Ya Baba

My father was born in Jerusalem, Palestine. According to my grandparents his coming into this world was uneventful, he arrived how all babies arrive. My grandmother did always say that he was a quite baby and sensitive child. He was born into hell.

He was born a refugee even though he was born in his country in the same home his father and his fathers father had been born in. He was the oldest of 7 children and he out lived all but one of them. Palestine loves her people so much she calls them back to her soil as quickly as they spring forth. Like many young people, then and now, he came to the USA for school. He had already finished high school and a majority of his undergrad work by the time he was around 18 and arrived in New York City fresh off the boat into a world utterly foreign to him. He was not alone, he had cousins here. He started school pre med and met a girl that blew his mind. He fell in love right away and got married, much to the displeasure of his parents. They were not opposed to her they just wanted him to finish school first. Her parents on the other hand were disgusted and furious. They were immigrants themselves, from Greece. They hated him, his culture, his religion, his personality, and whatever else they could conjure up. The girl was unrelenting and married him anyway. Her parents disowned her, something she never let him forget. They got busy doing things young couples do. Nine months later I arrived on a bitter cold winters evening. They debated over what to name me and how I would be raised. My mother was Christian and my father was Muslim. My mom had no real connection to her faith and my father was insistent that I would be Muslim. He won. My mom wanted to name me Olivia because it means olive tree and it would poetically tie my two cultures together. My dad wanted to name me Aminah because it was a solid Muslim name. He won. My dad was 19 years old and in college. Now that I am an adult I understand his plight. I can not imagine having been married with a kid and in school at 19. I was barely able to remember to drag my lazy ass to class.
Silwan, Wadi Hilwe with Al Aqsa & Dome of the Rock

Baba was a hippie, a Sufi, a revolutionary and he loved his baby girl. He called me many things, but Aminah was rarely one of them. He used to call me Helwa.  I just called him Baba.

Baba always had friends over. Our apartment was always full of people and food. Everyone loved him, I can not remember a time he ever had a problem with anyone. I often accompanied him to class and sat outside the door, on a bench. My dad taught me things early. I was already reading and writing by the time I entered kindergarten. I remember starting preschool at a Greek Orthodox church and the nuns were hideously mean. On a particular day we were learning to write our names. I boasted that I already knew how. So the teacher told me to write it on the board. I wrote out my name in perfect Arabic. She laughed at me and said it was just scribbles and that I should not tell lies. I began to cry thinking my dad had tricked me or this cow was jealous of my penmanship. I told her she was a liar and that my dad had taught me. I learned that day that calling a nun a liar is never a good idea. She beat my fingers with the metal end of a ruler til they bled. I got home that day and could not move my fingers. My dad was furious. He took me to school the next morning and had a sit down with the headmaster. I learned what curse words were that day and that my dad could be very scary. I never went back to that school, I never even got my crayons and pencils from my desk. I went to a different school where creativity and weirdness was embraced, a Montessori school.

Baba and I had a separation from about the age of 6 to the age of 12. The reasons are for another story. When we were reunited it felt like the no time had passed. He had moved on and remarried and been widowed and remarried again. Having children from each marriage. He had also left Palestine and moved to his mothers home town of Cairo. I grew up alone and surrounded by people who did not know me or understand me. That day in the airport in Cairo when I saw him running towards me was the greatest day of my life. I saw my eyes, and my nose, my smile and hair, we shared all the same features. He scooped me into his arms and tears flooded our faces. From that moment on there would be only love between us.

Baba was so wise and patient. He was the father of many girls. He was the best father I could have imagined. He was not forceful. He taught us religion but never forced it on us in any way. He was funny, oh was he funny. We would laugh for hours on end. He made time for me. I was much older than my siblings (except for my brother) and me and him went way back. We shared something special. I knew him better than anyone else. We had dates. He would take me to dinner and movie. We would go for long walks along the Nile and talk about life. He taught me how to dance then told me I was never to do it. He allowed me freedom. His house was what he called a "free zone". In his home we could express ourselves however we saw fit so long as it was just us. We could curse, yell, stomp around, but outside or in front of people we were to behave with dignity. Every Saturday morning we would listen to music while we made a big breakfast for the family. To this day when I listen to Bob Marley I think of cooking eggs. Baba was in love with Bob Marley. "Bob Marley is the truth, habibti", he would say to me.

My dad never yelled. He never hit us. He rarely punished us. If we did something wrong he would sit us down and talk to us about it. That was more torture than a punishment, trust me. The last thing you want to do after having done something wrong is to sit down and talk about it. He would make us think it through and explain why it was wrong to do whatever it was we had done. He often made us write papers about it. I have a box full of essays I wrote over the years, almost all of them are about why it is not OK to punch my brother, trip my brother, steal from my brother, snitch on my brother or steal his clothes while he was in the shower. I could write essays everyday and still think taking his clothes when he was in the shower was hilarious.

I only remember being punished one time and I deserved it. I was about 15 going on 35. Me, Baba and my brother had been out running errands all day. He had bought my brother new Nikes and some jeans and Cassettes. I was always jealous of my siblings because I only got to see Baba in the summer or a holiday. My brother and I were always fighting (hence the big box of essays). That day my brother was being obnoxious and we kept bickering. We ended up in a market and I found a jewelry box I liked. It was a tourist trinket, a wooden box with mother of pearl mosaic all over it. It cost about $5. I told my dad that I wanted it. He abruptly said no. No? He never told me no. I got whatever I wanted and suddenly my stupid brother was getting all this and all I wanted was this $5 box, I was devastated. My dad was simply frustrated, he had warned us several times that day that he had had enough.

