My dad was glued to his YouTube. That’s what he calls it: “My YouTube.” When my grandmother, his mother-in-law, got him an iPad for Christmas, he was certain he would never use it. I agreed. Sure, my 85-year-old grandma could figure it out, but my dad? My dad taught Arabic at my school in Sarasota for two years, typed with two fingers, and delegated jobs. My mom helped him check his email. I inputted his grades at the end of each quarter.
Then two things happened: protestors from across North Africa flooded the internet with real, uncensored news, and my dad discovered “Charlie Bit My Finger.”
He had shown “Charlie” to each of my siblings and me in turn, my older brother Suliman and my two younger sisters, and we had all laughed heartily at my dad discovering YouTube in the same way we had years ago. My dad imitated the boy who is not Charlie, “Cha-lee bit me,” his Libyan accent still showing in his inability to distinguish a “p” from a “b.”
But the day I’m really talking about, my dad wasn’t showing anyone. My brother Suliman had whooped. Maybe we all did, I’m not sure. I know we must have all said, “Really? Really?” I remember my mom hugging my dad, perhaps the most intimate I’ve ever seen them. Not that I’ve never seen them hug or kiss. But it has always been with reservation, careful, the kids are watching. My mom rushed to him, as if we were not there, as if this was something we could not possibly understand, and I suppose that is true, because my mom was there when he resigned himself to the fact that he was never going back to Libya. My mom became a Muslim and they got married and moved from Michigan to Florida, then they waited even longer until he was sure this American life was his next best option, and had us.
My dad does not stand to hug my mom. He stays seated in his garage-sale armchair, which does not match our leather furniture, clutching his iPad. The people on the iPad are singing, yelling. My mom wraps her arms around him from above, kisses his head. My dad has already restarted the video. There are the gunshots again. My dad can’t believe it, but there he is, being paraded through the streets, young men sticking their heads in front of the camera to say look, we did it, or at least I think they are, but I don’t speak Arabic, none of us do, except my dad. Ghaddafi is slung between a few men, with blood on his chest. I can’t say how I know this, because I am positive I never watched the video, though for the few days after Ghaddafi’s execution, my dad watched it a hundred times. I think, every time he saw it, it became a little more real. Ghaddafi is dead. Ghaddafi is dead.
I’m not sure what my dad relished more: the look of Ghaddafi’s dead body (he frequently spat insults at it) or that this meant he could go back. For the first time in thirty-seven years, my dad could go back to Libya.
A year or two before the revolution, my cousin Abdo came to stay with us. He was my Dad’s uncle’s son, which actually makes him my second cousin, I think. I have fifty-six first cousins in Libya, none of whom I have met. Abdo would stay with us for a few weeks, and our interactions would consist mainly of his sharing pictures and videos of his first son with me, of tentative conversations about my schooling. I have the sense that Abdo didn’t speak English very well, though I know that he did, that my memory is trying to make excuses for the lack of connection between us. It was expected that somehow we should know each other. We were family. In fact we knew nothing at all about each other, other than bits of news transmitted through crackling calls over the years, and how do you start? What do you say?
None of us had ever met Abdo before that visit, and we have not seen him again, not even my dad, but we all stood anxiously at the shuttle stop in Tampa International, scanning the arrivals for someone Arab-looking. Abdo didn’t exit until more than an hour after his flight had landed. They had checked his shoes very thoroughly because he had been on a farm. The “random” checks at the airport were by no mistake always assigned to us Ayads, with the foreign last name and the dad who the US government had supposedly spied on for years, even before 9/11, by tapping our phones. They spied on our other Muslim friends too. My dad and his friends said they could tell by a clicking noise on the line, and that once, the third party listening in to a phone conversation to Pakistan had sneezed.
Abdo was bald. My dad and he embraced after gazing at each other in search of an Ayad something, though I have no idea what it is that makes an Ayad, and if I were to meet one of my Libyan family on the street, any of them, I would not know them, except maybe my Aunt Najaat, who I’m told has hair as blonde as mine. When I tell people I am half-Libyan, they always ask if I got my hair from my mom, which is a ridiculous question, because blonde hair is recessive, and you have to get it from both parents. This also makes my answer ridiculous, because I always get a little bit defensive; I always say, “Actually, it’s from my dad’s side.”
