Washington Stories

“I miss my country.” The taxi had come late. The dispatcher had been rude. The airport was a long drive, I couldn’t afford to miss the plane and, yes, I’m afraid I snapped at the driver. We rode along in silence for a while and then, suddenly, his eyes welled up with tears. “You have no idea how I miss my country,” he said.

He was from Mali — a West African nation no one he knows has heard of. He had a degree from a university there, but came here to study further. He’d run out of money, started driving a taxi, and anyway saw no reason to hurry back. “There’s no point in having an education there. People get good jobs in Mali because they know somebody. No one cares what you study, or if you study at all.” Here at least he had a chance, at least there were possibilities — but the price was high, terribly high: a life lived without the weather, the friends and the food he’d grown up with. A life lived in the cold, a life lived among people who don’t speak your language and never will.

“I don’t want to be a dissident.”

This was another day, another place, a very different person: I was not in a taxi but rather in a Georgetown restaurant — mediocre, Italian, empty — with a visiting Russian friend. She runs a school in Moscow for young Russian politicians, an institution she founded over a decade ago, back when she thought Russia was changing for the better. She didn’t start the school to overthrow the government. She started it to help the government do what it then said it wanted to do: join Western institutions, establish democracy, make ordinary Russians more prosperous and more free.

Now the Russian government has changed, and Russians such as her — Russians who have too many Western friends — have become objects of suspicion. Newly empowered secret policemen hang around her office, harass her staff, inspect her bank accounts. My friend has found herself in a role she never wanted. “I am not a fighter,” she said, eyes watering just a bit. “I only wanted my country to be a better place to live in. That’s all.” On the way out, she tells me, not without pride, that these days you get better risotto in Moscow than in Washington.

“That could have been me.”

Yet another day, and, again, a different place: A standard-issue Washington conference room, narrow and badly lit, with too few chairs and crackly microphones. Two women had just made a presentation about the murders, kidnappings and other crimes committed in the name of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Much of the audience was Iranian, and afterward one of them stood up, a little shakily. She started to speak about friends and the relatives who had been left behind in Iran: Had it not been for this coincidence, for that piece of luck, for a fortuitous decision, she, like they, would have become a statistic.

One by one, other audience members also stood up to echo her words. They wore suits and ties, or skirts and heels. All had Washington jobs: They commute, they go out to lunch, they are not unusual. They also live with the knowledge that if they had stayed in Iran, the country of their birth, they might have been the man on the wrong side of the barricades, or the woman beaten to death for wearing a bathing suit, or some other person whose life story makes people cry.

It’s an odd place, Washington. This is a city rife with real outrages: corrupt congressmen, incompetent officials, dangerous or stupid ideas. As a result, it’s also a city of quarrels and arguments, a place where people endlessly discuss “our broken health-care system” and “our disastrous foreign policy.” Here, the phrase “this town” — as in “I’ve had it with this town’s hypocrisy” or “I’m sick of this town’s attitude” — refers not to streets and buildings but to this metaphorical Washington, with its bitter politics and its angry debates.

And yet Washington is also a very real home, both permanent and temporary, to many people whose sole desire is to live an ordinary life — to study, to work, to talk about what they please — but who cannot do so, whether in Mali, in Russia, in Iran or somewhere else. Every once in a while, and for no particular reason, I try to remember how lucky I am to have been born here, where the possibility of living such an ordinary life is so easily taken for granted.

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