My Father, in Four Visits over Thirty Years

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In my early years, my father and I were partners in crime. Every night I would wait for him on the stoop of our house in Isfahan, Iran. I would tease him by greeting the melons and sour cherries hidden in his coat before saying hello to him. We would sneak ice cream together, eating it with spatulas in the bedroom so my mother wouldn’t see. I walked barefoot on his aching back. I was always on his lap at dinner tables. I have his chin, his eyes, his smile that looks as if it belongs on a six-year-old’s face.

When I was eight, my mother, brother, and I escaped our home. My father was rooted to his childhood village, and, when we found out that it was harder for entire families to leave together, he stayed behind. On our way to the airport, we were driven past my father’s dental office so we could wave goodbye to a darkened figure in a third-floor window. My encounters with him since then have been brief; I’ve seen my father four times in thirty years, for a total of forty days, give or take. The first visit was in Oklahoma, a year into our American asylum. I was eleven and everything had changed. I had lived in refugee hostels. I had learned English and endured the South. I refused to let him touch me or kiss me. This must have stung the most—he is a hugger, a kisser. He wanted to pick me up and wave me around like he used to do, to squeeze my face and bite my cheek and check my teeth. I hardly said hello, arms crossed over my very American T-shirt. At that age, all I wanted was to disappear, but this stocky, red-haired, mustachioed man had shown up ready to experience America loudly. He ate ice cream twice a day, counted the price of everything by the number of root canals he would have to do to earn it. He laughed at my ambition to go to Harvard or Yale. He offered pistachios to the plumber. We lived in small-town Oklahoma; he found a way to get opium. Once, I found him in a trance, slumped in a motel bathroom, sweating through his shirt, his eyes far away. He bought us season passes to a local waterpark, where he spoke loud, boisterous Farsi and flashed a wad of cash wrapped in a rubber band. He stood shirtless by his deck chair, hands on hips, pale body covered in red hair, surveying the place. When he asked me to apply sunscreen to his back, I stopped the instant the stuff started to foam.

Later, as we ate lunch on the balcony of a rib joint, I noticed a teen-ager loitering near our table. Without a word, my father got up, gave him two cigarettes, and returned to the table and tore open his daily Twinkie. Later, when I caught the same kid trying to jimmy open our locker, I realized Baba had been giving loose bills and cigarettes to gangs of teen-agers in exchange for beach chairs and towels and errands. I was mortified. Soon, he became addicted to one of the scarier waterslides, one that included a second of free fall. “That slide is like a shot of whiskey,” he said as he breezed by us.

The second time he visited, I was fourteen and had adopted a rigorous Tae Kwon Do practice as part of my Ivy League entrance strategy. I never smiled. I baffled him. My brother kept protesting about his cigarettes. Neither of us asked about Iran. Baba was older, of course. His age was jarring—his bulbous nose, the unnatural arc of his back, his varicose veins and hashish smell. I saw more clearly the risks he took, the smuggled caviar and pipes sewn into his suitcase lining, the phone calls to random Iranians in nearby towns, the trances. I kept my distance and hushed him when he spoke Farsi.

He took us to a restaurant called Shogun, and when he started on the sake I demanded to go home. He said, “Next time, before I visit, maybe I should stop in Dallas for a brain disinfection and stomach pump, to wash away all the embarrassing Iranian things. This way I can say everything currently inside my body was bought here in America.” Later, he asked why I had joined a boy’s sport. I explained that fewer girls competing meant I could win more trophies and get into Harvard. “Huh,” he said. “Enjoy this life, Dinajoon.” He downed more sake. A few days later he brought home some nails. “These are to nail down your good name,” he said, “So you can stop worrying about misplacing it all the time.”

Within a few days, he seemed exhausted by our piece of America. When my mother’s church tried to convert him, he said “O.K., I believe,” and let them baptize him the following Sunday. In private, he said, “Dinajoon, this God business will mess you up. There are two things in life: science and poetry.”

In 2001, Baba tried to come to my college graduation. His visa application was rejected in both Dubai and Istanbul. In 2003, he tried to come to my wedding. That visa request also failed. I wrote to Hillary Clinton, begging for help. An intern called me back and sent me to the U.S. immigration Web site. Secretly I was relieved, not in small part because we were now living in the age of suitcase scans. I left a seat empty for him at my wedding: place card, chocolate box, napkin.

The third time, we met Baba in London. I was twenty-five and my brother Daniel, twenty-two. Daniel had just graduated from N.Y.U. and taken on the cruelest role in the book industry, as assistant to a publisher so scary I’m afraid to write her name. I had just left my job as a strategy consultant, at McKinsey & Company, working fifteen hours a day, to take a job as a strategic manager at Saks Fifth Avenue. I was a Princeton grad with a job managing people twice my age. I had just married my college boyfriend, a man who definitely thought his family was better than mine. I was proud, and insecure, and insufferable.

My brother and I were so preoccupied with our new lives in New York that we almost missed the fact that our father had brought his new wife and a two-year-old daughter to London. What did we have in common with an overindulged, fat little Iranian girl begging for Kit-Kats? We were children of asylum and borrowed books and multi-variable calculus, of the Socratic method and cram sessions and lecture halls and alumni grants. We had hard bodies and East Coast brains and pale-faced partners who believed in themselves and adored us for our neuroses. My new stepmother wore floral-print polyester, her toenails painted cherry red and a touch too long. Her daughter’s accent was atrocious. “Babajoon, stop calling her my sister,” I told my father. I asked him to enroll his daughter in an English class. He dropped his head, nodded, and said, “I hope one day, maybe with your new husband, you learn to enjoy this life.”