My father says now Najaat’s hair is darker, that she slicked it with olive oil too much when she was a teenager, a trick meant to soften it, to thicken it. As a teenager I did the same, saturated the strands of my hair with the oil, greased the rest of my skin and lay out in a bikini or, if no one was home, shimmied out of my top and willed the sun to crisp my breasts, which remained resolutely white. My hair has not changed, and I wonder if, for Najaat, it was the lack of sun on her scalp, the resolute covering of her head, that would have darkened her hair. I stopped wearing the hijab when I was eighteen, and pretend this is the real reason, the fear of losing that bright color, the color which both makes me unique, and gives me that Ayad something. It must be an Ayad something.
Sometimes I imagine passing Aunt Najaat on the street, the whole scene a ruthless fabrication, open-air market stalls selling dates and fresh fish like in Aladdin, and there in the crowd is her blonde head, slowly moving toward mine, her face is mine, not even a day older, but logic always breaks through the imagining, and I think, I don’t know the color of her eyes, are her eyes like mine, or are they brown? They must be brown. And then I approach myself again, and her eyes are brown, but then I remember she is older, but then I remember she is covered, and I am covered, what a foolish thing to do, walk through a market in Tripoli completely uncovered. But the earrings she sent me as a baby, tiny gold hoops with impossible front clasps, tiny stones of turquoise, stick out from the edges of my hijab. Somehow they catch her eye, a glint of the sun’s light, maybe, and she falls onto me, crying, saying my name like an incantation, “Latifa, Latifa.” Here my brain forgets all its logic, and I am embracing myself there in the streets of Tripoli, crying too, holding a chunk of blonde hair in my fist.
Logic says I will never pass her on the street, unless things change, which they might. My dad always says he thought he would die before he could go back to Libya, but he did go back, in those few months when it was safe. He spoke of bringing us with him next time, before things got bad again, before my uncles all told him, don’t come, and my dad was glad that at least he got to see the graves of his father and mother, and the three brothers who had passed since he left, and the brother who died when my dad was still a teenager in Libya. When it was still safe, my stomach filled with dread of the hours I would spend sitting in silence while my dad gabbed in Arabic to a family I did not know, or more likely they would separate us into men and women, and I wouldn’t be with my dad at all. Maybe my aunts would teach me how to cook, like my henaina taught my mom to cook in Italy, since that was the only way they could communicate.
When my dad married my mom he did not tell his parents. My mom says he knew they would not understand his marrying an American, even though my mom had converted to Islam. A few years after their marriage, they went to Italy. It was easier for Libyans to get visas to Italy, maybe as a feeble sort of “sorry we colonized your country and tortured your people.” When my grandparents couldn’t get a visa to the States, my dad would meet them there. My uncle lived in an apartment in Sienna. My dad brought my mom to that apartment, and said, Assalamwalaikum, hi Mom, Dad, Brother, how are you? Long time no see. Oh, by the way, here is my wife.
While my father roamed the streets of Sienna with his brother and his father, my grandmother cooked: couscous, m’bubouka, bamia, cheap dishes made with canned tomato sauce that merge the influences of the Greeks, who colonized Libya first, and the Italians, who colonized them most recently. My grandmother “taught” these dishes to my mother, during those silent days in the Sienna apartment, though I’m not sure how. Maybe through a meeting of eyes, a pointed cupping of the hand to show how much orzo, how much red pepper, how to soften the couscous by first rolling it between oily palms.
My mom’s parents didn’t understand either, when she brought home one of her students for Sunday dinner, especially when they found out he didn’t really speak any English. My parents always make it sound like my dad was the one who was head over heels for my mom, but my grandma laughs now and says, “Well, your mom did always have a thing for foreigners.”
The first time I met my Libyan grandparents I was less than a year old. In my passport photo I’m just a lolling blonde head, held up by my dad’s hand for the photograph. You can see his fingers in the picture. We flew to Italy to meet Henaina and Shadaydah. My dad likes to tell me that I was teething when we were in Italy, that Henaina’s solution was to let me gum the heel of tough, Italian bread.
