I liked Adhip instantly, or at least after our first few words spoken. He was a father with a small daughter, a loving marriage that was feeling the strains of having hurried along so they wouldn’t be parted by immigration laws, and a new citizenship. Like me, he found himself as a too-old student at an uncomfortably bohemian liberal arts college. I found his anxieties mirrored my own, and diminished them by comparison. I was floundering then in my own role as a law-enforcement wife and mother. A mere twenty-five, I found myself feeling strangely unmoored in spite of my stable existence. I enrolled in a few classes, imagining they might somehow call my soul home to its body.
When I met Adhip, he promptly confided he was there with the same hopes. We bonded quickly over our shared near-drowning experience as parents and spouses, and discussed our respective strategies to stay afloat. I marveled at his resilience. He had lived his whole life elsewhere, in a place where being middle class looked different, where he understood the unspoken rules of the dominant culture and what was valued there. I remember his joking lament that he wasn’t considered good looking by American standards; at home his height and lighter complexion had always garnered attention. He was surprised to learn it was in bad form to try on someone else’s accent or dialect; here it had a connotation of objectifying or mocking, at home it was an indication of respect and admiration. One day he sheepishly asked me if it was typical for American police officers to refuse bribe money; in his hometown everyone carried a little cash in case they got stopped, their version of a plea bargain. He had accidentally insulted a local officer when he was stopped for a minor violation, not realizing such a behavior would be cause for moral outrage here. To listen to his experience in America was to see the country through new eyes, without rose colored glasses and yet still, with appreciation and affection.
As for me, I grew up in a red county in upstate New York, a third generation American whose family embraced assimilation as the ultimate expression of love for their new country. Orthodox Christians in what was then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, they had come to America for a chance at economic prosperity in a land where they would no longer be the religious minority. Here, they found a country that offered their first real chance to be enfranchised.
They made their homes in a Syrian ghetto nestled in Brooklyn, joining other new immigrants in apartment buildings close to Maronite churches, walking distance from the Middle Eastern markets on Atlantic Avenue. One great-grandmother changed her name from Wadea to Maude, the other named her sons George and Abraham for the great American presidents; acts of devotion to country pouring from hearts of sincere gratitude, offered with the hope that this might make them truly belong. My grandfather was barred from active duty in World War II, his two older brothers were serving overseas and he was to stay back as the only remaining son to carry on his family name; he was still too young, he had flat feet and a heart condition. But there was simply no telling his heart that it didn’t belong to an American soldier, his passion for his country and his desire to serve her was too strong to be bound by any constraint. There is a plaque on his grave honoring his time in the Army anyway, the little window before he was caught in his deception and honorably discharged with respect for his patriotism.
He wrote diligently from his training camp to the woman he had and would always love, then still just his childhood sweetheart from the old neighborhood. Not knowing his time would be brief, he told her she didn’t have to wait on him. She waited anyway, and would have waited indefinitely; her love for him as uncontainable as his own for their nation. We buried those letters with my grandmother when she passed, tied in a neat bundle, tucked carefully beside her.
They moved up to the suburbs when my mother was a small girl, a house nestled at the base of a mountain, in a manufacturing town on the edge of the Hudson River. Their parents were gone, the old neighborhood was moving in an unfamiliar direction. Their cousins and siblings and friends were taking their children and leaving for grassy yards and white picket fences. The old apartments were slowly filling with strangers who didn’t share their same understanding of patriotism, strangers who kept their names, their accents, their languages. It was nearly blasphemous to them, a rejection of the way of life they celebrated and sacrificed to join. My grandparents had never dreamt of or wanted a different way to be an American. Why would they?
In our upstate neighborhood, we all lived within a block or two of each other. Growing up, I spent summers and weekends with my mom and brother, my cousins and aunt and uncle, all together at my grandparent’s house. There, we swam in their pool, often in some variation of a red, white, and blue bathing suit, an American flag waving on their porch. We munched on cantaloupe and wrinkly oil cured olives and twisted cheese with tiny black seeds. I can remember my grandmother patiently unspooling that cheese into wispy thin ribbons, piled high in red melamine bowls, telling us it tasted better that way. I would turn up my nose at scoops of za’tar spread in wedges of Syrian bread, holding out for nibbles of our grandfather’s special apricot paste, or maybe a scoop of rice pudding in one of my grandmother’s fancy glass dessert cups from her Hershey’s sundae set. We listened to country singers croon about God and nation, songs about the will of a father making a better life for his family, while our grandfather sang along softly, misty eyed.
