A Little White Lie

Jul 2, 2015
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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Quick Fix" episode. Today, we're delving into very uncomplicated solutions to very complicated problems. SNAP JUDGMENT's Joe Rosenberg spoke to Ghazi Albuliwi, the guy for who things never stay very simple.

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GHAZI ALBULIWI: Before 9/11, my biggest problem was women finding out that my astrological sign was a Gemini. That was, like, a big thing. And if you're a Gemini you might as well have every venereal disease in the book. No woman is going to want to have anything to do with you.

JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: This is Ghazi.

GHAZI ALBULIWI: My name is Ghazi Albuliwi. I was born in a refugee camp so I'm - background-wise I am a Jordanian-Palestinian.

ROSENBERG: Ghazi's parents moved with him to Brooklyn when he was just a baby. And as a young man in the '90s, he says his race and background weren't a huge problem.

ALBULIWI: Just - I think I had a little bit more confidence as a person because I didn't have anything that told me you cannot date this woman because of where you were from.

ROSENBERG: But, of course, like he says, that was before 9/11. On 9/11, his ethnicity kind of took over his life immediately.

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ALBULIWI: So from my window you could see the twin towers. So I could see the smoke coming out of one of them. You know, of course, the word terrorist - immediately in my mind I'm going, you know, holy crap. I hope it's not what I think it is. Like, at around 9:30 a.m. I left the house. Before I left the house I had this Puerto Rican medallion because I had gone to the Puerto Rican Day parade. I threw it on as kind of a let them think I'm Puerto Rican because I have no idea what's going to happen once I venture outside this house. I had pictured it - they're going to round up all the Arabs. They're going to dock ships. These tanks are going to come out and there's going to be soldiers marching up and down, pulling Arabs out of their homes and stores and stuff. So I was afraid and I went and I started running into people from my neighborhood who knew me. You know, one guy who I knew really, really well said, oh, you guys really did it this time. I said this is just not good.

So I had a fellow friend who happened to be Muslim. He goes, Ghazi, let's - it's really messed up. Let's go. Let's go to the (foreign language spoken). Let's go to the mosque and pray together. We all need to be really strong together as people. And I'm like, are you out of your mind? The last place I want to be is in a grouping of other Muslims right now. I'm wearing a Puerto Rican medallion. I'm already kind of going in a different direction here. I'm undercover at this point and you're breaking my cover. I knew right then and there you can't be - you can't be a Muslim.

For a really long time I'm struggling with the fact that I'm a ghost in New York City. I would walk past these bars with these American flags and the wanted poster of Osama bin Laden with a big target on his head. And I would always look at Osama and I would say, you know, if he shaved his beard he probably looks like me.

ROSENBERG: Ghazi didn't go out or socialize for months, and when he finally did, it wasn't good.

ALBULIWI: Yeah, the dating didn't go too well because eventually it would just - the women would say Ghazi, oh, that's such an interesting name. Where are you from? And then, you know, now I got to say Middle East, right? What am I going to say? There's no way around it. You cannot, like, mess with that name. I could see that moment. It was just literally like the lights went out in the eyes. And for me - and then at that point I started to feel that my sex life was being [expletive] by Osama bin Laden in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan in Tora Bora.

ROSENBERG: So Ghazi thought I can't be this guy anymore if I ever want to find love. I need to be someone else, someone different. So he started searching, and in New York, you don't have to search very hard to find different.

ALBULIWI: It was like - Union Square you would always have the Scientology tent. You had an atheist tent that was always there. You had Buddhists always chanting around. I'm walking - walking down in Union Square Park and I'm stopped by a guy who I didn't know, and I look up. He goes oh, you're from Brooklyn, right? I say yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm Brooklyn. He goes I knew it. You're a Brooklyn Jew. I can hear it in your accent. I said, well, I'm definitely from Brooklyn. He goes, oh, you want to come - why don't you come with me? Why don't you come with me? And I look and there's this - I thought it was a menorah mobile because there was a menorah on top of this van. And it looked like, you know, any kind of van that was used for, like, blood donation. You know, the doors are open. You can go in.

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ALBULIWI: And I peeked my head inside and I saw another guy in there. And what was happening was some sort of kind of rituals of prayer or whatnot. He says repeat after me and then I - and he starts to do this Jewish prayer. You know, I'm just, like, saying stuff. And I just told him, look, I'm not really religious, and I feel that I'm being judged for my religion and it's been a really rough time for me. And I think people just hate me. He goes you're supposed to suffer. You're supposed to feel this way and you're suffering because you're the chosen - you're one of the chosen people. And he goes - and, you know, you're Jewish.

It made complete sense to me. And I don't know if it's because Islam and Judaism are very close, but the transition between being a Muslim to now going to being a Jew worked so well. He kind of gave me the reason that everything I had gone through, including 9/11, was because I was, you know, it was my plight as a Jew, you know? I was like, yeah, OK, Ghazi has been suffering because he's a Jew, you know? And like - he gave me this plastic bag that had like - he had a dreidel in there. There was a plastic menorah. Ghazi was now reborn coming out of that mitzvah mobile.

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ALBULIWI: In my mind, as I was walking, like, people were a lot more nicer to me. People were making eye contact with me. I mean, I know I'm, like, projecting all this, but I literally felt that now New Yorkers were looking at me, you know, and were, oh, hey, it's Ghazi. Ghazi's a Jew, you know, it's like, OK, he's cool. He's all right, you know?

ROSENBERG: To be clear, Ghazi didn't convert. The guy in the menorah mobile thought Ghazi was already a Jew. Converting to Judaism is a lengthy process involving a ton of Torah study. But he has this idea. He went to his computer that night.

ALBULIWI: I typed in Jewish singles dating - I remember typing that in - and I got JDate.

