The Trouble with Hajaj

(Munich, Germany, emailed on 4-09-2003)

I don’t know if I ever mentioned that I had a Syrian fellow in my language class. Did I mention Hajaj? Well he’s a 28 year-old medical student from Syria. (This is a country that just fell short of qualifying for the Axis of Evil, probably because G.W. Bush could only count to three…)

Hajaj came over in December to Munich to study the language and work on his accent. He then planned to move on to a small town outside Hamburg to study neurology or something and get certified to practice in Germany.

I have to be honest and say that I think I was fighting my prejudices about him from day one. From what I know of Syria I consider it to be one of the more backward- or more correctly one of the more conservative- Islamic nations with a pretty troubling reputation for being a bunch of thugs. Ok perhaps that’s totally unfair but they have a bad human rights record and have been in a constant state of internal war for something like two decades… So when Hajaj said he came from Syria I felt this knee jerk reaction of suspicion. I could feel myself fighting my eyelids from lowering to half-mast in speculation.

What kind of guy was this? Visions of burka-clad women danced in my head and blurred my vision…

I did of course realize that this was unfair so I reacted like most people who like to consider themselves liberal and are in deed liberal enough to recognize they are not prejudice-free… I was extra careful and extra polite with him. At the same time I couldn’t really warm up to the guy… after all he was really Arabic in his ways with women. He had no problem talking over female classmates and contradicting them any chance he got and didn’t bat an eye when he interrupted women constantly in class, including our instructors. He was also quite free with his opinions on the US and women and their place and I can put it simply by saying we were from different planets and sometimes I dearly wished I could send him back to his with a well-placed boot to the rear.

When that urge became too strong I just repeated my own personal mantra in my head: cultural relativism, cultural relativism, cultural relativism… one must not judge him by western standards…blah blah blah. Easy enough in theory but it’s hard to stick to such a grand idea when the other side doesn’t play fair and tries to mow you over in some petty little dominance game every damn day. So I consoled myself by looking at him and thinking mean and negative thoughts.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. At first he was just mildly irritating. This was a sort of ‘honeymoon period’ when I gave him more credit than he deserved and wrote off a lot of his behaviors to culture shock (with the expectation that they would improve with time).

I had reason to believe this was so. This was his first time away from home. He was almost 30, the youngest in the family, and I’m think I’m right to label him as a class-A Mamma’s Boy who found himself abroad without an apron string to cling to. I mean really, if anyone was ready to have a cord cut, it was this guy.

But I came to believe it was too late for him.


First he was fond of saying how he hated Munich and that German people were weird (well maybe but that’s not a bad thing and frankly anyone may be weird to a couch potato antisocial Syrian). For an Islamic guy he could really drink. Whenever people on the class went out to have a beer or whatever, he would rather rudely demand vodka from the waitress. He would simply look at her, wave his hand imperiously and say: Smirnoff. And then he would indicate with his fingers that he wanted a double.

Add this attitude to the nice combination of dandruff, his weird habit of waving his fingers around to accent every word spoken, and his inability to ever learn to people’s accents causing him to constantly shake his head and say loudly (while you’re still speaking) “Ich verstehe nicht!” (I don’t understand), as well as his total disinterest in talking about anything but himself and you’ve got a real wild and crazy guy. A real winner.

But of course when I came to these conclusions early on, I felt really bad for disliking him so much. So to compensate I continued to ignore his rudeness and be polite.

I was polite, even somewhat nice. But I never sat next to him if I could help it. If we had to do work in pairs, construct a dialogue or whatever, he would never do any work and you’d have to do the whole thing by yourself. So when I did have to work with him on occasion I would indulge myself and construct elaborate scenarios that I thought were funny, knowing full well that if he ever had taken the time to fully understand them, he might not have agreed to do it.

My favorite was when we were learning vocabulary for relationships (love at first sight, cheating, kissing, fightin’ words, etc.). We were given drawings and told to construct a dialogue out of what we thought the story was. Of course I was paired, against my will, with Hajaj. So I picked the one with the man with lipstick on his collar and the really mad woman yelling at him. Hajaj didn’t have to do much except say the sentences I gave him. I got to have a great time yelling at him and finally ordering him out of the room for being a cheating bastard.

Raus! (get out!)

Therapy could not have been better. I got a long round of applause. Hajaj just looked a bit confused and muttered something about women being crazy and too much trouble.

But this may have planted a seed of thought that grew into something interesting.

Our class size would fluctuate depending on the week. People would come and stay a few weeks and then go back to their countries. A few of us were in for the long haul. Hajaj had been there since December and was to stay until the middle of March. I seemed to be a permanent fixture there. At one point the class size dropped to three and our third took a spontaneous trip to Berlin for a week. So I was alone. In class. With Hajaj.

