I’m sort of, just a little bit, maybe in love with a Syrian ophthalmologist whom I’ve never met.
Our affair began my sophomore winter, on one of those stinging cold days. I purchased a phone plan, which came with a new number, a heinous gray Nokia, and enchanting missives from one Dr. Ali. That afternoon, I received an unexpected text message, the subject line of a forward from his unnamed Hotmail account: “FW: Pictures of Layla.” I deleted the message.
Around dinner time, I received “FW: More pictures of Layla.” A new baby, I imagined, wondering how long it would take before the sender realized that I was no relation of hers. That evening came a piece of almost poetic gibberish: “FW: Harof Layla wabble!” Harof Layla wabble?” How delightful—something a baby might gurgle, I thought, before recognizing the language as Arabic. Did the muffin walk? Eat? Cry? Such intrigue, such absurdity.
Since then, I’ve received up to five texts a day from Ali. I know his email server, but not his address. I cannot respond. I don’t know why the texts arrive mostly in English and not Arabic. Until recently, he did not appear on Google or other search engines. I have no idea who he’s trying to reach. But we’ve been playing this saucy, one-sided game long enough for something to develop.
A little electronic history of our affair lives in my mobile phone, his best messages permanently saved in my inbox. He began coyly, asking for homework help: “Fwd: please correct for me the English structure…thanks.” Well, Ali, you know I would if I could and you’re welcome anyway.
Early on, he often prattled about Layla—sort of like chatting about the jungle-like conditions in Lamont with an acquaintance, a banal and neutral topic. “ALI: i have a heavy jet lag i distributed kharoof 3akikah.” What could you possibly mean, Ali, I thought? Procrastinating, I found that “kharoof” is the Arabic word for sheep and “akikah” the name for a baby shower. I imagined that he brought her three stuffed-animal lambs, or three real ones if she’s lucky, or maybe just a really large casserole.
Later, he texted to let me know he was spending time in the States, perhaps visiting relatives. “ALI: fw: Sat. Aug. 13th-Inviting to Allah-Dawah workshop.” I researched. The workshop, held at an Islamic institute near San Francisco, taught persons of other faiths about Islam. My mother appreciated that gesture, Ali, to be sure. A few days later, he texted to remind me: “fw: This weekend’s activities at Zaytuna.”
Around our first anniversary, last year, the novelty wore off, the honeymoon period ended, and the relationship waned. Ali sent a month’s worth of texts, over a hundred, reading nothing but “Fw,” “Re,” “Salaam,” or “FW: ?????????????????” I felt rejected. I briefly considered contacting my mobile company to stop the texts. And Ali began texting late at night, hoping to destabilize my relationship with someone who took me on real-life dates. (“Who’s texting you at four in the morning?” “A mistaken Syrian ophthalmologist.” “Oh.”)
I think he sensed me pulling away, and waxed silly to keep me interested. “Ali: salaam?love mirror pictures, hal bint faheemeh.” I translated the missive. “Hello?love mirror pictures, daughter of Faheemeh.” Very saucy, Ali. But you can’t make me jealous with the thought of other women. Soon after, he included, “salaam, momanswer my last email questions.” I may nag, but it’s just because I care, Ali. Don’t call me Mom. That’s just weird. And I will answer as soon as I know what the question is, thank you very much, I responded in my head. Needless to say, our lovers’ quarrel ended quickly and we were back on track.
Now, I’m a senior, a thesis-writer, very grown up with my semi-imaginary boyfriend, and interested in worldly things. Time has transfigured and deepened our relationship. The Ali family grew again, a niece or a granddaughter born in francophone Canada this fall. “Sophia au bain-bain!” a woman wrote, with an unopenable attachment of photographs. “Sophie en rose.”
The messages have become more topical, given the conflict in the Arab world and Ali’s abiding relationship with the Zaytuna Institute. After the appearance of the Danish cartoon of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, Ali wrote “fw: Cartoon Controversy: Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Interview.” This spurred me to research the Shaykh, an American who converted to Islam after a near-fatal car crash and founded Zaytuna. Mostly unknown in the United States, Yusuf is something of an Imam-rock star. “fw: This Saturday! - ‘Does God Love War?’ With Chris Hedges & Hamza Yusuf – Berkeley, FREE,” Ali entreated.
I soon surmised that Ali planned to go on Hajj, his texts becoming increasingly religious. He sent a few Expedia reservation codes, which I chose not to track online. “FW: HAJJAN MABRURAN WA SA3YAN MASHKURAN,” he kept texting, a shortening of the prayer canted before circling the black rock, or “Allah! Let this be an accepted Hajj, with sins forgiven, and a well appreciated effort.” I wished him the best on his spiritual journey to Mecca.
Last month, Ali came up on Google for the first time, providing a new flood of information. His surname comes from Azerbaijan and he uses an uncommon transliteration into English. He lives in Aleppo, Syria, and runs an ophthalmology practice with three other men. His wife is a professor of engineering and architecture at the University of Aleppo; she often lectures on issues of women’s rights in the Arab world.
His office boasts a phone number with an exotic +963 country code. Giddy with the idea of finally contacting the man who had reached out to me so many times, I asked an Arabic-speaking friend to call and inquire after the doctor. The secretary informed us that Dr. Ali is currently is taking a few months off.
Until he comes back, his cryptic messages must suffice. “fw: Honey & Cineman cures..??!.....!!!!” he wrote the other day. But cures what, Ali? Cures heartache and half the world’s distance? “FW: HABIBI AND CO. RETURNS?!” he wrote, a few hours later. Dr. Ali, why are you shouting at me? And I do hope you return, “habibi,” or sweetheart.
—Annie M. Lowrey ’07 is an English and American Literature and Language concentrator in Quincy House. Although she still doesn’t speak fluent Arabic, she still thinks things will work out.