The Immigrant You Know

This piece was originally published in the Kentucky Standard on February 21st, 2018.

When my parents moved to Bardstown in the summer of 1973, they were welcomed with the sort of generosity that has made the community famous. Bardstown High School had hired my father to be the new Math and Physics teacher.

Two weeks prior to the move, my parents had returned from a month-long pilgrimage to my father’s homeland. It was the first and only time he visited Iran since coming to the US. Just a few short months later, my older sister was born. For my parents, 1973 was a busy year.

Fast forward 45 years and it’s safe to say that both my parents have fully integrated into the community. They came seeking fertile ground to establish roots and found a community willing to accept them.

There’s no doubt that Bardstown has left an indelible image on each member of my family. No matter how far away we live, Bardstown will always be home.

I can’t speak for my siblings, but I am thankful for having grown up in Bardstown. Definitely, I would have probably enjoyed growing up in place far more cosmopolitan (DC or some European capital), but my life would have been fundamentally different and my Southern sensibilities would be nonexistent. And that would be a tragedy.

Our experience in the community could be used as an example showing the virtues of immigration and integration. A Muslim immigrant from Iran marries an American woman, raises a family, becomes a highly respected member of the community, all within America’s heartland. Every time I tell that story, I get a wide-eyed “WOW” or “That’s so cool” from listeners.

There aren’t many opportunities for people in the community to interact with foreigners, much less immigrants from Iran. But through my father the community was able to have an overwhelmingly positive experience. He tore down the media and political narrative through his selfless giving of time and energy to the betterment of the community—and to a large extent he still does.

So, it came as a surprise, over the last few years, to hear some within the community voicing their support for a ban on Muslims entering the country. In the aftermath of the Orlando shooting in June 2016, a local educator claimed that guns weren’t the problem, but immigration from the Middle East was. I guess they had forgotten about the man who had been their soccer coach.

Then there were the claims by another Bardstown resident that Muslims are terrorists and Iran funds terrorism. Sure, Muslims have committed acts of terrorism, but so did white Irish Catholics. Did we ban them? Sure, Iran supports terrorism, but so has America. Needless to say, that local had forgotten about their Math teacher.

Still others have tried to assuage the pain, anxiety, and real fear we (still) have over the last three years since the current President began his campaign. While voicing their support for the vitriol facing American families like mine, they couch it in the cliché “but y’all are different”, which makes little sense when fully considered.

It’s great that we weren’t considered like “the rest of ‘em.” But what happens when we leave Bardstown and we become “the rest of ‘em” for someone else. For example, my uncle in Iran has been planning on visiting the US and possibly traveling the country with my father. But since the rise of Trumpism, my father has told him not to come.

“Can you imagine Amir and me traveling through the Midwest? He doesn’t speak English. Two Middle Eastern men traveling, speaking Farsi, isn’t necessarily the best idea,” my dad told me.

He’s right.

The problem also exists in two other concepts. First, the idea that we all live in a bubble. It’s hard for most of us to think outside the small context in which our lives exist. So, when we think about our neighbors, we think about them within our own bubble. We rarely consider the realities in which they live.

Second, something that is somewhat connected, is the idea that shared experiences should help us build bridges and forge lasting relationships. If this were the case, then many in the community who both know and respect my father and voted for Trump should have had a hard time doing so. They would have understood the words Trump uses and the forces he’s unleashed would have a negative impact on the lives of my father and his family. But that didn’t happen.

Too many within in the community not considering anything outside their own bubble found it easy to dismiss the bonds my family had forged with this community, in order to embrace a slogan their own experience should have told them was untrue.

And now my family and I are forced to reconsider those shared experiences and question the sincerity of those who know sold us down the river for the cost of a false salve.

America needs immigrants to survive. Bardstown needs people like my father in order to fulfill its potential. We should be doing more to be like we were in 1973.



Being American is About More Than Nationality

This piece first appeared in the Kentucky Standard Tuesday, February 7th 2017.

It was a Friday evening, and I had just finished a longer-than-planned shift at work. I was eager to make it home for dinner with my wife, who I don’t see as often as I would like. The screen on my iPhone was a mix of text notifications from my wife informing me about dinner and news updates regarding the current administration’s executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim majority countries — including Iran, where my father was born and where several of my relatives still live. A quick scan of Facebook told me that rallies were hastily being organized at international airports across the country, lawyers were rushing to the aid of detained persons, and numerous organizations were speaking out against the executive order.

