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Istanbul. Creative Commons License CC0 Public Domain https://pxhere.com/en/photo/835099

The Refugee

The girl stopped me, motioning towards the open takeout container in my hands. She was no more than thirteen, her face open and empty as the moon that hung over Istanbul that night. She glanced at my husband, who shook his head no, then fixed her eyes back on the contents of my container: a single piece of baklava, honey dripping from the crescent shape of my last bite. I placed the box in her hands and watched as she slipped back into the crowd.

“Ill buy you another piece,” my husband said, after we had resumed our walk. I watched as he took the last bite of his own baklava and tossed the empty box in a garbage can overflowing with trash.

“It’s not that.”

“What?” he asked, glancing at me. Oil rimmed his lips and a tiny piece of pastry clung to the edge of his mouth.

I shook my head. “Nothing.”

It had been six months since I had found the letter from his lover. The letter, and all the others that he had turned over to me subsequently, were open and stacked on the kitchen table of our new apartment. Each had been read and reread a thousand times, the papers now soft, the ink made faint by my insistent fingers. I had plenty of words, but not one offered any answer as to what I should do next.

A small line snaked out from a kabab shop, and we stepped around it. Through the storefront window, a man sawed thin slices from a giant wedge of meat that rotated slowly, drops of juice falling into the aluminum tray beneath it. We turned a corner. Behind a gas station, through a broken fence, the harbor appeared as a line of ferry boats rolling in the wake of the Bosphorus. 

“He should be around here somewhere,” my husband said, looking at his watch. “He said hes not allowed to dock.” He placed his hands on his hips as he scanned the harbor, one foot perched on a cement bollard. 

This had all been his idea: crossing the river, boating to dinner. Since the letters, he had gone out of his way to plan evenings that each rose in comparison to the previous. It was a dedication that I both accepted and resented, as if arrangements could undo what had been done.

“Ah, there he is,” my husband said, indicating a small boat that headed in our direction. As it approached, I saw that it was no more than a double-engined dingy. The driver, his hat sunk low over his face, stood with his arm slung over the half door that separated the darkened cockpit from the bow, and steered with one hand through the narrow gap between the ferries. He neared the dock, then throttled backwards, getting just close enough for us to leap, one at a time, into the boat.

“Jihad?” the driver asked sitting back down in front of the wheel. My husband, settling into the jump seat across from me, nodded.

Assalamu alaikum,” the driver said, assuming that he was his brother.

Wa alaikum salaam,” my husband replied, winking at me.


My husband is not Muslim, but it is a disguise allowed to him by his name. When he was born, Beirut had been scattered with checkpoints, checkpoints that, depending on who controlled each on a given night — the PLO, the Syrian army, the Lebanese Armed Forces — would have a man, or child, shot for being from the wrong side, whatever wrong meant on a given night. At the time, Jihad was neither a Christian nor a Muslim name, but a perfectly neutral one that would protect him, his parents thought, if ever the war continued, if ever their son found himself on the wrong side of one of the checkpoints. 

The war ended, but his need for a disguise did not. His name had evolved on its own accord, from a name meant to cloak him in safety, to a kind of warfare that had nothing to do with the boy he was. That, too, he had to hide from. By the time I met him in a downtown Chicago bar, he introduced himself as Jack: a safe name, a neutral name, for America.

Years later, we chose Istanbul ostensibly for his work, but I knew it was the closest he could come to Lebanon without actually ever going back. My country would always be there for me; his would only ever remind him of all the ways it had been taken from him.

Later, when he told me his real name, I had told him I understood why he would need to change it, temporarily, for me, even though there was no correlation between the word that crowded the headlines and the man I had already begun to fall in love with, the one whose dark curls gathered along the nape of his neck, the one who spoke of his country as if reciting a poem.

Yet, for all my understanding, I took no notice of the ease with which he had changed it that first night. That ease would go unnoticed for years and years.


Out the back of the boat, Europe grew small, the darkened hills of the city awash with a sprinkling of lights. We neared a cargo ship, the same kind I grew up watching skirt Lake Michigan, and rolled in its wake. Ahead, the Bosphorus bridge that connected the continents was alit in red, cars passing from one side to the other. Soon we were under it, an expansive underbelly that cut a swatch from the night sky above it. 

She was someone he had met before me. I knew only of her, one of the many friends he had had when I met him. I wasn’t supposed to see her letters. We had only just married and moved to Istanbul. I was hoping for a care package from my grandmother; what I found instead was an envelope addressed to my husband in ardent script, a string of Peanuts stamps affixed to the upper right hand corner, Pig-Pen overlapping with Lucy, Charlie Brown with his wan smile looking at me knowingly. And I did know. Enough to slide a letter opener under the flap of the envelope, enough to slide down the side of the kitchen counter and to read about my husband through the words of another woman. 

