Baseball, they say, is a game for fathers and sons. I don’t doubt that they are right; I’ve seen Field of Dreams, after all. But baseball is not the only thing that binds fathers and sons together. My father wouldn’t know a double from a double play, but I would be neither the man nor the writer I am today without him. So today, on Father’s Day, I hope you’ll indulge me as I tell you a little about my dad.
Nabil Jazayerli was born in Damascus, Syria in 1944. He grew up in a middle-class family, although “middle-class” meant something entirely different in the Middle East in the 1950s than it does in 21st-century America. My grandfather, Muhammad Yunus Jazayerli, owned a factory that produced liquid nitrogen, which was then sold to a variety of companies that needed the stuff for industrial purposes. In America this would have made my grandfather a wealthy man; in Syria, it meant that he had the ability to provide for his family, and eventually buy his house instead of renting it, but it was a path to self-sufficiency, not a yellow brick road.
My father did well in school, as much by necessity as by choice. In Syria, as in most countries outside the western world – then and now – your career path is decided by the time you graduate high school. Every high school senior in the country takes a standardized exam (the Baccalaureate) and your composite score on the exam determines where you stand in line when it comes to picking your college. Or to put it more bluntly, it determined whether you were accepted to medical school. There were about 90 slots in the University of Damascus’ medical school, and that meant that the top 90 high school seniors in the country got the opportunity to become doctors. The 91st-best senior got the shaft. It’s not like anyone was in a position to turn down the opportunity to become a physician. Medicine wasn’t simply a noble and well-compensated profession – it was the noble and well-compensated profession.
While my father was in high school, my grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer. Told by the doctor that his disease was caused by the cigarettes he had been smoking in ignorant bliss for decades, he threw away his stash and never lit up again. He would have a lung removed, and managed to survive seven more years in progressively deteriorating health before he passed away. The official cause of death was his cancer, along with heart failure, but a contributing cause of his death was Ba’athitis.
It’s almost impossible to believe today, but in the 1950s, Syria was a functioning democracy. The president was elected – fairly – and served for a period of time before his term expired. Judges had immense power to apply and enforce the law. People enjoyed civil rights like freedom of speech and political expression.
One of the groups that took advantage of the latter was the Ba’ath party, a group of disaffected socialists who railed against the perceived injustices of government. This group gradually gained control of key positions within the army, and in 1963 they struck. A coup d’état was successful, and the Ba’athists soon set out to bring to the masses all the injustices that they had claimed to be fighting against.
One of the Ba’athists’ first targets was the bourgeois middle class, who had the chutzpah to conduct business with the intention of making a profit. In January, 1965 the government began “nationalizing” private businesses, “nationalizing” being a euphemism for “nice business you’ve built – we’ll take it!”
They came for my grandfather’s factory in the middle of the night. They were let in by the night security guard, a member of the Ba’ath party. My father was preparing to head to class the next morning when some of the factory employees rushed to the family’s house to tell them what had happened. It was common knowledge by that point that once the government had taken over your business, your best move was to just stay away. More than one businessman had made the mistake of going to his office to try and reason with his occupiers, and had suffered a savage beating for his impertinence.
My father had the unhappy duty to inform my grandfather of the news. He found Muhammad Yunus sitting on his bed, putting on his shoes.
“I don’t think you should go to work today,” was all my father could say.
My grandfather looked up at him, and immediately understood. “They’ve taken the factory, haven’t they?” My father could only muster a nod.
“Very well,” my grandfather said, and started removing his shoes. He then lay down in his bed and went back to sleep.
My grandfather did not last long after that. Neither would the factory; the Ba’ath party put the security guard in charge of the factory, which is a bit like giving the general manager’s job to a peanut vendor. (Don’t get any ideas, Mr. Glass.) Within six months the factory ceased to function, as every machine in the place had broken down.
At home, my father – barely out of his teens – had a mother, a sick father, and three younger sisters to provide for, and suddenly there was no source of income. My father had only one option open to him – the government, committed to its socialist principles, continued to provide free tuition for all medical students, and moreover they provided a small stipend to students who were in the top 25% of their class. If my dad was to continue in medical school, he simply had to find a way to rank at the top of his class.
