The Stories of Our Fathers
By AMAN ALI
Published: November 9, 2012 NYTimes
IN the heart of Berlin this summer I walked on stage at the Babylon Theater and began telling stories.
I was nervous. I’m a practicing Muslim, and I didn’t know how a German audience would react to an awkward, hairy brown kid.
I talked. I talked about my life, and how as a child I’d bring home a report card with a 95 percent on it, and my father would say, “Why isn’t this 100 percent? If you weren’t slacking off, you’d have 100 percent.”
An old story, perhaps, but one that gets laughs.
It still drives me nuts because he still does it.
I did a TV interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour after I had launched “30 Mosques in 30 Days” — a blog on which a friend and I chronicled the Muslims we met during a road trip to all 50 states. My dad e-mailed me afterwards: “Very good, I’m proud of you. But why didn’t you wear a tie? Your haircut already makes you look like a drug dealer, at least look like a drug dealer that knows how to dress.”
My dad is 67 years old, in worsening health. He refuses to retire, despite how hard my four brothers and I try to get him to relax. I have a younger brother in college still, and my father fiercely insists that he be the one who provides for him. “My eyes might not work anymore, but my hands still do, right?” he tells me. “So I’m going to work.”
My father, as remarkable a man as he is to me, has a story shared by millions of immigrants the world over who fled poverty, dictatorships and other horrid living conditions to make better lives for their children.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported in May that for the first time, most of the children born in the United States are members of a minority group. What does that mean? Simple: More and more people are coming to America to work hard because they love their families the way my dad loves mine. So why are we still “minorities”?
Some conservatives may react to that statistic with xenophobic fear. Some of those same people, when speaking on other issues, will say the structure of traditional families is falling apart — when they are surrounded by immigrants who come to this country to preserve their families.
On stage, my father’s story is always with me. He went to college in India, majoring in civil engineering because he dreamed about designing bridges and roads. He wanted to go to America to find better opportunities. He moved to Chicago to pursue a degree in civil engineering. He worked at a factory assembling screws onto blades used for milling machines. It paid $240 a week. He’d take classes during the day and work 10-hour night shifts at the factory.
Then, he found out his friend was working at Dunkin’ Donuts making $250 a week. That extra $10 meant $10 more he could send home every week to his mother and brother in India. After a year of juggling Dunkin’ Donuts shifts and master’s classes, my dad was offered a manager position and an opportunity to own doughnut stores. Newly married to my mom and a child on the way, he quit school.
More than 40 years has gone by since my dad quit school to focus on Dunkin’ Donuts full time. I didn’t know how much that decision still hurts until a recent conversation.
“Every time I drive on a highway or bridge, I start to feel sad,” he said. “I was really good at designing bridges, and that could have been me.”
These are the sentences I cannot forget: “That’s why I push you to work so hard. I don’t want you to ever say to yourself, ‘That could have been me.”’
This year, I performed stand-up comedy in England, Denmark, Belgium and Germany — countries I knew very little about.
Germany had me the most nervous. I was reading about how widespread anti-Muslim sentiments were in Europe, especially in Germany, where the country’s interior minister had said, “Islam has no place in our country.” It’s a country that has one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe.
Still, I headed to the land of chocolate with an open mind (and stomach).
And that’s how I found myself in Berlin, a bit nervous on stage at the Babylon Theater. To my surprise and delight, the crowd really did warm up. But the show didn’t become unforgettable until I walked offstage.
A non-Muslim German guy walked up as I was tying my shoe. He had a blond faux hawk with streak marks buzzed along the side of his head, a leather collar with studded spikes wrapped around his neck and tattoos that spelled “David” etched onto his fingers. He reached out to shake my hand.
“Hi, my name is David,” he said.
“So I’ve heard ... or should I say read,” I said, nodding to his fingers.
“I just wanted to tell you that I ... really enjoyed your performance,” he said, a bit nervously.
He paused for a moment, and it seemed as if he were hesitant to say what he wanted to say next; he kept opening his mouth before closing it and shaking his head. Finally he spoke.
“I’ve never met a Muslim before.”
He continued: “And I’ll be honest with you, I’m really afraid of you guys. I hear about all this stuff in the news, and the idea of Muslims living here really used to scare me. But then I saw your performance and learned about who you were, and I realized I forgot that we are all human beings. Now I feel ashamed to have ever been afraid.”
David told me his father was born in Poland and immigrated to Germany in the same way my father did — with dreams to make a better life for his children. Like my father, David’s dad was incredibly tough on him growing up, forcing him to attend private school and hold down a job since he was 14. He didn’t really think about why his father did that to him until he heard my story.
“I never thought about how much our fathers are willing to suffer, just so we never have to lose the ability to smile,” he said. “You make me want to go home and give my father a hug.”
“Hearing your story makes me want to do the same,” I said.
Little did my dad realize how beautiful a bridge he had designed.
AMAN ALI is a storyteller, commentator, stand-up comedian and traveler.