This is a story about a man named Dramane – a story that has a beginning but no end – at least I don’t know how it is going to end…so let’s start at the beginning.
Dramane was my first friend that I made after my family arrived in Spain. In the second week of September the sun still screams at anyone who dares venture outside in Zaragoza, but the calendar calls all the kids to school anyway, so I took my daughter’s hand and walked her through the park and into the schoolyard of what would be her first real school. I forced a big smile and said encouraging things, but my daughter just stared back at me with a look of “But dad, you never taught me any Spanish” on her face. I gave her a hug, and took a big breath and swallowed hard as she walked in with her new classmates who would spend the next few months talking at her with no response. When all the children were inside, the parents began filing out, chatting and catching up on news and gossip from the summer. I just stood there for a moment and then started for the door, where I would see Dramane for the first time. He wasn’t chatting and catching up. He was just standing in the back and smiling, then darted out – satisfied grin in tow.
For a few days each morning was identical. My daughter was brave and Dramane stood in the back and smiled after seeing his twin boys hop up the steps into the school. But then after about a week, Dramane came over, shook my hand and simply said “Hi. I’m Dramane.” I told him my name and stood there looking at his smile. I don’t know that I had ever seen anyone smile that much. As Americans, we often get made fun of for smiling all the time in public, which is fine, because it is absolutely true, but on that morning, and for mornings to come, Dramane made me look practically miserable in comparison.
For the next two weeks it was always the same, a firm hand shake, a “how are you” and an enormous smile. We became friends, at least I considered him my friend, and I hoped he thought the same of me. We told each other about our home towns – mine in the United States, his in Mali – and we talked about the school. We shared our “immigrant experiences,” and I ridiculously imagined that we had so much in common.
One morning he took me for coffee and showed me his business – one of those storefronts where you can get on the internet, make copies, use a phone or send a moneygram to a loved one back home. He ran the place with his brother. That day he told me more about his family. He told me about his wife and how the paperwork to get her to Spain was impossible. He told me that he had a two-year-old son, also in Mali. He told me about driving back and forth to bring his family things, describing a car trip that would make a coast-to-coast U.S. road trip look like a lap around the block.
I never went to his shop again, but we always shook hands and said hello without fail. I found what I thought was a link between us, an immigrant experience that we shared, and knew that no one else in the schoolyard quite understood us. We were different, and although eventually I started talking to the Spanish parents, Dramane never did. He just stood in the back and smiled like he always did.
Now the weather has turned colder and the schoolyard chats have been shorter. Up until this week I hadn’t seen Dramane in a while and wondered where he had gone. I no longer think that we share a common immigrant experience, and realize that it was a fantasy to think that we ever did, and never did that become more clear than when I saw Dramane last Friday and shook his hand for the first time in a while.
“Hey Dramane, how are you?”
“Aric, I’m good, How are you.”
“Good. I’m good. Hey what ever happened with your wife’s papers?”
“Oh, she is here now. I don’t know, maybe you have seen her?”
“Wow! Great news. And your son?”
“We had to leave him in Mali. His papers did not go through.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s o.k. I am leaving soon anyway.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to Mali. I am volunteering to fight in the war.”
“You’re doing what?”
“I’m going to fight. They are taking volunteers.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Aric, you need to understand, this is no way to live. I can’t stay here, and I can’t just go back and live in the sand. What am I going to do, live in a village in the middle of the desert? I can’t do this anymore, so I will go home and fight.”
I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there looking for words and Dramane just stood there smiling and shaking my hand. He probably noticed that I didn’t know what to say, so he just said, “ I will be fine. It’s no big deal.”
But of course it is a big deal, but all I could come up with at that moment was “good luck. I really don’t want this to be the last time I see you. Be careful.”
He assured me that he would, turned and walked away…
I walked home thinking about Dramane. He was going to fight, and I didn’t even know what side he was on, hell, I didn’t even know what the sides were. I went home and looked it up. It’s complicated. Why does it always have to be so complicated in West Africa? It’s about religion, or not, because it is really about cultural differences from hundreds of years ago, or not. It’s about al-Qaida. It’s about money. It is about oil. It is about colonialism. It is about the French. It is about poverty. It always seems to be about poverty. It’s about the Tuareg, a nomadic North African people who impossibly have a Volkswagen named after them. Do we name cars after ethnic groups? Is that actually something that we, as privileged westerners get to do? You can read for yourself what it is about here. It is about all of those things and none of those things, but whatever it is, it is enough to make Dramane want to fight, and perhaps kill other human beings.
There is no moral to this story without an end. Only that we live in a big world, where sometimes people leave to go fight, and when that happens, the lucky ones stay home. I don’t know what Dramane believes in, or if he will actually take up arms against his countrymen, but if he does, I hope that he is safe. I will think of him when he is gone, and perhaps while he is away I will embrace my big fat American smile and start shaking some more hands.