It’s easy to think you know someone’s story when you see him every day. Working on the Downtown Mall, I play that trick on myself all the time. I see people going to and from work, watch the expressions on their faces change through the week, mark how they sneak away from the job to catch a break, make a phone call, or size up the passers by.
Without noticing, I slip them into one of the slots in my card catalogue marked familiar, maybe one that was made for somebody in someplace I left behind a long time ago, and I think I know a little bit about what makes them tick without ever having heard their story.
I visited Charlottesville only three times before I moved here, despite the fact that I’d grown up only a few hours away. The first was a college visit that included watching a UVA soccer game and a trip to Monticello and Grounds. The last two were while my sister was at UVA law school, once for a fun weekend and the famous football win over FSU, and the last time for her graduation. She had a little apartment on First Street NE, right above where Hamiltons’ is.
This was 1996, around the time the subjects of this week’s feature, Bashir and Kathy Khelafa, moved to town to start their lives over again. I remember thinking how empty the Mall looked in the morning, that it seemed sort of like an abandoned movie set. When you first encounter a place, it’s like meeting a stranger. I hear tourists who come Downtown for the first time say things like, “See, it’s just like a European square,” or “It’s like an old-fashioned Main Street, only nicer.” The Mall is our city’s face, a package people can contextualize without living here, a first impression. Bashir and Kathy’s story shows that you only have to break the surface to find that the people who make up the facade had to have deep moorings to turn the movie set into an intersection of culture, commerce, and community.