“I love you,” she wrote, the tail of the ‘u’ curling unnaturally upwards, as if to prove her dedication. “I love you,” she wrote, before signing her name.

I may not have noticed the deception before, but I became intent on understanding it now. No, he wouldnt take her calls, that was why she had started sending letters. No, he didnt love her, he had broken it off as soon as he knew that he loved me. Yes, he had wanted to tell me, but he knew it would upset me. He gave me the same answers to the same insistent questions, and I studied each in the retelling, hungering for some surety from which trust might take, then grow, but his words, like the letters, offered nothing. They were a part of his disguise, or they were a part of some new truth born of his love for me. I just couldn’t tell.

The boat slowed and the slosh of water rose above the din of the motors. Out the bow, Asia neared, a string of lit houses sitting along its shore, minarets peopling the darkened hills beyond it. We pulled up to one of the houses, a baby blue clapboard with a deck strung with lights. A waiter greeted us, leaning down to grab my hand, pulling me up to the deck, where I stepped between two tables of well-dressed guests who smiled politely before resuming their conversations. I felt Jihad’s hand on the small of my back as we followed the waiter to a table set off from the rest, with two thin candles and a view of the river. I knew, without asking, that he had arranged this, too.


I looked for the girl as we made our way back to the apartment, but the streets were mostly empty. The windows of the sweet shop where we had bought the baklava were dark, showing only the reflection of a young couple walking, one that took me a moment to recognize as the shape of us: my thinness evident in the angle of my shoulder, and he, his back rounded, intent on leading me forward. What kind of man doesnt give sweets to a hungry child? I wondered. This, more than the lies, bothered me that night. It was a small gesture that bore witness, I thought, to what lay inside him. Unlike the words, which I couldn’t trust, I had seen the shake of his head, the girl’s disappointment, with my own two eyes, and it spoke of a numbness that would allow him to continue his shapeshifting as long as we were together. As we made our way down the gum-splattered sidewalk, I cradled this one truth in my hands and promised myself I would leave him; I would return to Chicago.

We cut across the street, and slipped through the still open gates of Islet Park, and began the climb up the hill back to our apartment. From behind the shadows, a woman appeared, her back bent over a shopping cart rounded with belongings. Then, a small boy stepped out, too, no taller than the shopping cart. I guessed he was about the same age Jihad had been when the Syrians had invaded Lebanon with their tanks and rifles; now they invaded this country with their empty hands. 

O’mmo please,” the boy said, running towards Jihad, his head tipped up so I could see the dirt that gathered along the length of his neck. I grabbed for the dinner rolls that I had slipped in my purse before leaving the restaurant, the ones I had wrapped carefully in a pressed napkin for the girl, but I felt them spill out of the napkin and fall into the bottom of my purse. 

O’mmo please,” the boy said again, running beside us as we continued up the hill. I pulled out one roll then another, the crust soft against my palms. Behind us the woman now sat on a park bench, her face turned towards the entrance. I looked around, but the park was otherwise empty. “Here,” I said, crouching to offer the rolls to the boy, my dress belling out around me, the fabric dusting the dirty pavement. I hoped he would take the bread and go back to his mother. Instead, he only glanced at them and ran towards Jihad again.

O’mmo please,” he said, lunging at him and wrapping his arms around his waist. Jihad’s own arms now hovered above the boy, bent at the elbow, as if he had just discovered he was sopping wet. He managed a step, then another until the boy readjusted his arms, and gripped him tighter, his small head now pressed against the curve of Jihad’s belly, preventing him from taking another step. 

“They’ve taken everything from us,” I heard him say. “O’mmo, please.”

“Here,” I said, my voice rising into the clouds that hung over the park, “take these.” I offered the rolls out again in both hands, but he only turned his face away from my offering, so that his other ear fit across Jihad’s belly.

“Jihad,” I called, my voice rising. In that moment I knew I didn’t trust him: not the boy who clung to my husband like a boa constrictor, squeezing him of what I did not know, but the other boy, a refugee, too, the one who had lost almost everything and had grown into a man, the one with a name as moveable as a veil. I no longer knew what that man was capable of giving.

“Jihad,” I called, my voice now pleading. “Jihad,” I said, holding the bread out to him now. 

He waved it off, his palm turning towards me, then redirecting towards the boy. As I watched, he lowered his hand and placed it on the crown of the boy’s head, placing the other to rest on his shoulder. In the orange of the streetlights that washed across their bodies, I watched as my husband patted the boy’s head, his own eyes closed. “I know, I know,” he said, in a voice that hid nothing, “I know they did.”

Sandra Carlson Khalil is from Minnesota, but she has called Dubai, UAE her home for the past twelve years. She studied literature at Middlebury College and received her MBA from Northwestern University.