, ,

Farhad1 always carried a small manila envelope with his class notebook, his paper and pens, and his homework assignments. He sat near the back of the class, or paced the hallways, waiting for a teacher or classroom volunteer to make eye-contact. Then he pounced. He was studying to take the US citizenship exam, and to him, and the exam material was more important than learning to conjugate verbs–he already knew enough English to converse.

He ignored his assigned conversation partners, turning instead to ask me forcefully about things like the House of Representatives, the Senators, and their proper division. I would try to explain why there were two houses, and what was the responsibility of each. Sometimes he argued back. Other times he just patted my arm consolingly, as if to say, “it’s not your fault your government is such a wreck.”

I always came away feeling vaguely insulted. I’ve never been a staunch defender of my government, but I tried to help him see that while different, it was hardly worse than his home country. He always remained skeptical, and returned to his citizenship notes, looking for another factoid with which to stump me.

His odd sense of elitism kept him separated from every other student in our ESL class. I wondered if he had once been the elite among his peers, and felt lost unless he was able to snub someone. Once another student brought deep-fried pastries to share with the class. I took mine along with the rest of the students and teachers, but it was a chore to finish eating. Farhad, an accomplished cook, took a bite of pastry and shuddered. He was over-acting, but the treat was not delicious. The oil tasted stale, and the dough was gummy. Farhad laid his pastry on his desk, and covered it delicately with a napkin. Then he took mine away from me, pulled a face like he was sucking lemons, and carried them both to the trash. It was hard not to laugh at his antics. Truthfully, I think he was jealous. Farhad was the one who liked to bring treats to class, hovering over the table, and passing out his snacks on homemade plates cut from contact paper. But I didn’t understand this until the night Farhad showed me the pictures he carried in his envelope.

They were a history of his life in another world. Farhad never told his story linearly, so I never got a complete narrative. But I remember the photo of the sunny courtyard of a walled home, several dark, blurry snapshots of solemn people sitting around a rug heaped with food–his brother’s wedding, for which he, Farhad, had prepared all of the food. He pointed out each dish, remembering the ingredients, and the richness of the taste. There were pictures of other family members, and a yearbook-style photo that proved he had once been the proud owner of a terrific head of hair. A shock of black so thick, it stood out for several inches before brylcreem pulled it gently down into an Elvis-style swoop.

He laid them out on the desk, one by one as he talked about his auto-repair shop, the Taliban, and the refugee camp in Pakistan. But he always returned to the food. His daughter tells him he should open a restaurant. His passion is fried dumplings, tapioca garnished with coarsely ground cardamom, and chutneys of all varieties. “Farhad, that’s a wonderful idea,” I say. “If you open a restaurant, I will come and eat there.”

Then his story takes an unexpected turn. He cannot open a restaurant. He cannot work, because of his prostate cancer. I want to hear as little as possible about Farhad’s prostate. His surgery was a few years ago, but he was still worried and frustrated by American insurance companies. His English must improve, he says, so he can get his citizenship, and so he can understand insurance. He does not want to hear that most native speakers also do not understand insurance.

He is angry at the system, at how his life has turned out, and at so many things beyond his control. He is too old to harbor aspirations of becoming a self-made man–and, anyway, he’s skeptical of the American dream, and the immigration process to the US certainly laid him low. But for all of that pent-up frustration, every semester he trots back into the building, looking for someone who hasn’t seen his photos. I think he relishes the widened eyes, and the questions about his family. He doesn’t need English for the insurance and paperwork. He needs it to be heard.

1.Not his real name