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Two hearts, two worlds

When Fadi met Melissa, the chasm between Arab and American had just widened

By Anne Barnard, Globe Staff, 9/8/2002

Melissa Culhane needed a ride. Her friend was waiting for her at a bar, shaken and alone.

Culhane had struggled to pay attention in epidemiology class, and felt dazed as she stepped into the clear evening. Then she spotted the dark-haired doctor from class, the one she secretly called ''the cute guy.'' She asked him where to get a cab. He offered a lift.

Fadi Badlissi, too, was unsettled that night, but he had noticed Culhane's blue eyes and steady demeanor. She could tell he wanted to make a good impression as they drove from Boston Medical Center through the South End toward the Franklin Cafe. His small talk soothed her, and she had the feeling they were going to like each other.

''Where are you from?'' she asked. He said, ''Syria.''

Her first thought was wary: ''Bad Middle Eastern country.'' Her second was sympathetic: ''I wonder if he feels strange.''

He did. It was Sept. 12.

The day before had buffeted each of them with unprecedented emotions. Culhane, 33, spent two nervous hours trying to reach her mother, who worked a few blocks from the World Trade Center and had planned a meeting there later that day. And on top of his shock and disgust, Badlissi, 31, found himself wondering, for the first time in his five years in the United States, if people were afraid of him because he was an Arab - or if he ought to be afraid of them.

Culhane reached for the right note, and found it. ''You're the first person I've met from Syria,'' she told Badlissi. He smiled and said, ''You're the first person I've met from Minnesota.''

Over the next two months, the faces of the suspected hijackers, all of them Arabs, beamed from every television screen; American bombs fell on Afghanistan; speculation mounted that an Arab country would be next. And Fadi and Melissa fell in love.

As the year progressed, they experienced the usual hopes, doubts and questions - Could they spend their lives together? Were they ready for marriage? - all the while navigating the waves that rippled out from Sept. 11.

Culhane delved into Badlissi's language and culture, trying to find a place for them in her life at a time when Americans' relationship with the Arab world was freighted with new fears and tensions - as well as a newly urgent need to communicate.

Badlissi's future was thrown into doubt as the US government tightened visa policies, cut back on invitations for foreign doctors, and increased scrutiny of visitors from Arab and Muslim countries. He has tried to extend his visa past the end of this year, hoping to study science writing, a longtime dream that seemed in reach when he was accepted to a top journalism school. But he would need special permission, and in the new, less flexible climate, his hopes are fading.

With Badlissi's visa set to expire Dec. 31, the couple is coming to an inevitable crossroads: Will he have to leave? If so, will she go with him?

When Culhane and Badlissi tell the story of their year, they talk as much about how they have managed to fend off Sept. 11 as about its effects on them. Neither lost a loved one in the attacks - a question they were quick to ask each other on that first car ride. Badlissi escaped the overt threats that befell some Arabs in the aftermath, and as a member of Syria's Orthodox Christian minority, he has felt less vulnerable than many American Muslims, 57 percent of whom reported experiencing discrimination in a recent poll. A relatively private, apolitical sort, he is not among the many Arabs and Muslims who have responded by plunging into intercultural outreach and activism.

To Liz Hoch, who has known Culhane for 10 years, the couple's experience shows how historic events wash over ordinary people - in this case, she said, adding external stresses to a love that has made her best friend happier than she's been in a long time.

''It puts an artificial timeliness on everything; it's just kind of too bad for them as individuals,'' said Hoch, an insurance broker in Minneapolis. ''They're just people in the midst of this whole deal.''

Worlds apart

Badlissi was born in Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city and one of the world's oldest, a sprawl of pale stone buildings famous for its covered bazaars and moated citadel. Culhane grew up in a ranch house in Shakopee, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis where the principal minority groups were Native Americans and Norwegians.

Culhane's childhood awareness of Arabs and Muslims came from her parents' talking about hostage-takings in Lebanon and Iran. Badlissi learned from school and state television to view the United States as a powerful, threatening nation, allied with Israel against Arabs. But he also knew that his aunts and uncles were migrating there from Lebanon and Iraq, fleeing war and economic stagnation.

