In the autumn of 2004 I found myself suddenly relocating to Belgium, at the expense of an attractive job offer in Italy. It was one of those major forks in the road, the kind of big decision that could transform a life. Which, for better or for worse, is exactly what it did.
“Mister Lie-ton, so nice to see you!” he purred in his thick, strangely charming sticky-toffee-pudding-voice. Extending his hairy, ape-like arms towards me, I returned the gesture as he locked me into that familiar bear hug, an endearing staple of any Zaid visit. “Happy Birthday!” I cried and he could only chuckle in reply, his cheeks turning just a touch red. “Thank you Lie-ton, thank you”.
It had been a few months since we’d last seen each other and there was much to catch up on. S and I were not long back from our honeymoon and I was keen to bore him with the photos I’d taken in Morocco. But knowing Zaid as well as I did, I understood that the first order of business was beer. Not one of those miserable Aldi brand cans that filled his fridge back in Leuven, but a proper Leffe blonde, the giant bottle that always made his eyes light up like a kid on Christmas morning.
“Ah, Lie-ton” he grinned, delving into his man bag for the cigars I instinctively knew he’d brought. “Please” he smiled, extending the open pack in my direction. He knew I didn’t like them much, but tonight was a special occasion and it simply wouldn’t do for him to smoke alone. “Show me Morocco!” he exclaimed suddenly, wide-armed. “As you wish” I replied, grabbing my laptop and we made our way out to the balcony.
I’d forged some really close friendships during my time in Belgium, but nobody quite compared to the enigmatic, confusing, entertaining, benevolent Zaid. He was the first person I met when I moved into the student house on J.B. van Monsstraat after my breakup with Lucie. I’d just come back from the supermarket with a bag of groceries and was poking around in the communal kitchen to see if I could claim a cupboard. “Excuse me hello, you are new man yes?” he inquired with an inquisitive smile. Not at all in the mood for small talk, I nodded, giving him no more than a curt ‘‘yes’’. “I am Zaid”, he said, “I am from Iraq”.
This revelation admittedly stopped me in my tracks, a carton of eggs seemingly superglued to my hand. I’d never met an Iraqi before and my immediate thought was: what the hell is he doing in Leuven? Having introduced myself, Zaid eagerly beckoned me into the chilly hallway. “This is my fridge!” he told me, swinging the door open to reveal shelf after shelf of beer, the side compartments stuffed with chocolate bars and cold cuts, a joyous carnival of sliced chicken, corned beef and blocks of cheese. “Any times you feel hungry or thirsty Mister Lie-ton, please help yourself!” “Thank you” I said, a little bemused. “You are very welcome here,” he beamed, throwing me a chocolate bar.
“Ah, Morocco look like good time” sighed Zaid, puffing away on his cigar. It was a surprisingly warm Brussels evening, so for a while we just sat there enjoying it in comfortable silence. On the day of his thirty-eighth birthday I wondered if he was at all reflecting on his life journey thus far. On everything he’d been through to get to Europe, on his removed existence in Leuven, the quaint little town that must have felt like light years away from his old life in Baghdad. I guessed he missed his father, who called often from the homeland, not to mention his dear old mother, who for reasons unknown lived with an aunt on the outskirts of Dubai.
“Lie-ton, what movie tonight?” he asked excitedly, jolting me from my thoughts. We’d watched countless films together and to his credit he was always game, no matter what the genre or plotline. But seeing as it was his birthday I’d plumped for something with a decent amount of action, not a leave-your-brain-at-the-door kinda flick, but something that packed a punch with a bit of social commentary thrown in. “Falling Down” I told him, but before I could say Michael Douglas, he’d scuttled off to the living room to dig the DVD out of my collection.
I was a bit of a hermit during those first months in the student block. My breakup with Lucie was fresh and I didn’t feel much like going out. Most weekends the Belgian girls that occupied the other rooms went home to their families, which left the run of the place to Zaid and I. And so he’d invite me down to his room for a drink, offering me Doritos and dried apricots, maybe some humus-dipped Turkish bread from the local Kebab house. During these soirees he’d hit me with a barrage of questions about UK culture, my family, the adventures I’d had in Qatar, Slovakia and India. “Lie-ton, I met Scotch man one time but I can not understand him. You speak so clear and why I never see you in the skirt?” Poor old Zaid, I’d told him several times that I wasn’t Scottish, that my family was from London but now lived in Scotland. It made no difference though, he just couldn’t wrap his head around it.