So he did. When he wasn’t in class, he had a textbook in his hand. His neighbors would later tell me that when they woke up at dawn, they’d see my father sitting on the family porch, book in hand; when they went to bed at night, they’d still see him sitting there, studying under a fluorescent light.
By the time he finished medical school in the summer of 1970, my father had a wife and a 10-month-old daughter to take care of in addition to his sisters and widowed mother. All he had in his pocket was a medical degree, a plane ticket, and a contract to begin his medical residency in a distant land called Michigan.
Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, I was blissfully unaware of all of this. I was born in June, 1975, in the suburban Detroit hospital my father trained at; two weeks later my dad completed his Cardiology fellowship, packed up the family, and drove to his new job in Wichita. Like most of his classmates who journeyed with him, my dad never originally intended to stay in America forever, not when his family was back in Syria, not when his mother country was in desperate need of well-trained physicians. Their goal all along was to stay in America just long enough to save up enough money to live comfortably back home. That was why they accepted jobs in small towns like Wichita and Appleton, Wisconsin and Moline, Illinois. Save as much money as you can for a few years, and get out.
Sociologists speak of “the myth of return” – the notion intrinsic to immigrant communities that one day they will return home, no matter how unrealistic that return might be. It’s a dangerous myth, because so long as they expect to return, there’s no incentive for them to integrate themselves into their new society.
For my dad and his classmates, the myth died quickly. My dad visited Syria in 1977, planning to scope out a possible return. He found a country in the grip of a socialist, totalitarian government, with an economy in much worse shape than when he left in 1970. A country where money was scarce, electricity was rationed, and where the greatest ambition for the best and brightest students was to study and move abroad like he had already done. In that moment, my dad realized he was an American. “I could have gone back and lived comfortably,” my dad would later tell us. “But there was no way I could let you kids grow up in a country without a future.”
I’ve long tried to imagine what it would be like for me to move in my mid-twenties to a country on the other side of the world, where I barely spoke the language, where the only people I knew were the few friends who came with me, and then create a life there, knowing that my children would grow up completely immersed in their new culture, without any memory or connection to the one I grew up in. It’s hard enough for me to imagine changing my allegiances towards a freaking baseball team. Embracing a new country? I could never do it. My parents did.
My parents threw themselves whole-heartedly into the new life they had chosen for themselves. Whether it was the PTA or the hospital’s medical establishment or the local tennis club, my parents attached as many strands as possible to the web that made up Wichita society. Before I ever identified myself as a Muslim or as someone of Arab descent, I knew myself as an American. And I never knew that I was supposed to find a dichotomy between those parallel identities. No one ever told me I couldn’t be both American and Muslim, because my parents wouldn’t let them.
Along with my two older sisters and younger brother, I lived an idyllic childhood growing up in Wichita. My brother and I manned a lemonade stand the summer I turned 6; my mom no doubt spent more money on powdered lemonade than we ever made selling it (10 cents a cup!) We watched Saturday morning cartoons like everyone else, until that exciting moment in 1982 when the USA Network started the USA Cartoon Express – cartoons on Sundays too!
I grew up reading A Cricket in Times Square and Henry Huggins and the Encyclopedia Brown books. When I was older I graduated to that uniquely American genre, science fiction, devouring the books of Isaac Asimov, who himself was the child of immigrant parents and whose name was also worth a lot of points in Scrabble.
My parents recognized my precociousness early and did their best to cultivate it. When I was 5 or 6 years old, I suddenly became obsessed with learning as much as I could about Americana, and with my parents’ help I sent away for information from the Chamber of Commerce of every big city in America. Soon my bedroom was filled with pamphlets and brochures about the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia.
Soon thereafter I became a Weather Channel junkie – I’m guessing all the cool multi-colored maps were the thing – and would watch by myself for hours at a time. One of the shows invited viewers to submit their own weather questions to be read on the air. My parents not only helped me to submit my question, but when I was picked, they helped arrange for me to read my question live on the air. I was just 7 when I made my national media debut; I believe my question went something like this: “I understand that hurricane season runs from June to November. Has there ever been a hurricane outside of hurricane season?” Yes, I know: a scintillating question. I was 7. Leave me alone. (And if you want to know the answer – you know you’re just dying to find out – click here.)