Overnight, things got worse. In the chaos, many legally allowed to enter the country had been detained or sent back to their countries of origin. For some, the executive order had been implemented mid-flight, leaving them unaware of what awaited. Others were not allowed to board flights to the United States. Families were ripped apart by the stroke of a pen.

As I fumbled around searching for coffee, sliding through my Facebook feed, reading the heart-wrenching stories shared by people across the country, I realized that my worst fears were starting to become reality. My own family would be affected by the measure. My family living in Iran wouldn’t be able to visit this summer or attend my wedding celebration. My cousin living in Dubai couldn’t make a planned trip to visit her father in California. One close friend, a French-Iranian, wouldn’t be able to come to the U.S. in the fall. Another had to tell his father, a U.S. green card holder visiting relatives in Iran, that he might not be able to return home to Buffalo, N.Y.

I wanted to viscerally lash out at Trump fans, especially friends and members of my family, but I realized that wouldn’t be productive. I had to make an emotional appeal to those I knew. I had to show them that the Muslim ban affected people they knew, people they loved. I had to show them that it wasn’t just about preventing terrorists from entering the country, that it also prevented people like my father from not just living a life of their choosing, but also from having a positive impact in whichever community they settled.

Those of us who are Muslim- or Iranian-American are afraid and if recent days are any indication, we have every right to be. The current administration has followed through with one of its main campaign promises. What’s the next shoe to drop, forcing Muslims to register, forcing us to wear special ID badges?

And now, the White House’s chief national security adviser has put Iran on notice, threatening to attack if it continues to be provocative in the Persian Gulf. As an American, this is a worrying and unnecessary escalation. As an Iranian-American, this is downright scary. I fear, as many of my friends do, that our security in this country may be in jeopardy, that our lives in America may no longer be viable, especially if the current trend continues.

While I agree that religious extremists constitute a threat, banning immigrants and refugees from these seven countries benefits only the extremists. It validates their propaganda that America cannot be trusted, that America is evil, that America is at war with Islam.

America has always sought to be the city on the hill — a ray of sunshine for those living dreary lives in the shadow of dictators. And that goal is what gave many across the globe, not just in the Middle East, the power to rise up, to oppose whatever authoritarian they faced. They knew, at least, America would give them protection, would provide them with the opportunity to start over if all were lost. For some, that no longer applies as the current administration has done irrevocable damage to America’s image abroad and in the process endangered the very thing they sought to protect — our national security.

Being American isn’t just a nationality; it’s also a state of being. It’s a mindset that tells us we are all entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, along with a healthy respect for the rule of law. There are Americans across the globe, living in distant lands, with names hard to pronounce, wearing clothing we don’t recognize, worshiping a god that may not be familiar to us. We should be supporting them whether or not they’re fleeing their countries. And this executive order violates that very idea. Our country, and the American ideology, will only be strengthened by opening our doors to those in need.

The President’s Words Matter

The President’s words matter.

Precisely because we hold our elected officials—especially our Presidents—to a higher standard, the comments by the current occupier of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave strike a concerning cord.

As someone with a strongly held belief in the sanctity of the Presidency, I am deeply troubled by the President’s words last week and during his tenure overall.

While it’s true that our image abroad prior to the current administration’s shenanigans was, to put it lightly, complicated, there was still some amount of hope and inspiration engendered by the idea of America. Over the last year, as the international community has come to be more fully aware of Trump’s America and the Republican Vision for the future, that promise of opportunity and optimism is rapidly waning.

My father came to this country over a half century ago. I operate on the assumption that Trump considers my father’s place of birth a shithole, too. After all, he’s spent a significant portion of his campaign and time in office demonizing Iran in an effort to back out of a hard-earned diplomatic victory (one I had a small hand in by helping to organizing a push to convince Senators in Maryland and Virginia to support the accord).

If my father had arrived in an America with a similar environment as today, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. Primarily, the Trumpian world view would have blocked my father from coming in the first place. And second, if he had made it, he would have likely steered clear of Trumpland.

My immediate family’s experience is wrapped firmly in the increasingly out of favor idea that America is a cocoon of hope, aspirational advancement, and opportunity. My father came at a time, when, even as we battled, sometimes in the streets, over the very definition of equal rights for all, there was a strong moral conviction to promoting this country as willing to open its arms to the globe and welcoming people of all shapes, sizes, races, and creeds. All this country asked in return was, to paraphrase Washington in his letter to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, that newcomers conduct themselves as good citizens and give this country their undying support.