Zaid and I became such good friends I ended up knocking on his door most evenings after work, just to check on him. He rarely went out and as far as I could tell had only one friend, an older gentleman of unknown Arabic persuasion who dropped by once a month for a chinwag. The walls were paper-thin, so I could hear their loud, often-animated discussions rattle back and forth for hours. Whenever I popped my head through his door he’d be listening to the BBC World Service with a beer, or sat at the little wooden desk hunched over his Flemish studies. Zaid spent hours trying to pick up the language, but his attempts proved even worse than my own, his pronunciation at times indecipherable. “This fucking language so difficult Lie-ton” he complained one day, cracking open another can, “but if want stay here I must learn”.
One night the two of us got really drunk and I finally plucked up the courage to ask him how he ended up in Belgium. Suddenly the room went deathly quiet and for a second or two I felt sorry I’d asked, like I’d perhaps crossed the proverbial line. “Lie-ton” he slurred sadly, staring into his beer, “life in Iraq very bad and I had to leave or… very bad”. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to” I said, desperately hoping he wanted to talk about it. “Maybe one day I tell you” he replied, taking a long swig, “but is not good story and you will be shock”. As much as I wanted to hear every last detail I decided to drop it, figuring we could always revisit the subject later on.
“…and now you’re gonna die wearing that stupid hat” grinned a bespectacled, shotgun-carrying Michael Douglas, looking down at the dying old man before him. “Ha ha ha!!!” howled Zaid, slapping his knee, a splash of beer hitting the carpet at his feet. Falling Down was proving a real hit, just as I’d hoped. It was obvious when Zaid was really into a movie, from the way he leaned forward in his seat to the regular yowls of childlike approval throughout.
I’d learned a lot about him from our movie nights, like the time we were watching The Exorcism Of Emily Rose. It was the bedroom possession scene and we were both gripped. The little box of pens moving across the bedside table, Emily’s blanket sliding off her body, that awful, deathlike creaking sound. “Lie-ton, the pause button please,” he requested, so suddenly and urgently that I found myself as much creeped out by it as the movie itself.
.“You believe this thing?” he asked, placing his beer down on the table. “Uh… not really” I answered, wondering where he was going with this, “at least I’ve never…” “You should believe Lie-ton, one time this happen to me in Iraq. Noisy, thing moving and shadow man, everything crazy”. “What did you do?” I asked, not at all convinced I wanted to know. “Nothing”, he said, stony-faced, “just lie still, close eyes, wait and finally it go”.
Another time, halfway through American Beauty, Zaid was visibly disgusted to see Annette Bening’s character Carolyn embark on an extra marital affair with her sleazy cowboy business rival Buddy Kane. “If I am married and my wife does this I kill her” he said quietly, fixing me with a grim glare, “kill her with my hands”. I was so taken aback I didn’t even respond, just grabbed a handful of peanuts and turned my attention back to the film.
It was a May evening in 2005 and I was about to head out to Time out on the Square to watch the Champions League final. As usual I gave Zaid’s door a quick knock before I left to see how he was doing. I could tell something was wrong the moment I saw him slumped over his desk, head in hands, half a dozen empty beer cans lined up on the windowsill like tin soldiers. “What’s the matter?” I asked and he wasn’t shy in letting me know. “I spend many hours study the Dutch but is no good,” he declared glumly, “no improve”. I began giving him the old don’t-give-up-you-gotta-believe-in-yourself-shtick, but he was already moving on to additional woes. “And I am bad Muslim Lie-ton. I drink beers, watch videos about fuck womens, one time even try the pork. If my mother know she feel great shame”. I’d never seen Zaid like this, he was really down in the dumps. So I dragged him out to the pub with me, giving him the background story on the game we were about to watch between Liverpool and Milan. “I see” he said, clearly happy to be distracted, “so Liverpool is like underdog?”
There was such a fantastic atmosphere at the bar that Zaid swiftly got into the spirit of the occasion, chanting along with everyone and downing two beers for every one I drank. “Oh Lie-ton I am sorry” he shrugged, as Milan made it 3-0, ending a catastrophic first half for Liverpool. The game had been no contest at all, in fact it was so disappointing I suggested we call it a night. But Zaid wouldn’t hear of it, slapping me on the back and ordering another round of Stellas. Then came the second half and a flutter of polite applause as Liverpool pulled a goal back. Minutes later a genuine sense of excitement rippled across the place as Vladimír Šmicer’s long range drive flew in for 3-2. Zaid and I could only look at each other with raised eyebrows, “Lie-ton what happening?!”
