After a year of running into each other in the stairway, exchanging smiles in the laundry room, and mumbling pleasantries while lugging groceries, the Turkish man who lives across the corridor extended a dinner invitation. Not a problem at all, it will be fun, he insisted.
I found myself outside their door on the day of. Just wanted to make sure, I told him. Where are we going?
His wife’s head appeared, with one eye turned towards the stove.
“You are going to have Turkish food here! Don’t bring anything, we already started cooking!”
She seemed enthusiastic. It was possible her husband’s random friendly overture for the month hadn’t irritated her. Maybe she even liked to cook.
“Think they might have baba ghanoush?” my roommate asked me, interrupting my visions of a beautifully appointed dining table and endless cups of tea.
I spent some time making a fried snack to take with me, because I felt guilty they had to cook for us while fasting.
We had a thin rice and yogurt soup as our first course, followed by small savoury pastry pockets that hid feta and red peppers beneath a sprinkling of sesame seeds. We were then served a mildly flavoured rice dish with chickpeas and pine nuts, and oven roasted eggplant stuffed with beef mince. We played cards and drank too much tea.
We spoke of food, home, immigration, the American president. We spoke of paperwork, waiting, what we have lost by coming here, and what they gained. We exercised our individual and collective freedom of speech.
I learnt that they couldn’t go back, for fear of being imprisoned. Many of our friends are in jail, they told us, almost casually. They took great effort to explain their country’s situation, and were surprised we knew about the coup.
“You know about this?”
Their surprise was a bit moving.
I always imagined I had left behind prisons—a claustrophobic world that closed in on me with its ideas and words and actions. I liked to think I fought for what I have now, and somewhere in my head, I started giving myself more credit than I deserved. I left behind arranged marriages and caste (I was wrong), I discarded rules that said what I could do and how I could be, relatives who disguised their unhappiness with petty acts of cruelty, I cursed at prophecies that predicted terrible futures. I maintained that I broke free.
And then I met someone who fled home, who really did break free, who could probably never go back, whose prisons are real, made of brick, with walls that cannot be scaled.
We also learnt each other’s names.
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