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A Complicated Man: A Tribute To My Father

My father and me.

My father and me.

It was only 4 weeks after we laid my father, Mohsen Elattar, to rest, at the Islamic section of the cemetery in New Jersey. I had just finished a day of teaching Kindergarten at the little Islamic school near our home and I was window shopping without having any real idea of what I was looking to buy. This is a habit that I can never get rid of, emotional shopping. Even now, I find myself shopping whenever I’m in pain, but of course, whatever I end up buying never brings me any happiness.. That’s a whole other story that I will write about soon, but right now, I want to tell you about my father’s life and death.

The sun was going down and the sky was turning into shades of pink and orange that bleed into blue, purple, and eventually darkness. The weather was cold, but not frigid. It was still mid winter and the days were still short and the nights long. I was a few blocks away from my parents’ house when I stopped to look at a Hallmark store’s window display. I noticed they had a replica of Jay Gatsby’s West Egg mansion. It came complete with the yellow car and figurines of Jay Gatsby and Daisy. It was lit from within with a single light bulb, but that little light bulb lit up all of the windows of the mansion and I really wanted it. I saw the price tag and it was $125.00. That was more than I can spend on something I didn’t need.

I was about to turn away from the display window when I heard a whistle. It wasn’t just any whistle, it was a whistle that I knew well. When I was a child, my father would always whistle in a special way on the steps of our brownstone to let us know that he was home. It was a sound that I knew well and it also meant that I was about to get my usual treat which was a bag of peanut M&M’s. As the years went on and I got older, the chocolate treat went away but the whistle stayed. That was the sound that I associated with my father and for a couple of quick seconds, I thought that I was about to run into my father on the street just like I had so many times in the past. I looked around me with a smile on face, trying to spot him in the street.

Then I remembered, my father was gone. My father went back to Allah and he couldn’t possibly be the one whistling. Then, I had a thought, what if my father was just checking up on me and he was telling me through his whistle that everything is fine, that he is alright? It was a comforting thought, but I kept it to myself. I had learned (the hard way) not to share my private beliefs with others who use Islam to vent their anger and their own righteousness.

My father was a very complicated man, and he and I were too much alike. We disagreed a lot and it was not easy to be his daughter. Through it all, I loved him, I loved him very much.

My father, Mohsen, was the eldest of 5 boys born to Mohamed and Badriah Elattar in Alexandria, Egypt. By all accounts, Mohsen was a very difficult child, but he was incredibly intelligent and artistic. He wrote and he also painted. I remember that we always had my father’s art work around our home and at my grandparents’ home. He was also a fiercely independent child that was often in trouble. There was a story about my father stealing a horse at age 5 on Eid eve and it did not end well, but it was a funny story.

Mohsen’s parents had a rough marriage, but that didn’t stop them from having many children. Their first born was a girl that passed away soon after birth. The baby’s death hurt my grandparents’ marriage even though they went on to have 5 boys after. My grandmother was really not interested in raising her boys as she was always at the movies. She had dreams of being a movie star, which never happened, and she left her children to their own devices.

Mohsen, being the oldest, was the ring leader and the boys were constantly getting into trouble. His parents decided that Mohsen should go live with his maternal grandparents. That was perfect for him because he loved them deeply and thrived while he lived with them. Eventually, Mohsen was sent back to his parents when he entered high school and his grandparents were getting older and needed care themselves.

Soon after, my dad went to college to become an architect and met my mother through my uncle who was his friend. My mother was a very pretty girl who was raised by a single mother and she was a few years younger than my father. She was having trouble with some of her school work and her mother, my grandmother, asked if Mohsen could tutor her. My father told me that my mother was very shy around him, so he arranged for my uncle to bring my mom to the movies one night where my father would “run into them accidentally” and he could get to know my mom.

He was successful and they became engaged. According to my maternal grandmother, my father spent more time at their house than his own., but soon he was drafted into the Egyptian army. My parents were married during one of my father’s 3 day leaves, but they had a big wedding. It looked very lavish from the pictures that I’ve seen.

Once my father and mother married, the army allowed my father to leave since his brothers were drafted into the army and navy. I was born a year into their marriage, but my father was a restless spirit. He did not want to stay home with my mother and had many friends. Besides his friends, he struggled with a lot of anger issues stemming from his childhood that he never dealt with. He was not nearly as interested in being a husband and father as he was interested in being free to pursue whatever took his fancy at the moment, whatever brought him pleasure.

At that time, my youngest uncle Ahmad, had immigrated to the U.S and my father was interested in doing the same. Through my uncle, my father was able to legally immigrate to the U.S. I often wondered what would have happened if immigration was never introduced into my father’s life. Would he had been satisfied with life in Egypt or would he have found his own way somewhere else? My father took the chance of living a different life in the U.S., and was on a plane headed for New York City.

My mother and I remained in Egypt and life continued that way for a few years. My father’s degree from an Egyptian university was not accepted as a full degree in America, so he found a job at a bakery that produced whole sale bread and other baked goods. Life was not easy for him, but he was no longer saddled with a wife and a child which allowed him the freedom he lacked while with us.

My father would make trips to Egypt to visit us, bringing me toys that I couldn’t buy in Egypt and candy that I tried to make last as long as possible. After a while, my mother insisted that she could not live this life apart from him and told him to make the legal arrangements needed for me and herself to immigrate to New York. At the time, I was less than 10 years old and I thought of New York as a magical place where wonderful things were available for an eager and curious child like me. I didn’t understand how hard immigration was or that I would not see my childhood home for many years to come.