The summer I turned 8, I was at a friend’s house and we were looking for something to do when his mother said, “why don’t you play that dragon game you just bought?” And so I entered the world of (Advanced) Dungeons & Dragons, which given my obsessive personality devoured a good chunk of my free time for the next seven years.
And, of course, there was baseball. I have no memory of George Brett’s white-hot summer of 1980, but I have no doubt that I owe my position today to the relevance of the Royals on the national scene throughout the late 70s and early 80s. My first baseball memory was of the Brewers blowing out the Cardinals in Game 1 of the 1982 World Series; then of Fred Lynn’s grand slam in the 1983 All-Star Game – even then I was an AL partisan. My first Royals memory is of a Royals-Yankees game I watched live on July 24th, 1983: the Pine Tar game.
My dad generally encouraged all of my interests, though he was decidedly lukewarm about my baseball obsession. Like any immigrant who owed his success in America to hard work, he was puzzled by America’s cultural obsession with sport. He had nothing against sports; he just didn’t understand how ordinary people might schedule their lives around them. For his oldest son, baseball was just a distraction from the ultimate goal of becoming a doctor as well.
Even so, in 1981 my father spent $50 to buy his numbers-crazed six-year-old a copy of the brand-new edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia, which ran a little over 2200 pages. It was my most-prized possession until I left for college a decade later.
When it became clear to my dad that my love for baseball was not a passing fad, even through college and medical school, many times he would say to me, “Son, I hope that one day you find your baseball in medicine.” I hope you find your life’s passion in your career.
My parents didn’t simply embrace America’s secular traditions, but even while holding fast to their own faith, they found a way to accommodate America’s religious ones as well. We had a Christmas tree like everyone else; we participated in Easter egg hunts like everyone else. The year I turned 13, my parents even sent me to Camp Kanakuk, a Christian summer camp tucked away in the Ozarks, for two weeks. This was 1988, before the Berlin Wall fell and when the Soviets were still our greatest enemy, so I was viewed with curiosity more than suspicion. “You’re a Muslim? Wow. I’ve never met one of you before.”
I didn’t see much of my father as a child; as a cardiologist building his practice, he was frequently on call and usually working late. But he made sure the times we spent together were special. My dad had grown up watching westerns and war movies in the cinemas of Damascus – before they were shut down – and loved nothing more than to watch a good World War II flick. And he made sure my brother and I watched them with him. Whether it was The Guns of Navarone or A Man Called Intrepid or The Longest Day, my dad would sit us down at night to watch. He’d let us stay up past our bedtime, and in return we’d do our best to comprehend what the hell was going on.
My dad enjoyed no movie quite as much as he enjoyed Ike: The War Years, a five-hour mini-series that came out in 1980, during the Golden Age of Mini-Series, with Robert Duvall in the starring role. I’ve only watched it, beginning to end, a couple dozen times. It’s been nearly twenty years since I’ve seen it, and I’m sure I could still recite half the lines by heart. Every other kid of my generation knew actor Paul Gleason as the malignant principal in The Breakfast Club. I knew him as Beetle, the genial aide to General Eisenhower.
Eisenhower was even more of a hero to my dad because he was a Republican. My dad, like most of his Syrian doctor friends, were proud Reagan Republicans, as you might expect from men who through sheer hard work had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps from a life of uncertainty in another country to become successful and wealthy physicians in America. They’ve all reluctantly been forced to become Democrats now, after the GOP made it clear that Muslims are no longer welcome in the party, but Dwight David Eisenhower still holds an exalted place with my father as one of our nation’s greatest presidents. Even better – he grew up in Kansas! More than once my dad would load my brother and I into the car and make the two-hour trek to Abilene to visit the Eisenhower Library and Museum.
In 1983, Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War would come to the small screen, and it was as if the mini-series was made for us. We watched it as a family – all 12 hours of it – at least once or twice a year through the end of the 1980s. You might know Ali McGraw from Love Story; I only know her from this.