We got home and everyone was there, of course, ready to eat. My grandparents were visiting along with uncles and cousins, the typical Arab dinner. We walked in and started to take off our shoes, as is the custom. I stopped because my brother was bragging about his stupid new shoes. I am American bro, your Nikes don't mean shit to me! So I left my shoes on and stomped through the foyer and started up the stairs. Baba was right behind me. He said something about me being rude and to take my shoes off and come greet my grandparents. I turned to him at the top of the stairs and did a hand gesture that all Arabs know you never, ever, ever do in front of your father, let alone do it to him.

I ground my shoes into the floor, leaving scuff marks and stormed off to my room, slamming the door. That door swung open no sooner than I had slammed it. Baba was angry. He was calm, too calm, creepy calm. Why was he whispering? He told me to meet him in the kitchen in 5 minutes.

I was certain that I was going to die. I was going to be brutally murdered and the whole family was going to watch.

I had to make the descent down the stairs, which was much less glorious than my ascent had been. I was barefoot because I am stubborn, not crazy. I walked slow and steady, no sudden movements. My whole family was watching me, in shock. This kind of behavior was strictly American, I knew it and they knew it. This was not how a good Palestinian girl behaves.

I made it to the kitchen with my life still intact to find Baba sitting at the table, slowing sucking a cigarette. He never smoked in the house, I had driven him to this! The guilt was so thick and he had not even spoke yet. I sat down, head down, swearing that I would not cry, I was too strong to let him see me cry. He spoke slow and steady, like he was trying to hold himself back from snapping my neck. He said 'you will clean every inch of floor in this house and you will not eat until you are finished'. This was a big house, and we had a maid soooo ... what the hell... He did not care. He told me that I was to learn to respect the home I was allowed to live in and respect the people in it. He handed me a bucket and a sponge that seemed way too small for this daunting task.

I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor as my family ate and socialized. They would walk across my clean floor and I would have to do it all over again and I was starting to get the point. I finished by dawn and fell asleep on the roof, exhausted, with bruised knees.
I woke up to my dad kissing my forehead. Whew! I had lived to tell my tale! He handed me two paper bags. The first bag was small and I looked inside and it was a piping hot piece of Kenafeh, my favorite dessert. The second bag was large and heavy. I took out what was inside and it was a big wooden jewelry box, with mother of pearl mosaic all over it. I looked at the top of the box and saw my name spelled out in Arabic. He had special ordered it for me weeks ago and was saving it for my birthday. I cried and he told me 'you see habibti sometimes no just means not right now'.  I love that man!

It was a dark, cold winters day in January 2005 when I got the call that would change my life forever. I was already upset, having just broken up with my fiance. I had called Baba to talk about it and we talked for about a hour. He said he had a headache and was going to go take a nap. Twelve hours later my phone rang. I answered to hear my step mother crying and saying 'hayati I am so sorry but he passed away, your father is dead'. Tears came from my eyes so fast that blood vessels burst, my legs stopped working and speech was impossible. I said it was impossible, I had just talked to him, he was young, the picture of good health. She said that it had been a blood clot in his brain and that he was gone before he hit the floor. That mental image has stayed with me....

I was numb. I had no idea how I was supposed to react. I was in America, a world away. I was not around grieving family and friends. My family and friends here, most of them had never even met him. There was to be a funeral and my family begged me to come. I missed the flight twice.  I sat there watching the plane take off and unable to face what awaited me at its destination. I had not gone to my brothers funeral the year before or my grandparents. I was present at my fiance's funeral only by force. I knew death too well. I called to say I was not coming, don't buy any more tickets. A thousand tickets on a thousand planes could not get me there. I had no desire what so ever to see that. I stayed here. I have never went to his grave and have no idea where he is even buried. It does not matter. I left Cairo with hugs from him and the rest of my family, a home, an identity. I would return years later with nothing and no one. Cairo used to be home, and now it is just a city like any other city, except this city is full of my dead relatives.

Baba was a great man. Baba was in no rush to marry me off like many Arab fathers. He wanted me to wait and finish school, partly because of his own troubles. He wanted me to be whatever I wanted to be, to find myself and become something. There is no one in this world that could measure up to him. I will never find a husband as great, it just is not possible. Baba was a perfect mix of east and west.

A thousand blessings fell from his smile. The mere thought of his disappointment caused anxiety and shame. He was my best friend, my confidant. I had something special and I knew it. My dad was a super hero. He loved women and was raised in a house full of women. He taught me to love myself and those around me. He taught me to love nature and animals and science. He made pancakes in the shape of hearts just to cheer me up. He knew how to do my hair and did it well. He was always happy to wield a flat iron and tame the kinks he had given me, all the while telling me my curls were special. He cried the day I told him I was certain that Islam was the truth. Scratch that, he sobbed like a baby. He spent hours doing dhikr and taught me its value. He made it impossible to not love myself because he loved me. He showed me exactly what a good man is. He personified dignity, trustworthiness and was so very handsome.

If you are blessed to have your father in this world then show him you care. Take the opportunity to love him and bless him before the chance slips away. There is not a day that I do think of Baba and talk about him. He dances around my memories like a dervish. I can hear his voice, smell him, and when I close my eyes I can see that infectious smile.

He was gone too soon ...


1 comment:

  1. wow..very touching story..sounds like a great man ..may he RIP