My friend Rafat is gone. Like, forever. He’s not dead, thank God, but for all intents and purposes, in my world, he might as well be.
I knew Rafat for several years. He’d moved into a flat near me in Surrey and we often paused to chat when we crossed paths, which was often. When you live across the hall from someone and see them every day, when they’re as much a part of the scenery as everything else, you don’t think of them nearly as often as you should. These people are just simply there, reliable, like the postman who shows up every morning, every day, friendly wave, off we go, best to you.
Rafat and I couldn’t have been more different. He grew up in Libya, which, I learned, is nothing at all like London. Eventually he moved out of the Surrey flat, but still kept in touch, and we’d occasionally meet up in London. A few months ago, when shit had just started to really go down back home, I ran into him at a coffee shop near his workplace; he didn’t say much — just sat there, looking pale as ever. There had been some sort of bombing, or an attack, or something, and his uncle was unaccounted for. He was instant-messaging with family over there, and everyone was in a panic. I said I hoped it all turned out well, then made some lame comment, intended to lighten the moment. I’m not sure if he got the joke. I’m not even sure there was one.
Rafat often struggled with the clash of his upbringing and his life in the UK. On one hand, his parents were devout Muslims who frowned on alcohol or sex or, you know, anything fun. On the other hand, he had a Match.com personal ad and a friend who was constantly trying to persuade him to down tequila shots. Rafat gradually became a part of my circle of friends. He even warmed to a nickname we gave him, “Rartfat,” just because we thought it sounded funny. Which it does.
He came to a party one of my mates hosted once. He just lived down the street, so, unlike everyone else, he had a brief, easy jaunt home. Using this information, I talked him into taking his first swig of hard liquor. To document the occasion, I commandeered my friend Elena’s camera. On three … one … two … let’s go Rafat … and pound! He looked like someone had just stuck a branding iron in his anus. The photo is classic. I don’t know where it is now. I’d love to have it.
He didn’t like beer, so I had him drinking gin and tonics. He was also in charge of the digital camera, and most of the shots of people drunkenly wailing during karaoke were taken by him. He’s not in any of those pictures. Most are, not surprisingly, out of focus anyway. He had a great time that night.
He was here on a work visa, sponsored by his company. This posed a problem. If the business I worked for ever went under, I would just have to go find another job and make sure I could pay my rent. But Rafat, he’d have to go back to Libya. He had been in the UK too long; he was anti-Ghaddafi and wanted him gone, but still didn’t seem very hopeful for Libya’s future under any new regime, so he had little desire to go back there. He knew what it could be like.
Bad news came in. His company was having money troubles. Rafat started looking pale again. He had been dating this girl — not a nice girl, if you ask me. He brought up the notion of possibly getting married so he could stay in the country, in case anything went down. Rafat was a little too public with this notion, in my opinion; soon everyone at his workplace knew about it. I told him to shush a little; he asked me to be the best man, if it went down. He liked this girl anyway; he could make it mutually beneficial.
A turn for the worse where he worked. A few people left their jobs. Staff dwindled. People suddenly found themselves doing the jobs of two or three, and it was stressful and tiring and, occasionally, demeaning. Rafat had a falling-out with the girl, and soon it became evident that not only would they not be marrying, they wouldn’t be hanging out much at all. He had a run-in with his roommate that made his home a place he tried to avoid whenever possible. The walls started closing in.
Rafat stopped talking much. I would ask him how he was doing, how things were at work and back home, and he’d put his head down and shake it, slowly, and say, “Not good, man, not good.” He would go into no more detail. The spiral had begun.
Then his company’s business started to pick up. I took this as good news for Rafat. But the die was already cast with him. He was already lost. He would go to work later and later, and leave later and later. He grew haggard and, when he spoke at all, complained of an inability to sleep. I wish I could have been there more for him. But I had my own stuff going on. We always have our own stuff going on. There is only so much that we can do.
It happened one Friday – September 30 to be exact. According to one of his colleagues, a mutual friend, they were all sitting around, doing their work. Rafat hadn’t spoken all morning. Then he stood up, walked into the boss’ office, and about 10 minutes later, they left in the lift. Our friend received a call about an hour later from the boss, saying Rafat wouldn’t be back in today, could you pick up his work? He said fine, and asked if everything was OK. His boss, hardly one of his better out-of-work pals, sighed and said, “We’ll see. I hope so.”
I left three messages for Rafat over the weekend, none of which were returned until a week later. By then, his office had already made up its own rumours. He told me he was medicated, so bear with him. He then said he was leaving for Libya in a week. I did not press him for details; the battles he was fighting clearly were ongoing.
The night before he left, I dropped by his London flat. We talked for an hour. Then I had to go home and he had lots to do before he hopped on that plane.
“Thank you, David. You have been a good friend.” I shook his hand, and shit, why not, hugged him. “You take care of yourself, Rafat. You’ll be missed. You be safe.”
He said thanks. There was nothing more to be said, really. His flight left the next day. A week later came the news of Ghaddafi’s death and Libya’s “liberation”. I watched the news clips of London Libyans celebrating and thought of Rafat. He’s gone, and chances are I’ll never see him again, but hey, what do you do? People come, people go, supporting characters, popping up in the side of the frame, maybe making an impact, maybe not. For his sake, I hope things turn out well in Libya. I do wish him the very best.
Man, I’ve got to find that picture!