The pair used to sit at the at a corner table of Pret a Manger off Bedford Square. I had noticed them on my morning coffee stops before going to my post as visiting professor in Bloomsbury. Two figures forming one shape had become a fixture in the periphery of my vision, a constant presence, a blot on my subconscious. They blended in with the global academic look of Bloomsbury: clearly not Sotheby’s or Architectural Associates, but most likely SOAS grads in North African post-colonial studies. They spoke and moved self-assuredly, engaged, focused, leaning over newspapers always open between them. Strikingly discreet, their movements synchronized and impenetrable. A containment that is the prerogative of tradition; which can neither be improvised nor fabricated. A quality to which I am acutely sensitized –and which I envy. A calm aura possessed by those family members who were transplanted directly from their villas in northern Tehran to villas in on the hills of Los Angeles at the time of 1979 revolution. Un-breached tradition.
“May I use the electrical outlet behind you to charge my laptop?”
“Of course,” as one moves and helpfully plugs the charger in herself.
The next day, as I was about to leave my table, and had gathered my notebook and laptop into my bag, moved by the trace of yesterday’s unreadable “of course,” I said “hello.”
“Oh Hello.” They smile back, keeping a distance yet friendly.
“May I ask where you are from?”
“Where do you think we are from?”
“No, we come from the same part of the world as you do.”
“And are you students?”
“ No, we conduct family business.”
Three hours later I was still involved in a conversation which later I described, risking hyperbole, as the single most intriguing conversation of my life.
They told me they are sisters belonging to a Bedouin tribe related to the Saudi rulers of Arabia. Their tribe has had a continuous 800 years of history going back to Yemen. The deciding moment of the modern history was when their grandfather was defeated by Ibn Saud and had to capitulate to him and be brought to Riyadh to live under the control of the House of Saud. They described the grandfather’s rulership and capitulation with pride, he had demonstrated great honor and wisdom having saved as many lives as he could. Their father, the remaining and direct heir to the Emir, had left Saudi Arabia into exile in the 1970s, and had lived his life as living testimony to this history, keeping the opposition alive. They had settled in Knightsbridge but their culture always remained the culture of the Bedouin and their tents: nomadic, proud, and radically devout. Our conversation about home and exile had the help of references to Homer, Dante, Machiavelli, T.S. Eliot, Bedouin oral poetry and lore; the older sister Nasrin had studied comparative theatre at the graduate level before she had to leave the academy. Historical anecdotes about how Jins (evil spirits) in the deserts had defeated British colonial armies were seamlessly followed by personal ones recounting how the Eastern German secret police provided a safe haven from the Saudi watch, when they were little girls traveling with their dad in Germany, in a different time.
I was compelled by their nomadic notion of home, as I had been struggling to come to terms with my own. After a divorce following a series of moves from childhood into countries, languages, rooms and apartments I had come to feel specially at home on Bedford Square, which I experienced as a living room separating my apartment from the Library, and which I would cross to go to the Warburg Institute, or teach a class at the university across the square. Bloomsbury, had come to feel like a comfortable house I did not want to leave.
Mesmerized by the girls’ sense of belonging to the nomadic tradition and rituals of Al Talal tribe –could the nomadic be the metaphor that contains and gives shape to my life?– I heard the words uttered that at the moment they were homeless; but the words did not register. The image and fantasy of 800 years of tribal history did not allow me to process those words in present day Bloomsbury. The girls embodied civility and tradition so visibly in every move and glance, I could not place them or visualize them abjectly on the streets.
Over the months that followed, as I found myself always running into Nasrin and Jahan in Pret, discussing contemporay culture, politics and economy——their homelessness became visible and found contours. Yes, I could see that they always wore the same outfit and carried the same bags. Yes, they sat at the corner table not only to “watch their backs” and watch out for possible assailants as they had suggested, but also to hide their bags. After some time, I broached delicately:
“Where do you actually sleep?”