Neither of my grandparents finished school. I don’t know the story of my grandfather’s short academic career, but I do know my grandmother’s. My henaina had an older brother. When she was in third grade the Italians were going to make all the schoolchildren march in a parade in Tripoli, celebrating Mussolini, I think, and general Italian shittiness.
“If you march in the parade,” the brother told my henaina, “I’ll chop off your hands.”
The day of the parade she stayed home sick.
Another parade came and her brother said, “If you march in the parade, I’ll chop off your hands.”
She stayed home again, and her Italian teacher said, “Hm, you were sick for both parades? Give me your books,” then she kicked her out of school, and that was the extent of her education.
My shadaydah, Goma, was tortured by the Italians. I say this with a slight note of pride, not only because it’s a rather grand “I told you so” for why Italians aren’t really deserving of the obsession Americans have for them, but also because, well, how many people do you know who have been tortured?
Shadaydah’s torture was mostly a whispered excuse for anything he’d done wrong in his life, except for the things one could attribute to his upbringing, like his “Work first, then school,” attitude. I noticed when I was a child that his toes curled under, especially his pinky toes. I used to wonder if this was what the torture did to him, or if he just had weird feet.
My dad went to law school at Mohammed V University in Morocco, a degree that is useless in America, a degree that he never used in Morocco, because as soon as he finished it, he fled. At this point the details get a little fuzzy, because one of my sisters says my dad was called back to Libya because his visa ended, and that he fled because he didn’t want to have to join the military again. But I’ve also heard, maybe from my mom, that if my dad had gone back he would have died or worse.
My dad had liked Ghaddafi, originally. He thought he was going to create opportunities for the Libyan people. He thought he was good. King Idris I, who had successfully overthrown Italian occupation in 1951 (one year before my father’s birth), was resented for concentrating the majority of Libya’s oil wealth in his own hands, just as Ghaddafi would after coming into power. In 1969 Muammar Ghaddafi led a coup against Idris and established what was to be a socialist Libya. This was the same year my father first got a television. Before this, when my dad was still living in the city, he had a friend with a TV. At 1:15 school would let out, and on Wednesdays my dad and his friend would run to his friend’s house to watch American wrestling, which they loved and which they believed was real.
When Ghaddafi turned bad, my dad was vocal about it. My mom has said things, sometimes, that imply my dad was a threat to Ghaddafi’s regime, that the Ayad family had once had political or at least social power and might again, that my dad was a natural leader.
I never believed her. My dad has a master’s degree from the University of Cincinnati, which he got after fleeing Morocco for the United States. Afterwards he had a series of businesses when I was young: an ice cream parlor, a jewelry store, quite a bit of work at a bank. Then we had our farm in Sarasota, where he raised sheep for us and other Arabs, and goats to sell to Mexicans and Jamaicans. My sister says that my dad originally worked so hard in school so he would never have to farm, which he hated, and that it is sad that he ended up farming again. I’m not sure I agree, because my dad takes a fierce pride in serving his family the meat he raised and slaughtered. Handing me a newborn lamb on a cold day in January, he looks at it the same way I’ve seen him look at human babies, his face decorated by a small smile I don’t think he realizes I can see.
When my dad moved from Tripoli to the country, to farm with his family, he was the only boy in the entire school with shoes and shorts. All the others just wore long shirts because they were so poor. As a boy my dad used to stay up late at night, reading books by gas lamp while his brother cuddled with the full-grown goat that he snuck into their bedroom every night. My dad tells me he used to love to read. I’ve never seen him read anything but the newspaper, but I want to believe it, that if I had known my dad when he was younger we could have devoured novels together. When my dad was a student in Morocco he didn’t yet speak English, but he spoke French, so we could have read Candide. We could have read Camus.
My dad oftentimes asked me to call people for him, which I hated. My dad was afraid those he called wouldn’t understand his accent, or maybe he was ashamed of it. People were cruel, especially after 9/11. Someone fired shots through the window of our mosque one Sunday, perhaps not knowing Muslims worship on Fridays. I couldn’t see how this man, who was afraid to call and inquire about the prices of sheep himself, who told strangers his name was Lee, could ever have been someone who might have led the Libyan people.
