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Fiction Coming of Age Inspirational

“Mike, we call you Mike!” my new boss said.

I still wonder, many years later, what would have happened had I said no. See, my name was… is Abdullah. When I fled my war-torn city in Syria, I fled to Istanbul. I stayed with Ahmed, a childhood friend of mine, who’d left the year before. Everyone had known it was time to leave, but I stalled. I was a dentistry student back home. I was going to be somebody. I was going to make a name for myself. But who was I in this colossal city? I was one among millions, I was but a number.

But I had a plan. This was just a temporary stop until I found myself a way out into Europe or America. I promised myself to apply for at least one scholarship a day.

A few weeks and many tuna and sardine tins later and my savings dwindling, it was time for me to come up with an idea for how I would survive until I got accepted somewhere. Ahmed, though sporting an unwavering smile, was barely making enough money to pay his share of the rent of the tiny flat he shared with two other young men. I was staying in his room. A mattress on the floor was somehow supposed to be better than my beech bed bathed in sunshine every day of the year back home. How I missed the smell of my wool quilt.

Every year, my grandmother would come and stay for a week to help my mom with the spring clean. She would take the wool out of all the quilts in the house, put it in the sun for a few days and then stuff it evenly back into the quilts. Then she would put them into the freshly washed and ironed covers and fold them neatly into the big closet in my parents’ room. It would be too hot for them now. But I was a skinny teenager who was always cold. Or at least that was the excuse I used to convince my grandmother to let me keep my quilt until the next winter. Even if I didn’t really use it, I’d still be able to smell the sweet smell of the mysterious brown powder she used to sprinkle over them before putting them away for the summer.

Anyway, it was time for me to start looking for a job, so I asked Ahmed and his flatmates about ways to make some money. Ahmed and one of the other guys were working at the small Syrian restaurant down the road. Both earned very little, but it was enough to pay for their rent, cheap cigarettes and food that came out of a tin. They offered to ask the restaurant owner if he needed more hands. And according to them, I was good at washing dishes.

The other guy, Taim, was lucky enough to be studying engineering at the local university. His parents, who had lived in Kuwait, sent him enough money to pay rent, buy meat --which he shared with us sometimes-- and study English at a small language school every night.

“Abdullah, you used to give private tutoring in English back home, didn’t you?” Ahmed asked as we peeled potatoes for our dinner one night.

Taim --who had just come back from one of his evening classes-- looked at me with sudden interest, “Really? You speak good English?”

“I think so! I used to watch a lot of series and movies in English.” I shrugged.

“Not just that. You’d always find Abdullah glued to some kind of screen,” Ahmed chimed in, “either watching something or tinkering with the device!”

I laughed.

“Lucky you! I’m only realising now how stupid I was to not have taken it more seriously. But hey, the school I’m going to is looking for an ESL teacher. Shall I ask them if the job is still available?” Taim asked, “I mean tomorrow is my last day there. If you want I could ask them when I say goodbye to them.”

“That would be great!” Ahmed said nudging me, his eyes shining with excitement.

A week later, I had an appointment with the owner of the language school. The school was more of a big apartment on the ground floor of an apartment building flipped into small classrooms with rows of worn desks, a smudged whiteboard and some old markers. He was a burly middle-aged man with a thick moustache and an even thicker Turkish accent when speaking English.

He had a young American teacher ask me some questions about grammar and vocabulary, while he watched, trying to read the expressions on her face with each answer I gave. Our conversation lasted about fifteen minutes but felt way longer. I was extremely nervous. After all, this was my very first job interview. I wasn’t able to tell what she thought of my English until she asked me, “Are you sure you’ve never spent time in the States? Or maybe Ireland?”

I still get that a lot now. People always wonder if I’m Irish. Must be the hodgepodge of accents I picked up from the different shows and films I’d consumed.

At any rate, when she asked me that, I knew I would get the job.

She stood up and, on her way out, she slowly closed her eyes as to say an inconspicuous yes to her boss.

The boss nodded and waited for the door to close. Then he turned to me and said, “Your English good enough for job! You teach beginners. You start Monday.”

Then he proceeded to tell me my salary. It wasn’t much better than what my flatmates were getting at the restaurant, but at least I wouldn’t go home smelling of frying oil or too exhausted to do anything or even call my mom.

I nodded.

I thanked him, stood up and shook his meaty hand. Before I reached the door, like an afterthought, he said, “Mike. We call you Mike!”

With my hand still on the doorknob, I turned to him puzzled.