“We are roughing it at the moment”
I learned that means sleeping on the street at night. They told me that since they had become “undocumented,” they could no longer have a bank account, receive money from abroad, nor rent an apartment. That the UK government under the pressure of the Saudi government was blocking every single one of their attempts to establish residency, to which they were legally entitled after 17 years of living in the UK. The game they said was to demoralize them so that they would capitulate to the Saudis.They would be then given the stipend as all the other dissident members including their brothers and mother. This they said to me was worst than death, sleeping in the streets night after night. Month after month. While I would leave them to go to my elegant Georgian flat on Bedford Square
As I approached the end of my year’s assignment at NYU and my lease, the boundaries between homelessness and at-home-ness shifted. We had become fond of each other as friends. They thought of me as a Jewish cousin, they said. I had applied for a university job in London which I wanted and thought I should get, and a visa I thought I would not get. During this time, N and J were rooting for me. And yet, while waiting for my visa, I became paranoid about our friendship: who were these people sleeping on the streets? What if my friendship with them is dangerous? What if the story they say is true, and the Saudis and the UK government are really watching them, watching their every move, as they claimed? What if I do not get the visa because of these meetings in Pret a Manger? I told them. And for the first time displaying a subtle indignant air, J said: “Mahnaz dear, they are watching because they don’t want anything to happen to us, they would be watching to protect us from you. So you shouldn’t worry!”
I had given up trying to “help” find a solution to their predicament. Attorneys? They dropped the case for political pressure, they said. Media? They would not. It would be both political suicide, and also, would absolutely go against the Al Talal tradition of orality. No one had written or spoke to media about this. The historian in me was frustrated. A part of me was always incredulous.
I would plan to see Nasrin and Jahan in subsequent years, on each visit to London in pret a manger. They had managed to get lawyers and their case was moving along. Now and again there would be legal and procedural glitches, and they had to move back and forth between hotels and the street when the government blocked their access to money.
During my sabbatical semester when I had rented a loft in a north London house, their situation changed radically. A top law firm had agreed to look at their case, and an Australian partner in the firm decided to move the legal process along. They were on the streets again, as money had run out, but legal resolution was on the horizon.
It was then that I invited them to rest for a few hours in my lovely attic. They came. As I was about to leave for work, I became transfixed at the door. I considered that in that room I had thousands of dollars, passports, irreplaceable legal documents belonging to my father, and jewelry in plain view. Leaving them alone there was a real event. Who were these girls? What did I know about them? I had never seen one picture of their “previous” life. Absolutely not one piece of evidence that they were who they said they were. Leaving that room, I was defining the status and the meaning of all that had exchanged between us. At that moment, I was deciding who I thought they were. That their story should be true was outside the frame of the possible: the historian in me could not fathom a history not written; the cosmopolitan in me could not believe in England such breach of legal process could occur; the Middle Eastern in me could not believe that family members had not saved their two girls from the street, and the tribe would let the daughters of their leader wither in the streets of London. Their story defied the reasonable, rational, and permissible. It was impossible.
Yet, I opened the door and left. Feeling surreal because I was acknowledging a fuller reality, something that had taken place between us, underwritten by a fantasy of 800 years of history without text, because nomadic and oral, but embodied in the body of these two sisters. I trusted that.
A week later, N and J had moved into a hotel. They invited me out to dinner, and appeared carrying a large shopping bag from the House of Fraser. A gift they had picked up for me. An exquisite leather tote bag, light, capacious, easy to handle, for people on the move. They said they saw it and it had my name on it.
On the previous day my landlord, who had seen the girls leave her house, had called me in for a conversation. She thought it was unreasonable of me to have had undocumented and undeclared guests – even though she had met them the first time I had them over. In between the first and second time they came, I had revealed that they were homeless. My landlord asked me either to recognize the unreasonableness of my behavior, or to leave.
I am leaving my sunny loft with skylights and a window that opens into the vastest of the skies.
** I have read this to N and J, and they have liked it and the idea that it would be shared publicly.