You are thirteen years old, and your father reads you a poem. You are asked to memorize it, because there would be a test. You don’t remember the test, but you remember part of the poem:
I had a dream tonight
As I felt asleep
Oh, the touching sight
Makes me still weep
Of my little lad
Gone to leave me sad
I, the child I had
But was not for keeps.
Lesson learnt: it is ok to indulge a healthy hobby: you don’t just have to read academic stuff; it is ok to read poetry and literature, even if a young boy’s interpretation of literature is Superman, Spiderman, Agatha Christie, Mickey Spillane, and Harold Robbins. It can’t be trash because a much brainier cousin read them too. Voila, validation.
Did you read this book, he asks, unaware that you don’t read Italian. Or that reading Arabic is a struggle. He passes on some European historian. You are an American, what do you care about what Europeans have to say; if it is interesting enough, it will make it to America, then you will buy it. Until then, it is small time Europe You get an earful of Italian proverbs.
Fathers are heroes. When you are fourteen, you start signing your name “McAbdu,” because you learned Mc or Mac is Scottish for “son of.” McAbdu sounded European, and it made it easier to mimic your father’s signature, which you think is phenomenally authoritative: You didn’t have to be a graphologist to analyze his signature: bold, large, confident, charismatic.
Much later, you come to learn that this unique name that you had “invented” in honor of your father wasn’t that unique…there was a Laker’s player whose name was McAbdu…or is it McAdoo?
Rewind to Chick Hearn. Now it is Magic, Magic passes the ball to Kareem Abduljabar…a left hook… misses… rebound. Byron Scott gets it: he shoots…no, not this time. But it is still Lakers game… now it is McAdoo, who passes it to Cooper….Cooper shoots from downtown…and…makes it. Coooooop! Ladies and gentlemen, this game is in the refrigerator, baby… the jelly is hardening, the butter is getting cold and the lights are out.
You had watched that game with your dad. Of course, he mocked the idea of grown men being traded. Traded? Like slaves!! Now, basketball is played in Cambo Asmara, he lectures. No trading there. Nothing like football, which you call soccer. And one of the greatest soccer teams in Eritrea was Mar Rosso. Sure. He lights up a cigarette.
Smoking. Ah, yes. The only unhealthy thing about smoking is to smoke cheap cigarettes, he believed, defying medical science. Can’s smoke in the house, can’t smoke in your car, can’t smoke in a restaurant. All doctors are quacks; what do they know? Rothman’s, Dunhills, Benson and Hedges. With the cigarette holders. And a golden lighter, with its own story; each cigarette lighter has its own unique story about where it was bought, who made it, and how it was made. Life is in the hands of God. Health? Well, that’s why you ought to drink buttermilk. That, and about five times the required hot pepper in any meal clears out all your tubes and veins and arteries. Good as new. There is no medical evidence for this because doctors know nothing except prescribing drugs, he says. You shrug.
A friend of his couldn’t sell the health angle, so he tried religion. Smoking is not a sin, he tried to explain, but it is not virtuous since nothing that harms someone’s body and soul is virtuous. Wrong guy to argue religion with, your dad. Specially if they are people he considers “New Muslims.” Let me tell you a little story, he explains. Everything has a little story. In the early 1900s, England wanted total monopoly of the tobacco industry in Iran. The local merchants of Iran protested to the religious leaders, because this would put them out of business. The religious leaders in Iran passed a “fatwa” against smoking and the English monopoly was busted. MeTmus aytkun…
Marlboro? You call that cigarette? The Brits know how to make cigarettes. Another good topic to start the Europe-US feud. But, dad, you know tobacco was discovered in the Americas and exported to Europe, you say. What do Europeans know about cigarettes, you provoke. In the end, you still have to go to China Town or Saigon City to find your European cigarettes… No Rothmans…Will 3-5’s do? Europeans know how to smoke. Eventually, the “know-nothing” doctors told him that the reason he is getting thirsty all the time is because he has diabetes, he grudgingly quits smoking….for a month…then it is back to puffing.
Europeans know how to eat, how to smoke. But not how to brush their teeth, you throw in your Yankee gripe. He comes back with some choice Italian proverb. And most of all, Europeans know how to dress. Your father is horrified at the casual attire of America. Tank-tops! T-shirts! Sandals! Mismatched and psychedelic garments! More Italian expletives. Now, in Europe…. They have class. Class as in style of class or as in people in fixed immobile positions, you bait. Not everybody should be moving up, he counters. You once took him to Las Vegas where he was expecting the Monte Carlo treatment…. He was greeted by rows and rows of slot machines where old people of obviously very modest means who had been bused to the palaces from their modest homes, wearing their spandex pants and T-shirts, were pulling the handle, mechanically. He thinks you had taken him to hell.