Then I saw my dad speak at a meeting for the Daughters of the American Revolution chapter in Sarasota, at the request of a woman he knew from my brother’s Boy Scout troop. He started, “There are three things I love about America.” He paused. “Freedom,” pause, “freedom,” pause, “and freedom.” Some of the women chuckled and said the third “freedom” aloud with him. Despite the predictability of this line, my dad turned out to be a skilled orator. He spoke about Libya, and about the importance of personal freedom. I can’t remember his exact words after that. I have a video of his speech, which I saved to my phone, but I will not watch it now, not for the same reason I won’t watch the video of Ghaddafi’s execution, but because my memory of that moment is perfect. The only important thing is that the Daughters of the American Revolution gave him a standing ovation, and that I felt prouder than I had ever felt to be his daughter.
When I was sixteen, my mom and dad sat me down. I remember it being just the three of us. “Your Uncle Mohammed has been in prison for the last ten years,” they said. “We didn’t tell you when it happened, because we didn’t think you would understand.” My dad was the one who told the story.
My uncle was a high-ranking officer in the military. Yes, this was Ghaddafi’s military, but everyone had to serve. My dad served two years before he got a visa to go to law school in Morocco. My Uncle Mohammed stayed in the military even after his required four years of service. He was the eldest of twelve, and a genius. He didn’t graduate high school like my father did, but he speaks six languages, and my dad says he wrote the first Greek-Arabic dictionary, and a few other books, while he was in jail. They were confiscated from him by the jailors upon their completion, and if they are published now, surely they are under another’s name.
As an officer, my uncle drove from camp to camp, finding out what the soldiers needed. He brought them blankets for the cold desert nights, and food. The soldiers liked him. It was because of this that Ghaddafi ordered a raid of my uncle’s house. He was afraid the soldiers might rally behind my uncle as a leader, and overthrow him. In his safe they found two ceremonial guns which had been bestowed upon him by the military, and a personal letter. My dad was very particular about the letter.
“A personal letter he’d written for himself,” my dad said, “denouncing Ghaddafi.”
I have a small lockbox, in which I keep my passport, my gold, and a few love letters I hardly ever look at. When I brush the letters with my fingers, though, it feels warm deep in my chest to know they are there. I imagine my uncle kneeling by his own safe, one large enough for guns and with an old-fashioned spinning dial. No gold, (Muslim men aren’t supposed to wear gold). The letter would be written in pen, perhaps on pages ripped from a composition book, something too secret for official stationary. I don’t know exactly what the letter said, but I know that to my uncle it must have felt much warmer than my love letters, that whatever was in him was so hot it couldn’t live in his heart anymore, that it had to be on paper and locked away, or it would burn right through him.
My uncle was put in prison when I was six, and they didn’t let him out again until I was sixteen. I was seventeen at the beginning of the Libyan revolution. My dad says now that prison saved my uncle’s life. After the revolution, they tried and executed those high-ranking officials who had not managed to escape. My uncle would have been among them, if Ghaddafi had not made it clear which side he belonged to by imprisoning him. My whole family thanks God for this.
When my dad first went back to Libya he flew through Germany on Lufthansa, and they almost didn’t let him fly the final leg. At the time you could get into Libya with a valid Libyan passport, but not with an American one. My Dad’s Libyan passport was from the seventies, from when he’d left home for good. Still, he got on the plane somehow, which is something I feel would never happen in an American airport, not because we follow rules more strictly than the Germans, but because we have no sympathy, in our attitudes towards nonwhite immigrants, in our government, and especially, in our airports.
When my dad got to Libya they weren’t going to let him in, either, but he got in somehow, in the same mysterious way that he made it to the US in the first place, both of which seem to have to do with my Uncle Mohammed. Long before he was arrested, it was my Uncle Mohammed who paid for my father’s education, and my Uncle Mohammed who finally got him home.