“Here all teachers are native speakers. We cannot tell students your name Abdullah,” he raised his palms as if apologising that this was the only solution to the ordeal of me being Syrian. Luckily, I had blue eyes and curly, sandy hair, so we didn’t have to worry about the issue of who would have to pay for the contact lenses and hair dye if he so required.

I nodded again slowly, turned the doorknob and went home.

I must admit that as soon as I entered my windowless classroom and closed the door, I felt happy. I felt that I mattered. Sometimes I wondered if these young adults, some only a bit older than me, would’ve liked me less if they knew I was from their neighbouring country. From the country that spewed many immigrants into their lives, their apartment buildings and sometimes even their streets, begging for scraps. Would they have questioned my teaching if they knew I was a Muslim like them? Would they have been less glued to their seats as we discussed movies and series I had recommended watching? I suppose I’ll never know. But I was young and excited to be having a steady source of income. Mr. Moustache even raised my salary, slightly, and gave me some intermediate courses.

I know I should’ve been grateful for all of this, but every time someone called me Mike, I felt a knot in my stomach. Sometimes I imagined how my mother would feel if she heard them call me by a name other than the one she’d given me.

I only did this job for about eight months until a scholarship to study IT in Wisconsin came through. America offered to be my new home. A place that would arm me with a bright future. Or at least a future.

My mom was very upset to hear I had applied to study IT instead of continuing to study dentistry like she had always wanted me to. I don’t know where I got the courage to do that. To apply for a scholarship in IT. Maybe it was the late-night buzz. I had sat on my mattress with my laptop open, rock music blasting through my earphones while Ahmed snored gently. I had just received my first salary and felt big. I knew I’d be throwing away three years of dentistry and starting from scratch, but it didn’t matter; I’d finally be doing something I truly loved. I knew I’d upset my mom who had done everything for me, but it didn’t matter… much. I was sure she’d forgive me eventually. She’d want me to be happy.

I arrived in Wisconsin on a freezing day. I’d seen snow in Syria. I’d seen snow on TV, but nothing could’ve prepared me for the loads of snow I saw when I arrived there. Thick quilts of snow were everywhere, on top of cars, on top of buildings, on sidewalks, on lawns, in my eyes, in my sneakers, in my bones. I still shudder just thinking about it. I was miserable for a long time. Where were the scrawny snowmen that melted in hours? Where were the olives, my mother’s rose jam, the blood-red tomatoes, literally bursting at the seams with juice?

Most disappointingly, where was the sun that shone every day no matter how cold the wind was? I needed it to shine on me. The real me, the old me. My mother’s Abdullah.

One night, I forced myself to put on my heavy windbreaker and leave my room. I went to a student pub and ordered a glass of orange juice. The bartender, a cheerful girl with a bouncy ponytail smiled at my odd request.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” she said as she handed me my orange juice with a slice of orange on the side.

I smiled and nodded.

“What’s your name?” she put her elbows on the counter and rested her chin on one hand.

I hesitated for a while. I twirled my glass between my two palms. She waited patiently. On the long flight from Istanbul, I’d made the decision to introduce myself to everyone as Mike. It’d become an alternative version of me. It was easier. If Turks, who were practically my people's twins, wanted me to be Mike, then what did I expect from Americans? After all, I was Americanized in many ways anyway: my accent, my clothes, my way of thinking even.

“My name is Abdullah. Not Abdul, not Abdo.” I looked her in the eye, “Abdullah!”

“Abdullah! I like it!” she winked and went back to work.

I felt a ray of sunshine sneak into that stuffy pub.

March 25, 2022 22:51

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6 comments

Reemara Abdul
20:06 Mar 30, 2022

it's a professional amazing story.. i really love it.. thanks for sharing

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Rama Shaar
02:17 Mar 31, 2022

Thank you so much! I loved writing it❤

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Alhakam Shaar
10:45 Mar 31, 2022

I absolutely loved it! This line cracked me up: “Luckily, I had blue eyes and curly, sandy hair, so we didn’t have to worry about the issue of who would have to pay for the contact lenses and hair dye if he so required.”

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Rama Shaar
14:56 Mar 31, 2022

Hehe, I'm glad someone noticed this attempt at sarcasm ;-)

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John Walsh
21:55 Mar 30, 2022

Convincing story filled with telling details. I like that it is not dependent on coincidences and "twists."

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Rama Shaar
02:18 Mar 31, 2022

Thank you so much for your feedback. I agree that while relying on coincidences and twists might be more suspenseful, it is not very realistic.

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