My father suffered a brain hemorrhage (likely due to high blood pressure) on Saturday. The damage to his brain was too severe and he passed away today. He was 79.
I am beyond heart broken … even though I know I was so blessed to have had him in my life for so long. Baba was my hero — a bigger than life guy who lived a remarkable life.
Baba was born on October 10th, 1939, in Palestine. His mother was Turkish and his father was a Palestinian tailor in Al Ramla and later in Ramallah. Despite the war and tough times, he spoke fondly of his childhood. Baba was a great storyteller and his stories of his childhood antics and mischief were legendary in my family.
He attended college in Egypt and earned his degree in accounting from Ein Shams University. He loved his time in Egypt (again, insert even more legendary stories) and the Egyptian people. As a kid, I was always amused by how well he could switch from his Palestinian dialect to an Egyptian one. Some of my favorite memories of my childhood revolved around a family trip we took to Egypt where he played tour guide showing us around all of his favorite places.
While in college, he somehow got an entry level accounting job at the water ministry in Kuwait in the 1960s (I think through a family friend). My maternal grandfather worked at the same water ministry. When my grandfather passed away, my mom started working there to help support her family and that’s where my parents met. I’ve often wondered if my grandfather knew that this handsome young man he was interacting with was going to marry his daughter.
By the time I was born in 1980, Baba was a finance and accounting executive at a Kuwaiti company. I think most children grow up thinking of their dads as really important people. But Baba really was. And I knew that from the amount of respect everyone showed “Abu Najati” — not just because of the position he had attained in his career but the place he held in our large extended family. He was the patriarch of his family and he took that role seriously. If anyone needed anything (regardless of how close or distant of a relative they were), he was always there for them. Even though he could have a temper, he could also be amazingly level headed. He always seemed to know how to bring sense when emotions ran high.
I have so many childhood memories of Baba the boss/manager type. He was always in a suit and worked incredibly hard. He’d bring home his ledgers (yes, actual physical ledgers — like if Excel or Sheets were actual real sheets of paper) and he’d be pouring over the books making sure everything was accounted for correctly. From what I’ve gathered second and third hand, it sounds like he was a really good accountant and a good boss and mentor. I’ve heard so many stories of accountants who used to work with Baba in Kuwait and how much they had learned from him.
So much of my childhood was centered around my father … holding his big hand as he bought me toys and art supplies (a weekly ritual) … sitting in the car listening to him singing along with Leila Mourad. He always supported me and made me feel special. I don’t think his dreams for me or my siblings knew any bounds. I’m grateful that he had such high expectations for all of us. Anything I drew or painted as a kid got me one of his “allaahhh”’s. His favorite was a penguin I painted when I was about 8 or 9. He loved it so much he had it professionally matted and framed. Adults often humor kids but I really do think he genuinely thought it was the best piece of art he’d ever seen.
When we found ourselves in Southern Illinois in 1990 when Saddam invaded Kuwait, Dad’s resilience came through. He knew the right thing to do was to seek asylum from the United States. He knew Americans were good and reasonable people and if only we could explain to the government our situation, they’d grant us asylum. Even when relatives assured him that we could overstay our visas, he wanted to do the right thing. He wanted to make sure that we could stay here legally. I never thanked him for doing that but I am so so so grateful that he gave me that gift. The gift of an American life, an American education, and an American career.
Life in the US wasn’t easy for him but he managed to make a lot of friends in Edwardsville. He was very proud when he earned his American citizenship. Of all the places he had lived, the US was the only country that gave him the opportunity to vote. His voting record (and reasoning) always amused me: Bush W because he liked what his father did in Kuwait, Obama because his father was Muslim (and he just really liked Obama), and Hillary because as he’d fervently say in Arabic, “She is more qualified than any man! Any man!” I think he saw my sister Nabeela’s tenacity in Hillary.
In the early/mid 2000s, Baba served in Iraq alongside American troops as a military contractor for about 4 or 5 years. His official role was to translate Arabic but he did so much more than that. He explained the culture to them and brokered relationships between the American forces and local Iraqi leaders. Even though it was scary, tough, and unlike anything else he’d ever experienced in his life, he really loved this period of his life. He loved telling stories from his days in Iraq and he was so proud to have met Dan Rather.
When I started my career in tech, Baba loved telling people about my job at [insert his thick Middle Eastern accent] Microsoft and later on he was even prouder to say that his daughter worked at “Al” Google. I’m grateful that he got to see me grow up and be an adult.
I’m going to miss so many things about my dad. His booming voice. His big heart. His integrity. His deep understanding of the Middle East, its history, and its politics. His enthusiasm for good fruit. A good watermelon! Ripe mangoes! These were all a cause for celebration for Baba.
But more than anything I’m going to miss his hugs, his love, and his presence.
Baba — thank you for making me the person I am today.