The vendador reached into the refrigerator and pulled out two green coconuts. Rotating one in his hand, he made three well-practiced chops with a cleaver at the crown of the fruit, creating an overlapping lattice of cuts, and opening a hole to reveal the liquid inside. I paid him, we took our straws, and then sat down at a table on the beach at Ipanema.
I was with my friend Basil, a Syrian refugee living in Brazil who had, with admirable persistence, found a niche for himself and his brother Ra’id in Rio de Janeiro. He was pursuing his studies at a local university, and his brother was about to do the same; both of them were twenty-one. I made a point of visiting him and his brother whenever I was there. Their stories, even when dealing with the mundane, never disappointed.
Basil set his coconut on the plastic table, and I watched the beads of condensation roll down its sloping sides. He leaned forward, his index finger extended, as if he was expounding some important point.
“I have a good story for you that happened to me about three months ago,” he began.
“I’d like to hear it,” I replied.
“I waiting at that bus stop over there”—and here he extended his elbow and made a series of concentric circles with his index finger—“and I was robbed.”
“Really! What happened?”
“You know that it’s often unsafe here to look at smart phones in public, since random thieves snatch them from people and run off with them. This is true. I’m usually good about not doing this, but of course the one time I was careless was the one time I got robbed. I was looking at the screen when a group of four kids—they were teenagers of varying ages—came by me. One of them suddenly reached out and grabbed my phone.”
“I don’t know how it happened, but I luckily I was alert enough to reach out and grab the arm of one of the group. He couldn’t get away, as I had firm grip on him. But two other guys in his group came right after me. I got punched in the face a few times and nearly knocked over. What really bothered me was that nobody else there did anything to help me.”
“They all just stood there watching, as if it was just something that you had to accept. And I couldn’t accept it. The phone was a gift from my brother, who got it in Dubai. It was an expensive model that you can’t get here in Rio, and cost him about five hundred dollars. If someone had pointed a gun at me, then that would have been different. Even a knife. But I wasn’t going to accept losing this phone to guys with no weapons. Not without some fight.”
“After I was hit a few times, my brother Ra’id jumped in to help. He went after the other two guys in an aggressive way, and they broke off contact and ran off. We still had the younger guy, who was trying to hit us and trying to get away. So we hit him back, hard. We beat him hard. Some bystanders came over and told us to let him go. And this made us even more angry. We were just furious. I was bleeding in several places on my face and was getting dizzy.”
“My brother said to the Brazilians, ‘The government here fucks you in the ass (tomar no cu) and you don’t do anything. Nothing. So fuck you.’ We were enraged and wanted to tell them what we really thought. You know what my culture is like, Quintus. In Syria, if you commit violence against someone, there are going to be serious consequences. If I had had a car, I would have seriously thought about throwing this guy in the trunk of the car and making him tell me where his friends were.”
“Oh, I believe you,” I said. And I did.
“Anyway, eventually the police showed up. In this country, since we’re refugees, there are special police that have to deal with us. We had all our papers in order. They could see we were bloodied. So we just told them what happened.”
“About a month later there was a court date about this,” continued Basil, directing a concentrated gaze on the table in front of him.
“I don’t think they expected me to show up. They thought I was just some refugee who wouldn’t fight for his rights. But I did show up, and I told the judge what happened. The kid was a minor, but he wouldn’t say anything. He told the judge that he didn’t know the other muggers, and that he had just met them that day. Obvious lies.”
“But the judge believed me. The judge gave him ninety days to serve in a juvenile detention center. But I never did get my phone back. But life is like that sometimes. But we turned the tables on them. We made them think twice about doing something like that again. Sometimes in life, even when you are going to lose, you have to do something. Anything.”
“I even saw his mother there. That was a joke. She tried to be nice to me, but I was in no mood. I didn’t want consolation. I wanted my phone. Wait a minute.”
And here Basil returned to the coconut vendor, and asked him to split it open, so that he could scrape out the moist flesh on the inside. I did the same. The vendador fashioned a small scraper from a piece of shell for us.
“You know,” I told Basil, “in the United States, they probably would have made the kid out to be the victim. They would have accused you of being ‘racist’ and would have found all kinds of rationalizations to excuse the kid’s thievery.”
At this Basil gave me a blank look. Like many people who have never lived in the United States, it was difficult for him to comprehend the streak of mendacity and hypocrisy that underlies much of American culture. And I didn’t feel like explaining it anyway.
We walked along the beach for a little while longer. I thought more about the conversation, as I scanned the masses of bodies surrounding me and the rude habitations crawling up the slopes of the surrounding hills.
It is difficult to sustain civilized mores over great periods of time and amid the swelling turbulence of populations. The restive masses encroach steadily on the refinements of order and culture, which fight a running battle with the fecundity of the simple.
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