‘You’re American? I Should Kill You!’
Travel Stories: To most of his roommates at his United Arab Emirates apartment, Cory Eldridge was an exotic American. To one of them, the Iraqi who'd been held at Abu Ghraib prison, he was "President Bush."
07.01.09 | 10:01 AM ET
“Mahmoud, you’re not in Gaza anymore, you’re in the United Arab Emirates,” Jamal says, punctuating each word with a jab of his spatula. “Shut the door when you go outside, or the heat will kill us. And Cory is sick.”
Mahmoud wrenches shut the balcony’s sliding glass door, cutting off the eye-drying desert heat invading our 12th-floor apartment. He says, “Sorry, Cory.” I shake my head to say no worries, using body language to avoid searing my strep-infected throat, which for three days has kept me from eating, sleeping and talking.
I put my feet on the tile floor and lean against the refrigerator to cool off. Standing before the two-burner stove, Jamal drags from his cigarette, and as he exhales cracks an egg on the pot and whisks it into a scramble of canned meat.
“People believe things, like that no Jews died in the World Trade Center, because they don’t have the energy to find out the truth,” he says to me. “They work all day, come home tired and hear something on the TV. It’s the same in America, right? People believe things about Arabs and Muslims they see on TV.”
In the living room the channel changes, and the bellow of guns, rockets and bombs blasts into the kitchen—news about Israel and Hezbollah’s two-week-old dirty brawl. As the explosions crackle and bang then give way to the Arab newscaster’s voice, a roommate I have not properly met walks into the kitchen. With 10 unmarried workingmen living in four rooms, meeting a new roommate often takes several days, and for a week I only saw this man when he left his room to use our one shower. Every other roommate has sought me out, curious about the sole, exotic American in the building, and maybe the only Westerner in the neighborhood. The tactful ones complain to me about the war in Iraq, and when I nod my head to their words and add a few of my own they say, “Yes, yes. Remember, Cory, we hate the American government, but we love Americans.” The vulgar ones say, “You’re American? I should kill you!” then belly-laugh and slap my back as if I’m a rival team’s fan.
This man avoided me. I know only that he’s Iraqi and had been held at Abu Ghraib prison.
I found this apartment, which borrowed its aesthetic and maybe its beds from “One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest,” through Jamal, a friend I met weeks earlier at a hostel. My internship as a reporter pays nothing, so instead of living in Dubai I live in Sharjah, the bedroom emirate for Dubai’s lower-middle class. Sharjah has no marquee buildings, no islands growing off its shores, just a few modest malls and countless sand-colored mid-rise apartment buildings separated by dusty lots, waiting for land prices to soar again. It’s Trenton to New York, Tijuana to San Diego, but without booze, bordellos or billiards. Even here, 10 workingmen must combine incomes to afford a Spartan apartment. Most of my nine roommates make little more than me. Some work as construction engineers, hoarding cash before the Emirates’ building frenzy inevitably implodes. Others work in hospitals or at computer companies, and some save pride and never say where they work. All come from Palestine, Lebanon or Iraq, and this week American-made weapons detonate on each country daily.
As my stranger-roommate walks in, I stand, introduce myself and say, “How are you?” He smirks and says, “Praise God. My name is Munier. You’re American, right?”
“How is President Bush?”
Oh please no, I think. And he’s off.
“You like President Bush,” he says, not asking, not waiting for response. “You think that you should invade my country. You support Israel.”
“No,” I say, my throat burning. Malice gnarls his smirk into a sneer.
“I love Bush and I hate him,” Munier says. “You know how? He got rid of Saddam, so I love him. But I hate him because he ruined my country for oil.”
For five minutes he berates me, describing the wretchedness of his life and his family’s condition in Iraq and his satisfaction when American troops die. He declares that every American loves Bush and hates Arabs, and those who attack Islam—Goddamn them—they will fail. I croak out pity for his family, defense for American soldiers and apologies for American policy. He doesn’t listen. He has grievances, he has a case and he finds me guilty because I am American. I struggle to stay patient, to empathize, to correct his stereotypes, but I wear out and my full-color worldview burns to monochrome, and I cast Munier into the black. He becomes the equation: Arab = Muslim = Terrorist.
Jamal scoops our meal onto a communal plate. The clattering stops Munier and reminds me to breathe. I tear a piece of flatbread from the shared pizza-sized loaf and pinch eggs, canned meat and onions with the bread, but I don’t eat. My insides rage with infection and hate. I leave the room.
That night, I awake disoriented by fever and fear, the sheets sticky with sweat. The drone of the air conditioner echoes from the high ceiling. I can’t find depth or focus on the barren white brick walls and white tile floor. Like a brainwashing video, the conversation races through my head synced with images of Osama bin Laden, Daniel Pearl, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, exploded Humvees, nine murderous roommates and Munier holding the knife. I grab my hair as if to rip out the pictures, and Mahmoud, lying in the cot next to mine, stirs in his sleep. Less than a week ago he made his first trip from home by throwing a blanket over a barbwire fence to escape the hell of Gaza. He evaded the Israelis to be jailed by the Egyptians. After his short stint, he reached the U.A.E., a place his mother never wanted him to go, alone—just another Palestinian in the Gulf with no skills, no job, no connections, ready to be slapped around. Mahmoud’s no different from the other eight men, no different than Munier. They’re all refugees. They scrape away in a foreign land while their homes burn.
Right or wrong, my country takes part in the fires, and no matter my opinion I represent America to these men. And they have grievances, they have a case, and I will hear it. But I will not be held guilty for the sins of my country; I won’t be made into the equation: American = Crusader = Terrorist.
Lying there, sick and scared, I struggle to stop hating Munier and undo the math. I make myself see him, see that he’s a thin man, that his hair is black but not wiry, see that his nose is a classic aquiline, and his short beard is better than mine will ever be. I think about asking him for shaving advice and laugh at myself, biting my knuckles when Mahmoud rolls in his cot.
Two days later, as I explain a bad American sitcom’s joke to the guys, Munier walks in. “Hello, President Bush,” he says. I look him in the eyes and say, “Are you Saddam Hussein? No,” and it begins.
Though it hurts to speak, I make him hear me—my ideas, my feelings, my attempts to reconcile with my country and its actions in the world—and I force him to distinguish me from the mass called “Americans.” At first he doesn’t want to listen. It’s easier to view yourself and the world from a new angle when you live on the sending end, when there are thousands of miles between you and your country’s actions. But when you’ve felt the heat of an explosion, the clinch of a zip-tie, the grief of losing a brother or wife because of people on the other side of the world, you can’t just step out and look at your life from another perspective. It wasn’t something Western, enlightened or American about me that let me see Munier as human before he could do the same of me; he finally sees me, this thin, tall man with a checkerboard beard because despite, maybe because of, everything he suffered, he is a good man.
The next day Jamal sets our dinner on the table and six of us roommates begin to eat and talk. As the conversation turns to who’s hotter, Angelina Jolie or Salma Hayek, I ask for more bread. Munier takes a loaf, tears it in two, gives me half, and we eat.