My Fellow American
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 didnt 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.
Salehs story seems on the surface like the typical immigrant
pursuing a dream of freedom he left behind a family who
adored him, friends, history and memories, his culture. But theres
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 cant
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.
Ive seen the test. It is not easy. I would not come close
to Salehs 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 dont know
it is because they dont
know what its 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.
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 dont 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
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
Terrible, terrible, he says, so many of our people
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.