My Version of our Story
I came to Antakya, Turkey on Good Friday April 18, 2014, just before Easter. On Monday, I met Hussein Al Ali, the senior engineer on the environmental health (EH) team. He sat a few meters away from my new desk. There was a window with a mountain view next to my desk in that office, and in that first week, I noticed Hussein sometimes came to the window to look at the mountain. He said it made him feel free to know there was something so much bigger and stronger than himself.
One day as the work day finished in the first week, Hussein was looking to the mountain through a window open to the spring air. He invited me to take a walk downtown along the river. I was eager to explore my new city, enjoy the weather, and get my blood flowing. We walked and talked non-stop, along the river, past the main circle, through Antakya park, and back along the other side of the river, ending at Hatay Kunefe in the center of town by the river. By then, we were hungry for dinner, so we enjoyed a meal there. Hussein said repeatedly at the end of each topic we covered, “Really it is so nice to meet you.” Which I thought was funny since this is usually only said once at the initial meeting. He was genuine, kind, and joyful. I appreciated his hospitality to introduce me to Antakya.
My birthday came a couple weeks after I arrived, before I’d made any close friends, but a colleague was kind enough to invite some of the ex-pats and the environmental health team out for dinner at Avlu. I remember I was asked how I was settling in, and I related to them how sweet my introduction to the city was with Hussein. One colleague joked, “Sounds like you’ve already had a wonderful first date!” I laughed and assured her it was nothing like that – just friendly hospitality, and it truly was. Suddenly during dinner, Ezzat and Hussein came storming in with a cake set with sparklers and singing happy birthday! It was a wonderful gesture to welcome me to the family of the EH team and made me feel special and hopeful for good friends.
In early May, I planned to hike to the top of the mountain in Antakya with a young Turkish couple. Most of you know this as the time when I broke my toe! And Hussein was my hero that day. I had invited a few people from the office to hike the mountain. Hussein was surprised and excited to hear that there was a way to the top! The four of us met up downtown, bought a quick lunch and headed up from town, all the way to the top. Along the way, Hussein was a gentleman by watching my footing, and lending me a hand in steep places. It felt special to accomplish something together, to be looked after, and I’ll admit, there was a sweet feeling being with the young couple, as if we were on a double date. But I dismissed those feelings as being the result of the circumstances. At the top, we climbed to the highest point, at the top of the old ruins. We felt free and triumphant! Which is why I wanted to swing in the archway, which is when the mortar gave way and a big stone crushed my toe! The three friends rushed to me. I knew my toe was broken and the only way to get down from the mountain was to walk along the fort wall to the next mountain peak where there is a tea house and access road. As I was in shock from the pain, Hussein held my chin, bringing my face close to his, locking my eyes to his, and he said, calm and steady with a smile and honest, hopeful eyes, “Everything will be good.” He had to do that multiple times until we got to a resting place by the road where I collapsed, laying on the ground. Hussein found a large rock and a random piece of laminate tile and set them up under my leg to elevate it comfortably. Then he sat with me while we waited for a car to pass; the young couple pranced off alone. My mind was filled with pain without any linear thought, while Hussein took my hand, started to touch it gently, and asked, “Have you ever had a boyfriend?” I rolled my eyes at my past and my heart smiled at his assumption of my innocence. Then I became annoyed that he was being sweet and touching my hand and asking me this question while I was in such a state! I replied, “Yes” annoyed at him and pulled my hand away. After that day, I tried to understand why he did that and looked for any sign that he was more than friendly, but I didn’t feel that he was.
In July, I took an amazing holiday on the Greek island of Skyros. Before returning to work, I’d planned to spend a few days in Istanbul and Hussein and a field engineer, Firas, would be there at the same time so we decided to tour around together. Firas had lived there previously while Hussein and I had everything to discover. I took the bus into Istanbul from the airport where the two gentlemen met me, took my bag and led me directly to my hotel. They had already found my hotel on the map in relation to the bus stop, visited it to be sure they knew where it was, and then came to for me! We enjoyed traipsing around Istanbul, tasting, touching, and doing everything in sight. In the evenings, they brought me back to my hotel. It was most obvious to me in saying goodnight that I was beginning to feel something for Hussein because I wanted Firas to leave while Hussein and I could continue speaking into the morning hours. But that didn’t happen. Sitting on the bus, I wanted to rest my head on Hussein’s shoulder, and walking through the parks, I wanted to hold his hand. But we did none of these things. The feeling billowed inside us until it burst forth in the Aquarium!