For those that know my father, he is exceptional in his own right. But he is who he is precisely because of the opportunities afforded to him by this country when he immigrated nearly fifty-four years ago. And he is one of millions of immigrants who have come here, for a myriad of reasons, only to have conducted themselves with honor and dignity—many of whom living in Bardstown.

The President’s words last week debase the Presidency and the very principles our Founding Father’s sought to achieve. That little phrase he uttered, so casually, dehumanizes the very people seeking refuge in this country’s opportunities and inspired by the idea of America. It matters little that these types of phrases are used across the country in locker rooms, carpools, and beer halls. There, they remain nothing but banter by cocksure citizens with little to no power to change policy. But when spoken by the President, the person responsible for representing all of America and being our voice domestically and abroad, the signal becomes all too sinister. Not only do they upset long standing decorum of a polished and respectful Executive, they have further tarnished our image abroad. And they could ultimately embolden those citizens above to take action against their immigrant neighbor.

Is this the example of leadership we want to create for younger generations? Is this the precedent we want to set for America’s new image abroad—xenophobic, bigoted, and crass? Should it matter, as David Rothkopf, former editor of Foreign Policy, asks, that the President reflexively discounts vast swaths of the globe simply because of their race, culture, or religion?

You should be answering with a resounding No, No, and Yes.

Last night, my wife reminded me of the Bible verse (yes, this Muslim reads the Bible) Micah 6:8: He has showed you, O Man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with God?

We all, our President included, would do better, if we tried, even as flawed beings, to follow the inherent command in the verse above. Otherwise future generations may be imperiled.

They deserve better.

Why There’s No More Thanksgiving in Kentucky for Me

Ever since I can remember, my mother has hosted her extended family on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Our childhood home several miles outside of Bardstown, KY, is the spot for this yearly pilgrimage. Aunts, uncles, cousins, my now 96-year-old grandfather, and even some family friends would converge on our home–sometimes several days in advance. They’d come for food, football, fellowship, and old-fashioned banter. In recent years, as my siblings, cousins and I have married and some have become parents, the number of those attending has swelled to well over 50 guests.

Only three times has my mother failed to host our traditional post-Thanksgiving congress.

The first time was when my uncle got married in upstate New York. The second was in 2001 when my mother was working full time and chipping in as my brother and sister-in-law juggled being first-time parents with working full-time and finishing college. The last time was when my cousin set her 2013 wedding for the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The tradition had been so engrained in our family’s ethos that my cousin called my mom asking for permission to schedule her wedding on that day.

Nearly seven years ago, as I was moving to Washington, DC, my mother made me promise to come home for the annual get together.

“Even if it’s the only time you come home each year, make it Thanksgiving,” she insisted.

But since the rise of Trumpism in the summer of 2015 and the embrace of much of the Republican Party of Islamophobia, I knew my attendance at the annual event might be in jeopardy.

As an Iranian-American and Muslim-American who had supposedly been openly embraced by my mom’s relatives (who are white and mostly Christian), I thought the sorts of vitriol and bigotry being spewed from the right would not intrude on our post-Thanksgiving gathering. My family and I should have been on auto-pilot from the moment the GOP went all-in on attacking immigrants, given the fact that my father is Iranian-born.

But they weren’t. Instead of blasting the right, they played the false equivalency game, suggesting that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s low favorability numbers and her supposedly inadequate response to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi were the same or worse than the invective and innuendo used by multiple GOP contenders to target immigrants and minorities.

I went to Kentucky in 2015 knowing that there were family members who either fully embraced this right-wing rhetoric or who were sitting on the fence. It was not a pleasant experience. To be sure, there were and still are a few who’ve pushed back against the creeping Trumpism running riot in our family. But they remain outliers, multiple standard deviations away from the mean.

By the time 2016 rolled around, it was clear that whatever hopes I had for my relatives to rise above such invective were misplaced. The relatives that were supposed to put family first and stand for obsequious hospitality driven by a strong belief in the Golden Rule, in fact, were enabling the type of politics that ran counter to these principles. Instead of circling the wagons and protecting all of us, they, through their silence or direct support for Trumpism, supplied the kindling that fueled those attacking us from the outside.

The Trump supporters in my family claimed that their favored candidate was merely speaking his mind—and thus was worthy of their support. But the sad fact is that they agreed with what he said. They nodded along when he targeted Muslims. They acquiesced when he mocked the disabled journalist. They condoned his support for harsh and brutal constitutionally-questionable police tactics. They parroted his racist dog whistles.

