Thursday, August 20, 2015

Another Game of Uno

It was a weird sort of love.  I was eighteen, he was eleven – almost twelve, though.  I moved to his neighborhood to be with my parents after a first semester of college sent my health into a downward spiral.  While my friends were out taking classes and partying, my body made it clear that I could not even deal with the stress of classes, much less the typical freshman consumption of alcohol.  A week before my classes ended, I had to completely withdraw from all of them.  What a massive waste of time.  

So, a couple days after Christmas, I found myself in Cyprus.  “A Mediterranean island!” people would coo when I told them.  Turns out, a place with a beach can be just as frigid as winter in Siberia.  It made it worse that these Cypriots were under the impression that breathing in central heat and air was bad for you.  A space heater hummed faithfully by my bed every night in that house.

I had no friends.  The south side of the island was full of Greeks who absolutely despised the Turkish in the north, the side upon which I happened to live.  I mean, the Greeks were nice and all, but the way they talked about the Turks was a level of racism I had never before experienced*. It’s ignorant to believe America isn’t progressive in that arena.  It was a hassle crossing into the south, and I didn’t care to hear hateful conversations aimed at not only my neighbors, but Americans as well. (“You all are obsessed with McDonald’s right?  That’s why everyone is so fat?  Americans are so stupid!!” They would double over in hysterics as I stood there, neither overweight nor unintelligent, the antithesis of their vision of America right in front of them.  Coincidentally, many of them were dying to move to the U.S.)  So I stayed in the north. 
My home in Cyprus.  The interior was all marble, making the our hardly furnished house that much colder sans central heat.

When you have no friends, don’t speak the language, and are cooped up with your parents all day long, you’ll do anything to fend off raging boredom.  I roamed the streets of our little town.  Mostly, I ended up at a small restaurant my parents and I frequented together at least once a week: Gandil.

Gandil was run by a froggish man who stood less than five feet.  A native Turkish Cypriot, Ümit was well traveled and had lived in London and New York City.  He shouted orders to his two sweaty cooks and delivered the best shawarma.  He took me in and very much became a father-figure, giving me advice on who not to marry and how to get along in the Cypriot culture. 

While I was received with a warm welcome, Khalil was the annoying slum boy guilty of soliciting.  Ümit made it clear he was an annoyance, but I took to him.  He was one of those boys where, even at eleven, you had a good idea of just how handsome they’ll be in a few years.  

In high school, I applied to be a “Big Sister” – it was supposed to look good on college applications.  When the counselor asked what I was looking for in a potential “little sibling”, I said I wouldn’t mind a rambunctious boy.  She smirked when I said that.  “‘Rambunctious,’ huh?  Don’t hear that request a lot.”  I didn’t get a callback.

With Khalil, I found my rambunctious boy.  He was the oldest of three and had very little parent supervision.  When we first met, and he found out I spoke English, he wanted to try what he had learned in school. “Hello my name is,” he would say robotically, missing the part where he had to insert his name at the end of the sentence.  I never could teach him to end with “Khalil”. 

When I discovered he’d be little for conversation, I whipped out my deck of Uno cards – something I carried in my purse in Cyprus as it seemed to be so universal.  People understand colors and numbers.  I demonstrated to him the basics and we began playing.  Every time I laid down a green card, he laid down a mismatching color.  Hayır,” I’d say, “no.  This card is yeşil!!”  He’d lay down another color, hoping that one would match.  The first few times he did this I thought he didn’t understand the premise of Uno, but quickly realized This kid is colorblind!  I kept using green cards anyway – he could always match the number if he had it.  It was dark –about ten o’clock—before he motioned that he had to go home. 

The next time I went to Ümit’s, Khalil was there, waiting for me.  He was skillfully bouncing a soccer ball from foot to foot.  He kicked it to me, but I quickly showed him I’m lousy athletically.   We went back to my deck of cards and so it began…our near-nightly Uno routine.  I’d whip out the cards and we’d play for hours.  My life became one continuous game of Uno, my enthusiastic opponent having a laughably unfair handicap.

At times, Ümit was my begrudging translator.  “Tell him I want him to come to America with me when I go back,” I said, only half-kidding.  After Ümit yelled my sentence in Turkish, Khalil’s eyes got big: he was mortified. 

