My Fellow American
Tulsa, Oklahoma
November 23, 2001

With nothing but a dream stuffed deep in his hip pocket he came to America. He had read the letters his brother sent home to his parents. He kept them all. He memorized parts. He attached the pictures to his mirror. He knew the place he saw in those pictures, the place his brother described so vividly in his letters…he knew that place was home. Though he had never set foot there.

Saleh Osman came to the United States five years ago. He did not know the language, he knew no one but a brother a good deal older than he, with whom he had never been particularly close. He parked himself in an English language class and studied manically. “First,” he said, “I had to know the language. I had to be able to talk to people. I had to be able to learn from them.”

He studied every day. He would go out walking around and go into stores and restaurants and stumble through simple transactions. It annoyed some people. He didn’t care. It was the best way to learn. He did not have a vision of what he would do. His only thought had been to get here. That was enough.

“Why,” I ask.

Putting both hands on his chest, he takes a deep breath.

“Freedom. Freedom. It is hard for you to know. It makes everything easier. It makes breathing easier.”

Saleh’s story seems on the surface like the typical immigrant story…pursuing a dream of freedom he left behind a family who adored him, friends, history and memories, his culture. But there’s a twist. He was not downtrodden or oppressed or destitute. His family had not been imprisoned or worse by a totalitarian regime. He had a life, a nice life.

Saleh is from Egypt, a country which, when compared with other middle-eastern nations, has a high degree of political freedom and a relatively Western society nestled among the pyramids and the ghosts of the pharaohs.

“Yes,” he says, “but it is not the same. No place is the same as the US. You see it in little things. I come here and if I ask for help and if I work hard the Government helps me find housing, helps me find classes. You go anywhere else and they have much more government but you cannot find it. And when you do find it, it cannot do anything. Where else has so little government that can do so much? Nowhere. Everywhere people are nice but governments are not. In the US you get both.”

Government of the People, by the People, for the People.

In the five years he has been in America, Saleh has been home once. For a few short weeks. To get married. He showed me a picture of his wife. She is not merely attractive. She is not just pretty. She is drop-dead-peel-your-jaw-off-the-floor-somebody-call-me-a-paramedic-‘cause-my-heart-just-stopped-stone-cold gorgeous. After they were married he came back to the States. She stayed in Egypt. I am a firm believer in the addictive power of a beautiful woman. I commented, only half-joking, that I can’t believe he would want to be here so badly he would leave her behind. He answers, dead serious, “Yes, and I miss her. But I would miss here more.”

In early August Saleh became a full-fledged citizen, “protected by and sworn to uphold the Constitution”. In his briefcase he carried the certificate proclaiming him a citizen of the United States. He proudly showed it off. I asked him about the exam he had to take to be granted citizenship and mention that I had heard it was hard. He dismisses this. He tells me it is hard only if you do not study, and wonders how anyone could find it hard to study the Constitution and US History. He could not get enough. He still studies even though the test is behind him.

I ask him how he did on his test.

“100%,” he beams. The teacher for his class said that he knew more than most Americans.

I’ve seen the test. It is not easy. I would not come close to Saleh’s score. I told him that. He smiled again.

He smiled a lot. Saleh has a small market catering to the surprisingly large middle-eastern population of Tulsa, OK. He corrects me when I call say the shop caters to the Arabic. He carries food and drink familiar to anyone from the Middle East, Arabic or otherwise. It is a modest shop, spotlessly clean, relentlessly neat.

After he was granted his citizenship he called everyone he knows in Egypt. He joked that he might have to take out a loan to pay off the phone bill. He says he wants to bring all of his friends and family to the US. Some of them want to come. Some are uncertain. “Those that don’t know…it is because they don’t know what it’s like. If I get them here, then they will never want to leave. Who would ever want to leave?”

His wife is first on the list. He wants to get her here as soon as he can, but things are moving much more slowly after the attacks. Nonetheless, Saleh is patient and determined. He will get her here. I asked him what is next after he gets her to the States.

“We will have children. They will have better English. They will have an American education. They will be Americans. They will be better than me.”

Not likely.

In his briefcase he also has his US Passport. He cannot wait to travel with it. He tells me that when you travel with an Egyptian passport it is different, not as friendly. He says every country wants American tourists. Saleh looks forward to returning to Egypt. Though it is comparatively free there are limits to that freedom. Most notable is freedom of speech, particularly when it comes to criticizing the government.

“Mubharak thinks he is the only one. He is not. He has been in power for 20 years and he has no vice-president, he does not have anyone. Just him. He thinks he knows the people but the people are afraid to say what they really think. Now I go there and I say what I think. If they don’t like it they will tell me to leave. No problem. They tell me to leave I tell them I am a US Citizen. I get to go home. I get to come back here.”

He smiles big again.

He has only had to store for a few months. I wondered out loud if he had any problems since the attacks. There have been incidents throughout the country where middle-easterners have been attacked and their businesses vandalized. I worried that the same might have happened to Saleh. I was not ranking Tulsa terribly high on the tolerance scale.

As has been the case throughout my journey, another preconception was blown up. “No problems. In fact, it is better. Before the attacks people would maybe wave. After, they would come introduce themselves and we would talk. They had many questions about Islam, about my country. Everyone has been very nice.” On top of a shelf is what used to be a lavish floral basket. The arrangement is dried out and dead now. A few of the shopkeepers in the strip mall bought him flowers and sent a card after the attacks. To welcome him. To let him know not to worry. At first, he thinks they were curious and maybe suspicious. Now, he says (again with that easy smile), they are friends.

I asked him what he thought of the attacks. Any trace of that easy smile disappeared.

“Terrible, terrible,” he says, “so many of our people die…6,000.” I point out that not all of that number were Muslim. He looks at me startled, then saddened. He points to me, then taps himself lightly on the chest.

“Our people,” he says. “Americans.”

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