Just now on the radio (Fresh Air with Terry Gross) I heard a snippet of an American woman's story about her custody battle with her Arab ex-husband.
I'm certain that there is more to Deborah Kanafani's memoir than "I unveil the terrible way Arab men treat women" but boy, that's sure what I heard driving down the road. Maybe it's all true - for her.
But I wonder if my own story, about my feminist Arab father, would ever get a book deal or air time on NPR. It's not about scary Arab men oppressing their women and children, you see. There's no conflict, no villain, and it doesn't fit the story that sells books in America.
My father was a feminist before he came to America. He was strongly influenced by the new ideas roiling the Arab world in the nineteen-fifties: nationalism, yes, and socialism, and democracy, and the rights of women. He was determined to modernize his country, his people, and he believed that making women equal members of society was part of that. In his personal life, he tried to get his parents to keep his youngest sister in school. Later, he paid for his orphaned niece to go to a very good private school, giving her English skills which helped her support her family during the upheavals of the civil war.
When he went to America for graduate school and met my American mother, Dad found that some of his ideas were too forward for the USA in 1959. He didn't think women had to get married before having sex, for instance. My mother disagreed. Since he respected her - and all women - he didn't force his ideas upon her.
When they married, he encouraged her to start graduate school right away. She did, but decided she really wanted to have babies. So she had me, and very soon after began teaching part time. Fine with Dad. Mom always taught and did other work throughout my childhood. Then after my younger brother and I began school, she went back to grad school for her masters degree and then Ph.D.
This was the 1960s. Some of my readers don't know what America was like in the 1960s. It wasn't all hippies and Gloria Steinem. The college professors in my parents' circle (all men, with wives who mostly stayed at home and didn't work) were rather traditional fellows. My dad ruffled a lot of feathers among his colleagues, because he insisted on doing laundry, caring for us kids, and cooking meals. One of his friends got very offended when my dad bragged too much about washing his socks, and how he (Dad) washed his socks by hand and made them last a really long time. (My dad was eccentric about being thrifty) The friend told my dad that he was causing problems in the friend's marriage, because HIS wife was wondering why she had to do all the laundry?
When my mother got her Ph.D. my dad completely supported her in her career goals. We were always clear in our house that my parents made all decisions together, that they each earned money and contributed to the family finances, and that they were autonomous people who worked together in partnership as well.
Much later, in the 1990s, my mother got a teaching position at the American University of Beirut, and my dad retired from his job earlier than he had planned. He went to Beirut with her and basically kept house so she could do a very demanding job. He cooked and dealt with the daily details of life. His egalitarianism persisted - they were living in an apartment hotel, with daily maid service, but my father insisted on doing the dishes himself, before the maids could come in. He didn't want the maids cleaning after him.
As a young girl growing up, I was told that I should study and go to college and have a good career. In fact, when I did badly in algebra in 8th grade, my father got upset, because he said girls in Lebanon didn't have the same chances I did. He helped me with my homework, natch, but he also let me know that it was really important to him that I do well. He tried to be supportive of me, even when I careened about being a slacker American bohemian. Later in life, when I settled down and began putting together a more normal, grown-up career, my father encouraged me. He was so happy when I went to grad school (at age 42). He believed everybody deserves a second chance - and a third chance too.
Oh yes, and when my cousin N, a girl, wanted to come to America to study, even though she wasn't married or even engaged, my father welcomed her. N's father, my beloved, departed uncle Adib, was also enlightened, and sent N to us to get her college education. Most other fathers in our village would not do the same. The war in Lebanon had made it too dangerous for her to commute to Beirut to university, so he took the risk of sending her across the world. N became a successful computer engineer, and later married a great guy. Now her daughter is a recent college graduate with a terrific job in corporate America, climbing the ladder. This is normal now, but thirty years ago it was new, for Americans as well as Lebanese. We have to give credit to men like my Dad, who adapted with the times, and encouraged their wives and daughters to succeed.
There are more stories I could tell, but they're all positive, about what a mensch Dad was, how much women loved him, how he loved women, how he was a big hit in the lesbian community in North Carolina where they lived for years, how he loved and respected my mother. Oh yes, and how he told all the Lebanese male immigrants why they ought to help their wives with the housework, and support them in developing their own careers. It got through, to some of them, more or less.
That's it. That was my dad, the Arab feminist. The picture shows him on my 44th birthday, just after he received the diagnosis of the lung cancer which killed him two months later; he stands behind the tabbouli he insisted on making to celebrate my day.
Do you think Terry Gross will put me on Fresh Air with a story like that? Probably not. There's no story there, the editors would say. Just some guy doing the right thing by his women, a little ahead of his time. Plus he's an Arab. Who wants to know about feminist Arab men? Doesn't sell papers.