At university I had a very good friend from Jordan. He was palestine, much younger than the rest of us physics students and extremely gifted. But he did not only had an extraordinary mathematical talent, he was also very familial with classical european music and literature. On the other hand, he had a very firm opinion about Israel, whom he completely refused the right of existence. About the last point we had a never-ending intellectual fight, whereas for most other issues, philosophy, science, values of life we felt quite similar. During the friendship with him, Ismail, I learned a lot about tolerance and that different points in some aspects of life does not has to result in a confrontation, but in fact can be a gain for both. I knew that he was muslim, praying 5 times a day, and he knew I am bloody atheist, drinking a glass of wine here and than and having sympathy for Israel.
Thanks to his permanent supply of records from west-Germany, I used to visit him to listen to some rare pieces of music. Once he brought from his shopping trips to West-Berlin Strawinskys “Le Sacre du Printemps”, played by the Berlin Philharmonics. When I heard the first tunes by the oboe, with the sudden entry of the rhythm strings, I got completely struck. Maybe this day I had already a glass of wine, but together with the music I felt more and more in one of the fairy tales of 1001 nights. Inspired by the idea of the “Sacre” I asked Ismail if he knew something about this new student, which must be from another muslim country, because she sits the whole afternoon in the state library wearing a head scarf. But I told him that even though she wears the scarf, one could see how beautiful she was and that she had the most amazing blue eyes. So I asked Ismail if he could find out her name, what he did, but only after telling me that any further intentions to meet her were very likely a waste of effort. Anyway, a few days later Ismail came to me and said “The girl you saw at the library is Samira. She is from Syria, and daughter of a high ranking Baths party leader. They are all instructed not to make any personal contacts to ordinary germans. And by the way, all of us foreign students coming to your country also had to sign an agreement at the east-german embassy, promissing that we will avoid any privat relationship to german student-mates or people on the street. So you see, even our regular get-together to listen to music, talk about quantum-mechanics and Einsteins philosophy and to argue about middle-east politics, all this might be already illegal. What you think they will call it if you start here to court a student girl from Syria ?”. In my naive understanding of friendship (and in these times friendship in the official speach of politics meant “friendship between all peace-loving nations”) I just rejected his very rational arguments and the next day went to the library again and asked the girl “You are Samira, right ?”. Under her scarf I almost could see how she wrinkled her brows, since it appeared that except of her name “Samira” she did not understood a single word. What I did not knew, that except of Ismail, who spoke fluently several languages and quickly made the brilliant jokes in german, most of the foreign students from rich countries had their privat translator, who sat next to them during all lectures and seminars and therefore making any attempt to learn the language of their host country superfluous. Therefore, our first conversation was very limited. Looking back from now, I have to laugh about my naive idea to seduce a girl with the only arabic phrase I knew: “Salam Alejkum”. But at least I could invite her to “coffee”, which I was pretty sure must sound similar in arabic. She shook her head and said “Chaj”, which fortunately I knew from russian, where it also means “Tea”. So we went to the library buffet, which was located in the basement and had the chic of a station toilet. I could imagine that for her drinking a tea or coffee had another cultural implication, and this filthy buffet with its fuggy smelling air would hamper the last bit of delight, even off this third-class tea. Therefore I made signs to her to leave this filthy room with our cups and sit outside on the concrete stairways of the old library building.
Our conversation resembled very much the one between Robinson Crusoe and Friday: pointing to various things around us we would give them the names in our two languages. This way I learned that chestnut was “chestanub”, honey is “Al Asal” and eyes are “orjoun”. We probably met several times in and outside the library, and I was following Ismails warning that inviting a girl who wears a head scarf to any other place than such a public spot could cause a serious problem for both sides. But even the occasional encounter between the two of us on the stairway outside the library must have attracted the attention of some watchdogs from either her or my country. Somebody must have been concerned that we might find our own very individual interpretation of friendship between the nations. And they might have also kept a record of the progress we made in our conversation, which became more and more intense, but absolutely ununderstandable for any outsider, who would have tried to sneak into our talks. For our own use we had created a sort of german-english-arabic Esperanto, that to anybody else must have sounded as a completely cryptic code. But I never considered, and neither did Samira, that Ismails advise not to meet each other somewhere else than at the library for moral reasons was indeed the most foolish thing to do. Because we were sitting there like on an open display: visible for everybody who wanted to keep a record of the frequency and intensity of our short, but regular meetings. And this was perhaps seen as an open demonstration of disobedience, for two totalitarian countries a heresy much worse than would have a secret get-together been.
The security forces acted fast, silently and efficient: without any warning Samira was send home to Syria with a couple of hours notice. And since we did not had telephone, let alone e-mail or mobile in the mid 80es, she could not even say good bye. I also had forgotten to give her my address, since for us the stairway of the library was always the natural place to meet. After a couple of days not seeing her I asked Ismail if he could find out what happened to her. His legendary talent in physics has made him an admired student not only for us, but in particular for most other foreign students from middle-east countries as well. So it took him only a short talk with a guy from the syrian students group to find out that Samira was back home. The explanation was that she came to Germany only for a short summer school in aerodynamics, and this course had finished now. Funny enough, the books she always read at the library were all about high-energy nuclear physics.
Ismail with some degree of satisfaction said: “You see, I told you never try to court a girl with a head-scarf. You have to wait until somebody of her family lifts her scarf for you”. When I told him, that Samira ones already shifted her scarf backward, showing with or without intention some of her chestnut-coloured, curly hair and that she might not fit into his conventional idea of a modern girl, he band backward, started laughing and said “Oh Boy”. Ismails “Oh Boy” was a sort of final sentence of this short but inspiring relation to a girl with a head scarf that she was just about to lift without any help. It was like the two words “The End” on the final credits of a nice, long movie.Until recently, and still entangled in the belief that a german-english-arabic Esperanto is an easy way to bridge language-boarders I was convinced that “Oh Boy” means just “Oh Boy”, a very common vocative in english with a connotation that lays somewhere between compassion and admonition.
But only recently, 24 years later, I heard again this phrase, and now it sounded more like “Eh Baj”. It was during an interview with one of the students who took part in the 2009 demonstrations in Teheran, shown in Ali Samadi Ahadis wonderful movie “The Green Wave”. And here, the interview was subtitled, and I had to learn that Ismail was using the same “Eh Baj”, meaning “Oh God” when he commented my reckless idea of courting Samira. In these years in the late 80es the islamic “revolution” in Iran was just 10 years ago, and occasional reports about police forces in Teheran that would fix womans head-scarfs with pins on their head were taken as US propaganda. Still caught in the memories of Samira and her rather lavish usage of her scarf I did not had enough fantasy to imagine that a few strains of hair leaking under it could provoke a violent and inhuman reaction by the police. And I could not imagine that 24 years later an iranian student would talk about much worse violence on the streets of Teheran, using the phrase “Eh Baj” to express complete frustration and disgust.