A Love Story to Defeat the Odds. A modern love story
By Kerning Cultures
Love in 56KB. He was in Beirut during the Lebanon-Israel war; she was in a small village outside of Rotterdam. They met on MSN Messenger.
Produced by Alex Atack, Razan Alzayani, and Hebah Fisher, with sound design by Ramzi Bashour.
Hebah: Today we’re talking about love and technology.
Razan: Because, let’s face it.
Hebah: This is Razan, whom you’ll be hearing a lot more from on our Kerning Cultures episodes as a cohost.
Razan: We spend the majority of our time connected to a phone or a device.
Hebah: And so you can imagine there are a lot of stories to be told of what happens when you’re.. connected.
Razan: I’m Razan Alzayani
Hebah: and I’m Hebah Fisher. And you’re listening to Kerning Cultures.
Alex: Today we have something of an epic modern love story that takes us from Lebanon, to Holland, Cyprus and Dubai.
Hebah: This is Alex, one of our producers.
Hebah: And I feel like this one defies continuous odds: distance, culture, war, visa restrictions..
Alex: Yea, and it all starts on a unique online platform: MSN,.
Alex: MSN. Do you remember MSN? This was Hotmail’s online messenger. Way before Tinder, pre-Match.com, this was in 2006.
Alex: So Rami lives in Lebanon, he’s 19 years old, going to school, parties with his friends, and surfs the internet. When there was internet, because in Lebanon in 2005 it was basically dial-up.
So he’s on MSN one day, and sometimes, you’d get random friend requests from strangers.
Rami: And one day I got this email request, as a friend, somebody wanted to add me. And I still remember the email, it was like firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alex: That was your email address?
Marinka: Yeah, it was…” (Laughing)
Rami: “So I accepted and the name popped up, Natasha. And I’m like “Hi, how are you?””
That was Rami. Rami in Lebanon and Natasha, whose name is really Marinka,
Alex: Yea, Natasha was the screen name she used to avoid weirdos if she needed to. They spoke for 10 or 15 minutes, but ultimately, it didn’t go anywhere. So it wasn’t love at first sight, or first chat, or whatever. But I really like this idea that that evening, as they clicked the little close button X on the right hand corner of their chat window – Rami in Beirut and Marinka in Rotterdam, two thousand miles apart – they had no idea that they’d just met the person they’d marry.
Rami: “And literally around a year later, I started university in Lebanon and I just needed to have a much more professional email.”
Alex: So he gets a new email, imports all of his old contacts, and a couple of days later…
Rami: “the same name, Natasha, pops up, and I was like “Who is this again?”.
Rami: When the contacts started popping up again, suddenly I see Natasha, it was like, yea, you know, you remember when they just ‘popom’ someone just comes online and I’m, huh? This girl..? Last year? Okay, hi. Hi.
Marinka: Ah well it was quite funny actually
Alex: This is Marinka.
Marinka: bc I had another MSN account on the side, and that was the one just for my friends and just my schoolmates and everything. But I don’t know why I opened the Natasha, the sports-life one….. and then he came up, and he started talking to me. So I was interested. Because I remember something of, okay, this was a guy I spoke to long time ago, and he’s from Lebanon, and I thought, ah, okay – so I found it very interesting bc he was from Lebanon and I didn’t know anything about that country. So, yea. And then we started talking,.. It just felt really natural. And it was more or less like, hi, how are you, how was your day? How was school? What did you do w/ your friends, or did you go to sports today, and just very innocent stuff, actually. (laughs)
Rami: “ And this is why I was always happy and excited when I talked to someone from somewhere else because I wanted to know more about them. And I wanted them to know more about me, and where I come from. Because [Marinka] didn’t know, she called me Lebanonese. (Laughs). Lebanese wasn’t even on the subject. And I, quite frankly, even at the young age when you just wanted to have an honest, innocent relationship, it was all bound by… sorry we can’t be together because you have a different religion. At the age of 14 and 15. My parent’s won’t allow me, my brother won’t allow me. And all you want to do is you want to have someone to talk to and to shape your personality and so on. And I got sick of it. And that’s why when we talked and talked and talked, I kept seeing a person who is only looking at me, and none of these things matter to them. None of these things came up.”
