My Dad, the Immigrant
My introduction to my father
By Kinaan Taha
I always learn the most about my dad when he’s talking to someone else. Whether it’s an amusing anecdote told over dinner, or a snippet of rapid Arabic that I manage to catch while he’s on the phone with a friend, information about him or his past is always disseminated to me indirectly. Over the course of my life, I think I’ve had more stories told to me about my father than by him; when we talk, he, like most immigrant parents, is only interested in me and my achievements, or lack thereof.
So I put my picture of him together from the snapshots he hands out to other people. The childhood he spent in Kuwait, punctuated by the year he spent living alone with his sister while my grandparents taught in England. The college years, when he earned his undergraduate degree in Kuwait after moving between Jordan and Syria, then came to America for his Ph.D. I learned, when I was four or five, the story of how my parents met, and then 10 years later, the actual story of how my parents met, now featuring my father’s ex-fiancee.
Like a detective working his career’s longest case, I gave these broad chronological epochs their own texture by filling them in with the stories I’ve heard my dad tell. When he was in middle school, he contracted lice and was told to cure it by coating his hair in kerosene, which in fairness did remove the lice, but also almost removed his scalp. He once accidentally dropped his younger cousin down an open manhole; his sister was once left behind at a gas station in I believe Lebanon for over 6 hours before anyone realized she was missing. When he was in college, his school-taught English resulted in him asking an attractive young stranger for a “rubber,” which seemed like a much more sexually-charged solicitation than he intended. These stories are always told to friends or acquaintances with the intent to amuse, which had the unintended side effect of convincing me for most of my life that before I was born, my father was the fourth lost Stooge, or perhaps one of Kevin McCallister’s brothers.
But this illusion was not dispelled for me by my father himself, but by my mother. We were watching a historical documentary, when something in it prompted my mother to tell me about my dad’s old apartment. It was notable, she said, because of its location: directly next to one of the Hafez al-Assad regime’s secret police headquarters. My mother painted a picture of my father completely counter to the one I had constructed, a picture of a child who was introduced far to early and too personally to the concept of torture. My mom said my dad didn’t even talk to her about the years he lived there in any great detail. Once, he may have mentioned hearing someone beg for their fingernails back, a detail so gruesome that I, three degrees removed from this event, still have nightmares about.
The stories my dad doesn’t tell over dinner or to friends are the ones that inform my image of him now. The year he spent living alone with his younger sister as a child no longer sounds like an unsupervised blast, but a terrifying introduction to responsibility. The move to America for graduate school no longer seems as though it was motivated by ambition and curiosity, but probably fear of Saddam Hussein. The day his family left my aunt at a gas station doesn’t sounds like Home Alone to me anymore, it sounds like a prequel to Taken.
The time he put kerosene in his hair and the time he dropped his cousin in a sewer are still pretty funny, in fairness, but now they’re the exception, not the rule. The rule is that my father was, like many immigrants to this country, a smart and talented person seeking a better life, who sacrificed as much as he gained to make it a reality. And at the end of the day, that’s probably all I really need to know about him.