The week went by fast. My routine was simple. I got up, got ready, and headed to the house. I always left the apartment at least half an hour early, to avoid getting stuck in traffic. I picked up the boys, dropped them off to school, went back to the house, took Mai or John wherever they needed to go, went back for the boys, dropped them off at home, and went back to the apartment.
I attempted to talk to Omar about his English three times. Every time, he remained silent on the idea. I had to try a different approach.
One Thursday, I got to the school early. My plan was to talk to Omar’s English teacher. I honestly didn’t have a clear step to take after that, but I was sure it would lead me somewhere. I felt bad for the boy.
His teacher was an American man, in his mid-thirties. He had brown hair, and large, black glasses. When he came down from the second floor to meet me, I was nervous. He was wearing a checkered, red-and-white button-down shirt and khaki pants. I didn’t get a clear answer out of him, as far as how to help Omar. I was stumped.
That evening, I talked to Hannah and Mariam. Even Mariam noticed that I was more up-beat than I usually was. Hannah again asked the question that saddens me. I told her as I tell her every time I talk to her; that I will be back soon and that I would buy her many presents. She would then tell me what she did that day, and I would listen to her eagerly tell me of the adventures she had. It was hard every single time.
I had to leave the apartment. I took the car to the car wash, and waited as two boys in their late teens washed it. They were quick, but thorough.
Upon receiving confirmation from Mr. Ali that it was fine, I headed over there, to try and help Omar with his English.
As I walked up the stairs, I wondered if I was making a mistake. Was this boy going to be fed up with me, and complain? I didn’t want to lose my job. It was at that moment that my mind turned against me. How would I explain to Mariam that I lost my job? How would I tell Hannah that there were no presents? I had to get back to reality. At this moment, reality seemed safer.
I stood outside of Omar’s bedroom. The door was open. He didn’t notice me. He was watching a football game, and it clearly occupied all of his attention.
“Put another striker on”, he said to the TV.
“But they would sacrifice their defense”, I said as I slowly walked in. The boy turned around. I was waiting patiently, to see if the boy would welcome me or shut me out.
“They are losing”, he continued. “They have to go all in”.
“How much time is left?” I asked.
“Less than twenty minutes”, he said nervously, as if just realizing it.
“You know”, I began nervously. “Learning a language is just like being a football coach.” He didn’t look at me. I was only hoping that he was ignoring me because of the game.
“How?” he asked, still gazing at the TV. I was relieved.
“Well, those players on the field, all have a role to play”, I said.
“And?” he asked, not satisfied with the answer.
“The same is in English”, I continued. “Every word has a role to play. You just have to know which word to put in where.” He turned around. I took his notebook from his bed, and a pen that was on the floor. I had to be convincing. I doubt that I had his undivided attention for long. On a blank page, I wrote a sentence, and explained what each of the words represented. He didn’t seem to lose focus.
“You see, if nouns are strikers, you cannot have a noun defending. It should be scoring goals”, I said as we finished the mini-lesson. I didn’t want to be another tutor that he hated.
“It’s writing essays that bothers me”, Omar said.
“Essays are even easier”, I said calmly, trying to encourage the boy. “Tonight, before you go fall asleep, I want you to write something about this match that we saw. Anything that you can think of, write it down. They do not have to be sentences. I want you to pretend that you are the coach, and you have to analyze the game.”
I gave him a quick tousle of his curly, black hair, and left. As I walked down the stairs, Mr. and Mrs. Ali were waiting for me. They both had a nervous look on their faces.
“At least he didn’t kick me out”, I said.
“How did it go?” asked Mrs. Ali.
“We will see tomorrow”, I answered as I headed towards the doors.
Mr. Ali decided to walk me out. He walked with me to the car.
“I care about my sons, Mr. Mohammed”, he began. “Abdullah is a rebellious boy, but not bad at heart. It is Omar that worries me. At the end of every year, I had to plead with the school to let him pass English. Every year, it has worked, but I won’t be around to plead for him forever.”
“I understand”, I said. “I will do what I can.” Mr. Ali smiled. He looked tired.
My first month in Kuwait seemed to go by a lot faster than I had anticipated. Mr. Ali handed me my monthly salary in the morning, and I kept it in my pants pocket the entire day. I could not wait to send the money to Egypt. I couldn’t wait to call Mariam and tell her.
The job wasn’t hard. I followed my routine, except when I worked with Omar on his English. I had him brainstorm, then write, about anything that he wanted to write about. We focused on where he was weak the most, and worked hard to get him to structure his sentences better. After a while, working with Omar stopped feeling like I was walking on eggshells. The boy seemed to relax a lot more around me, and the lessons went more smoothly each time.
I was standing inside the school, as I usually do at two o’clock, when I saw Omar walking towards me with a quickened pace. He handed me a graded essay, with a red “A” written on top of the right-hand corner. He was beaming with pride. His face oozed with accomplishment.
“I think I’ll write a book now”, he said as he walked towards the car. This pun was not met with laughter from his brother.
“If you need help with anything Abdullah, please let me know”, I said as we sat in the car.
“No, thank you”, he answered quickly.
I dropped the boys off, and headed back to the apartment. I had to stop by the money exchange that was walking distance from the apartment. I had to remind myself to drive more slowly.