Alex: It was small steps, little by little their relationship grew. About 3 weeks in, they started sharing photos with each other. Then Rami would turn on his webcam, and then a little while later Marinka felt comfortable to turn on hers.
Marinka: I think you asked me at some point, do you want to be my girlfriend?
Rami: “And I would even say right off the bat “I’m in love with her”.
Razan: Were they ever concerned about who the other person REALLY was? That’s a lot of trust to put in someone you’ve never met in real life, you know?
Alex: I asked them this.
Marinka: Yea. It’s true, but on the other side, as well, if he was something different than he said he was, I would have just closed my computer and deleted my MSN account, or not contact him again – but that never even popped in my mind..
Alex: For the next months, the two talked all the time, grabbing moments whenever they could.
Rami: My friends would go out and do certain things, and I would just stay home on the computer bc I had better stuff to do. Honestly. (laughs) They would just be like we’re gonna go play pool, and I’m like, it’s the weekend, we can talk all night!
Alex: But it wasn’t easy – all of this was happening around the summer of 2006, against the backdrop of the Lebanon-Israel war, a war which lasted just 34 days but had a huge effect, displacing, around 25% of the Lebanese population and killing 1,300.
Rami: I was alone with my Mum in Lebanon, and both my brother and my father were stuck outside the country. And we would have around 2 hours of electricity a day, or something like that. And any opportunity to have internet, we would just talk.
And you know (sighs) the connection quality in Lebanon.. So I would have to only put on the voice chat, and not allow her video chat otherwise the connection.. I think I had 56kb.. which is just like, you know, Lebanon. We’re not going to say more. Almost dial up. And that would be a problem. And it would disconnect every 20 minutes,
Rami: I would go on the rooftop .. and I would, in order to get better connection, I would have to remove 3 or 4 internet from my friends in the building, bc it was late at night sometimes we’re talking at 12, okay, they’re asleep, I would just go up and remove 3-4 connections and I would just have all the bandwith for myself.
Hebah: That’s amazing.
Alex: The war ended in September, when the UN negotiated a ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon, and for Rami and Marinka that meant they could start looking at ways to meet in person. Understandably, Marinka’s parents were hesitant to let her fly out to Lebanon, and Rami’s Lebanese passport made it really difficult for him to get a visa for Europe.
Rami: And so after the war was done, we knew how bad the situation was. And once you get rejected trying to go to Europe, you need to wait a minimum of 6 months regardless if it’s any of the EU or Schengen countries.
Alex: Was this just for a tourism visa?
Marinka: Yeah, tourism visa. They didn’t issue it because of what was happening.
Rami: They were afraid I would go and I would stay there.
Alex: Their options were thin. They needed somewhere safe, somewhere that Rami wouldn’t have a problem getting a visa for.
Rami: And that was Cyprus.
Hebah: Wait wait wait.. They’re how old at this point?
Alex: Rami is 20, and Marinka is 16.
Hebah: 20, okay, but 16? Marinka’s parents are just like, okay, I’ll let my child go off to another country to meet this stranger she met on the internet? I mean, did her parents know about him?
Alex: Yes, yes her parents knew — his parents knew. They had met on webcam a few times during these 10 months.
Marinka: I’m just a very stubborn person. (laughs)
Rami: We’re going to Cyprus. We’re going to Cyprus. Okay, when you’re 16 you tell your parents we’re going..? It’s a different culture. That’s a different culture, yea? (laughs)
Marinka: I… it’s just I loved him. And like with my parents as well they just wanted me to be happy. It’s quite funny, and I still, I wouldn’t.. if I was a parent I wouldn’t know if I would have done the same thing, if now if I’m thinking about it. But l.. in that age, I would have bought the flight ticket and I would have just gone myself (laughs). So my parents were more like, okay, we’ll stay with you and we’ll go together so at least it’s more safe and everything.
Alex: So they’re settled: after 10 months of chatting, they book their tickets and plan to meet on Valentine’s Day in Cyprus.
Razan : gosh what must have they been feeling on that trip over?
Marinka: Of course very nervous. I had a conversation with my parent’s, …. so we used to talk like, “Oh how will he look like?” and “What kind of person will he be? How tall will he be?”
