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A Father to the Point of Tears
By Faraj Bayrakdar
I’m not sure whether I’ve been a success or a failure at being a father.
In truth, my circumstances have not made it possible for me to delve thoroughly into this topic. I went into hiding as soon as my daughter was born, and I was arrested before she was four years old. I spent the first five years of my detention with no access to news and no visits. In spite of all that, I feel that I am a father to the point of tears.
When I was in hiding, I used to see my daughter from time to time. I used to call her name and she would respond with one of the many pseudonyms that I have adopted and changed according to different situations.
I taught her never to call me “Baba” (Dad) in front of anyone. She was very good at following this precaution except when she wanted something specific. For example, if her mother refused to let her buy soda pop, she would turn to me, and like a broken record would repeat, “Baba, Baba, Baba” in a loud and insistent voice. She wouldn’t stop until she got her wish or at least extracted a promise that she would eventually get what she wanted.
After her mother was arrested, I saw my daughter only twice.
My biggest fear when my daughter was with me was that my safety would be threatened and I would have to flee. I worried about having to leave her alone when she knew only my nom de guerre, when she could barely pronounce her own name properly. I feared then that she might be lost to me forever.
My daughter had a small suitcase at that time. I have no idea who had given it to her, but she seemed so careful about keeping track of it.
I opened the suitcase and placed a small piece of paper inside. On this paper, I had written clearly my daughter’s full name and my family’s address. I emphasized to my daughter that she should never tear or damage this piece of paper.
On that particular day, I had to take care of some business that made it difficult for my daughter to stay with me. So I left her with a woman friend who agreed to find someone to bring my daughter back to me in the evening. When my daughter returned, both the paper and the suitcase were gone!
“Where’s the paper, sweetheart?” I asked.
Raising her empty palms in the air, she declared, “Gone.”
That was the last image I had of my daughter before I was apprehended.
She would always ask me about her mother. Her voice would grow hoarse and her eyes would plead with me. At times like these, one’s throat contracts, and it is impossible to hold back the tears. That is how my little one would expose my weakness.
When I was first apprehended, I felt as if I had run away from all her questions. But no sooner would my interrogations cease than her questions about her mother would haunt me, and I would begin pounding on the cell walls.
What could I do, my daughter, when I was so powerless?
All of a sudden, a thought came to my mind and quickly took hold. That my daughter had not been “arrested” too, separating her from her parents, was an even uglier and more inhumane crime than arresting me in the first place. I had to come up with a way to bring my daughter to her mother, or even to me.
Suppose my daughter had been born while her mother was incarcerated. Naturally, in that case she would have been allowed to stay with her mother. This idea may seem like delirium or madness to some, but there is the case of Dina, who was born in jail and continues to live there. No one objected to her staying with her mother. You might think that Dina’s case was an exception, but don’t forget that before Dina there was the case of another girl, Maria, who was also born in jail and was allowed to stay there with her mother. Why then should my daughter be denied the same treatment?
Frankly, I’m not concerned with what you think of me.
The problem was convincing the security forces to arrest a child who could barely talk.
It’s true that all political detentions are inhumane and insupportable, but this kind of detention is somewhat justified, or at least necessary and natural within the context of the given situation. For that reason, I thought I would appeal to the highest ranking authority and make him responsible for dealing with the failure to apprehend my daughter. No matter how cruel he might be, he would somehow have to rid himself of this humanitarian issue. He would be forced to use his resources to solve it.
How, though, could I find a way to appeal, a way that would guarantee the appeal reach the person for whom it was intended?
Eventually, the cumulative years of living in destructive anxiety cloaked everything with a thick layer of numbness. This lasted until one day when we received a large collection of photographs.
The prisoners claimed all the pictures but one. This last photograph was passed around from one to the other in the hope that someone would identify it.
I intended not to look at any of the pictures until everyone had finished with them, but one of the guys insisted that I examine the photo in question in case I recognized someone I knew.
At first, I looked at the picture with a disinterested feeling. I saw a small girl wearing a thin pink dress over a barely-hidden yellow sweater. The part of the sweater that peeked from beneath the dress at the collar looked faded and ragged. The face, on the other hand, looked more like a rose in full bloom.
There was a sharp contrast between the dress and the face.