At no time in all of this did it strike me as incongruous that my family would have such a passion for World War II movies, would identify so strongly with America’s struggle to defeat the Nazis. No one in my family served in the war, obviously; we had no personal connection to it. (“But I was born during the Battle of the Bulge,” my dad would remind me.) All that mattered was that we were American, and the war was an indelible part of American history. If our connection to this country debuted after 1945, what of it? We were part of a nation of immigrants; the exact year of immigration seemed a pointless detail.
My dad didn’t have time to volunteer with the Cub Scouts, but when I came to him asking for help to build a car for the Pinewood Derby, I saw a side of him I hadn’t seen before. He took me into the basement, opened a toolbox that I didn’t know existed, and in the span of an hour or two molded a block of wood and some plastic wheels into a sleek racing car. I was as astonished as any eight-year-old kid could be. I knew my father was smart, and hard-working, and respected, but until that moment I had no idea that he could be cool.
There was a lot that I would soon learn about my father, and his father, and his father’s father. I learned that my dad was so handy because he had grown up around my grandfather’s machine shop. I learned that my grandfather was a mechanical savant, who during World War II, when there was an acute shortage of metal parts, devised a method to repair a specific defect in Crossley diesel engines using only scrap metal. It was so ingenious that, after the war, representatives from the England-based company came to Damascus and asked him to show them what he had done. Afterwards, they sent him a thank-you letter, along with an offer to pay full tuition, room and board for his young son – my father – should he ever choose to study engineering in England.
I learned about my great-grandfather, Mahmoud, who was a soldier in the Ottoman army and spent nearly a decade in a Siberian prison camp before he was released during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. I learned about my great-great-grandfather, also Muhammad Yunus, whose story needs its own blog post, and just might get it.
The more I learned about my family, the more I understood just what my parents had given up when they came to America. It was easy as a child to be oblivious to the sacrifices my parents had made, because my own life was so free of worries. It was only as a teenager that I realized that the ease with which I considered myself an American was a testament to just how hard my parents strove to do the same thing.
We all learned in our history textbooks about the great and glorious history of immigrants to our nation’s shores. I knew about Jamestown and the Pilgrims, about indentured servants and the slave trade, about refugees from the Irish potato famine in the 1840s and Jews escaping European anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 1930s. I knew that immigrants built this country, and I knew that each wave of immigrants had to conquer bigotry and racism before they could take their place on the tapestry of American life.
Maybe that’s why I never really felt like the child of immigrants myself. Immigrants are supposed to struggle before they, or more likely their grandchildren, found acceptance in America. I never had to struggle to be accepted. I knew I was different, but then in America we’re all different, aren’t we? That’s why I thank God every day that I was born in America, where more than anywhere else in the world – and today even more than in the past – a child of immigrant parents can be accepted right away as an equal member of society, where no opportunities are denied us, where no dream is too big to dream.
And I thank God for the sacrifices my parents made to come here, because it was their willingness to share the same dreams and endure the same hardships as the generations of immigrants before them that made my life possible. A Boeing 747 may have been their crossing ship, and a terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport may have been their Ellis Island. But they were immigrants just the same. They suffered the heartache of leaving the only land they ever called home just the same.
My father is 65 now, and retires at the end of the month. (It’s his third retirement; once a doctor, always a doctor. I’m hoping this one sticks.) Even after 40 years, the pull of the homeland remains strong, and my parents plan to split their time between the States and Syria, where economically if not politically, things are headed in the right direction. Forty years ago he came to America with nothing; today, he retires to a life of comfort, having watched his children grow up to become two doctors, a lawyer, and an MBA. (Or as we call it, the Jazayerli HMO.)
Only in America. And only to someone that believed in, and worked for, the American Dream.
So today, on Father’s Day, I just want to say: thanks, Dad. (And Mom!) Thanks for making the impossible sacrifices that only a parent could make for their child. Thanks for putting up with the snotty, bratty, spoiled, selfish complaints of children who could not possibly comprehend, let alone appreciate, what you did for them. Thanks for giving me a guidepost as I try to figure out how to raise my own three children. Above all, thanks for giving us the one thing every parent wants to give their children: a better life than the one you grew up in.
And Dad: I’m not sure I ever found my baseball in medicine. But I did find my medicine in baseball.