conversations with us Americans got reserved. Especially upon the topic of what the hell was happening in Iran.
New demarcations were clear. With the shah, photographing them wasn’t dangerous. Under the ayatollahs, recording their news involvement became subversive. On our parts.
Once it became impossible for the shah to reclaim his Peacock Throne, the campus Persians draped their noble heritage beneath “Iranian” coarseness. On a distinctly atypical Arizona day, cloudy, cool, damp, protesters massed upon the Mall. They inveighed against the shah, a fellow whose government funded their presence at American universities, by the way.
I believe the chant was and remains “Death to the shah!” Underneath that wish, a few whose spots had completely changed overnight, added an undercurrent of “Death to America!” Talk about guests from hell.
Feeling intrepid, I decided to snap a roll or two pictures. The last campus manifestation of conscience had broken out during the Vietnam War era. But this being Arizona, that throng likely supported rather than opposed the conflict.
Maybe my efforts could’ve served posterity.
I’d shot a good number when someone sidled beside me. A recently minted Iranian, he asked why I photographed the marchers. Would I cease? He insisted my exposures might land the participants in Dutch. I asked important questions. No response to any.
After all, SAVAK, the shah’s former rapists, thumb and leg-breakers, his general all-around scary interior security factotums, were heading for the hills — if they weren’t already there. Whatever Trotsky-styled guardians of new purity replaced them would look kindly upon any insult hurled against the banished shah’s puppet master. Us.
Pointing that out failed loosening his tongue. Where were SAVAK thugs when clamps attached to a car battery needed biting into genitalia and nipples? Just like cops and good-looking whores, torturers are always elsewhere in a crisis.
Seems my minder was new to the fervid revolutionary game. So I took his picture. Horrified, he scurried off.
At the time, President Carter had permitted the deposed despot United States entry. For medical reasons, not exile. Shouldn’t the new Iranian government have been glad to have him gone?
No. The ayatollahs knew the Koran by rote. Their thirst for revenge was greater. Humanitarian reasons carried no water with them. They wanted hands on the shah. Preferably around his royal neck. So they could hang him by his heels.
Whatever its basis, our government acted correctly. For better or worse, the shah had served American interests. This unfortunate loyalty, or as seen from Iran, sinful obstinacy, forced them to show us the error of our decadent, tolerant, cosmopolitan ways. Hence, storming the embassy and grabbing its staff.
I can’t imagine how abrupt the change was for those nationals. They went to sleep Persians, fairly free to pursue their own lives. They woke up Iranians whose lives would be proscribed down to life’s most mundane aspects.
The lucky ones reestablished themselves in Los Angeles or Paris. Then advanced. The rest suffered. Those poor people have been regressing since 1979.
Which brings me back to the fellow Marion saw who she believed had been a misplaced classmate of ours. Frankly, outside of her and Sister Magyar I recall no one else from that particular class. This is all based on her say-so.
Unlike the Persians, many Arabs then attending Arizona enjoyed nowhere near the same license.
“Grim” should be saved for gulags. But given their deficient backgrounds, and then being sadly tantalized through surfeit freedom here (freedom in the sense of expanding one’s self, not how it’s been corrupted by phony patriots, emboldened reactionaries, flimflam artists and incessant terrorism fearmongers) most of those Arabs arrived and left unfulfilled. And during that life period, that’s grim.
Sure, there were several whose wealthy oil relatives bestowed them Sister Magyars. The remainder were just grunts. Brains landed them at Arizona. Their governments saw an eventual demand for technicians, the future projects at best nebulous, still nebulous today, and awarded them scholarships. Modest stipends allowed scant adventurism.
Probably the first English word these guys knew by heart was “economizing.” No clubbing with Sister Magyar for those boys. So sitting in a classroom, hearing “gilt” and mistaking it for “guilt,” all the while mooning across a vast divide being the closest any would get to her.
At that remove maybe she was a mirage.
That fellow, if Marion identified him correctly, would be in our age range. We went on. Had chances to make mistakes. Made a few. He did not have that advantage. At most, life fitted him in one narrow slot.
His Arizona degree(s) conferred proficiency in an area of knowledge. Probably a specious one. Obliged one way or another to return home, merit alone would limit his rise. Skilled? Capable? So?
While at Arizona perhaps he minored in deviousness. Throw in a little backstabbing and climbing over whoever stands on the rung ahead, too. He must’ve. Outside our quadrant of the planet, Western Europe and Australasia, merit means little. Much of his elevation came from treating those above him unctuously, while shitting on all below.
Maybe the classmate Marion saw acquired those skills. To have rated an interview, mustn’t he have had? Enough to distinguish himself from the pack. Though insufficient to lift his head too high. To reach the level his younger self could’ve admired.
But still. Pattern baldness. Nicotine-stained fingers. A gut that throws shadows down bandy legs onto his feet. No choice between clogged arteries or a balky prostate. Now worst of all, resigned to a wife he married for sex on demand. And nothing more. No lust. No desire. Just release.
Manchester United he loves. At no point might he have ever claimed that about his spouse. She’s served her purpose. His gratification, at long last, and issuing children — God having willed.
A long time ago her looks pleased him. Not enough to dislodge Sister Magyar, but she adequately satisfied his pent-up manly demands.
Today, the woman he wed is a notion. A purposeless appendage. He also fills little to no purpose.
Until a trifle scratched some bored/nosy (same thing) foreign journalist. To smother the inquiry before it flared into bothersome required extinguishment from a nonentity. Seldom useful, our supposed former classmate had finally become necessary.
Some junior minister within that obscure bureau remembered his qualifications. Just the dull mouthpiece to trot out before the BBC because he speaks inoffensive English. Thanks to distant hours spent as a mooning student, he can issue relevant sound bites about national efforts to combat social disparities. All without casting aspersions against his indifferent paymaster.
For all the promises of “Arab Springs,” he knows his personal season is deepening into autumn. What there had been of his own sprouting was boxed and left behind with Sister Magyar.
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