ROSENBERG: And if you don't know what JDate is, don't worry. Ghazi didn't either, but basically it's like the Jewish Match.com.

ALBULIWI: Then and there I remember seeing these smiling faces of these Jewish women. I was just so happy. I was like, if I can get one of these girls, I'd be so happy. I called myself Jwriter718 (ph) - J, of course, standing for Jew. I picked, like, this really interesting photo that didn't really, like, reveal my whole face.

ROSENBERG: But, just like that, he got messaged by a nice Jewish girl.

ALBULIWI: We went out and I tried my best to kind of put on my shtick. All I had to go on was, like, you know, stuff that I'd seen in movies. And I think I was neurotic enough that she bought the whole thing that I was a Jew, you know? I know things are working on this date with who I will call my JDate girl because with JDate girl she started to smile and laugh and, you know, at some point she even played with her hair, so I was like, oh. And this girl was so open-minded and so nice. And I'm drunk. I'm totally drunk.

ROSENBERG: At which point Ghazi made the mistake that all drunk people make when they see that their shtick is working - he doubled down.

ALBULIWI: And then we're walking past a falafel cart and I just mentioned something about, like, that guy has a lot of nerve, you know, to be selling falafels, you know, after what happened in 9/11. I said - I said the nerve of these people. And she kind of goes, well, you know, he's just trying to make a living for his family.

ROSENBERG: But Ghazi wasn't listening to her. He was on a roll.

ALBULIWI: In pretending to be a Jew, I became a right-wing, you know, pro-Israeli, you know, let's have more settlements. Build a wall to the moon. The Arabs should never get over this wall kind of thing (laughter) you know? If my parents could hear me they would hand me over to Hamas smiling, you know? Not one moment entered my mind that I was Ghazi, the Arab Muslim, the son of Palestinian refugees.

ROSENBERG: The girl got turned off and they had an awkward, silent train ride home. She never messaged him again, but he was determined. He tried to learn Hebrew at the 92nd Street Y. He went to some Jewish mixers - struck out there, too. But then he went to a temple with a friend one Friday night. It was an ornate, old temple, and immediately, Ghazi was struck by the whole scene.

ALBULIWI: Beautiful layout - I remember walking into the synagogue. It was festive. There were some festive lights.

ROSENBERG: Music began to play and people started to dance, a traditional dance Ghazi didn't know.

ALBULIWI: All of a sudden this whole synagogue became of a few circles of festive dancing. I kind of just happened to look and this girl is really - she's really staring at me. I came around again and this time I looked at her. She kind of looked at me and she shyly looked the way. As we kept passing, I kind of started going around this dance thinking you could talk to her, but this is such a lie that it's not going to work, man. And she was so nice that I felt guilt about pretending to be Jewish. For me, it was a moment where I really kind of caught myself because it was an honest moment. And at that moment, I wasn't pretending to be Jewish. I really was Ghazi Albuliwi when I was looking at this girl.

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ALBULIWI: At the end of the day, you're still a Muslim. What are you doing here? You're dancing around temples. You know, it's a circle that brought me right back to where I started, which was Ghazi the Muslim.

ROSENBERG: So he reeled back the Jewish act. He hung up his yarmulke, and, of course, as soon as he stopped trying to be someone else...

ALBULIWI: I wasn't expecting anything and it just happened, you know? I meet this girl and she was really, really funny, got my sense of humor. She goes, you know, I'm Jewish, but I'm not, you know, running around telling people I'm Jewish. I say, oh, yeah, I'm definitely not running around telling people I'm Muslim. I think we had a good laugh about that. I remember, like, walking away and I remember skipping in the street. I smiled and it was a really cool moment. I mean, it was a watershed moment for me.

ROSENBERG: They dated for a while - no lies, no gimmicks, just dating. And Ghazi was just Ghazi.

ALBULIWI: I had, like, met someone who is Jewish, who is cool, who accepted me, who didn't judge me. Let me tell you. That for me was like discovering penicillin or curing polio.

ROSENBERG: But like a lot of relationships, it ended. And Ghazi says that when he goes on dates today, he's still tempted sometimes to omit the fact that he's Arab.

ALBULIWI: Like, the current thing that I've - I'm not proud to say this - is pretending to be a Brazilian heart surgeon. So that is like...

ROSENBERG: You're doing that now.

ALBULIWI: Yeah, I kind of do it now, yeah. I do...

ROSENBERG: But wait - why? I thought I was talking to the new and improved Ghazi Albuliwi.

ALBULIWI: Yeah, you know, you think I would learn my lesson, but it's, like, my crutch. It's easier for me to lie in my mind about who I am than to tell the truth. That's what it comes down to.

You know, you sit on the train and you look at these white guys and you go you don't know how good you got it, you know? You're just - you're totally accepted just for being born looking this way and being that way whereas I'm trying to transition and I can never get that, you know? There are a certain type of women that'll never want to date me. So in some ways, you know, it's a tough pill to swallow.

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WASHINGTON: Thanks again, Ghazi Albuliwi. And I know you're going to find this hard to believe, ladies, but Ghazi is still single. Check your local synagogue for more information. Ghazi's a playwright and filmmaker who still hangs his hat in New York. He's currently working on a play "Highly Suspect," a comedy about race and gentrification in modern-day Brooklyn. You can find links to Ghazi's work, including his most recent film "Peace After Marriage," on our website snapjudgment.org. Leon Morimoto rocked that original score. The story was produced Anna Sussman, Shoshi Shmuluvitz and Joe Rosenberg. Now, when SNAP JUDGMENT continues, our hero gets the job that nobody wants and he knows exactly what to. When the SNAP JUDGMENT the "Quick Fix" episode returns, stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.