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All the familiar paranoias emerge on a bright summer day in Big Sur, as my older brother and I watch my 70-year-old father come up on LSD for the first time in…maybe ever? His eyes are closed, hands folded on his lap. The light shines through gaps in the redwoods and lands in dapples on his face.
What have we done?
Here is a man who has fought in wars, who was once institutionalized by the Egyptian military, who had a heart attack at 54. A man beloved back home in Egypt, where he is an actor and humanitarian. A man who is a devout Muslim with unshakable faith in the world as he sees it. A man with people who depend on him for their livelihoods. A man who has seen some shit.
This is it, I think. We’re going to forever be known as the sons who made their father lose his mind.
It’s an inevitable role reversal, children taking care of parents. Being responsible trip sitters, we tried to control for set and setting. The setting, the oasis of my literary heroes Kerouac and Miller, is on point. But my dad’s set is something my brother and I had neither much access to nor inclination to fine-tune. He told us he took LSD in the 1960s, but I suspect that’s just the competitive bravado that comes from not wanting to be upstaged by your acid-eating children.
The minutes pass slowly. Then, suddenly, a smile appears on my father’s lips. His eyes open slowly, and I meet his dilated pupils.
“Let’s go swimming!” he says.
The Arab Spring bore unexpected fruit: my father’s return.
For much of my life, he was a sporadic albeit loving presence. My parents divorced in Egypt when I was five and my brother was seven. The story goes that, one evening, my mom downed a fifth of bourbon, gathered her courage, and decided she’d take her children to America. My father stayed behind, supporting us from afar with the spoils of his burgeoning acting career. We’d see him once or twice a year when he visited, and for brief intervals we were offered an intoxicating glimpse of how we felt things should always be. Then he’d go back to Egypt, and our calls to one another would grow less and less frequent, until he returned the following year and the cycle would begin again.
After 9/11, each attempted entry through immigration was fraught with the fear and uncertainty that comes with being an Arab in America. My father’s titanium hip, a stopgap measure for addressing a parachuting accident he suffered in the military, set off metal detectors without fail. His trips to so-called trouble spots in the Middle East as part of his humanitarian work aroused suspicion. He was often questioned, and often humiliated.
As the Arab Spring unfolded in the early months of 2011, my father marched with millions on the Cairo streets, demanding the ouster of Egypt’s authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak. As naive idealism and hopes for democracy gave way to the harsh reality of the country’s age-old geopolitical dynamics, with a repressive military on one side and religious extremists on the other, Egypt deteriorated. The economy tumbled. Jobs dried up. Those who spoke their minds were imprisoned. And my father, watching his sons enter adulthood from afar, decided to join us in Berkeley for a temporary retirement until things calmed down. He hoped to become an American citizen, both for security in case things in Egypt got even worse and for the peace of mind that comes with presenting an American passport to a U.S. immigrations officer.
He moved into a one-bedroom apartment on a quiet Berkeley street, bracketed by People’s Park to the north and Willard Park to the south. Gardens overflowed onto the sidewalks. Cairo this was not.
My dad was well aware by then of his son’s fondness for psychedelics. We had moved to the Bay Area as idealistic twentysomethings—Steve Jobs fanboys who believed in the potential of technologies like the personal computer and LSD to bring about positive transformations in society. We’d eat acid every few months, casting about for spiritual growth and creativity in our startup ventures. At first, my father was puzzled and concerned. Soon, he was curious.
My dad, a child of the sea and sandy beaches of Alexandria, frolics happily in the water of the pool by our Big Sur cabin.
He won’t have access to many words this day, but he won’t need them. He’ll wash his face in a waterfall and brace himself against shimmering redwoods whose beginnings predate him by centuries. Later in the evening, a fire roaring in the cabin, he’ll watch home movies he captured when we were children that my brother has digitized. He’ll stare in disbelief at the images on the laptop, of my brother at four, clomping about the backyard and throwing mud at me, the gullible object of his relentless teasing. He’ll look at his grown sons next to him and back at the screen. Though he says little, I feel, for the first time, that I can read his mind.