After a month in Libya my dad came back twenty pounds fatter, with stories of the food he’d eaten and a digital camera full of pictures of cousin after cousin whose names not even my dad could keep straight. In the women, at least, I started to detect that Ayad something after all, a very shy smile, a ducking of the head before the camera. After his trip my dad took pictures of every family gathering we had in Florida, which he had never done before, but now these images mattered, because when he went back, he could show them to his other family. In them, I smile boldly. I let my eyes bore into the lens, and maybe those women will see my Ayad something. Maybe the next time he goes back (if he ever goes back) he’ll thumb through the pictures and my cousins will lift their chins a little higher.
When I tell people my name is Latifa, they don’t believe me. Not like when I was a hijabi. Then, they nodded when I introduced myself, but now, sometimes, I even have to take out my driver’s license to prove I’m not joking. I wore the hijab from the age of fourteen to eighteen, not because someone forced me, not even because I believed in God, but because when I put on the hijab, I was only half American, though that half is more American than you can get. I myself am a daughter of the American Revolution. My family helped build this country, and one, Henry Dunster, was even the first president of Harvard. In the Civil War, one of my ancestors fought for the Union, the other for the Confederacy. They met on the battlefield, not knowing the other was still alive, and embraced. They were brothers.
When I started covering, I thought of the hijab as proof of the division that existed inside me, that just as those brothers shot at each other, then embraced, my Libyan and American halves could somehow learn to reconcile themselves, if I just made that part of me known. The clashes of the two cultures manifested in the way I wore the hijab, covering my hair but intentionally careless with my necklines, letting my scarves only half-drape over my breasts, exposing cleavage. Later, I switched to the hijab that exposed my full throat, then shifted to short sleeves and knee length skirts. Towards the end I started abandoning the hijab at the beach, then on weekends, and finally altogether.
When I started covering, I’d wanted to highlight my difference, to say look, I’m not just American. The hijab is supposed to deter eyes, but in America, it draws them. I wanted people to look at me and see that there was something else in me, that I was American and Libyan. Yet when other hijabis approached me in the mall and spun off phrases in Arabic, in English I’d have to say, “Sorry, I don’t understand,” and feel the heavy weight of not quite belonging, that when I wrapped the hijab around my neck it was somehow a lie.
Before my father went back to Libya, he visited Tunisia while the revolution was still going on, and stayed with his friend Lasaad. They helped Libyan refugees, and my dad met his sister-in-law and her children in a hotel. In the streets someone was celebrating a wedding with fireworks, and the children ran and hid under the bed, thinking they were bombs.
Later, my father stood at the edge of the Sahara, and gazed back at Libya for the first time in thirty-five years. I can see him there, sand rising up in a gust of wind and whipping his face, but his eyes are closed. He is breathing in the air of his home country, his face calm but tears leaking out from his eyes, and I feel it swelling inside me too, when I think of the revolution days, when we thought everything would be good, when we hung the Libyan flag next to the American flag on our balcony: hope, or maybe desperation.
For a while after the revolution my dad was obsessed with finding videos in Arabic on YouTube, even after he stopped watching Ghaddafi, which, as the revolution fizzled out, as the American news stations stopped covering the continued warring in Libya, seemed to be no longer what he needed. He found a video of a little girl and her camel, which was amazing to my dad, since he knows just how mean camels can be. In the video the little girl climbs onto the camel’s head, and she says something to it in Arabic. The camel raises its neck and head slowly, and then the little girl scrambles onto its back. My dad inevitably forgets the search terms he uses to find this video, but he rediscovers it once in a while and says, “Latifa, come watch this,” and sometimes I say, “Dad, I’ve already seen this,” but mostly I watch anyway, because it is cute, and because it makes my dad happy.
In the evenings now my mother watches TV, and my father plays Spider Solitaire on his iPad. I don’t know if he ever looks for videos now, but I don’t think he does, because the hope that came with the revolution has died down. I don’t know where we keep our Libyan flag now.
My father plays Spider Solitaire in only one suit. It has been pointed out that his high score means less because of this; doesn’t he know that it’s easier with one suit? My dad brushes this off, and he still plays just the same way. ☐