My father finally relented and we were on a plane to NYC. We arrived at JFK airport on a cloudy June day. I was excited to finally reach the city where my father lived, but he did not look like he was thrilled to have us there. The daydreams that I had of arriving in a place where my father had roomfuls of toys and candy for me were shattered by the reality of a walk up, run down brownstone and a railroad apartment where people had to pass through my so called “bedroom” to get to the kitchen or bathroom.

I was enrolled in a private school. Though it was one of the best schools round, some of the teachers did not want to deal with me or my “foreigner” issues. One teacher in particular made my life a living hell. She went out of her way to single me out, admonish me whenever I needed help understanding things, pretended that she could not understand my accent (even though I never had an accent, I pick up languages very quickly) and would make me repeat myself over and over till there were tears running down my face. The final insult was the refusal to allow me to have a science book until I was fluent in the English language. I actually didn’t get a science book till about a month before the end of the school year. I still don’t know how she managed to do that and how no one else in the school thought it was wrong to do.

I was badly bullied by the kids in my class. I guess they felt empowered to do whatever they wanted because they saw our teacher bullying me. I would often not eat my lunch because I didn’t want to deal with the teacher or the kids saying something mean about my ethnic sandwich. I remember feeling sad and afraid most of that first year in the school. I felt that no adult was on my side and I often cried for hours in the bathroom when I got home.

I never told my parents what was happening in school because I actually blamed myself for anything that this teacher did. I felt that I had to try harder and if I failed, well, that was my problem and mine alone. I told my mother what happened years later and she was furious at that teacher and the school. She didn’t understand why I never told her what was going on. I would get books from the library and try to read them. Even if I didn’t understand most of the words, I would read them anyway and I had a dictionary near by to look up words and a notebook to write them down to memorize later.

My father was busy at work and really did not want to hear about my little problems. My mother tried to help, but she had her own limitations to contend with. I was truly alone and on my own. Whenever I think back on that time in my life, I feel sad and angry at the same time. Here I was, a little girl and I was expected to deal with a new culture, bullies, hateful teachers, and learning a new language after being uprooted from everything that I knew and everyone that I loved. I often wonder what my life would have been like had my mother never joined my father in New York with me in tow? I don’t think that my life would have been bad in the least because we did have a good life back in Alexandria, Egypt even if we didn’t have as much as we did in America.

The years passed and my life improved. I didn’t feel like a stranger in America anymore, it became my home. My father was still up to his wild ways, but life went on. I became closer to my father. I read his writing and he read mine. I remember how proud he was of me when the first of my writing was published, but we had epic arguments. We didn’t agree on some things such as my wanting to be a teacher instead of being a lawyer. I told my father that being a lawyer was his dream, not mine, and he quickly accepted my decision. We argued about a lot of things, but we never went more than a day without speaking.

I was graduating from college while working as a nanny for a little boy when my father had his first heart attack. My mother woke me up in the early hours of the morning and said my father was not well. She had called 911 and she followed the ambulance to the hospital. I got dressed quickly and arrived at the hospital within the hour. My father’s heart was severely damaged and he was in need of a heart transplant. The doctor said that he didn’t have long to live if he didn’t receive a new heart . He never received a new heart.

My father passed away about a year later after his first heart attack. He had a second a few months later and passed away peacefully in his sleep soon after. I took charge of his funeral arrangements and made sure that everything was done according to Islam. My father was buried 24 hours after his death on a cold, but sunny winter day. His funeral took place at the mosque during Friday prayer. I thought I would die from my broken heart and even as I write this, tears are falling.

My father was a remarkable man, that is how I remember him. A man who may not have been the best father and husband, but he was a kind man. He never turned anyone in need away. I learned compassion from him. He had two dogs that he loved and I often smile whenever I think about how much he cared for them. I kept his notebooks of poetry and short stories as well as a couple of paintings. I remember how he always kept a baby picture of me in his wallet and the box of awards, essays, and other things that belonged to me that I found after he passed. He would always say that he was keeping all of these things to show my children someday and to tell them how amazing their mother is.

It’s been many years since my father has passed and I’m now the same age he was when he left this earth. I realize how young he was when he left us and how I wish that I could have had one more day or even hour with him again. I was not living at home when my father passed away and the last time I saw him was only 3 days before his death. He insisted that I give him a kiss and a hug before leaving my parents’ house and told me that he wants me to call him more. I had spent a few hours with my father that day and then had dinner with both my parents. That moment haunted me for a long time, it was as if my father knew that I would not see him alive again and wanted to say good bye to me.

My father did not want his body sent back to the country where he was born like some people do. He always said that every place is God’s country and he just wanted to rest in whichever country he passed away in. I always thought that it was admirable and I made sure he got his wish. This also made it easy for me to visit him since I live in New York and the cemetery is not that far in New Jersey. He is laid to rest in a beautiful place, full of trees and sunshine. Recently, I was speaking to my mom on the phone and the subject of my father came up. My mother said to me that even though he and I were always at odds, she knew that he loved me more than anything. “Since the day you were born.”, my mother said through obvious tears.

Someday, when it is my time to leave this planet, I will see my father again. I often think wonder, will he smile when he sees me or will he complain about a decision that I made in my life that he disagrees with?. That makes me laugh to myself. I still talk to him sometimes when I’m alone and I have a feeling that he hears me. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss him terribly.

© 2021 Johanna Elattar