an you explain when we use was and when we use had been?” Sayed Zubair asked. He sat cross-legged on a blanket distributed by Samaritan’s Purse. It was spread on the floor as a rug. His back was impressively straight. He was a neat trim man with a tidy moustache, his hair beginning to thin on top, and he held a notebook in his lap. Behind him, a small plastic fan wedged into a square window blew in welcome air. He was proud of the fan, as he had pirated the electricity, hooking wires into the overhead floodlights that lit the camp at night.
“Past perfect we use for the past when it is going along, everything good, everything happy, until another thing interrupt,” his wife explained. Shabnaz was larger than her husband, more extroverted and lively. Her dark eyes were accentuated with kohl and she wore red lipstick. A flowered scarf was draped loosely over her head.
The Saleems had lived in Afghanistan . . . I had been married . . . This fenced-in camp on a steep hillside on Samos had been used by the Greek army before it was turned into a refugee camp. I fumbled silently, searching for a suitable example. Although I made a living writing public relations copy and had published a book of poetry, I couldn’t remember ever formally studying grammar. I found it difficult to articulate the rules I took so much for granted. Like too many Americans, I had never mastered a second language. More to the point, I’d never taught before. I’d only been tapped to tutor the Saleems because I was a native speaker, although my English was a confusing mix of American and British. Perhaps I also looked the part. At forty-five, I was twice the age of most of the other volunteers. Instead of trying to flirt, young men in the camp had already taken to calling me Mama. I was a decade older than Shabnaz.
Kneeling forward over the gray blanket to make tea, Shabnaz pulled the headscarf down around her shoulders. “I am Shia,” she said. “I don’t care too much about the headscarf. I just wear it when I go out. My husband is Sunni.”
“We are a mixed marriage,” Sayed Zubair concurred. “In Mazar-i-Sharif, our home, it used to be common for Sunni to marry Shia. Now it is something that makes us targeted. Is that the right word, Teacher?”
“Better to say a target.”
Shabnaz poured the steaming water into a thermos containing tea leaves and from there filled three glasses.
“My friend Lina give me this tea, before she leave me,” she said. Lina was a
certified English teacher who’d started lessons in the camp but had left the island just as I arrived. She’d tutored the Saleems privately because they were too advanced for her classes. It was a self-protective measure. Otherwise, they’d show up demanding examples of verb tenses when her other students were still mastering Nice to meet you.
“Americans don’t take sugar. It is bad for the teeth and for diabetes,” Shabnaz said as she handed me a glass. Nonetheless, she blithely ripped open an alarming number of small sugar sachets for herself and Sayed Zubair.
I leaned back against one of two metal bunks and watched her stir the filmy sugar through the deep orange. It was hot in the container. The bunks were shoved at right angles against the metal walls. Behind me, the Saleems’ two smallest children lay sprawled and fast asleep.
“It’s hard for them to sleep at night,” Sayed Zubair apologized. At night, he said, kids slid down the steep concrete path that ran inside the fence on sheets of metal and plastic. “It’s so noisy and dangerous.”
“Also our neighbor is shouting at his wife.” Shabnaz pointed a finger toward the window beyond which another container stood only a few feet away. She rolled her eyes. There were seven of these structures placed along each of the eight levels that formed the lower half of the camp. Each divided into two rooms with a bathroom between. They looked like shipping containers into which someone had cut doors and windows. Discarded food packets, diapers, human excrement littered the ground around them, attracting bugs, rats, and snakes. Tiny children’s shirts and shorts hung in the links of the fence beneath high rolls of barbed wire. Small piles of shoes and sandals by each door indicated how many people lived inside. Approaching, I’d noticed the Saleems’ sandals were lined neatly and that the path in front of their door was swept clean.
Holding her glass and blowing at the steam, Shabnaz shook out her thick dark hair, eyeing me as if she were sizing me up. “Sayed Zubair need a T-shirt,” she said. “I hang it up to dry and someone steal it.”
Watch out or before you know it, you’ll become her private taxi driver, Lina had said. Warning me that Shabnaz would try to ask for things, for favors and errands. Shabnaz was revered among the volunteers for her feisty character. Radu, the head of our group, had winked at me when I told him I was heading to meet the Saleems.
“Stole it,” I corrected, trying to regain a teacherly footing. Avoiding her implied request.
“Stole, simple past.” Sayed Zubair filled the silence, perhaps embarrassed his wife had to ask for things. “My T-shirt had been hanging on the line when someone stole it. Past perfect. Is this how we use it, Teacher?”
