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Madonna and the golden lemons of Allah

DAVID SILVA

For about three years, I lived with my girlfriend Angel in a nice,

two-bedroom apartment in Santa Ana. The apartment overlooked a quiet,

tree-lined street, and in the mornings I’d sit in front of the window

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with my coffee cup and watch the squirrels playing in the eucalyptus

trees. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

Then Angel’s company cut her to part-time, and I quickly

discovered that in Orange County, heaven was on a month-to-month

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lease. With our savings rapidly evaporating, we decided to place an

ad in the paper to sublet the extra room. After interviewing about a

dozen candidates, each with disqualifying qualities ranging from poor

hygiene to poor sanity, we were beginning to lose hope. Then a young

Pakistani man named Saeed showed up at the door.

The moment I saw Saeed standing in the hallway, I knew we’d found

our roommate. He was a short, well-dressed man with dark skin, a

curly head of hair and one of the kindest faces I’d ever seen. But

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what sold me on him was the fact he looked petrified, as if he had no

idea what kind of people Angel and I would turn out to be. As far as

I was concerned, anyone who looked that intimidated by people had to

be a nice guy.

It turned out I was right. Saeed proved to be a gem of a roommate.

He was thoughtful, hard-working and neat, without being obsessively

neat. He also had a strong command of the English language, though it

turned out he had arrived in the U.S. only a month prior.

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“Oh, Da-bed, An-yell, I cannot tell you how grateful I am,” he

said earnestly after Angel and I offered him the room. It took me a

moment to realize “An-yell” meant Angel and “Da-bed” meant me. I

asked Saeed what part of Pakistan he was from, not that it would have

mattered, as I knew absolutely nothing about Pakistan and doubted I

could find it on a map. Saeed told us he was from Karachi.

“Do you miss Karachi?” Angel asked. Saeed laughed. Clearly, he

said, An-yell had never been to Karachi.

“Karachi is ... what is the right word? Hot. It is very hot, and I

do not mean the temperature,” he said. “It has too many ... hotheads.

Too many hotheads with guns.”

Now I laughed. “You came to the U.S. to get away from guns? We’ve

got a lot of hotheads with guns here too, you know.”

“Yes, but in Karachi, we also have too many hotheads with

dynamite.”

Saeed and I quickly developed a friendship. Every morning, he and

I would sit and read the newspaper together -- I would read the main

section and he would read the want ads. It turned out that while

Saeed had a little bit of money in the bank, he was unemployed and

desperately needed to find work soon.

He told me that back home, all the men in his family were

air-conditioner repairmen. As is often the case with air-conditioner

repair people in desert regions, his family was fairly well-to-do.

But it had cost a lot of money for Saeed to come to America, and he

was loathe to ask his family for help.

“No one seems to want to hire me,” he told me sadly. “I cannot

understand it. I’m very good with air conditioners and I am willing

to work for nothing until I prove myself.”

“You’ll get a job, don’t worry,” I assured him. “Something will

turn up.”

Saeed shook his head. “No, nothing will turn up unless I turn it

up. I will pray about it.”

Saeed was Muslim, and five times a day would throw a small rug on

the hardwood floor and pray on his knees. I noticed he always prayed

in the direction of a windowless wall, and I suggested he face the

other way to get a better view.

“I cannot do that!” he exclaimed, horrified. “Muslims must pray in

the direction of Mecca.”

“Really? So if I walked in the direction your rug is facing, I’d

reach Mecca?”

“Yes, it is that way,” he said, pointing at the wall. “Toward the

405.”

Suddenly Saeed stiffened, as if jolted with a powerful idea. Then

he turned to me and said seriously, “Da-bed, I believe Allah has

provided me an answer to my trouble.”

The next day, Saeed withdrew $400 from his meager savings account

and bought a beat-up Datsun B-210 that didn’t run. Angel and I stared

at the rusted pile of metal when Saeed had it towed home, and as

politely as I could, I suggested to him that perhaps he had been sold

a lemon. This seemed to make him very happy.

“Oh, yes!” he said, beaming. “It is my beautiful, golden lemon.”

Over the next few days, Saeed worked and worked on the B-210.

Within a week, he had gotten it running, cleaned it up and sold it

for $1,000. With that money he went out and bought a dilapidated

Toyota Corolla, and within a week had fixed it and sold it for

$2,500. For more than a month, Saeed was either working on some

scrapheap in the garage out back, praying toward Mecca or whipping up

some of the most delicious curries Angel and I ever tasted.

Then one day, he pulled in front of the house in a shiny new BMW.

I whistled through my teeth when I saw it, then asked him how much he

planned to sell it for.

“You are kidding, right?” Saeed laughed. “This is my golden

lemon.”

For some reason, buying that BMW was the turning point for Saeed.

He finally landed a job, servicing customers for a large

air-conditioning repair company, and was soon promoted to district

manager. Suddenly Saeed was bringing in more money than Angel and me

combined.

Still, he seemed depressed. One day, he and I were watching a

Madonna video on MTV, and he sighed loudly. I asked him if something

was bothering him, and he said he was lonely -- he missed the company

of women. I suggested the three of us go out dancing sometime so he

might meet someone, but he shook his head.

“It embarrasses me to say, Da-bed, but in my culture, we are

taught that American women are very bad. Very wild. My family expects

me to marry a nice Muslim girl.”

He looked back at the TV screen, where Madonna was crawling across

the floor on her hands and knees. Saeed sighed again.

“If I don’t meet a nice Muslim girl soon,” he said decisively, “I

am changing my religion.”

It turned out he didn’t have to. A few days later, while on one of

his service calls, Saeed met a beautiful, older American woman named

Bebe, who took one look at this handsome young air-conditioner

repairman from Karachi and fell madly in love. On their second date,

Saeed sadly explained to Bebe that he could only marry another

Muslim.

“Honey,” Bebe replied, “Islam just got another convert.”

A month later, Saeed told me he was moving out. He and Bebe had

found a home to buy in Tustin and were moving in together.

“I am very happy to have found love,” he said to me. “But I am

also very sad to leave you and An-yell. You have been a good friend.

And with your help, I am now living the American dream. I will always

be in your debt.”

I also felt sad, but at the same time was filled with happiness

for my new friend. I thought about how far Saeed had come. In a few

short months, he was driving a nicer car than mine, was making more

money than me, and was about to buy a home, whereas I would still be

renting.

“Hey, Saeed, I just thought of a way you can pay me back,” I said.

“Oh? How so?”

I looked at him seriously.

“Teach me how to live the American dream.”

* DAVID SILVA, a Burbank resident and former Leader city editor,

is a Times Community News editor. Reach him at 484-7019, or by e-mail at david.silva@latimes.com.


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