On the last day, we went to the Aquarium. In the lobby, there was a tornado machine that blew winds inside a human-sized clear plastic tube for one lyra. Hussein excitedly dragged me over to the machine without telling me what it was, and pulled me inside with him. Before I knew it, we were being blasted with air, swept away in a special moment, on display for all to see (and believe me, there was a crowd of Turkish children and their parents all around, laughing at our hair and clothes flapping around)! Hussein was beaming with excitement that his body could hardly contain while I looked at him, wondering how this man is so joyful, and feeling my heart playing with the idea of loving him. At the entrance to the aquarium, we presented our tickets where they ushered the three of us in a line to take a photo in front of a fake underwater scene. We tried to just enter the museum but they practically shouted at us, “It’s free! You must take a photo! It’s free!” We now often use this to joke about anything coercive. Now we come to the bursting part. We were closely examining a sea anemone and I was trying to describe how they open and close to catch their food. I used my upper body and arms to close myself and blossom open. Well, Hussein’s adoration was completely uncontainable and he hugged me! I was shocked! Because I know the regional culture, and how men and women do not often even touch outside the family. And because it meant that he was truly feeling what I was feeling. I pulled away, and he thought he’d offended me. Now my heart started on a journey down a rushing river.
Over the next several months, Hussein and I spent time together, having picnics in the pavilions on the mountain side, hiking, going to breakfast in the village, to Arsuz beach, swimming in the pool, geocacheing for my dad, going to church, going to “American dinners”, taking evening walks downtown and through the park, cooking, biking to work, walking home from work, sharing lunch times, and of course still working together every day. It became even easier to spend time together when Hussein and Firas moved into the apartment complex across the street from my apartment! My parents visited Turkey in late October and they met Hussein in Antakya, knowing he was someone special to me. They love him. In the end of January, I went to Gaziantep to meet his family – his loving, wise, strong mother, his 4 sweet sisters, and one of 2 brothers. I saw the love and respect they have for Hussein, and the harmony they have together as a family. They love me.
Hussein and I are comfortable to share our inner thoughts and desires, and small musings to one another. Over the months, we remarked several times about how he and I are from such different contexts – different nationality, different cultures, different types of families, through peace and war, etc. and yet… BUT GOD… We are so similar and adhere to so many of the same values and have many mutual particular interests. From giving to the needy, showing love, respect, and compassion, showing others God, trusting God in all things, thanking God for all things, and then down to both loving the way things look in a microscope, loving wood, having an interest in “converted container homes”, loving to experience everything by touch, and loving the expanse of the sea and mountains.
He is so kind and gentle, a gentleman, responsible for those around him, servant-hearted. He comforts me and prays with me and for me. I have seen even how he works with the engineers he supervises. They have friendship and professional respect for him. He values excellence and quality. He teaches them and makes plans and efforts to teach and lead them. He is so patient and slow to anger, and in the rare times he is angry, he is still calm and without any trace of malice. When something is done against him, he says thanks to God that he is not like that person. He says that when things are good, praise God; when things are bad, praise God; when someone is bad to you, praise God and pray for them. He is a beautiful example to me. He makes me a better person, and he says the same of me.
We love being together, we love working together, traveling together, and doing any adventure or new thing together, and especially eating! 🙂 We have set our life goals to build the kingdom of God by displaying God’s love through acts of service, encouraging others to see, know, and love God, and to know God personally more and more.
Hussein’s Version of our Story
A Gift from God
18 April 2014, IRC office
Our boss, Alan Cameron, came to my office to introduce a new employee. She was so beautiful, with light skin, a little shy, and she looked so excited. She sat at her desk gently and quietly reading the IRC policies. After a few minutes, she started to look out the window of our 7th floor office to see the view and realize where she is. I looked at her, at her eyes, at her hair, and I looked at her clothes, warm colors. For me, she was just a strong, smart, and beautiful woman, but I had no idea about her.
A week earlier, the HR Officer, Khansaa, was telling us about a new employee. She said she is a young American girl; she’d seen my picture and said she is so beautiful. All the guys laughed in delight that a beautiful American girl would be working in their office. But who knew that we were speaking about my wife?!
