It seems that my entrepreneurial wife was right—hosting a foreign exchange student is a lucrative side business, assuming one is lucky enough to get the right student.
I suppose one could end up with a student who actually wanted to talk, or watch TV together, or go to the mall, or share details about his culture, or eat with his adopted family—and of course that might prove irritating.
But with Mamdouh it has been more like hosting a ghost, or a mouse you happen to see scurry across the porch from time to time. We find more often evidence of his presence than the actual corporeal entity. His underwear, for instance, on the counter top in the bathroom. His five packages of pita bread in the fridge. Cheese from home. The peanut butter cookies on his closet floor.
He is a specter, a rumor. There is more of idea about him than actual existence. Sometimes you can smell cologne as you pass his room, but that is all, for he is not there, it is only his scent, an odor of verbena, a whisper, Maaaam-doooo-ooh . . .
Yesterday I actually forgot his name. I kept thinking Marmaduke or Monsoon or Timbuktu.
I did talk to him recently. I think it was on Sunday. He had been out all night, came in sometime during the wee hours, and slept through the day until about 8 on Sunday evening.
“Wow,” I said. “You slept through the whole day, Mamdouh.”
“Yes,” he said.
And then he was gone.
Now here is another example of what I’m talking about. Yesterday (a Tuesday) Mamdouh returned to the house at about 10 a.m. from wherever he had been all night, promptly went to bed, and slept throughout the day and the following evening. My wife and I went to bed at perhaps midnight, and then somewhere during the witching hours, Mamdouh arose and slipped quietly away into the night once again.
Does this seem a bit mysterious? It seems so to me. Where could he be going? What might he be doing?
We know that he has friends, fellow countrymen, who live downtown and also go to the University--but do they all stay up through the night and sleep out the day? The question does not change with added characters. One merely wonders now what all of them are doing.
It may seem odd, given the multitude of more reasonable suspicions that might have entered my mind, but my first thought was that he might be a vampire. In fact, I still haven't ruled it out. After all, is this pattern not typical, even classic, for characters such as these? By day they take to their coffins, to sleep away the hours of light (or maybe they read books or do knitting--something, in any case, quiet and bloodless and only dimly lit). Then comes the night, where violent secrets come to life, wherein the chains of light are severed and the creatures roam free, ravenous, stalking the coed and the bag lady alike, for the taste is for blood, not for beauty (no matter what comes out of Hollywood). I think, anyway. Although I'm not an expert on vampires. It strains the imagination, such that in the light of day even I cannot fend off disbelief.
And yet . . . did I imagine it, was it the wind, or the neighbor playing his TV too loudly, was it the freight train down by the slough . . . or was it a howl that I heard, a wolf-like gasp of thirst trailing from the open window of Mamdouh's ghostly coach (a 2003 Camry) . . . Maaaaam-doooooo-oooooooo-ooooooouh . . . .
Though I hesitate to say so, I do believe that I have learned more about Saudi Arabia from Osama bin Laden than from our exchange student, Mamdouh al-Shammari.
Why? Because in two months I have seen Mamdouh only about as many times as I can count on two hands. And of course seeing him is not the same as talking to him. One can just as often see a newspaper photo of bin Laden.
On the other hand, who has really seen bin Laden in the flesh?
These Saudis are elusive. They are like the wind, originating from who knows where, and going who knows where. Chimeras and specters, whispers in the night.
What do I know from Mamdouh of Saudi Arabia. It never rains. Saudis like Americans. Saudis hate Osama bin Laden. They hated Saddam Hussein. They think that Whats-His-Name, the President of Iran, is a lunatic.
This is what Mamdouh has told me. This is all I know.
Other than that, as regards information, a travel guide is much to be preferred.
It is snowing here in Portland. The streets are covered with snow. Mamdouh has never before in his life seen snow, much less driven a car on it. And yet he drives. How is it that he knows how to drive in the snow.