When Bobby Farid Hadid, an Algerian merchant marine, was twenty-three, he discovered that a pay phone in a train station near the Algerian shore was broken. He could call anywhere in the world free. He dialed the country code for the United States, followed by ten random numbers. Sheilla Jean-Baptiste, a young Haitian-American in New York, picked up the phone. “Hello, America?” Hadid said.
They both spoke French. They discussed their ages, their jobs, and their races. Hadid described himself as “light.” Jean-Baptiste said she was black, and asked if that was O.K. She was eager to “make a friend from far away,” she said. Hadid began sending her postcards and calling her from ports around the world.
They corresponded for four years, and in 1994 Hadid applied for a visa to America, where he hoped to find work. Two marines on his company’s boat had been assassinated by Islamist insurgents, and he no longer felt safe in the shipping industry. He didn’t know English, but he said that “it sounded like music to me: the rhythm, the way they pronounce the ‘h’ sound using their throats.”