My grandfather took seriously this calling to carve out a way for his family, to sacrifice and see our dreams fulfilled instead. He thought often of his own father, a barber who came here unable to read or write in English, a man who, years later, proudly signed his own name on his naturalization papers in shaky writing — the man who died when he was a boy. His father’s American dream was his to have or lose. When his son needed help, he took out a second mortgage. When his granddaughter needed furniture, there was money in the safe. When Christmas rolled around, there was a wall lined with presents, expressions of love and generosity. He refused to let us rush through opening these brightly wrapped packages, an unspoken lesson that we must receive as thoughtfully as we give. From this deeply good and devoted man, I learned my politics, my brand of patriotism, my earliest understanding of conservatism. He revered sacrifice and hard work, he believed deeply in the resilience and ingenuity of the human spirit, and he believed that America was a place where anyone could truly achieve anything if they worked hard and never faltered. He knew how far he had come, how he had carried his father’s legacy forward, how he saw it in his children, in my brother, my cousins, in me. We were the authors of our limits, our work ethic and determination our only constraints.
It was with my grandfather that I first began testing out my thoughts on politics that drifted left, toward center. It was from him that I learned the value of respectful discourse and intellectual integrity. He would disagree passionately with my opinions, and always praise me for how carefully I had formed them. He would listen to things I had read or heard and ask me thoughtful, intelligent questions that tested them, not simply because he wanted me to change my mind, but because he wanted me to understand that every party line, every politic, must and should be beholden to truth alone. There was never any shame in being wrong when I spoke with him. There was only shame in refusing to consider the possibility.
Adhip’s outlook on the value of work and the importance of humility in education was the same as the one I had been raised in, largely. As adult learners, we took our time at school seriously, searching for some kind of answer to the riddle we’d written ourselves into. We recognized quickly that we were anomalies. He recoiled along with me at some of our fellow students, how they lacked discipline in study, how they seemed so devoid of curiosity, so unconcerned with educating themselves as a means of good citizenship and personal growth. We often shared a meal at the local Turkish place with an eclectic menu between classes, both thankful to be eating with someone else who saw it as simple comfort food and not as some badge to prove their worldliness, trading lines from our favorite philosophers and poets and analyzing the world we were to inherit. He thought Americans largely too soft and too sensitive, too obsessed with words and not nearly concerned enough with the spirit in which they were said. Not real Americans, I assured him, not Americans like me. I found his perspective refreshing, an affirmation. He was someone I wanted to respect me, someone who I had respect for, and like my grandfather, he asked thoughtful and intelligent questions that pushed my boundaries, testing the rocks I stood on lest they tip under the weight of a life built on them. In our conversations, which I characterize as contemplation and not debate, honesty reigned supreme, and if you could not defend a thought with truth and consistency, you had to reconsider. It was a simple rule. I nudged him to the right on issues of national defense, he pushed me left on welfare reform.
I remember that conversation well, we were sitting in a courtyard, our first class together unexpectedly cancelled, both waiting for the next to start. It was April, and I was railing at the taxes my husband and I had just paid, complaining about people who abused the system and drove up the cost. I was, frankly, thoughtlessly confident in this conversation, thinking of it as little more than complaining to a friend who I expected would share my views. My moral outrage was correct, I was sure, it was a robbery of my own hard work to share money with someone who used it for nefarious purposes, who didn’t share the devotion to hard work and family and country that I had learned at my grandfather’s knee, that I had seen as a transformational presence in my own life. I had no problem with charity, of course, I gave routinely to support the hungry and the homeless, I wanted to see us care for people who were down on their luck — but I wanted to do that on my own terms, not those of the government. Facts be damned, I was certain the government did too poor a job keeping benefits from people who abuse the system meant to help the truly downtrodden. I despised the notion that someone not doing their part should live a good life on my dime if it kept my life from being better, or even made it harder at times. I could not have acknowledged this then, but I viewed our financial stability as a primarily moral success, and I had followed that logic to it’s reasonable and dark conclusion. Adhip, I suppose, could see this coldness in me that I had not truly sensed. Usually animated and engaged on any topic, he grew quiet and looked genuinely sad as I spoke. I laughed off my discomfort, asking if he was turning into some bleeding heart. He paused.