Oh the horror of it all.

How boring. You could not imagine. He wasn’t doing his homework at this point so when he didn’t know an answer (which became quite often) he would wave his hand and say, “Besser…Megan antwortet.” (better that Megan answers because I’m a lazy arrogant bastard). Often he would drag the conversation away from our actual work and talk for ages about Syria and how his land is much much different and Germany is weird. I had been around Hajaj long enough to have heard everything he knew how to say- so it was all repeats which was even more boring. And I was past being sympathetic about the homesickness. I mean come on! I’ve been wearing the same clothes for months, have few books to read, only a few chances to do anything remotely similar to my life in California and you don’t see me whining to anything with a pulse. I don’t even have cable or mtv.

But I didn’t say anything to Hajaj because he was slowly transforming day to day. I think he began to lose it in early February. It was hard to pinpoint what was wrong but you could see this growing frustration and stress in his face. He grew quieter and more moody. His complaints grew in frequency and he seemed to only think of when he could leave Munich to go to medical school near Hamburg. He said quite often that he was supposed to become a rich doctor. So here was a young guy, used to always living with his mother, getting tossed into Germany, told to go get an education and make his fortune. His father is a doctor and so is his brother. The pressure was on. Plus he had zero social skills and no ability to make friends or even the desire if they weren’t exactly like him.

He was primed to explode. I wasn’t the only one who saw it. After a particular trying session with just him in class, our instructor Berndt said to me in the break, “Don’t pressure him.” I’m not sure what he meant because I barely spoke to Hajaj at this point but I had made a joke he didn’t understand so perhaps I was making class too frustrating. But the point is that Berndt saw he was close to explosion too. He said, “that guy is about to break, he’s not adapting to Germany at all.”

We all began to see the signs in Hajaj, the increasingly weird behavior, sometimes he even sat in his chair and rocked back and forth unconsciously….

Sometimes I wondered if he was really on his way to medical school or if he was on his way to join his splinter cell. In ways he was prime terror material. For one he seemed to hate western culture and wanted a war to break out in the Middle East because he hoped Syria would then overthrow their government… and he had this crazy look in his eye…

So I was counting the days until he was due to leave. Friday came and Hajaj was due to leave on Tuesday. Countdown was getting short. The third in our class had returned from Berlin so things were easier and the atmosphere lighter. Even Hajaj seemed to perk up, perhaps buoyed by his coming departure.

After class we all walked down the street to our various choices of transportation. I made to cross the street, alone, to the street car. Today Hajaj followed. This was odd. I turned to him and asked him what was up. He looked really tense and I wondered if in some way I’d offended him and he was trying to find the words to tell me off. He was in a constant offended state after all.

His mouth opened like a fish gulping for water, hung there for a second and then snapped shut. He let out a huge gush of air and looked deflated. The last time we’d spoken privately he’d been asking for restaurant recommendations so I wondered what it could be this time.

I finally said again, “Was ist los?”

He seemed to gear himself up, collect his thoughts and with this tense expression said,

“Ich habe nur eine Frage…..(pause)…. Willst du mein Frau sein?”

(Trans: I have only one question. Will you marry me? **But I think he meant ‘will you be my girl”)

He had finally cracked. At this moment I knew the white jacket was not far away.

“ummm Was?” (what?) I said.

He continued, “Du machst mich verruckt” (you make me crazy).

He repeated that two more time before I could think of an answer.

For a second I just stared down at him. (did I mention his height? Well there isn’t much to talk about) I searched my head for any other meaning he could be trying to convey. This hadn’t happened to me since high school when the weirdest guy in school, the only one who could grow a full red beard, gave me my first love poem and then ran away before I could read it. I’d never had such an odd desperate declaration to my face. What to do?

I chickened out. I knew he was totally nuts now so I pretended not to understand and told him I knew he was lonely and having a hard time in Germany but that it would get better when he left for school (better for me at least but I didn’t say that). Then I actually told him top get some sleep and have a nice weekend.

He walked off muttering, ‘you don’t understand”.

As soon as he was gone I doubled back to go to a different stop just in case he decided to come back and convince me of his affections. I ran into my instructor on the way and told him the kid was nuts and just asked me to marry him or date him or something. I told him I did not want to be in class alone with him and that we were never to be left alone in a closed classroom. He was a bit shocked and told the director of the school. They were all surprised but at the same time had been expecting something from Hajaj- he had been acting so weird. It was actually really funny, but I felt bad for a few hours until I convinced myself I hadn’t ever given him any ANY indication that such a declaration would be welcome.

We all decided not to say anything or give any indication that the guy had blurted out such absurdities. He was leaving in two days and what could happen in two days?

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