I first met Mohamed Bamba in Recife in Brazil, to which I flew for three days, because my future wife, whom I had met a month before, was going there for a conference. It was late summer or early fall, and I was exhausted, because I had worked thirty or so days straight in order to take off as much time as possible when she came to America from Spain to visit. We flew from Philadelphia to Miami, from Miami to Salvador de Bahía, and from Salvador to Recife. In the Miami airport, a Romanian waiter spoke to us in fluent Spanish. In the bus to Recife center, trying to squeeze past the passengers, all of whom were fat, I kept repeating com licença and obrigado, the only two words I could say confidently in Portuguese. When we arrived at our hotel, Pousada das ventas or Pousada Boa Vista or something like that, the staff told us we were early and couldn’t enter our room till the afternoon. My wife asked them in Galician if there were somewhere we could leave our things, and once that was arranged, we walked to a bookstore where I bought her a minuscule book on Matisse, which neither of us has yet read, and where I drank a mediocre coffee before going on to a gathering of dilapidated pastel buildings said to constitute the city’s historic center. I tried to order a beer at a bar, but they only had lemonade. After two hours, we returned to the hotel, and while my wife showered, I lay back, soaked in sweat, on the bed, falling instantly asleep until my wife announced she’d read the schedule wrong, and that we had to take a taxi to the university there straightaway.
The film school was an angular building of concrete mixed with pebbles with no clear delineation between inside and out. The corkboards were papered over with all sorts of leftist propaganda, in addition to the usual offers of tutoring services and textbooks for sale. We soon found the classroom where my wife’s presentation would take place; no one seemed to care that we were late. The speakers who preceded here were humdrum, from all I could gather: a pretty girl who hadn’t bothered to type her material up, preferring to read it from a small, spiral-bound notebook and occasionally incapable of deciphering her own handwriting, and a thin, swarthy man who showed an almost shockingly dull film of two hands caressing each other set to classical music. When my wife began to speak, it was clear no one understood what she was saying save for a man sitting to my right in an orange T-shirt that favored his muscular arms. His skin was rather matte than burnished, his eyes were large and intelligent, and he wore a small, fashionable hat. The conference organizers had specified that presenters could read their work in Portuguese, Spanish, or English; my wife chose Spanish, one of her native languages, and was reading at a velocity that recollected an auctioneer. Three times, a man in his fifties with a piebald beard asked her if she could speak more slowly, before I finally said that in fact she couldn’t. When she’d finished, the man in the orange shirt began to barrage her with questions. This habit, inevitably male, of turning a public event into a dialogue, normally irritates me, but in this case it was for the best. I shook the man’s hand before we left.
I would become jealous of him over the coming months. He, like my wife, studied African cinema; they became friends on Facebook, and he would comment every time she updated her status. For various reasons, she was disinclined to post evidence of our relationship online, and so a great deal of her Facebook activity consisted of warmhearted interactions and occasional inside jokes with this person.
Mohamed Bamba came to the United States in 2013 for a conference my wife helped host at Princeton. I rented a car to pick them up from the station at Princeton Junction, because a train for the two of them would be just as expensive. We took him for a pizza in Philadelphia. I remember he was shocked when I told him how much people tipped, and that when he slipped into French and caught himself, my wife said to him it was fine, and he could continue in that language if he wished.
We saw him next in Girona the following year. He was dating a girl from Madrid and they had traveled through France and came to see us on their way to, or back from, Barcelona. We met him at the König under the arcade of the Plaça de la Indepèndencia. A young African came past our table, called Mohamed brother in English, and asked him for money, and after the boy left, he spoke for a while about his occasional irritation at the assumption of kinship or mutual obligation that was supposed to bind him to others from the African continent.
Mohamed was given a fellowship of some kind to study at the University of Michigan with a well-known film professor there, and he came to New York this past spring for the African Film Festival. We met him several times to eat, but the food, Mexican or Ramen, was always too spicy or too strange for him. At the so-called gala, he danced enthusiastically with a woman with a shaved head, but I don’t believe they went home together, in the end.
A month ago, Mohamed wrote my wife and told her he had liver cancer. We both cried, and I read about the cancer and the awful prognosis associated with it. We had heard from him recently, he said he felt fine and was continuing to work. And then this morning, a friend of his wrote my wife to say he had died. We do not know why, though the obituaries I have seen in Brazilian newspaper have said he suffered an infection.
His death makes me think of so many things: of how, when I was a child, I only knew five or six people who didn’t say the word nigger; of the frequency with which Africans fall victim to liver cancer as a consequence of the higher instance of Hepatitis and liver flukes on that continent; of how, in my seventh grade geography class, where I would have learned for the first time the name of Ivory Coast, the country where Mohamed was born, my teacher thought it relevant to have us learn the different races, one of which he called “negroid”; of how the same ocean that separates me from my own family will also separates Mohamed’s body from his, forever, it seems, as his obituary indicates he will be buried in Salvador de Bahía, where he lived for some years, working as a professor in the Universidade Federal. I wonder what his life was like in his home country, which I have never been to, learning Spanish from nuns who had traveled there as missionaries and worked at the high school he attended; in Paris, where he studied, and where much of his family still lives; whether he was afraid or sanguine when he moved to Brazil. At a time when millions of my compatriots who cannot read without moving their lips are fulminating against Muslims after the murders in Paris, I cannot stop thinking of this person who loved life so much and who did, I believe, live exactly as a person should, kindly and celebratorily.