“Are you then, the type of person who would starve a dove to kill a hawk?” he asked me. I laughed again. “I’m the type of person who doesn’t want hawks taking from me what they could get for themselves,” I replied, dismissively. He shook his head at me. “Everyone wants that. But in life, you don’t always get to choose, it’s not always so clean or easy. Hawks, everyone notices, you know? They’re aggressive, they’re big, you can’t miss them. But you may feed hundreds of doves who just come and quietly take what they need. You can try, you must try, really, but you will never completely keep the hawks away. So then what? You stop putting out food? You let the hawks win, you abandon your purpose? Why be consumed with anger over feeding a few hawks when you should be celebrating how many doves you save from starvation? How can anyone live that way?”
I felt a hot embarrassment creep over me. Our conversations never went this way. I could have undertaken an intellectual argument, but this was a moral conversation, and I had no case to make. Adhip had talked about widespread hunger and poverty at home, spoken so admiringly of our social programs and how many people he had known who would’ve benefitted from them, though he had always enjoyed financial security and relatively high class status at home. He understood intrinsically that to feed a dove along with a hawk was by far the lesser moral compromise; he had spent his life in a place that chose instead to leave every creature for themselves. He knew what that looked like in a way that I didn’t. For him, the threat of living hungry in the street was widespread, real, close. He understood the shortcomings of charity alone, that a model supported by government and supplemented by charity met needs better, more effectively, more often. He appreciated the work of our country, and it was something that made him proud to live here. I did not understand his brand of patriotism, I did not understand the blasphemy I was committing against his American dream. His America was a place where people worked so hard, were so prosperous, that they could achieve anything they dreamt of — and it was a place, for him, made by people so generous and so good that they uplift others with their industriousness. His America was a place filled with so many sidewalks that no one slept on. I was humbled, then, how much bigger his American dream was than my own, by how I had tried to imagine it small, or naive, or foolish. There was still no shame in being wrong, not even then — but I was wrong, and I was ashamed. This conversation has hung in my heart since, the simple truth of hawks and doves permeates my life. I can not forget or deny it.
I thought of it again when Alan Kurdi drowned seeking refuge from war. The image of his body on the beach disturbed the world, but it’s the pictures of him alive that wounded me in a way I dare not allow to heal. He was a beautiful Syrian boy. His dark brows and lashes, the way his ears stuck out just a little, the thick round tip of his straight, firm nose. He looked like baby pictures of my uncle, my brother. He looked like my own little son, the same age. I wept for him bitterly, wondering who he might have been, if he would have named his sons for great leaders now passed, if his children would have been patriots of their new land, if his great-grandchildren would have splashed and played in a backyard pool under the banner of a flag that was theirs now, by birth and by devotion. I wondered if his descendants, too, would have forgotten so easily where he had come from, how much capacity the heart has to love a new land, a new community, how deep our desire to belong runs.
I know this longing, as it fills the depths of my being and my identity. Above all, in my heart, I am an American. I learned my patriotism at the knee of a man who insisted upon serving his countrymen. He was willing to be a man of no descendants, willing to risk his family name falling away, to be forgotten by the nation he loved so deeply. It was worth it, to him, to do what was right even when it scared him, even when it shook the safe borders around his life. And I should confess, as I have little doubt, that if he were reading this he would shake his head, remind me that those people aren’t like him, they didn’t do it the way our family did it. They’ll speak with accents, they’ll keep their names, they’ll fill the old neighborhoods. I know. And immigrants now, refugees now? Oh, I know. I’ve been told before, and I can almost hear my grandfather saying it — it’s not like it was then. There’s a danger now. It rears up in Nice, in Berlin, at Ohio State. It’s true, and I won’t be a willful denier of truth, not any. But there is an insidious danger lurking in all this that we can not be blind to; there is another truth to protect. There will always be hawks. We should, we can, we must try to stop them. But we cease to be ourselves, the nation people dream of belonging to, if we abandon our purpose. We can not stop the hawks by permitting the slaughter of doves.
I wonder every day what my grandfather would think of all this. I can only blame him for my convictions, however misapplied he may have thought them. I learned well from his life of bravery and boldness. I learned from his industriousness and resilience, from his sacrificial generosity. I hold his legacy now; bit by bit, I meter it out to my children. I know what I have to teach them, if I am to keep it alive. There will always be hawks. I know. But I am an American, a real American. I live boldly, I fear no death nor being forgotten; I am not so soft or so weak to need self-important assurances to do what is right. I will stand among hawks. I will guard the doves. I will continue to dream a big, ever-expanding American dream. And I will teach my children to do the same. So will Adhip, with his foreign name, his thick accent, his birthplace across the sea. I know he will.
Like my grandfather, like me- he is a real American.