My Father Was Never There. My Father Never Left Me.

·12 min read

On the phone, my father tells me he is leaving for Egypt. A month-long visit to his homeland. “Maybe longer,” he says, “depends.”

This comes as a surprise and yet not a surprise. I haven’t seen him since the pandemic began. Canada, where he lives, closed its borders early on. My plan was to finally visit Toronto this summer as restrictions loosened. I needed to see him. He had weathered so much over the last year: financial difficulties; the near death of a family friend’s son; a COVID infection himself. Only months before the pandemic, he had sold his business, a small café, and found himself adrift in shapeless days. My phone calls felt more and more like I was watering a languishing plant.

“But you’ve only had one vaccine shot,” I point out now, knowing his second vaccine is months away—the typical timeline for second doses in Canada. “Won’t you be—”

“I have to go,” he tells me, cutting off. “I’ll be fine.” Maybe, I think. But a 70-year-old with health issues shouldn’t put himself at such risk.

“I have to make something happen. I can’t just sit here.” He tells me he wants to clear his name from some longstanding legal matters. He’s also going, he says, to do some hotel business. “See what happens,” he says. I’ve long given up trying to get particulars. Between the language barrier, my father’s Byzantine prevarications, and perhaps his need to protect me, I quickly lose my faith, my footing, in his stories. That he’s determined to go is something I know all too well. He’s done it my whole life.

“Your father is leaving,” my mother said one night when I was seven. I remember she was wearing an Egyptian caftan that emphasized her pale skin, gold bracelets and charms dangling from her wrists. We were living in Montreal at the time, where I was born, where my parents had met. The Wizard of Oz was on television in the living room. Our walls bore a mix of contemporary paintings and the papyrus my father would bring back from his travels. My mother was a French-Canadian Catholic of Serbian Irish descent. She wore the caftan because she liked to wear caftans at home. Ditto the gold trinkets my father would bring back from his many trips abroad.

On the television screen, Dorothy was still in black and white singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Was I supposed to cry? My mother seemed to expect it.

“Where is he going?”

“Egypt,” my mother said.

The word was a pyramid, a hot place baking in the sun where sphinxes spoke., a place as distant and mythical as Oz. I’d only been once when I was five. I remembered a public bus in Cairo, staring up at my mother’s face which was staring straight ahead. Gripping her hand as we moved through a foreign place.

“How long is he going?” I asked.

“Who knows,” my mother probably said.

I kept watching black-and-white Dorothy lean her head against a haystack, looking longingly at the sky for rainbows. I’d already seen the movie so many times. I knew her every move by heart. She’d be out of the black-and-white world soon, I knew. She’d be in Technicolor. In a magic place, where they’d dye her eyes to match her gown, though she’d perpetually long for home. That was the part I never understood. That she wanted to go back at all. I would stay in Oz, I thought, with my ruby slippers and my world of vivid color, and my beautiful, flawed new friends.

“He’s not just going away,” my mother added. “We’re getting a divorce.”

I could feel her looking at me. I could feel her thinking that now surely I would cry. She herself was crying at this point.

“It’s okay, Mom,” is all I said. Because how would it be any different than what already was?

Even before he was gone, he was mostly gone. My father’s job in the hospitality industry meant that he was often overseas, in Egypt or elsewhere in the Middle East, for months at a time. I was raised mostly by my white mother. Out of respect for my father, an Egyptian Muslim who immigrated to Canada in the 1970s, she did not baptize me. But she did send me to Catholic schools. Her Quebecois culture, her languages, became mine. As for my father’s culture, he took me to a mosque once when I was four, and the only Arabic I learned was one or two lines in a lullaby, an Egyptian folk song, about a goose and a duck.

Mama zamanha gaya
Gaya baedeh shiwaya,
Gayba al’ab wa hagat
Gayba maha shanta
Fiha wezza wa bata
Bi ta’mel
Quack quack quack

After the divorce, my father’s world would only become increasingly alien to me. Mostly, I experienced him as an absence, a mystery filtered through my mother’s mythologizing eye. He would appear occasionally—suddenly and without warning, always bearing exotic gifts: a stuffed toy camel with long eyelashes, a prettily colored perfume bottle of blown glass that looked like a genie’s lantern, a box of dates. He’d take me out for an American fast food dinner, surprise me with a trip to Disney World, only to disappear again for long stretches.

My father’s world would only become increasingly alien to me. Mostly, I experienced him as an absence, a mystery filtered through my mother’s mythologizing eye.

And yet, even in his absence, I was always my father’s daughter—I looked like him, with my olive skin and almond eyes, and shared his name. That I was different from my classmates in Montreal and Toronto was not lost on me. My mother insisted I take pride in my Egyptian heritage. When I first got my social insurance card at fifteen, she told the government clerk that my middle name, Yasmin, should be spelled without an e.

“The Arabic way,” she said as if she knew. She still wore the cartouches and ankhs and Eyes of Horus that my father continued to bring back from his travels.. From Egypt, she’d say, beaming, if someone asked. But this exoticism, trinkets winking on her white skin, was something she could easily cast off. She only used her married name to dodge creditors.

“The Arabic way,” I repeated bitterly. This childish sense of not wanting to be seen as different would persist—a slow-burning shame. More self-awareness and maturity only transformed it into a shame about feeling shame through my teens.