There was barely time to answer before Steven Gerrard was chopped down in the area and Liverpool had a penalty. Moments later it was 3-3 and the whole place erupted in delirium, save for the shell-shocked bunch of Italians in the far corner. “Unbelievable!!! … unbelievable!!!” cried Zaid over and over, hugging me, hopping from foot to foot and ordering more beers with wild abandon. Of course Liverpool went on to win the game on penalties and we celebrated long into the night. Although he’d never been much of a football fan it had been a truly magical night of escapism for Zaid and I’d never seen him happier.
With Falling Down’s end credits rolling, I figured it was time to give Zaid his birthday present. “Lie-ton, too kind” he hummed as I produced the orange package from its hiding place behind the Lonely Planet guides. I’d been stuck for ideas that year, but figured one of the giant gingerbread men from The Grand Place would be good for a week’s worth of nibbling. “Happy Birthday” I said again and he wasted no time in getting started, breaking off a piece of its chunky head.
When I began dating S in the summer of 2005 Zaid couldn’t have been happier for me. “Lie-ton you must marry her!” he exclaimed, a devilish twinkle in his eyes. By the end of the year I’d left the student block to move into the apartment on Muntstraat and Zaid insisted on helping me out, pitching in with bubble wrap duties and carrying boxes. Although we subsequently saw less of each other, he remained a really close friend. We began our movie night tradition, which took place at least once a month, while for my 29th birthday I was touched to receive a giant cake made to order from a local bakery. He’d even gone the extra mile and asked them to write Happy Birthday Leighton across the top in chocolate icing.
When the suicide bomb attacks hit London that year, a distraught sounding Zaid called me up to personally apologise! “This is not Islam Lie-ton,” he whispered morosely, clearing his throat, “these peoples make me shame to be Muslim, please accept my regrets”. I tried to tell him he had nothing to apologise for, but he just kept saying he was sorry.
The following year S and I reluctantly moved to Brussels to be closer to work. Leaving Leuven behind was tough and although it was just a half hour train ride away, I knew I’d be seeing even less of Zaid. Nevertheless we kept the movie night tradition alive and he was there in the crowd, suited and booted, when S and I tied the knot in September 2007. “Lucky lucky Lie-ton” he said, hugging me on the dance floor.
“Good night” said Zaid, standing in the doorway, the gingerbread man clamped under his arm. “See you later” I replied, as he turned away. Moving down the hallway towards the stairs, he stopped and turned to look back at me just as I was about to close the door. “You know Lie-ton, these days I feel more and more like wanna see my parents. But Iraq too dangerous, so maybe go to Dubai and find my mum”. “Wow” I said, “that’s exciting… a big decision”. I had so many questions, but he’d caught me off guard and somehow the words just wouldn’t come. In any case he was already off down the stairs and slipping around the corner out of sight.
A month or so had passed when I suddenly thought of Zaid, that it was high time to invite him back over. I was also excited to share our big news, that S and I would soon be embarking on a big adventure with a year teaching English in Beijing. But when I called his mobile I got that tinny message saying his phone was switched off. When it stayed like this for over a week I began to worry, so decided to send him an email. Hey Zaid, have been trying to get in touch but it says your phone is switched off. Is everything ok?? It was a few days later that I got his reply:
As I told you on my birthday, I wanna meet my parents. That’s why my phone is out of service. Anyway we will meet with the next few weeks.
Big kiss to S,
As great as it was to hear from him I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something wasn’t right. Had he gone to Iraq or Dubai? How had he financed this? Sadly I would never find out. I have no idea if he made it to The Middle East, or indeed if he ever came back to Belgium. In fact, I never heard from him again. I sent mails and tried to track him down on social media, but nothing ever came of it. Some years later one of my emails bounced back, with a message saying the account was defunct.
It’s now been ten years since the night we watched Falling Down. And while I occasionally fear the worst when I brood over what became of him, it comforts me to think of Zaid as forever thirty-eight. A cigar in his mouth, roaring with laughter as Michael Douglas holds up the Whammy Burger joint. Standing in my doorway with a giant gingerbread dude under his arm, a man with a plan he couldn’t share with his friend. Wherever he is I can only hope he’s well and that he knows how much I cherish those Belgian days, which already seem so far far away.
‘Zaid’ is the sixth and final chapter of my short story collection Based In Belgium.