Badlissi graduated from Aleppo's medical school and came to Boston in 1996 for residency at Carney Hospital. He went to Missouri for a fellowship on treating arthritis, then returned to train in geriatrics at Boston Medical Center. He and Culhane, a biostatistician at a Cambridge health-care company, will finish master's programs at Boston University's School of Public Health this fall.

The enormity of Sept. 11 dawned on Badlissi as he watched the news with a patient while on a house call in Dorchester. He was first horrified, then afraid US reprisals would somehow embroil Syria or Lebanon, then nervous about how people in the hospital would see him - an unfamiliar feeling.

Culhane got the news from construction workers in Kenmore Square. The next day, she was too shaken to give a planned talk in class, and rushed to the Franklin Cafe to comfort a friend who had been evacuated from the Prudential Center. The drive with Badlissi was a brief respite.

On their first date in October, also at the Franklin, Badlissi confided that he felt better after a colleague wrote him a card. ''I believe in you,'' it read, ''during these challenging times.''

After their third date, Culhane bought a book on Syria, which she knew little about other than that the United States lists it as a state that sponsors terrorism. She read up on Middle East politics. Later, she took an Arabic class and was embarrassed to realize the class was almost ''all girlfriends'' - women dating Arab men. She vowed to keep learning the language no matter what happened with Badlissi.

She got mad when friends and relatives asked if she had seen ''Not Without My Daughter,'' a movie about an Iranian doctor who would not let his American wife take their child to the United States, though she wasn't pleased to learn that Syrian law allows husbands to do the same.

On Thanksgiving, she told her mother about Badlissi. Her mother, who works at a small newspaper in lower Manhattan and saw people fall from the twin towers, later told Culhane she worried that others would react badly to the relationship in the post-Sept. 11 climate.

At the same time, the public discussion of the attacks reminded Badlissi of his frustrations with the United States. There wasn't enough talk, he said, about how the United States had backed Islamic militants to fight the Soviet Union, and how it supports repressive oil-rich regimes that fuel discontent in places such as Saudi Arabia, home to most of the hijackers.

''You use these tools, and then you move on,'' he said of US policy. ''If you support these groups, they're going to hit back at you. You're part of the problem.''

None of that seemed to come between the couple. Things were going so well that Badlissi invited Culhane to Las Vegas with ''the guys.'' Logan Airport bristled with military police. Already jittery about flying on New Year's Eve, Culhane was searched.

''They frisked me - I mean, really frisked me,'' she said. ''Suddenly I got really sad. I might have even started to cry. I remember saying, `I can't believe that's what my world is like now. That's just not the way things are here. ' And he was, like, `That's how the rest of the world has been living forever, and just get used to it.'''

That moment zeroed in on their one visible disagreement over Sept. 11: Months later, Culhane was still reeling from what felt like a world-changing event. Badlissi was shocked that such extreme violence had visited the mighty United States - ''Things can be so much more fragile than they seem,'' he said recently - but he kept reminding her that violence and chaos were not new to his part of the world.

In Las Vegas, they lost at craps, laughed at the gaudy decor, planned a drive to the Grand Canyon. One night, Badlissi and three Syrian friends played cards in their hotel room at Circus Circus, speaking softly in Arabic and lulling Culhane to sleep. Later, she was touched to realize that a language that used to scare her - because she'd heard it only from bad guys in the movies - had become a comfort.

Cooking lessons

Mostly, they acted like any other couple. Badlissi cooked Arabic meals, coaching Culhane on vegetable chopping (''Keep going, keep going! Smaller, smaller!''). Culhane helped Badlissi pick a paint swatch - dillflower green - to cover the Winnie the Pooh trim the previous owners left in his Brighton apartment. Badlissi carried Culhane when she hurt her ankle; if the hospital calls about a patient when he's driving, she takes notes.

She calls him ''brilliant''; he calls her ''very smart'' but also ''Minnesotan,'' meaning ''quiet, a hard worker, solid.'' Culhane likes their verbal battles - he is the first man she has fought with enough to ''work through stuff.''

