For the past four months—as political uprisings have swept through the Middle East and North Africa—Yemeni, Tunisian, Egyptian, Syrian, and Libyan New Yorkers have tried to find out two things: whether their loved ones are safe and what’s really happening in their homelands. Since phone calls are often monitored by foreign governments, many have resorted to using coded language to speak with their families, while others have turned to alternate forms of communication, including GChat, Skype, and Facebook. Here’s a random assortment of conversations.
Reported by Taimur Khan, Alaa Majeed, and Jada Yuan
Hide that gun from Omar
On April 9, Khaled, a Yemeni residing in Lefferts Gardens, called his wife, three boys, and mother, who live in Taaz, Yemen. Khaled married his wife, Esraa, twelve years ago on a trip to Yemen. In order for him to maintain his U.S. residency, he must stay in New York until he becomes a citizen, after which point he plans on obtaining citizenship for his family. This is a transcript of that call.
OMAR [son, 11]: Hello, Dad. How are you?
KHALED: I am good, good. How are you, my son, how are your brothers and mother?
OMAR: We are good, but school’s closed. There is a shortage in gas, food, and electricity.
KHALED: Really? How is that possible? I want you to buy as much food and gas as you can and store it somewhere in the house. How is the security situation there? Where have the protests reached?
OMAR: They’ve reached the center of the city. Please tell Mom to give me your gun so I can use it if things go bad.
KHALED: [Laughing] You are my man there, and I can rely on you, but not the gun. You need to stay at home and take care of the family. If you need anything, go to my friend Hisham. He will help out. Now give me one of your brothers.
HUSSAM [son, 9]: Hello, Dad, how are you? Are you coming back anytime soon?
KHALED: I’m good. I have a laptop ready to be sent to you as soon as you perfect the multiplication chart. What’s seven times eight?
[Hussam stops for a minute before answering.]
HUSSAM: It’s 56, Dad.
KHALED: You just looked it up somewhere, didn’t you? I want you to study very hard and let me know when you are ready to get your laptop.
HUSSAM: Do you want to talk to Mom?
KHALED: Yes, please.
ESRAA: How are you, dear?
KHALED: I am good, good. How are you?
ESRAA: Alive. Things are deteriorating, but we are trying our best to stay away from the protests.
KHALED: I want you to take very good care of the children and my mother. You ensure their safety. I know it’s a hard request, but do your best. Keep everybody at home. And hide that gun from Omar.
I do nothing but think about Libya
Wissal Assed, a Libyan-American New Yorker, shares her experiences of trying to stay connected with her family. Her mother and sisters left Libya on March 18.
“When the uprising started in Tripoli, my mother, two sisters, and mother-in-law were there. My mother and one of my sisters were living in the center of the capital. I started calling or Skypeing my family every hour. My phone bill was over a thousand dollars. I even stopped going to work; I missed ten days. Usually when you call Libya, you have to dial a few times to get through, and we started to notice that the lines were very clear and that the first dial was going through. So we got suspicious. And then one time I called my mother, and another woman answered the phone at the same time. My mother stayed quiet, and I apologized and said, ‘I’m sorry, I think I dialed the wrong number,’ and the woman said, ‘No, you did not dial the wrong number. Continue talking.’ I hung up and called again. My mother answered and said, ‘I think that’s the person who is listening to our conversations.’ The only way my family knew what was going on is through TV—Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. The regime kept changing or disturbing the signals of those channels. One time I heard that Qaddafi might use chemical weapons, so I called my family right away and told them to tape the holes around the windows and to keep a wet towel near them. I don’t have a life anymore. I lost touch with all my friends. I do nothing but think about Libya, from the minute I wake up till I go to sleep. I even dream about it. My whole life changed. I’ll be honest with you, there are times when I just break down and cry. My family, my grandmother, cousins, aunts, and close friends—they are not living their lives. How can I?”