Let’s walk, he motions.
You walk. He walks. A lot. He smokes. A lot. He walks, he smokes, and he compares, a lot. That is what businessmen do: compare things. Look at a price tag of an item…you can see the gears in the mind converting it to all the currencies… you blank out. In Dubbai, this same thing would cost blankety-blank….In Italy… Eiiiii, things are a lot more/less expensive than in blankety blank. There is the cost, there is the transportation, there is the inventory cost…At least that is what the college professor taught; not that you have any first hand experience, as he would be disappointed to find out:
He: How much does it cost to ship this to Eritrea?
You: Ah, we could find that out.
He: How about air cargo?
You: Ah, we’ll make a call.
He: So, what do you people in America know?
Nothing, really. Verbal societies know things because they store what’s important to them to memory. You are now in a literal society where everything can be “looked up.” The downside is there is no distinction; the important, the trivial can all be looked up. How much could it cost to open a stationary store? You don’t know, but you can research it. A gas station? Ditto. When was this bridge built? We don’t know. So, what do you Eritreans in America know?
We know plenty. We know you get up, take a shower, shave, dress up, drive to work, get stuck in traffic, get to work, work, come back from work, dinner, family, tv, read, go to sleep. And we know America’s is the greatest nation in this whole damn world, dammit. Actually, we don’t even know that; but if we look it up, we are sure it is true. Life in America, as explained by one of its poets:
And there’s winners,
And there’s losers,
But that ain’t no big deal,
Cause a simple man takes the thrills, the bills, the pills that kill.
Ain’t that America,
Something to see,
Little pink houses for you and me.
Words from John Mellencamp. If you look it up, you know he used to be John Cougar Mellencamp. And before that, he was just Johnny Cougar. He had to change his name to be famous; once famous, he changed his name back to gain back his identity. To regain the family name.
You call that a song! Sounds like an animal dying! Probably some guy with a T-shirt and an ear-ring! Actually, all true. Plus he is a tattoo, you say. More Italian proverbs. Your songs are no more than noise. Now, in my day! He loves music, he loves poetry, but most of all, he loves to dance. You call that dancing?! Then he will show you. The only things he loves more than dancing is telling stories. Long, rich, detailed stories. With jokes in Tigrigna, Tigre, Arabic, Amharic, English and Italian. And the only thing he loves more than stories is people…
And so it was inevitable that eventually he learns to love America because he began to love Americans. And he loves them because seb sraH iyom.
Some people collect butterflies; some people collect pennies; he collects people. Everybody is a friend, a friend’s son, a friend’s niece. Everybody is a friend. And everybody over fifty needs to come back home? To a man exiled for decades: Now, why won’t you come home? You think they care about you, or even know you? You people overestimate your importance. I, personally, will vouch for your safety. I guarantee it!! What are you so afraid of? They are our kids. They are friends!
His view of politics is entirely indistinguishable from any businessman you can randomly pick in this world: stay away from organized politics. If you are a businessman, there are two kinds of politicians: those you can do business with; and those you can’t. Ideology has nothing to do with it; it is all about competence. Businessmen compare and then say of those they want to do business with, Ma’ke, seb sraH iyom!
And now the “seb sraH?” Again, sraHom seriHom! For nearly three years now. So now what you have is stories, for they keep coming from people whose lives he touched. And there are so many of them. Here’s one truncated, with the author’s name withheld:
One day in 1998, I went to Casa Degli Italiani with your father’s best friend. As we sat on the stone benches outside the club, your dad, who had an office across the street, joined us. The two men started updating each other on life and living. And I kept on taking note of your father’s handsome face and slender physique.
Then, as we enjoyed the refreshments we ordered, things got serious. After giving me the sad look that fathers reserve for a disappointing child, the gentleman (your dad’s friend,) came up with some complaints that the gov’t should address. That opened the door for a hot discussion that lasted two hours or more….
From that day on, I used to cross the street and hug him whenever I saw him anywhere. I did that because I respected his guts, truthfulness, fluency and to the point presentation. And like every sane Eritrean, I always pray for him and all other prisoners of conscience. For the man he was!
Ah, but for the man he is! Life, someone said, has to be lived in a forward motion but makes sense only when you look back on it. I am still looking back and I find that some things still makes no sense. Happy father’s day, dad, for the man you are.