American-American: I could call him 'Al'
When I was a kid, I didn't know my father had an accent. I knew that he had come to America from Baghdad before I was born, that he was an Arab, that he had grown up speaking Arabic before he learned English. But to me, he was as American as my American mother. The fact that my father was from another country was an interesting novelty to me, but it was part of some distant past that had nothing to do with our lives.
I learned that my father had an accent when I was in my early teens. A friend of mine mentioned it, and I told him he was crazy. I told my mother about this and she said, "Of course your father has an accent. Don't you hear it?" It was after this that I listened closely to my father speak, and for the first time heard his accent.
What I knew of my father was that he was a good dad. He played catch with me in the backyard after he got home from work. He took us fishing. He coached our baseball teams though he had grown up playing soccer. He loved sports. He also loved literature, and occasionally he read the Quran in Arabic. He sang Arab songs in the shower. He loved to cook. He loved his family.
My father, Ismail Mohamad Al-Samarrai, came to this country in 1953 at the age of 24 to study physical education. He had been a teacher in his country. He came with a suitcase, a suit, "a toothbrush, and $60." He also came with a scholarship. He met my mother in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he went to college. She was charmed by his accent. He was "such a gentleman," she said.
In photos of his early years here, he's slim and a bit handsome. He had dark alert eyes, black hair, a happy appearance. His nickname was "Smiles." He adopted the name "Al."
"I came to America with an open mind," he said. "Almost as soon as I arrived, I felt like I was born here. I liked the people, the food, the movies, the freedom. I could dance with a girl."
He did miss his culture. He said he particularly missed sitting in Baghdad coffeehouses reading and discussing Arab literature. He had wanted to be a writer, and had written some articles and short stories for newspapers and magazines in Iraq. A few of these pieces were read on the BBC. But he and other writers could not write freely there.
"You could not say honestly what you wanted to say," he said. "I thought I would write once I got to America. But... I didn't."
He was a typical young "radical" in Iraq. He protested against the government, a monarchy-dictatorship that predated Saddam Hussein. He once saw a cop shoot a protester. The angry crowd reacted by mauling the cop, leaving in the street what "looked like a lump of raw meat." Dad spent brief periods in jail and was once whipped by a cop. He had a scar on his nose from a deep gash.
"When I left Iraq, I knew in the back of my mind I would not go back," he said. Before long, he moved to Miami because he could not tolerate the cold New England winter. My mother, who to him at the time was just someone he had dated, "followed" him down, he said.
"I didn't follow him," Mom said. "I thought Miami was the most beautiful place in the world."
They married, had me, and my father lost his scholarship and dropped out of college so he could work. They had two more children. My father never went back to college or to Iraq. He spent his life working at jobs he didn't care for.
But his children earned college degrees.
They raised us as Catholics, my mother's religion. Dad played an active role in this, attending Mass with us. He even served as an usher.
"Why didn't you raise us as Muslims?" I asked him much later.
"I wanted you to fit in with your own people," he said. "You are Americans."
I was six years old when my father became an American citizen. I remember him pulling into our driveway with a big smile on his face, waving a little American flag.
"I'm an American now," he said.
I looked at him closely.
"You still look the same," I said, apparently dismayed that some visual transformation had not occurred.
I can only guess at the adjustments my father must have made during his life here as he became fluent in English and accepted a new culture and a new life.
"What are you?" I once asked him. "An Arab, an American, or an Arab-American?"
"I would not put a hyphen in a description of me," he said. "I am an American with an Arab heritage. I am proud of and fond of my culture. But if I must have a hyphen," – he chuckled– "then I am an American-American."
Augusta-American Fariss Samurrai lives in Waynesboro and writes for UVA News Services. This essay originally appeared in the July 3, 2003 edition of the Christian Science Monitor.