The first night finished and Lee returned to her hotel. On the second day, she came full of power and excitement. Again, she looked out the windows. For me, Antakya was just a small city, but she was so happy when she looked at the mountain. I remember when I was looking at the mountain, and I told her, “Look at how beautiful it is!” and she agreed. I thought, “Thanks God, someone else sees this mountain as I do.” In the same day, when we finished, I invited her to walk together downtown, just to help her know the city, to see the river, to know where the mall is. I told her, we will walk a little bit and when we feel tired, we can return or take a bus. So we started walking and walking and we spoke about a lot of things. I told her I was sorry for my English. I was so happy to speak with a new person, and to introduce the city to her. I realized, Lee was a little girl, and she is so simple. She thinks like an innocent child, not with a jaded adult mind. She was excited to see everything with new eyes. We walked all the way to Hatay Kunefe, and then I told her there is a park, Antakya Park, near the river. I came before to this park by bike, but not walking. We continued to walk through the park speaking all the way. She told me about how many countries she visited. When we got to the river dam, she decided it was getting late, so we turned around, and stopped at Hatay Kunefe restaurant for dinner. This was the first meal we shared. I didn’t plan to invite her to dinner, but it was dinner time and we were both hungry. We ordered – what I love, she loves: food! When they delivered the dinner, she took a photo of the food saying that she must send it to her brother. That means I know she loves family and she is thinking of them. For the next week, we didn’t do anything but we saw each other in the office everyday.
I added her on facebook, and she started to upload some photos of her time in Antakya. I couldn’t believe that in her first few weeks, she went to the mountain, to Harbiye, and was invited for dinner at the home of a Turkish family. I’d been in Antakya for a year and I didn’t do any of these things yet! After two weeks, I asked her, how do you spend your time? And how did she get to have dinner with a Turkish family without speaking any Turkish? I asked her about her trip to the mountain, and she told me about Abdullah and Suzanne. I asked her how did you understand them? She said “google”. I told her that I love this mountain but I didn’t think it’s easy to walk there.
It seems I invited myself to her next hike with them, and that was my first trip with her. I met her and I felt so lucky. I am the only person who uses Arabic, Turkish, and English, so I really helped with their communication. I was so excited to go to that mountain which had been in my eyes for over a year. Everything was perfect until we met the stone that broke Lee’s toe. I was so sad, more than her, because it was our first trip, and she didn’t do anything wrong. We were on the top of the mountain and I didn’t know where to go. But I looked at her toe and told her, “It’s okay, no problem. It is just bruised and it just needs some time for the blood to come again. You have strong boots.” I told her it wasn’t broken but actually it turned out it was! We walked for almost an hour to get to a road and she called the IRC driver. I was sure he wouldn’t come to the mountain. I sat with Lee, waiting for any car, and she had a baby face as she was in pain and afraid. She felt pain. I tried to speak about anything to take her mind off the pain. I asked her, “do you have a boyfriend?” (I really wanted to know.) I had looked at her facebook photos and I only saw Sky, her brother. I touched her hand, to squeeze it and tell her, “you’re okay.” I looked in her eyes directly to give her power and tell her, “You’re not alone.” Finally, we found a car whose driver agreed to take us to Antakya. So I picked Lee up to carry her to the car. We took that car to the middle of the city, and again she called the IRC driver. We just sat on the sidewalk waiting again. I had two feelings at that time: my heart so sad and my face so strong. I wanted to make her feel unafraid. She left to the hotel room and I went home.
I was just thinking about her face, about her eyes, and felt sad for her. I didn’t even think or have any idea that’s my fiancee. And the days went by. She had to do two operations for her toe. I didn’t go to the first one, but I went for the second. I felt she came closer and closer to me. The guys from the office came to her home, cooked for her, and made fun of her, just to make her happy. I loved her face. I just stared at her face. I realized I really love this face. At the same time, I thought, she’s my friend, so how did I start to love her face? I loved her eyes, her hair, and I started to feel afraid. “What am I doing? She’s just my friend.” At the second operation, I was waiting for her to emerge from the operation block with a wheelchair. She came and sat down while I called for the elevator. When the elevator doors opened, I entered, and motioned with my hands to come in. She just looked at me to tell me, “hey I’m waiting for you to push me!” I realized I never pushed a wheelchair in my life and I didn’t think that I had to do that. Of course, I laughed at myself and pushed her in. We went to her home and I brought some things from the grocery store. I cooked for her.