I nodded encouragingly and he jotted the example down in his notebook. Unlike his wife, who didn’t bother with any note-taking, Sayed Zubair seemed eager for the formality of an English lesson. For him, this hour was a chance to put aside the heat, the crush of people, the stolen T-shirt, the pressure that was always on him to find out what was happening with their asylum case. It was the central question for everyone in the camp—when they would have their interview, when they could move on, where they would go next. Perhaps Sayed Zubair believed if his English was good enough, Europe would want him.
“My T-shirt has been stolen—passive because, in this case, we don’t know who stole it.” He looked up, smiling.
“It was our neighbor,” Shabnaz said fiercely. It was evidently a sore point between them.
“How can that be?” he begged to differ. “Our neighbor won’t be able to wear it or we will see him.”
“He can sell it,” she said. “But yes, passive. Teacher, can you get my husband a T-shirt?”
I shook my head. Shabnaz knew the rules better than I. As new volunteers, we’d
been instructed repeatedly not to give anything, not even a pencil—unless we could
provide one for everyone. Although wasn’t private tutoring already breaching that rule? We’d even been warned against friendship. Against forming bonds we wouldn’t be able to sustain. Making commitments we wouldn’t keep. In a few instances, young refugees, already abandoned by parents, family, country, had become alarmingly distraught when a beloved volunteer left the island. The small group was still figuring out, by trial and error, the many ways in which helping could backfire. It was a topic of passionate debate.
Settling herself in cross-legged position, tugging at her trouser legs, Shabnaz let a silence fall between us. As if in that brief moment, when I hadn’t jumped in promising, yes, of course, to find her husband a T-shirt!, she’d already given up on me.
“I also need a bra,” she said, readjusting her shirt. But this time she spoke with resignation, without even looking at me. As if she were only letting me know now
what she needed: a T-shirt, a bra, asylum. And was no longer expecting me to provide anything. “I only bring one bra from Afghanistan. It comes with me all the way through Iran and Turkey. Now it is here three months in this camp.”
Involuntarily I dropped my gaze to calculate bra size—extra large. When our eyes met, we both giggled. Hoisting both breasts with her hands, she arched her back and raised an eyebrow. “You can’t give me your bra, Teacher! Mine are too big!” she boasted, grinning. Sayed Zubair looked away. I hoped my parsimony had been forgiven.
At that moment, the cabin door swung open and a tall, gentle-looking, full-faced young man came in with a boy half his height: Sayed Rashid, the Saleems’ eldest son, and their twelve-year-old nephew, Hakim. Kicking off their sandals at the door, the young men carried in the family’s lunch rations—small stacks of tightly sealed plastic packets like those served on airplanes.
“It’s the same food they give prisoners,” Hakim informed me. Barely introduced, he flipped a pack over to show me the expiration date. “Look, it’s tomorrow,”
Although younger and smaller than his cousin, Hakim had the fiery intensity of a man. He was slim but broad-shouldered and wore his thick black hair slicked upward. His elegant, restless fingers moved constantly when he talked, as if transmitting subliminal messages. The two had been standing in the food line for three hours, they said. Today a man had been beaten for trying to save a place for his friend. They’d watched as police broke up the fight, kicking one man to the ground and arresting a bystander who’d made the mistake of trying to intervene.
“The day the food is past the expiration, we’re going to riot,” Hakim said.
“Sit, sit,” Shabnaz scolded, reaching for the packets and the ID papers they’d needed to collect the food. She tucked the folded papers into a pocket sewn to the inside of her shirt, next to her skin, which was pale, smooth, and ample. Then she stretched forward under the bunk to pull out an onion and a pepper. After chopping them on a small board, she tipped them into an electric cooking plate that stood in the corner next to the kettle.
“You see, Teacher,” Sayed Zubair said, jabbing his pencil at the thin plastic stretched tight over the food, “it’s potato or pasta, pasta or potato. All carbohydrates. No vitamins. No fiber. With a little meat they tell us is not pork.”
Shabnaz waited for the onion and pepper to sizzle. When she peeled open the food packs, a rancid smell filled the hot, airless cabin. I tried not to look disgusted. I was being watched intently by Hakim.
Sayed Zubair’s sister, who was Hakim’s mother, and another Saleem child appeared from the smaller, adjoining room. We were now nine people crowded on the floor and bunks.
“You stay for eat, Teacher,” Shabnaz instructed. “See how I make this police food tasty.
“Do you have a car?’ she asked, stirring the food. “Lina sometimes take us in her car to the beach.”
. . .