Rami: “And I had a friend who was picking me up from the airport, and that drive was like the longest hour of my life I believe.”
Rami: “it was a totally new country for me, and I didn’t care. I didn’t look anywhere”
Alex: At this point, Marinka was already at the villa they’d rented, with her parents.
Marinka: “…my parents went in the house and I saw load of street cats, and I’m totally crazy about cats, so I was literally sitting on the ground playing with the cats.”
Alex: Meanwhile, Rami had been dropped off around the back by his friend…
Marinka: “So he had some time already to meet my parents and to talk to them, so I think they were talking for an hour or so and I was still outside talking to the cats.”
Alex: At this point Marinka still had no idea Rami was in the country, he was supposed to arrive the following day.
Having chatted to Rami for nearly an hour, Marinka’s Mum started calling her to come inside.
Marinka: “And I’m like “No, it’s my holiday, I’m playing with the cats”, she’s like “No, no come in”, and I’m like “No, I don’t want to, I’m playing with the cats”.”
Marinka: “And then I heard somebody say like “Okay, I’ll come outside then”. And there he was.”
Rami: “It’s like, everything we envisioned it would be,
Marinka: … he was exactly the way I thought he would be, and how we’d spoken.
Rami: it was missing the touch, and the touch just completed it all. So, yeah, everything fell into place, and we had a wonderful 7 days together.”
Rami: We didn’t leave each other’s side, I think we were hugging or holding each other’s hands the whole time… In the car, in the restaurants…
Alex: But it was only 7 days. And Rami put it like this: from that moment they met, it was like a countdown had started, and when the week was up, it’d be back to that uncertainty. Because after this trip, they didn’t know when they’d see each other again.
Marinka: “I think those days were quite emotional because at the end of the day, at the end of this holiday he had to go back to Lebanon where it was unstable, and I had to go back to Holland.”
the whole family was a bit, especially when the holiday ended, everybody was a bit mellow and like “Okay, what do we do now?”. So I remember on the way back I think I cried from Cyprus airport until I landed in Amsterdam. I literally cried the whole way. I remember the stewards coming to me like “Are you okay?”.
Rami: “We didn’t know when we would see each other again.”
Alex: So this is the part of the story that I actually think was the most crucial. They’d had this kind of intense online friendship that turned into a relationship, that turned into this week spent together in Cyprus. It was all very romantic, in a strange sort of way. But I can imagine that when they got back home, there was this cold reality to deal with. Like, okay, that was fun, but is it something I really want to pursue? Am I willing to live this really very inconvenient lifestyle for the next few years, until we can arrange something more permanent? And they still super young. Rami was 21 and Marinka 17. But the answer for both of them was, yes. Over the next year they made it work. Rami planned a trip to Paris with his swimming team… that got him a European visa for a few days. And then, that summer, Marinka’s parents let her visit him in Beirut for two months…
Rami: “You know, Beirut never sleeps, and we would have these late hours of playing cards and ordering food, going out for walks and visiting places.”
Rami: “and I had two or three good friends, who were in my close circle, and once she was there they would just be with us [all the time]. They got on very well because…”
Marinka: Because at some point he took his laptop to his friend’s place and I would meet his friend, you know? And we would start to talk, so before I went to Lebanon I already knew.. his friends!
Alex: Everything just worked. Rami’s parents loved Marinka, and vice versa. And all those questions of whether this was right, for either of them, were, I think, answered by the end of the summer.
Rami enrolled in a University exchange which would enable him to study in Rotterdam. He’d already finished a year and a half at the American University of Beirut, but moving to Holland meant that he had to start everything from scratch. Eventually, by August of 2008, everything was arranged for him to move, on a student visa, to Holland.
Alex: “It must have been a crazy culture shock, because like, going from Beirut to Holland…”
Rami: “Oh yeah! When I arrived there I went there only with summer clothes. You know going from Lebanon, it was August…”
Marinka: “It was so cold!”
Alex: Aside from the weather and just the culture shock in general, moving to Holland presented a new set of issues for Rami. He was paying 5 times what domestic students paid to study, and for the first three months, didn’t have a proper place to live.
