Hassan sat in the back of the classroom each day, always in a freshly pressed dress shirt and sharply creased trousers. His short beard was neatly trimmed and shot through with silver, like his hair. He struck me immediately as the consummate gentleman.
Over the course of eleven weeks, he proved to be exactly that. His accent was lilting, the r’s rolling and consonants originating in his throat or tripping down his palate. His voice was gentle, as was his demeanor. Often, he would stay after class to ask for clarification about an assignment. Although his English was quite good, I am *ahem* a bit of a fast talker, and verbal instructions sometimes got past him.
Hassan was, in every way, the model student. He worked hard, asked questions, and met deadlines. And although he struggled a bit with English grammar and idiom, so different from his native Arabic, his writing had a poetic quality that I admired. His use of metaphor, even when writing expository essays, was lovely. I would guess that the rhythms of his native language found their way into his work.
As the quarter went on, I also learned that he was warm and thoughtful. Once he learned that I had children, he inquired after them almost every time I saw him.
“How are your little girls, Miss?” he’d ask, the initial “h” throaty and the richly rolled “r” in “girls” giving the word an extra syllable: “geh-rrruhls.” One day I asked him if he had any children, and his face darkened and lit up in the same instant.
“Yes, I have one daughter. Her name is Habibah. She lives with her mother.”
I didn’t ask for details; it was clear that the subject was difficult for him. But over the course of the quarter, things leaked out in his writing. One of his papers made an argument that Islam was not the violent religion that most Westerners believe it to be. In it, he cited passages from the Koran to show how extremists had perverted an otherwise peaceful religion. Another paper was an argument against the state, alleging that he had been treated unfairly by the court system in the custody battle for his daughter.
The latter paper was painful to read; the longing for Habiba was palpable in his words. But perhaps worse than the ache of missing his daughter was that his ex wife was using his nationality and his religion as ammunition against him in a custody battle, even though she shared both. She had shed her hijab for the hearing. She had denounced her religion openly, even though Hassan knew that she was still observant. When asked in court if she had any reason to suspect that her ex husband was involved in any anti-American activity, she said she didn’t know, but that it was certainly possible. This in spite of the fact that they had together faced discrimination following 9/11. Most of the attackers were, after all, Egyptian, like them. That Hassan’s attorney allowed such questions to be asked, let alone answered, left him feeling utterly powerless, and utterly alone.
Despite this, he never seemed angry. Grief-stricken, perhaps. Demoralized. But not angry. Not violent. In fact, he seemed grateful. Humble. Appreciative of the opportunities that were in front of him–opportunities that he’d left Egypt to pursue.
I have been thinking of Hassan a lot this week, as the news of rioting, internet blocking, and revolution have dominated everything from network TV to Twitter. Hassan’s country is trying to shake off the mantle of 30 years of authoritarian rule. His homeland is in turmoil, its future uncertain.
Certainly, one might think he could have a better life here. His daughter could be free of fear and oppression. His wife could be free of systemic misogyny. He could be free of the radical elements of his faith that had hijacked both the airliners and his religion.
And yet here, where we believe in fair trials and justice and freedom, we have branded him a threat. His own wife has already learned to exploit the ingrained prejudices of people who should know better: attorneys, magistrates and judges, to keep him from his own child. Here too, his home is in turmoil, his future uncertain.
It’s quite a trade.