Over the next four years, my brother and I visit my father in Berkeley on the weekends. The three of us often trip together.
Sometimes we’ll play ping-pong, my brother and I marveling at my dad’s capacity to consistently kick our asses. Sometimes we’ll watch his favorite Marlon Brando movies and Muhammad Ali fights, my dad pinching the air with his fingers after the delivery of a memorable line or right hook, eyes closed like he’s just sipped from an exquisite vintage. We’ll listen to corny Paul Anka tunes as my dad dances, and we’ll try to turn my dad on to the latest electronic music, to no avail. Sometimes we’ll play FIFA on the PlayStation, bursting into laughter as we attempt to maneuver through a green pitch that undulates into fractals. Sometimes we’ll walk down Berkeley streets, my father pointing to the vibrant colors of California poppies and Douglas irises.
Often, he’ll quite literally stop to smell the roses and whisper alhamdulillah (“praise to God”) under his breath.
Sometimes I’ll find myself deep in a trip, staring at my father walking gingerly into a room, his steps unsteady, and watch as he heaves a sigh and settles into his chair. My expanded aperture captures every detail. My father who once was superman is now simply a man growing old. Every detail rings out like the bell at the San Francisco Zen Center as it strikes against the worn wood, upon which painted words read: “Great is the matter of birth and death. All is impermanent, quickly passing. Wake up! Wake up, each one! Don’t waste this life.”
The best parts are the conversations we have when we’re tripping with our psyches laid bare. Timothy Leary once said he learned more about his mind from one mushroom trip than in the previous 15 years studying psychology. My brother and I learn more about my father and ourselves during these talks than in the preceding decades of long-distance calls and winter vacations.
We peel back the superficial layers of my claims that I find it hard to be intimate with those I date and reveal scars of childhood abuse — a legacy from the neighbor in Egypt who promised candy but provided instead the trauma that teaches a five-year-old that those who reach out are not to be trusted. We talk about the toxic axioms that we’ve been brought up to believe as heterosexual males, about the negative tendency to transmute the flowing, dynamic world into a world of objects to grab hold of. We work through how we might unlearn these ways of looking at the world.
My father talks me through my struggles with sobriety and issues the dictate that defines his faith (and, it should be noted, the third step of the 12-step program): Surrender.
We often circle back to this notion of surrender on these trips. It’s usually brought up in the context of my brother and I aspiring to achieve greatness, a pressure made all the stronger when we look at what my father has achieved. My brother asks what his secret is.
“It’s not the you who achieves these great things,” my dad says. “You are but an instrument of God’s symphony. Surrender your will to be an instrument of God.”
My father says that for him, love of self and love of God are one and the same. And everything follows from an unconditional love of self. I ask him how he’s learned to love himself unconditionally. He says it wasn’t a sudden thing but a gradual process determined by choices he made moment by moment. He says that this unconditional love spreads of its own accord to one’s children, and that there’s a way of acting with your kids that leaves no trace, a way of empowering their choices that resonates as true when you do it. You let go of what you want for them.
The nights end with my brother and me passing out in the living room and my father retreating to his bedroom. I often awaken to the creaking wood and murmurings that signal my father kneeling and bowing his head on his prayer rug—no doubt counting his blessings, surrendering.
My father became a United States citizen on August 17, 2017. He returned to Egypt shortly thereafter. Our chapter of Berkeley psychedelia came to a close.
He would have stayed in Berkeley if he could, but retirement savings go pretty quick in the Bay Area, especially when they depreciate to one-fifth of their value on account of an economy in free fall. But there’s comfort in knowing he can return anytime he wants.
In the intervening months, I’ve thought a lot about the time we spent together—in particular, our psychedelic adventures. From one vantage, plying your septuagenarian father with illegal, psychoactive drugs is the epitome of irresponsibility. I prefer to see it as a vision of what’s possible in a world that one day views these substances differently.
When I think back on my psychedelic experiences in my early twenties, the vast majority were undertaken in hiding and in fear, in environments hardly conducive to supporting me.
When I tripped with my dad, I felt safe. I felt free to be vulnerable around someone who offered nothing more than his presence, which was, it turns out, more than enough.