The night felt orange. Orange like the sun dripping into the horizon on the fourth of July, and you are 8 years old holding your mother’s hand, the remnants of watermelon juice coating your chest like a sticky vest. Orange, like Thanksgiving, with your gut stuffed to capacity, while you drift away to the laughter of your parents and grandparents. Orange like a camp fire in the desert with friends with whom you don’t have to pretend, who see you as you are and love you, the glow of the fire drawing everyone and the warmth of friendship a hedge against the wind.
We were gathered for a potluck bridge game. It was a “ma’salama” (goodbye) bridge party, a communion of sorts among friends to say farewell to one of our own who was moving back to the U.S. Everyone brought their best – Arab orange cake, Spanish omelet, Indian Dal Makani, American Southern chicken and dumplings, Chinese spring rolls, Pakistani dahl, Cypriot Pasta, Canadian cake, and French pastries to share with family – and that’s what we were: a family that had come together to learn how to play bridge and had grown to be more than friends.
Living as an expat means being away from your primary family. It means being alone in a big and often intimidating world. The friends you meet abroad become your family in a way that doesn’t happen back home. Under normal circumstances, I would have never met these people. Usually 37-year-olds don’t play bridge or hang out with elderly Arab men and retiring housewives, but there I was. For several years, we had met weekly to learn different bridge conventions and to improve our play. Some players were quick and could speak effortlessly with their bids, a silent language between partners. Some players were novices and still needed help remembering how many trump cards were in play. The meal that night sustained our bodies as the community built around the bridge table had nourished our spirits. We sat as one, a multitude of creeds, colors, religions, ages, and opinions, united in a genuine love for one another.
That’s how it is as an expat. You grow rich – in community, in experiences, in pastimes, and in friends. Your family circle grows and expands until it reaches around the world. Life as an expat is to see your shared place on a planet full of people struggling to build a better life.
Sitting in the bridge room, I thought of a different bridge that also connected communities. The Mostar Bridge in Bosnia was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent. It was a technological marvel of its time, the largest single-span stone arch on the planet. It stood as a physical and metaphorical bridge between faiths and cultures, where every summer, valiant young men of all backgrounds would prove their mettle by diving from the bridge into the cold Neretva River below. The bridge stood proudly for 427 years until it was destroyed in 1993 during the war in Bosnia. I visited the rebuilt bridge in 2010 and was moved by both the beauty of the place and the crumbling buildings and tombstones – silent testimony to what happens when we destroy bridges of community.
When I hear of terrible things happening in the world or when I listen to people and politicians in my own country speak with disdain for one another, it makes me sad. I wish they could sit at the bridge table with me. I wish they could join us for a meal or a no trump hand. I wish they could meet my family and experience an orange evening with us in the warm embrace of shared humanity.
Previously published in the The Arabian Sun.