Today I woke up in Maastricht, on the floor in Ayla’s living room, as she held a telephone meeting in her bedroom with a student she is trying to send to me as an intern. The walls were covered, but tastefully, with framed photographs, maps, and paintings. Some charted the direction of Mecca through longitudinal lines over unidentifiable landmasses. Others were bold coloured abstract paintings. ‘That one I got in Kenya’, she said. ‘The painter made it for me, I had no idea he was going to do that’. I struggled with a Jackson Pollack-esque mix of chaotic undercolours and sprays of read, yellow, and black at the surface. ‘It’s me – can you see it?’ I tried to blur my vision. ‘Yeah, actually, I do see it’. And I did.
The photographs were of tango and refugees – the refugee photos in black and white, clearly taken in Greece or Macedonia or somewhere along the eastern route. The tango photos were colour and dramatic, like a tango dance is. It was incongruous.
‘I like the tango ones better,’ she told me, ‘but they are all taken by the same photographer. He gave them to me.’ It occurred to me that people must give things to Ayla often. She is quite beautiful, with big hazel eyes, a slightly upturned nose, and full, plain lips. She is somehow gentle in her demeanour, but not without substance or intelligence. After all, she had graduated Columbia before Oxford, and was funded to do her PhD, all while establishing a multi-million dollar foundation challenging binary stereotypes in textbooks, publishing papers for UNHCR, and advising the European Commission on a refugee education pedagogy she had developed.
Ayla and I had become friends in Oxford, although she reminded me that we had actually met in Cairo, when I offered to speak with her during a research visit she had been a part of. We continued communication at long intervals, finally getting to know each other through an informal drinks session I organised around refugee and migration issues at various pubs around Oxford. We rarely talked about the subject, rather complaining about our housing situations or workloads, or offloading complaints and stresses. It was a good informal gathering of about three or four of us. Ayla was a regular presence.
But now she was in Maastricht, and had been here for four years. She had had similar border problems entering Britain, as I had, and later entering France, although she was ultimately allowed passage in both instances.
We drank tea in her wild and jungle-like yard, looking at the apple and fig and pear trees. ‘You can’t eat the fruit,’ she said, ‘the soil is too contaminated.’ I leaned back in my chair and looked up at the pigeons perched on the roof ledge above.