In 2001, I was in college, living in Toronto. My mother had moved to Seattle. My father on the other hand, was closer by, managing a hotel in Hamilton, Ontario. He still disappeared for long stretches—both on business in the Middle East and for his corporate job—but we were seeing each other more. He’d meet me for a coffee at the Starbucks near campus or we’d go out to dinner.

After 9/11, I remember calling my father, who was away. “Dad,” I said, “what is this going to mean? For us?”

“Nothing to do with us,” he said. “Don’t worry.”

But I did worry, for both of us.

When I learned one of the attackers, indeed one of the pilots, was Egyptian, I remember feeling not only shame and anger but fear. Not just of the assault and its fallout. Or of future attacks. Fear of being associated with them. I didn’t feel entitled to share in everyone’s collective fury at them, though I felt fury. I was them, even though I had no idea who they were.

By this time, I was already beginning to experience trouble at the U.S. border, just as I knew my father was. Delays, extensive questioning, long looks at my passport then at my face. Officers taking my passport into another room and not coming out for a very long time. “They think you’re a terrorist,” my uncle would joke when a check on my passport delayed all of us on a family vacation.

My mother just looked at me in wonder. “Wow,” she said. “Well in some ways it’s good, right? That they’re so careful?”

I remember calling my father the first time it had happened. He was away overseas, and it took a few tries to reach him. “Dad, I got stopped,” I blurted out when I finally reached him.

“Got stopped?” he repeated, his voice crackling on the line. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” I said, though of course I knew. Because of my name. Your name. I had a long-distance boyfriend that fall, an American one, who lived in Salt Lake City. He came to visit me in October, a month after the attacks. We said goodbye at the Toronto airport before he went through security. We kissed. We cried. It would be months before we’d see each other again and the border was suddenly feeling much more impenetrable; I had no idea how we would make this work.

After I returned home from the airport, I got a phone call from him. “Well, I missed my flight,” he said. “I got detained by the police.”

Someone had watched us kiss goodbye and thought that during that kiss, I’d slipped him a weapon—a razor?—with my mouth. When the police questioned my boyfriend, they asked him why “someone” might think that? They searched his bags and scoffed at his CDs and books. They kept him for hours asking the same questions.

“About us,” he said. “Mostly about you.”

“Fucked up,” my father said when I told him, over coffee. He thought that the airport woman was obviously fucking crazy. Because why would someone ever look at me and think these things?

I looked at my father, my mirror image. His skin in my skin. His features in my features. Because I look like an Arab. Like you.

“I don’t know,” is what I told him.

When I attempted to cross the U.S. border the following summer, I was denied entry. I’d taken a train from Toronto because I was afraid to fly, and when we got to the border, I was immediately pulled aside, interrogated and searched by a blonde female officer who refused to believe that I was going to see my boyfriend in Salt Lake City and then my mother in Seattle. She wouldn’t let me call my mother. I cried when she told me they were turning me back. She told me I was crying because I knew I was lying. Two male officers joked that I was lucky that I didn’t get strip-searched. I remember walking from the bridge where they dropped me off to the train station and the long rattling train ride back to Toronto.

My father picked me up from the station and drove us home in the dark, both of us smoking cigarettes. He’d appeared at the station like a mirage. Not away on business this time. And I was grateful. He was the only person I wanted to see. It was a long ride home. Whenever I got in the car with my father, I’d assail him with whatever music I loved then, cranked loudly: grunge first, and later, goth or industrial. He’d always withstand it. What is this? he’d even ask politely. I’d tell him and he’d always nod thoughtfully and say, It’s nice.

This time though, we drove in silence.

“Probably they stopped you because you were young and travelling alone,” he said finally, looking at the windshield. “When you’re young, they question you more.”

“I don’t think that’s what it is, Dad,” I said.

My father said nothing.

Soon after, my mother died as a result of chronic health issues. Soon after, I married my American boyfriend in Canada, my father walking me down the aisle. I kept my name. I don’t know why. Maybe the shame of being ashamed. Maybe because my father and I grew closer after my mother was gone. Or maybe his name is still my name because I finally understood that, however alien and distant it felt, it was mine.

The author with her father in 2008
The author with her father in 2008
Photo: courtesy Mona Awad

On the phone with my father now, years later, I feel afraid and uncertain, but ultimately accepting. We’ve both dealt with distance before. So many parts of our lives are still mysterious to each other, present only in absence. Distance and mystery, to some degree, is what connects us.

“Please take care of yourself,” I tell him.

“I will,” he says.

But as I hang up, a memory of Egypt comes back to me in vivid technicolor.

I’m five years old. We’re at the beach in Alexandria, where he was born. We’re both wading in the sea, my father wandering ahead, me lagging behind. It’s night and there’s a moon above us, a Ferris wheel lit up and turning behind me on the beach. Surely my mother or someone else is nearby, possibly even holding my hand. But what I remember is being alone under the moon, watching my father. I remember cigarette butts in the sea, being afraid of the dirty water. My father is oblivious. He wades deeper into the ocean, clearly content, home, making nothing of the trash floating all around us. Probably I was supposed to follow him. I just stood there, shin deep and close to the shore, watching him wander further into the littered waves, not turning back.

Mona Awad is the author of the new novel ALL’S WELL, which publishes in August.

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Originally Appeared on Vogue

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