I said, “I don’t know this face. And I don’t think that my family’s situation would allow them to send me anything, or even to find a way to reach me.”
One of the guys asked me hesitantly, “Couldn’t this girl be your daughter Somer?”
Another added, “I swear it’s her.”
In fact, the picture had evoked the image of my daughter Somer, but in my mind I could only imagine her as she looked when I last saw her, features that I had fought to preserve against forgetfulness.
I thought to myself that Somer could not have grown so. However, at the insistence of one of my fellow prisoners I reexamined the picture.
I don’t know how I came to feel that this truly was Somer.
I wasn’t entirely certain, and for that reason I felt a mixture of embarrassment, sadness, pain and disappointment as I said, “Yes, it’s probably my daughter.”
After days, or maybe it was only hours or minutes, I became absolutely sure that it had to be her. Her misty eyes seemed to smile as if to say, “I am your daughter. I am Somer.”
Suddenly, I began to yell and jump up and down, “Guys, it’s Somer, Somer, Somer.”
Shortly after, a question sprouted from deep within me and, bit by bit, began to overtake me.
Would my daughter recognize me when she saw me?
Would something awaken deep within her, or would they need to tell her, “This man is your father, and this is a fact you must accept?”
This question ate away at me until the day when I was finally allowed to receive visitors.
Not without difficulty, my fellow prisoners generously scrounged up the least shabby clothes that were close to my size. I approached the visiting area.
One by one I examined my family. I could not focus on any one person, but when I saw a young girl half-hidden behind my mother peek out at me, I gathered that she was Somer.
I tried to keep myself together as I came toward her to carry her as I had done years before.
I asked her, “Do you know who I am?”
She smiled and closed her eyes to indicate that she did.
I said, “Do you know me because you recognize me or because your grandmother told you that you were coming to see me?”
She said, “No, I recognized you as I used to know you from before.”
Oh, if the skies would open up. If only they could open and give me an unambiguous answer. I had to know for sure.
During the following visit, I begged my mother to tell me unequivocally whether Somer had in fact recognized me or not.
She said, “She not only knows you, but if only you could see for yourself how she practically faints with happiness when others ask her about you. She boasts and tells them, ‘Baba is fantastic. I recognized him right away. He hasn’t changed a bit, only now he’s more handsome.’”
Within a few months, my daughter’s visits became my only measure of telling light from dark, weakness from strength, desolation from well-being, imprisonment from freedom.
My little one would fill me, even with her silence.
The first time that she departed from her usual manner, which was typically a mixture of shyness and politeness, she asked me, “Baba, is it true that you’re a poet?”
I told her, “Almost.”
She said, “Then why don’t you write me a poem?”
I told her, “I’ve written you more than one. You’ll read them when you are older.”
She said, “I don’t want ones for when I’m older. Write one for me now.”
I wrote her a poem that I painted with memories and symbols that would be meaningful to her. During her next visit, she rushed toward me and hugged me. Then she whispered in my ear, “Baba, I’ve memorized it.”
I didn’t quite grasp her meaning, but then I remembered the poem and said, “If you truly liked it and memorized it, then recite it to me.”
She gasped and glanced apprehensively around the room. Then she looked at me, eyes full of reproach for demanding that she reveal the secret of the smuggled poem.
Such are the powers of tyranny. They have affected even this child!
For more than two years, Somer never failed to visit me, until this moment. Should I write about this now, or should I protect my memories of her as compensation for her absence?
I didn’t know that her absence would stand out beyond all bounds. It is as if there is nothing left but absence, and I, like any prisoner, am unable to accept comfort.
It seems to me that language is emptiness. Silence is emptiness. Truth and illusion, and all that lies between them, even this prison, with its walls and doors and staircases – all is nothing but emptiness.
I feel like someone floating above a lost time, driven by forces that are outside his control.
My daughter is now 11 years old, and I have yet to experience the full extent of fatherhood.
I have told you that I was in hiding when my daughter was born, that I was apprehended when she was barely four years old, and that I spent the first five years of my imprisonment without access to news or visitors. In spite of all that, perhaps even because of it, I feel that I am a father to the point of tears.
Translated from the Arabic by Pauline Homsi Vinson
This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)