The next day, in the National Portrait Gallery, I started to panic—for many reasons. The only one I revealed to Baba was that I had accidentally taken an extra birth-control pill. “Is just hormones,” he assured me. Then he asked to see my pills. Before I could object, he had eaten one. “See? Now we both took one too many.”

The fourth time, we met in Istanbul. I was living in Amsterdam with my husband, who had begun to spend all his time at work but who made our lives comfortable in ways I had never before experienced. My brother, too, was married. This time, we brought our partners.

Philip and I were coming from Amsterdam, Daniel and Alexandra from New York, and Baba from Isfahan. We had rented three rooms in the old district of Istanbul, and our flights were arriving two hours apart from each other: first Baba, then my brother and his wife, then us. Philip and I went to reception and asked if our party had arrived. The manager, a Turk who had obviously worked in service for decades, glanced at Philip’s Barbour jacket and European haircut, then back at the roster and said, “No. We’ll let you know when.”

So we checked in, dropped our bags in our room, and went for a walk. An hour later we checked at reception again. The man said our party still hadn’t arrived. Another walk. The hotel was situated on a beautiful tree-lined side street overlooking the Hagia Sofia. Up above was a balcony café where, from across the road, I saw an old man leaning over the railing, a cup of Turkish tea in his hand. He had a cane and gray hair. He looked in another world, but when he saw me, he jumped up and rushed down to us, hobbling on his cane, looking at my husband with admiration. I hugged him and introduced him and he tried, with his few English words, to express to Philip his happiness to see us.

When he told us that he had arrived hours ago, I stormed off toward reception. The manager was already watching us. He apologized, explaining that, since we were a European couple, he had been waiting for someone else for us, and for an Iranian family to meet my father. I asked, again, whether it was possible that my brother had also arrived. “Well,” the receptionist said. “There’s an American couple.”

My brother, too, had arrived hours before. Finally reunited, we set off to see Istanbul. My father was thoroughly charmed by Alexandra, Daniel’s pretty blond American wife. Arm in arm, they whispered and sampled sweets together. She called him Babajoon, in her American accent; he called her daughterjoon. It hurt a little.

Again, I was struck by his age. He used counting beads. His memory was fading, and he complained that the meat wasn’t cooked right—we had to eat at the same kabob house, Hamdi, every night. Soon we had amassed a large collection of the restaurant’s wet naps, which my brother called Hamdi wipes. I laughed. Baba didn’t get it. “What is funny about Hamdi wipe?” He spoke to us in poetry and in food. He taught Philip a poetry drinking game. He said in broken English, “Philip, my son, you take Hafez book”—he had brought it in his suitcase—“and you take shot. You ask a question about future. You open book. Your answer is on that page.” We played the game all night. Daniel tossed his shots into the plant while Philip and my dad got drunk together, threw their arms around each other, and predicted the future. This was something they had in common: the easy ways of men who had once been the golden child of their respective families.

One night we went to see some whirling dervishes. My father adores Rumi and, if he didn’t hate religion, he would be a follower of the Mevlevi order. Enraptured, he watched the dervishes, his counting beads turning in his fingers, his head nodding in meditation. Behind us, a group of Americans chatted, reading aloud from guidebooks and wondering when it would end. I knew Baba was annoyed. The Americans behaved with such entitlement that it took me ten minutes to find the courage to overcome the sense that it was my family who was out of place, my father who was embarrassing. Finally, I turned to the family and said, “This is a religious ceremony. Be quiet or leave.” My father looked at me aghast. He whispered, “Dinajoon, let everyone enjoy it their own way. Americans enjoy by talking.”

On the last day, we left in shifts. First a car arrived for Daniel and Alexandra. Philip, my father, and I had a quiet lunch on the balcony, and the staff was extra attentive. My father’s head hung a bit lower. His six-year-old smile was gone. We got free cappuccinos. Then our car came. We climbed in, promising Baba that we would meet again. From the back of the car, I turned to wave goodbye. I expected to see him standing alone in the road but two hotel staffers had him by each arm and were escorting him to the balcony, where Turkish teas awaited him. He wiped his face with a swollen hand, his ring glinting in the sun.

For many years after, we didn’t talk. Daniel had a baby who became a toddler. I moved to New York again. Daniel tried to see Baba again in Dubai, but Baba didn’t buy the plane ticket. We heard that he married a third time, a woman two years younger than me. Then I had a baby, too, and he got back in touch. I was in Provence for the summer and he promised to come see me. As had happened with my brother, he didn’t even book a ticket. It’s been years since we’ve seen each other, and much has changed. My brother and I have suffered failures, a divorce (mine), the pain of children, how they hold your heart in their sticky, careless fists. I know that Baba will never live in the West with us. It would end him, his big personality, his glorious sense of himself. He knows this, too, and maybe that’s why he no longer buys tickets to see us. But he has Instagram, and he writes adoring messages for my daughter in Farsi, using English letters. Every few days, his name pings on my phone screen.

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