“He doesn’t want to go,” Ümit informed me.

“And why not?!” I demanded. 

After listening to Khalil go on for a minute, Ümit told me something I hadn’t expected.  Khalil’s parents, devout Muslims, had taught him that America was a very awful, very ugly place—in his mind the opposite of everything Muslim and Turkish. He wouldn’t dare go to America when his parents had promised him that next summer, at the ripe age of twelve, he would be “allowed” to go to Turkey’s Hatay province alone to work and provide for the family.  With that, Khalil swiftly debunked my idea that the world’s poor dream of going to America.   

“What? America çok güzel!  It’s very beautiful,” I said, but Khalil shook his head in vigorous disbelief.  I pulled out my dad’s iPad and showed him a picture I had taken once back at home.  It was spring.  The Bradford pears lining the street were in full bloom: beautiful white flowers on the branches contrasting the emerland green grass below and the clear, blue sky above. 

“Ahmehreekah?” he said, pointing to the picture.  I nodded.  “Oh, yes, çok güzel!” Now, he was surprised.  America was supposed to a desolate land of anti-Islamists.

Even so, I couldn’t convince him to come back with me.  Every once in a while I asked him to reconsider.  I had an Angelina Jolie-esque vision of our American existance.  I’d take him under my wing in Kentucky. Luckily, our public schools had great ESL programs and a lot of other foreign kids.  With his looks and athleticism, he’d fit in from the get-go.  The soccer team would be lucky to have him.  We’d live at my parents’ house and I’d  simultaneously mother and sister him while providing him an opportunity for a better future.

I so badly wanted this boy to have a chance: a chance to not become another drag-racing, overly gelled Turkish boy; a chance not to become the hoodlum Ümit knew he’d be in a few years; a chance to rise above the poverty he was born into and likely to stay in.  I so badly wanted the purpose Khalil gave me.

It was not to be.  Five months after our bizarre friendship began, I was on my plane, unaccompanied.   Right before I left, I had Ümit tell him I was leaving with no definite return.   

When I went to Gandil to say my goodbyes, Khalil was in the corner of the restaurant, hiding his sadness only a little better than I was.  I pulled a brand new deck of Uno cards out of my purse – a gift I wanted to give him so he wouldn’t soon forget our bond.  When he realized it was for him, he held his hands up at me and shook his head. 
Hayır, no,” he said.

“Are you kidding?  Why not??” I asked, perplexed.  He loved this game.  Khalil gave his explanation to Ümit.

“Eh, his parents, they don’t allow him to play cards.  Religious reasons.” Ümit scoffed.

“Well sheesh,” I said, “we’re not gambling here!”

Ümit gave me a resigned shrug.  He wasn’t much for religion.

It was comical. “The past five months he’s been playing the world’s most harmless game and he isn’t even allowed!” I wondered what he told his parents he’d been doing these past months after school, or if they’d even asked.  My rambunctious boy. 

Before I left the restaurant, I tried to leave the cards with him one last time, but, good Muslim boy that he was, he refused.  That was the last time I saw him.

Luckily for me, two years later I had a child of my own who gave me that purpose I so yearned for in Cyprus. 

To this day, I think about Khalil and what our lives would have been like together, as silly and improbable as my dream was.  Sadly, I was probably right that he’d be much better off had I whisked him away to the land of the free and the home of the brave.  He’s now fifteen and with the combination of his particular heritage, religion, and political upbringing, likely a zealous prospect for ISIS.  My eyes sting just thinking about it.

I’m hoping that one day, when I go back to Cyprus or Turkey, I’ll find him.  I pray that he will be a hard worker, overcoming the adversity in his life honestly.  I pray even harder that he won’t have given his life to a terrorist cause that is looking to take over the world, massacring anything in its way.  That would defy all odds, of course, but a girl can dream.  And I hope that when next we meet, we’ll play another round of Uno.  

Khalil and me in 2011.  Umit can be seen in the upper left-hand corner
The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.
Love them as yourself,
for you were foreigners living in the land of Egypt.
Leviticus 19:34

*I feel it's worthy to note, there is a very complicated history between the Greeks and Turks, explaining the hostility on both sides. Just Google it.


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