Boxing with Osama: A Pre-9/11 Memory
I spent one surreal summer in France living with the young, unemployed, mostly immigrant community in St. Nazaire. The tenants in my building were mainly North Africans with a smattering of Vietnamese and eastern Europeans. My roommates mirrored the new reality of multi-cultural France perfectly: Trahn was in his twenties and had been born in Saigon. His parents now lived in Marseilles and he had come to St. Nazaire to finish his education. My other roommate, David, was older, perhaps 30, and still unemployed. His parents had fled Algeria and now lived in one of the buildings nearby. The three of us, despite our linguistic difficulties, got along famously.
One afternoon, as David, Trahn, and I were celebrating the another beautiful summer day in true French style with a bottle of wine on the balcony overlooking the courtyard below, there was a knock at the door. David ushered in a short, bearded man named — in pre-9/11 innocence — Osama. Osama, originally from Tunisia (or was it Egypt?), announced that he had heard that there was an American living in the building and wanted to meet him. After exchanging broken pleasantries in English, we were all invited to Osama’s apartment, where, he said with a wink, he had a special treat for us.
We crossed the dusty courtyard between our two buildings to Osama’s flat, the elderly women in headscarves peering out from behind the washing hung on the balconies at us warily. Osama’s apartment was much nicer than ours. As he ushered us into the living room, I was astonished to see an enormous poster hanging over his sofa of Marilyn Monroe sitting on a pink ‘57 Chevy. “I love Marilyn Monroe,” Osama said proudly in heavily accented English, “and American cars. Big American cars!”
A small woman, cloaked head to toe in a chador, walked in just then whom Osama introduced as his wife. After conferring a bit with her, the two of them led us into a small adjacent room. His wife, whose name I never caught, went over to a small crib and gathered up a baby (“my son!”) and left silently. Osama, finger to his lips, motioned us over to the changing table, reached under the mattress, and with a grin pulled out a small brown cone of what I was to learn was hashish. “My treat for you!” he said proudly.
I politely declined, but he, David and Trahn all promptly proceeded to get high. I wondered whether this was a regular occurrence, which seemed likely, and what his wife thought about it. Surely, she couldn’t be ignorant of his drug stash? The incongruity of traditional dress and manners and the presence of what, even by tolerant European standards, would be considered a “hard” drug, was to say the least mind-boggling.
After a few minutes, Osama looked up at me dreamily and declared that now “we would box.” This strange turn of affairs didn’t seem to surprise David or Trahn, who calmly followed Osama back to the living room. His wife, baby on her hip, and a younger woman (“my daughter!”) cleared the room and brought out two pairs of very professional looking red leather boxing gloves. “It’s ok,” Osama grinned, seeing my look of utter disbelief, “I will not hurt you!”
The two women retreated to the doorway to the kitchen and peeked out shyly to watch us. As I numbly laced up the gloves, I turned to David and asked him what was going on. “Oh don’t worry,” he said, “we do this all the time when we’re bored. Just do your best,” he laughed, “and I’ll make sure he doesn’t hurt you.” Not bloody likely I thought: I practically towered over Osama and outweighed him by at least 30 pounds. And of course, there was the fact that he was high as a kite.
And so in front of this odd collection of spectators I proceeded to have the first, and as of this writing, the only, round of boxing in my life. Osama, slightly unsteady and with a glazed look, threw wildly off the mark punches as I circled him cautiously, my guard up. As he feinted and weaved beside me, Osama would offer encouraging words of advice: “keep your eyes open!” or “try to punch me!” To be honest, I was terrified that I’d hurt him were I to actually throw a punch in his general direction. I settled for grunting aggressively and putting him in a headlock once when he came in too close.
After only five minutes or so (it seemed much longer), Osama threw himself on the sofa, out of breath and dripping with sweat. “Well! Now you know how to box!”. His wife and daughter clapped approvingly from the kitchen and David and Trahn came over to congratulate me. “Welcome to St. Nazaire!” Trahn shouted.
It turned out that was also the last time I was to see Osama. A couple of weeks later he and his family were gone. They had gone back to Tunisia, or somewhere in North Africa, to live with family, David told me, after having failed to find work. Now, post-9/11 and with the Arab Spring in full flower, I can only hope he’s still as fond of all things American.
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