My afternoon with Amer →

I met Amer at a dinner party, attended almost one year before we would sit together over a coffee.

Affable and the instigator of many a thought provoking and witty conversations during the dinner, Amer’s star persona was fortified by his uncanny resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix and the bottomless wells of his blue green eyes, rimmed by a ring of sunflower fire.

Despite his engaging personality and a few tid bits dropped here and there during the evening, he gave no clues about the who, what, when, where, how of his life. In fact, after an hour into the dinner, I was left pondering who was Amer? Dinner parties always tend to need an A class star, but seldom give one person, even the A class star, the floor long enough to share the cliff notes of their story with other guests.

Amer didn’t appear Turkish and with a perfect accent and delivery of English, maybe he could have been British, or American or Canadian, I thought. These thoughts played through my mind for the duration of the dinner without any final confirmation by the time I left.

Turkish Lessons

Some weeks after the party, an invitation was given to me to start attending Turkish lessons. It was explained that the class was created for people like myself with no knowledge of Turkish and for refugees from across the Middle East who were now living in Turkey.

Having every intention of attending the first class, I was unfortunately not able to do so because of scheduling. However, a few of my friends did and I was eager to find out how the first class went.

“Interesting” was the unanimous verdict.

They talked some more about their experience in the class in the context of their competency and admitted that it was somewhat frustrating sitting in the midst of people who could already form full conversation in Turkish while they couldn’t even say their name yet.

“Oh, really? How many people came?” I enquired.

“About six in total.”

Not that many I thought to myself.

“You remember Amer, right?”

“Yeah, why?”

“He was there too. Of course his Turkish was perfect,” they informed.

“Really. Why was he there; why does he have to learn Turkish?”

“He’s from Iraq, he speaks Arabic.”

After the conversation ended, I had the time to think about my new discovery. I knew that he had been a pilot in the army and spent some time in England where he had made many friends from the Caribbean. With all that ‘knowledge’ I still was completely unaware of the fact that he was a refugee. From Iraq. Now living in Turkey.

Stereotypes Dispelled

With this new fact, I was reminded of the reason why I wanted to come to the Middle East and why I wanted to start a blog as well. I had ignorantly accepted the Western media’s image of the Middle Eastern refugee, of which Amer did not resemble.

As a result, I was determined to know more about Amer and his life; however in the midst of daily life and the harshest winter on record, that goal quickly got sidelined and soon forgotten until I happened to run into him several (warmer) months later.

Coffee

Not many words were spoken then, but the connection was just as friendly as when we had first met. I felt confident that I could have a genuine one on one conversation with Amer, but in passing on the street, the exchange of numbers especially between a man and woman was not practical.

That same day, I searched for him on social media and found him, luckily. I issued an online invitation to him for coffee, to which he accepted.

Complex

Over one Turkish Khave and Caramel smoothie, we talked for over an hour in an empty cafe sitting on the top floor, Amer first laughing at my insistence that we sit there because of what I had considered a nice view: — a cramped street with three bakeries side by side.

It was with that quick wit and confidence to say whatever was on his mind that I had hoped to engage Amer, and had hoped would bring me further insight into his life.

I learned that he had come from Baghdad, Iraq almost two years ago, leaving behind his mother and siblings who were all grown and mostly married with children.

Even though the term ‘leaving behind’ insinuates some kind of uncontrolled loss, this was not the case. He gave no indication of his family being in any distress or danger or any forlorn longing for them either- The opposite representation of the Western media’s obsession with painting the middle east and its invaded territories as war zones and its people as helpless and hopeless.

Colonial Power In the West is not the same Colonial Power in the Middle East

We exchanged histories of our origins, me indicating that the Caribbean had been colonised by most of Europe since the 17th century and it was only for the last 70 years or so that we had had some semblance of independence. Amer immediately countered, offering a radically different perspective on the (neo) colonial experience of the Middle East over the last 15 years.

“The Brits came to the Caribbean, built it up and left it a jewel in their crown. Look at the Middle East, look at what they have done. Ruins. I wish that they would have done the same thing that they did in the Caribbean in the Middle East,” he said.

I never, not once, had considered his perspective. Yes, in the Caribbean, the colonial era was wrought with deep socio-cultural implications, but it was also the time and space of incredible growth and prosperity that is still felt today. Western invaders built, they did not destroy the Caribbean even though they did impose and create a socio-cultural hegemony that though limiting, is mostly played out psychologically, not evidenced in besieged cities, destroyed infrastructure and thousands and thousands of displaced peoples (in the literal sense).

We continued to engage in fascinating dialogue about the truths of our experiences and lives back home. Amer indicating to me that I should not be too quick to see the Middle East as just an Islamic center, as the Middle East was a crucible, thanks to its ancient history, of many religions and cultures. This made it a very complex place to understand, which clearly the ‘failed’ invasion by Western forces suggests.

What is in a name?

And it is true. The Western media had done a very good job all of my life of actually simplyfying the history of the Middle East into one word: Islam- a word that was now synonymous with instability, terrorism and fear.

As a result, I sat mesmerised listening to him as he tried to unthread the thick tapestry of Middle Eastern history for my ignorant self.

It was at this time that I remembered something about my experience since I have been here I Turkey.

Most people were just as interested in where I was from in as much as they were interested in knowing my name.

In fact, I believed that names said more about you than where you were from i.e. was I from this region and was I Muslim?

Many times after answering “Petra” to my inquisitors, they would say “Ah, Christian!”

I could not understand why because as I knew it Petra had its origins in the Middle East, which I considered by default not associated with Christianity.

I explained this to Amer and he quickly explained to me that the notion of the Middle East as only an Islamic center was erroneous to say the least.

Petra, was Middle Eastern but not necessarily Islamic, an indication that many cultures and religions had left their mark on the Middle East. Furthermore, that these cultures and religions had once coexisted despite the numerous wars and battles to claim lands and territories, not necessarily .ideologies.

Petra

So, despite being a Middle Eastern landmark and word, I was mistaken to believe that Petra could not be associated with Christian culture. Its origins were not Islamic, but it was an Arabic word.

Wanting to be familiar with my name in Arabic, I asked Amer to say it. There was not much variation in the sound even though the stress at the end was intense.

The sound was not enough to satisfy me, as being a writer by trade, I longed for the day to write it in Arabic too.

He obliged and wrote my name starting from the right on paper.

Petra written in Arabic

As he wrote it, I sat perched with my elbows on the table desperately trying to get a glimpse of what my name looked like written in one of the world’s oldest languages.

As he slid the paper across to me, I felt a nervous anticipation. Looking at my name, I instantly blushed and experienced a level of emotion not usual for me.

Holding back tears, I looked up at him and said “I have been born again.”

Photo taken by Petra. September, 2015


Originally published at www.petrainthemiddleeast.com.