When I came home, I asked myself, what did I do, and why? She is so sweet and she is so special to me. I have no words to explain how friendship became love. But I was just telling myself that she’s my best friend. And we became better and better and better friends, speaking a lot and learning a lot about each other. We spoke about God, and she told me about God, but I avoided to speak about God with her because I already knew that she is Christian and I am Muslim. But she was speaking about God the same as I know my God. And I started sharing what I know about God with her. I never spoke about faith with anyone before. I avoided speaking to people about these things because recently I didn’t meet anyone who considered God as I do. Over time, we started sharing our daily plans and aligning them to share the time together. We went to the mountain many times.
But I got a new feeling when she decided to take a holiday in Greece. I started to think about what I will do while she’s away? I asked myself, “My life was without Lee, so why are you thinking about what will you do when she is away?” Here I realized that this is something more than friendship. When she left, I felt I missed her. I didn’t know if I should tell her that or to just wait to see her again to tell her “welcome back”. Lee had a few extra days on the end of her holiday, and Firas and I had planned to be in Istanbul that weekend, so we invited her to make a tour with us. I knew this was a great way to spend some time with her on a special trip. Firas and I made a schedule for the tour of Istanbul; I was so focused on making this schedule to make everything special for Lee. Before meeting her in Istanbul, we found her hotel to make it convenient for her. Then she called to let us know she arrived to Taksim. I told her to come to the flag but she told us she is under million flags but eventually she found the biggest flag at the biggest flagpole in Taksim. Finally, we met her again. I was so happy. I could only tell her “welcome back” but I couldn’t tell her “I missed you.” I really felt I needed to tell her that and give her a hug, but I didn’t. We spent 4 days in Istanbul together, and everyday she told us she needed to be in the hotel a little early (8pm) to do personal emails, but our schedule was perfect and everything was amazing, so we left at 9am and returned around midnight each day. We had a great tour in Istanbul. We tried a lot of food and I loved her for that. The best thing was that she wanted to take a nap anywhere, ANYWHERE! Even in the bus, in the grass in the park. In Istanbul, I realized “I love her. I cannot say she’s my friend. No, I love her”.
In the last day, in the Aquarium, I invited her to be with me in the tornado machine. She didn’t even say yes or no, but I pulled her. I just wanted to be crazy with her. While we walked through the Aquarium, we stopped in front of the sea anemone, and she started to explain how they move, but I didn’t hear any word; I just looked at her face and how she moved. I just wanted to hug her and kiss her head. And I did hug her. And then I felt I did something wrong to her so I apologized. In the next four hours until she left, I apologized and explained that I did that because she is so sweet, but not that I am in love. At first, she didn’t say anything, but then she said it is fine. She left Istanbul and I made the first prayer to God about our relationship. I prayed if this relationship will be good, then make it strong, but if the relationship is wrong, then finish it as soon as possible. I spent two more days in Istanbul thinking about her but actually I told her I wanted to spend these days with friends. When I came back to Antakya, I was just thinking about how I could tell her “I love you” because she is not only my best friend, she is my habibi. I was ready to hear anything from her. In the next few weeks, we spoke clearly about what happened in Istanbul. She felt the desire to be together in that time without Firas, and that made me happy because it was also my feeling.
After this trip, we started our relationship in a different way. I showed her clearly that I am taking care of her. We went to the mountain, to Arsuz many times, to breakfast village (Karaca), to Mersin, to Tarsus, to Istanbul again, and to Cappadocia. But the trip that changed everything, was when I went to Istanbul for an interview for a visitor visa at the US Consulate. We had planned to go together to the US in May when she went for her brother’s graduation. In that time, Lee told me that she accepts my million proposals to get married. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the visa, but I got a lot of messages from her family about how they are sorry I couldn’t come. I felt that a lot of people care about me. Then Lee went to the US for 2 weeks and when she came back, we started to plan for the official engagement, the wedding, applying for immigration to the states, and applying for master’s degree programs for me.
A few weeks ago, on July 10, I asked Lee to marry me, on my knee, with a ring, and she accepted me! The happiest day was when we shared our relationship to all people. And now we are preparing the wedding for the 12th of September. And that’s my story.
So, thanks God for this gift.