But the last few months have worn on them. Badlissi's future is still unclear. That makes it hard to weigh how they feel - and how much they should sacrifice to stay together. ''He's stressed, and I'm stressed,'' Culhane said.

After Dec. 31, Badlissi must return home for two years, as required under the J-1 visa for physician training. Until recently, hundreds of foreign doctors could stay each year to work in rural or poorer urban areas, but after Sept. 11 the government sharply cut back the program.

What Badlissi wants most is to write about public health here and at home. He was accepted to the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, but cannot enroll without special permission to switch to a student visa - tough to get before Sept. 11, and now, a lawyer told him, nearly impossible.

There are other anxieties. There is increasing talk of the United States attacking Iraq, where Badlissi has relatives. He has been increasingly angry at US news reports that he says favor Israel. Closer to home, Badlissi is dreading an upcoming trip to Canada for a family wedding; under new rules, Syrians will soon be fingerprinted and photographed when they cross US borders. Because he needs a visa for almost every country, the couple can't travel on short notice - a freedom Culhane calls ''a symbol of America.''

Badlissi has been moody lately, Culhane said, often because of things like that. ''He says, `Countries don't want me because of where I was born.'''

Culhane usually downplays Badlissi's nationality: ''I met a nice guy, and he's from somewhere else. That's it.''

One sultry night, though, staring into a candle on her deck in Cambridgeport, she adds: ''But he's leaving.''

She thinks about how immigration rules meant to protect her have had a different effect. She knows worse things have happened to other people since September, but she says with a steady gaze, ''It's messing up my whole life.''

`Feeling in limbo'

Badlissi increasingly expects to return to Syria or Lebanon, where he will face a new set of issues. In Syria, he would have to do military service. In Lebanon, he might be able to work in a friend's clinic. He has citizenship through his mother, and would enjoy the freer atmosphere, but feels out of practice in the back-channel deal-making it takes to get things done there.

''I never thought I would end up feeling in limbo, like I don't belong anywhere,'' he said. ''But now I feel that way.''

Culhane and Badlissi aren't sure if she would like it there. In a more conservative society, it would be uncomfortable to live as boyfriend and girlfriend, but neither wants to marry under time pressure. ''Having friends, being comfortable with the society, that's going to be very difficult for her,'' Badlissi said.

He's also afraid that she could face danger, even war, because of heightened tensions in the region after Sept. 11, the recent series of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel, and the Israeli attacks in the West Bank.

Last month, Badlissi and Culhane drove to visit Badlissi's childhood friend in Rhode Island. The guests, all Arab Christians, argued about politics, ate barbecue, and smoked traditional water pipes. Then came a conversation that chilled Badlissi.

Asked about the effects of Sept. 11, Badlissi's friend told of a cousin who lost his car-cleaning business in Virginia because clients no longer wanted to hire Arabs. But the older guests launched into a sweeping tirade against Muslims, saying they were dangerous and should be suppressed. One man, a jeweler, said that when a customer seemed to equate all Arabs with terrorists, he told him how he felt about Muslims: ''We hated those people long time before you.''

Driving back to Boston, Badlissi said the talk made him worry for his region. Sept. 11, he said, had given Arab Christians and Muslims - who slaughtered each other during Lebanon's civil war - new license to hate.

''I'm totally against what they say,'' he said of the guests. ''The whole America that they like is built on people from different religions and nationalities, living together peacefully. They forget that maybe that's a better way to be than having all this hatred.''

The evening hadn't given Culhane any answers, though a woman had rushed to reassure her that Christians and Muslims get along fine in Syria - ''so I wouldn't go away thinking there are issues over there in the Middle East,'' she said, smiling at the memory. ''She meant well.''

The sun had gone down, making the heat bearable for the first time in days. Badlissi reached for Culhane's hand, and they drove on into the dark.

Anne Barnard can be reached at abarnard@globe.com.

This story ran on page E3 of the Boston Globe on 9/8/2002.
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