Rami: “I was, every 2-3 weeks, I was a guy with my backpack, sleeping at friend’s that I just met’s college dorms. It was couches, and a 12-meter square room, where I slept on the floor, sometimes literally just a pillow on the floor…”
Alex: And although he settled into this new life, finally in the same city as Markina, it was like everything was just that little bit harder for Rami whilst he completed his studies. Although he was in Europe legally, it was like it could’ve been taken away from him at any time…
Rami: “I remember even my first year of education in Holland, which is a condition that you have to pass your credits in order to continue otherwise you’ll be sent back. So even then it was the same logic at the back of your head. “I have to do this, or I’m out”. I’m not there for fun, I’m literally there on a mission.”
Alex: So after graduation they decide to get married.
Rami: (Laughing) and it was really nice because the guy asked me “How do you say I Do in Arabic?” And then he asked me that in Arabic. And he recited something in Arabic which…
A: The pastor did?
Rami: Yeah. He did his research, it was really cosy, it was really small, that’s what we did. Followed by a nice lunch with the family,
Alex: But there was no way for Rami to stay in Holland legally unless he had a job.
Razan: Wait, why not?
Rami: Everything came up in the span of 1 month. (Laughs). … in the town we lived, everybody knew me, everybody knew what we were doing eventually after 5 years together, and the owner of a supermarket approached her parent’s and said “If Rami is sitting around and is really anxious, he can make some pocket money… So I said, right away, yes. Worked for 6 months in the supermarket, knowing that I have a Master’s degree and a Bachelor’s degree from the top university in the country. … I was cleaning the floor, refilling the fridge, I was just any guy that you find in a supermarket. I wasn’t shy, I was very proud of it, it helped me learn the language.
Alex: Working at the supermarket, he was still interviewing and looking for a more permanent position. After a few months without luck, the two decided Dubai was a happy middle ground they could both come to. But even here in Dubai, because of visa restrictions tied to employment:
Rami: “We’re living together, working, but it’s still not certain in terms of;
Marinka: The thing is if God forbid something happens here and we both lose our jobs or something, we have to go our separate ways. Bc to keep him in Holland I have to have a job and a steady contract and a min income, and just to get that in a financial crisis at the moment with what’s happening in Holland is difficult.
Rami: I don’t have the passport that allows me, if she goes tomorrow to Holland, I can’t be with her on a permanent basis. And that scares me.”
Hebah: This is crazy. It’s like an ongoing roller coaster of uncertainty for these two.
Marinka – The thing is we do respect more that we can be together, and that we are together and that we are living together, so we do really respect that, of course bc of the struggles we had before. So you really do appreciate the fact that we made it together.
Hebah: You mean that you’re physically together?
Marinka: Physically together.
Hebah: Do you think, when your daughter grows up to be 16 and starts speaking to a guy online in a war-torn country, you’d let her travel across the world to meet him?
Marinka: (laughs) That is a really good question. I honestly have no idea. I mean you do hear scary stories of course, and it doesn’t work out all the time, like it worked out for us. There’s going to be some really decent background checks from that point probably (laughs) but yea.. (laughs) I don’t know what do you think?
Rami: It’s.. unfair to answer that question, bc you don’t know. You want to give people the same – you truly want to give people the same opportunities that you had. But of course, me knowing myself, I would definitely do a whole online check to see if something pops up. I mean, companies do it these days (laughs). I would not stand and say I could have done that. I will do it, and I will be there, I will be there all the way supporting but I will be there to make sure that I have done my job to protect my daughter or my kid. But I think even in that time there won’t even be chatting, there will be some new technology out there that we cannot even.. it’ll be like hey! And then we talk to each other. I will definitely be protective. But I will also from my own experience know that a lot of good can also come from far away.
This episode was co-produced by Alex Atack, with sound design by Ramzi Bashour. Special thanks to guests Rami and Marinka who shared their story with us. And we want to hear from you: do you have any love and technology stories you want to share? Let us know by sending us a message on our website, kerningcultures.com, or pinging us on social media. Also, it really helps us out when you leave a comment and a rating on whatever platform you’re listening to us on — so please take a few seconds now to do that. Until next time!
Originally published on Kerning Cultures – listen wherever you get your podcasts!