Suleyman had the highest voice I've ever heard come out of an adult male human. It wasn't girlish or childish, just pinched. Strained, like he was fighting against it. But Suleyman wasn't a fighter.
Within minutes of us sitting down across from him on a ferry between the island of Büyükada and Istanbul, he started a conversation with Cory and I. It was early in our honeymoon to Turkey, and we had already been bowled over by people's hospitality so many times. Just ordinary people, random strangers on the street, helping us find our way, saying hello with a smile. Each interaction like a square of rosy pink lokum placed on our tongues, dissolving in a soft, lingering sweetness. So instead of clamming up like I usually would in the face of a chatty stranger, I talked with Suleyman.
He was a musician. He played and loved classical guitar. He had pictures of two beautiful young grandchildren stashed in his worn leather wallet. He had some bread to feed to the gulls, if I wanted to join him. I did and we walked out onto the deck. We tossed little hunks into the air and giggled at the birds' acrobatics. We talked about pets. He had a cat like ours—two tortoiseshell kitties, oceans apart. We called our cats to come to us in the same way, making a "psst psst psst" noise through pursed lips. When we went back inside, Suleyman said he was going to go get a tea from the concession stand—did we want some? no, but thank you—and he disappeared.
When he came back with his cup of tea, he asked if we'd like to meet some people he just met. "They are on honeymoon, too! From Syria. Very sympatic!" He glowed with enthusiasm. We said of course and he disappeared again.
He brought back with him a young couple—she, with a warm smile, in a silky, light blue headscarf and a classically chic trench coat; he, clean-cut and burly in a muted plaid shirt under a jacket. We made our hellos and Suleyman translated back and forth between Arabic and English. We had been married a few months prior, they were fresh off their wedding. We had come very far, they had not. Why did we come to Turkey? Because of the history and the beauty and we'd heard the people were so kind. The young woman spoke to Suleyman. Her husband bounced his knees, fiddled with his hands, looked at us, looked away. And then he spoke to Suleyman.
Why did America support George Bush? Why did Americans think it was OK to invade Iraq? Why did Americans hate Muslims?
He looked at us directly, intently, with accusation.
Words poured out of my mouth:
WehateGeorgeBush. Wedon'tsupporthim. Wevotedagainsthim.
Wetriedeverythingwecould. Weopposedtheinvasion. Weknewitwasallalie.
As I exploded in apology and choked back tears, Cory became tense, frustrated at having something we hated so much, which we opposed so fundamentally, laid at our personal doorstep. The air between us all thickened. Suleyman translated my garble and fell silent. The man remained quiet, his brow folded into a knot. His wife and I glanced at each other. She gave me a look of understanding—we were all pained here, but we were also on our honeymoons and our husbands were being kind of bullheaded. We didn't hold the gaze long, and I stared into my souvenir from the island, a bouquet of mimosa blossoms—tiny, bursting pompoms of honey-scented sweetness.
When we docked, the Syrian groom stood up and politely, if perfunctorily, acknowledged us and Suleyman in a parting gesture. The young bride and I caught eyes again as she followed him and I hastily pulled apart my bouquet and gave her half. A limp gesture of sorrow for an unjust war being waged by my country in their back yard, but it was all I had in the moment. She smiled as she took them; Suleyman nodded and looked at me gently, registering my desperation. "This is nice," he said.
Every time I've heard the word "Syria" in the past few years—most often in such terrible context—I've thought of that couple. Of all the places we've traveled to and all the people we've met on those journeys, none has had such a visceral impact on me. I can't forget them. Where exactly were they from? What has happened in their town? Where are they now? Who have they lost?
Their country is ripped apart. It is so savagely torn that I cannot conceive of how it will be or can be put back together. And I am still so sorry that my country has played a role, in however many ways, in whatever degrees, in fomenting the chaos that is their reality. And my sorrow is still not enough.
We've watched the flood of refugees coming in from Syria, among other places, for many, many months. And now, after Paris, we will see them being accused, suspected, turned away. A Syrian passport was found near one of the November 13th suicide bombers, and that seems like anything but a mistake. It is a crude prompt, an incitement to blame. If we take it, we play into the hands of these barbarous terrorists who want nothing more than to stir hatred and stoke the fires of war. Though they have no compunction about slaughtering Muslims, they want to be able to take advantage of the suffering, vulnerable people who have murder raining down around their ears and say, "Look, they hate you. They hate Muslims. They are at war with you, so you might as well fight with us." The attackers of Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and elsewhere want to sow division.
Many in my country will take the bait. I cannot allow myself to. Instead, in the face of the kneejerk backlashes that will come, I will think of this couple—her gentleness, his prescient frustration—and be reminded of our similarities then, when one warm-hearted Turkish man brought us together as honeymooners, and now, as members of a world that can only be redeemed when we remember our shared humanity.