“If you want to write about Syria,” Tawfik whispered in my ear as we stood on the patio of the English academy where we both taught, “you should write about me. I can tell you lots of interesting things.”
His offer put me in an awkward position. On one hand, it’s always seemed to me that reporting on Middle Eastern wars should be the exclusive province of well-informed people, and I wouldn’t know a Ba’athist from a bath mat. On the other – well, I felt I owed the guy something, having just blown his cover to a fair-sized portion of the student body.
A moment before, I’d asked him if he’d come from Syria. It was a casual question, my only goal being to make conversation – well, that and to show off my ear for non-Turkish names. Bursa is home to a small but vibrant community of Syrian refugees, many of them multilingual, so it seemed like a reasonable guess. But sooner than you can say “Sykes-Picot Agreement,” or even “border incident,” Tawfik threw his arm around my neck and led me – “dragged” might be a better word – into a quiet corner.
”Don’t say that in front of the students,” he said. “It could create all kinds of problems – political, religious, and all that.” The very mention of politics and religion made me wince. Discussing them around students is strictly forbidden for teachers. I owe my job to the heedlessness of my predecessor – by all accounts a brilliant man – who’d ordered his students to explain which vegetable they thought God most resembled.
“Oh, man, I’m really sorry,” I told him. Tawfik shrugged it off. “It’s okay, don’t worry. They probably didn’t understand your pronunciation. You say ‘see-ree-ah’, they say ‘su-ri-yeh’.” Forcing a grin, he slapped me on the arm. “I tell everyone I’m from Lebanon, which is very embarrassing for me, because everyone knows there are many gays there.”
I knew a segue when I heard one. “The French influence, no doubt,” I offered.
And that’s when Tawfik offered to serve as my muse. “I was teaching in_____when it was under Free Syrian Army control. Every day, they bombed us,” he said. “Every day we held class.” I couldn’t quite catch the name of the city, but there was no mistaking the look on Tawfik’s face, which was both grave and energized.
I tore through the rusty filing cabinet of my brain. “This was the, uh, government doing the bombing, right?” He nodded. “That sounds horrible,” I said.
I’m pretty sure I sounded sincere, but the emotion in my voice was my own relief at having set the white and black hats on the heads he thought proper. In fact, “horrible” was a last-second substitution on my part. It had been an demoralizing week. I’d missed three classes. The first, which had been assigned me on only a couple of hours’ notice, I’d slept through. It was only two days later, after fielding half a dozen e-mails written in tense, broken English by the school coordinator, that I rested assured I wouldn’t be cashiered for dereliction of duty.
With my restored confidence came an eye infection, which caused me to miss the second class. It was to be held in a branch of the school I’d never visited before. To blunt the pain, I dragged myself to the computer, loaded Google Translate, and typed in “Ibuprofen,” the Turkish word for which turned out to be “Ibuprofen.” But, though the sky that day was overcast, even 700 mg couldn’t quite empower me to look upward toward it. If it had, I’d have spotted the school’s logo written five feet high on the façade of an office building about 300 yards from the Metro station. Instead, like Oedipus on his way out of Thebes, I shuffled blindly up and down the street – both sides – for a solid hour before giving up and going home.
The story of how I missed my third class doesn’t bear re-telling. Let’s agree it was a dumb, new-guy mistake – specifically, the mistake of a dumb new guy who hadn’t hoisted his Turkish above the “Me Tarzan – you Ceyda!” level, and who’d stubbornly resisted seasoned expats’ advice about getting a cell phone. This time, the letters from the school coordinator – Max, You have main course now,where are you .? Max,I m waiting answer my mail..– struck the desperate note of a trapped miner on his last helping of oxygen.
So when I pictured Tawfik manning the white board – lecturing, calling for order, cajoling knowledge into students’ heads and out of their mouths — while bombs shook gouts of plaster from the ceiling, my gut response did not include the word “horrible.” Instead, my gut response went: “That is so fucking cool.”