The man working behind the counter at the Best Transfer was very friendly. I filled out the form that he gave me, and handed it back to him. I counted the cash as he looked at the form.
“Where are you from”, he asked me.
“Syria”, I answered.
“Your family is in Egypt”, he stated after looking at the form that I had given back to him. It was then that his expression changed. His kind smile turned into a look of despair. He noticed that I saw the change, and quickly proceeded to complete the transaction.
He handed me the form with the transaction number, trying to bring back the smile that was now long gone.
“Where are you from?” I asked him.
“Aleppo”, he said as he got up and walked away. I remained in front of the counter, staring at the door that the kind man chose as his exit.
After three months of living in Kuwait, I learned that getting by with fifty Kuwaiti Dinars per month is almost impossible. I decided to employ some cost-cutting solutions that would prove to be helpful.
I bought more canned food that wouldn’t go bad in a short period of time. I limited myself to drinking coffee only once a day, and cut back to smoking one pack of cigarettes per week. It was working. It wasn’t easy, but I managed it.
Once a week I went to the ministry to see about Hannah’s and Mariam’s visas. The procedure was taking a lot longer than I expected. This cost me sleepless nights. What if they don’t get approved? What will I do then? The questions were there, always sneaking up on me late into the night. It’s the answers that I didn’t have.
The routine I had settled into was working well for me, as far as work was concerned. The boys caused me no problems, and Mr. Ali seemed fine with the arrangement.
“Do you have children, Mohammed?” he asked me once, when I brought the boys back from school. I told him all about Hannah-her kind voice, her high spirit, and the mischievous grin she would sport every time she did not something she wasn’t supposed to do, hoping that we wouldn’t find out.
“Do you hope for them to come here?” he asked in a voice that seemed to only highlight how tired he was.
“I have been trying”, I answered.
“What seems to be the problem?” he asked.
“I don’t know”, I answered. “We filled out all the forms, paid what we needed to pay, and now we are waiting.” Mr. Ali was silent. He brought together his barely-clenched fists. “We all need to work together”, he said, right before excusing himself and leaving the living room.
I tried to stay positive, day in and day out. I tried, as hard as I could not to think about Hannah’s and Mariam’s visa problem. I wasn’t sure that I had a problem. I was waiting.
I focused on my work, and talking to the people I had met in the building. The building itself was a concoction of an immigrant work force. I was on the second floor, in apartment six. Right across from me, in apartment four, lived a young man from Pakistan. He worked at the airport, and came in and out at various times of the day and night. He was a tall, kind young man, in his late twenties, with thick, black hair. He was in a hurry, no matter if he was coming or going.
I met a woman from the Ukraine. She lived on the floor above, in apartment ten. She had long, blond hair and always wore a long skirt. She never wore any kinds of pants or jeans, only long skirts, of various colors. She worked as a kinder garden teacher, and used to rejoice me with tales of what kind of mischief their kids had gotten into. She was divorced, but used to talk about her husband as if they were still married.
“I still love him”, she would often say, even when her marriage was not the topic of conversation. She often made me sad.
The man living across the kinder garden teacher was a taxi driver. He was Indian, and had thick, black hair and a thinning beard.
“Every since I was a little boy”, he began. “I wanted to be a driver. I had always loved cars. And now….I am living my dream”, he told me once while we met in the courtyard of the building. He spun the keychain that held the keys to his cab around his finger. His family was in India. He had been living in Kuwait for over ten years. “I know all the streets in Kuwait”, he boasted. “If someone needs to get somewhere, I take them there with no problem.” Every weekend he washed his cab and spent hours dusting the inside of it.
The silent man from apartment fourteen was a mystery to us all. He was a tall, skinny man with short, dark hair, and light green eyes. I would run into him from time to time, but never heard him speak, nor smile. He never even acknowledged my presence when he passed by me. The fact that he did not speak to anyone did not help with the rumors. The first rumor I heard about him was that he was recently released from prison. Apparently he had murdered some folks in his home country, wherever that was. Another rumor was that his wife was unfaithful, so he packed his bags and left everything he knew. In that same rumor, he had eleven children, seven boys and four girls. It was easy to dismiss the rumors, but it was interesting how passionately people got around to them.
The young married couple and their four year old son lived on the fifth floor. He worked for some kind of an importing company, and always wore suits. His wife did not work. Their son, an eager little boy with a free spirit definitely seemed like a handful. I noticed, many times, that if they took his eyes off of him, he would either pick anything he could find and throw it at the cats, or would end up crying because he hurt himself. He had fallen many times.
“It will make him stronger”, his father would say. They were from Pakistan, and often invited me over for dinner. I only went once.
Osama was the caretaker. He lived on the ground floor. He was a very tall man who walked very slowly. Some of the tenants used to joke that if you needed Osama to fix something in your apartment, you should have called him yesterday. He always wore khaki shorts and always had a bottle of water with him, no matter where he went.
(To be continued…)
Asmir Dzankovic was born in 1984, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1995, he moved to Chicago with his family. It was in Chicago that he found his love of writing. In 2012 he graduated from the University of Sarajevo, with a degree in English Language and Literature. Today, Asmir is teaching Creative Writing at a private school in the Middle East.
Photo: Kevin Doncaster