It didn’t matter, apparently, that members of their own family would be targeted or feel threatened. It wouldn’t matter that their support for him was a betrayal of everything for which our family has stood. It wouldn’t matter that they’d put politics before family.

The reality is, they are directly complicit in the fear and anxiety that my parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and Iranian relatives feel every single day.

To date, the relatives who supported Trump have yet to openly show remorse. Instead, they’re relying on a false hope that our familial bonds will absolve them from having to apologize for their betrayal. While I still love them, my relationship with them has been fundamentally and likely irrevocably changed.  The people who I thought would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me to face hatred, racism, and bigotry, instead fed me and my Iranian relatives to the wolves.

This 500-pound gorilla will remain in the room at every family event until they’re willing to show some form of contrition—or at a minimum, acknowledge the damage that they have done.

Never in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined so many members of the family to which I owe much of my upbringing would be so willing to embrace a candidate who promised to target my sister, brother, father, nieces, nephews and indeed all my Iranian relatives.

It should come as no surprise, then, that for the second year in a row (and only the third time ever), with the approval of my mother, I missed the Saturday after Thanksgiving gathering. I still love my family, but I do get to set the boundaries for my relationship with them. Last November, they crossed a line that should have never been crossed.

Instead, I exercised my right to choose by surrounding myself with people who I not only love, but also trust. I know they wouldn’t sell me out or betray me for some false promise to make America great again.

The Limits of the “Both Sides Are Bad” Argument

This piece originally appeared in the KY Standard.

For the last 18 years, I’ve studied conflict. The types of conflagrations most Americans know little about, but nonetheless are familiar with—the Balkans, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Syria, etc.

Within the context of conflict, I’ve tried to parse out the definition of objectivity.

It is here where many make the intellectually lazy and morally absolving mistake of the “both sides” argument. The logic goes thusly: both sides are bad, therefore either outcome is equally bad, affecting us the same, thus picking sides is futile.

But, this logic is a deficient attempt at absolving those involved of responsibility. If they refuse to take a side (because both sides are bad), the opinion holder believes they are no longer culpable for the outcome. They can and likely will, however, take the credit for predicting the inevitable failures.

In politics, saying all candidates are flawed is much like saying the sky is blue. We know both to be true…most of the time.

We spent much of 2016 debating the merits of two candidates for the highest office. The public and the media sullied themselves by embracing false equivalency and “both sides are bad” arguments. On one side, one candidate ran on a platform that attacked nearly every racial and religious minority, along with bragging about sexually assaulting women and denigrating the LGBTQ community. The other side had utilized a private email account to conduct government business—a common practice among senior level officials (including the current White House). One side had suspicious ties with foreign entities. Meanwhile, the other side was accused of being an establishment politician.

Objectivity would mean reporting these issues in a fair manner. Equating them, forcing them into the “all sides are bad” argument, meaning each negative is thusly equivalent, is not being objective. It’s like suggesting that the “n-word” is equivalent to the term “cracker.” While some may consider both offensive, for obvious reasons, we all know one is clearly worse than the other.

The 2016 Presidential Election Campaign reminded me of a statement Christiane Amanpour made at an event I attended in late 2011. Amanpour was relaying her experience reporting on the Balkans conflict in the early 90s. As a reporter, she had to be objective and prided herself on maintaining her reputation for being just that. But, she said, what happens in situations where giving both sides equal time, equal shares, equal coverage, one side still comes out looking bad? She paused. Then concluded, if in your efforts to be truly objective, one side is clearly to blame or has been more egregious than the other, then your report isn’t biased. It is the objective truth.

In an article sixteen years prior, she drew the same conclusion, “There are some situations one simply cannot be neutral about, because when you are neutral you are an accomplice. Objectivity doesn’t mean treating all sides equally. It means giving each side a hearing.”

The Serbians complained her reporting was unfair. But, I’m not sure if the Bosnians or Croats can top the shelling of busy marketplaces or brutality murdering thousands of unarmed civilians at Srebrenica. Surely, there were violations on both side, but when push comes to shove not all violations are created equal.

Calling both sides bad during the 2016 Presidential Race drew false equivalencies between the candidates. One side was worse than the other and our unwillingness to parse the differences and engage and exercise our intellect brought us to where we are today.

The country is worse off because good Americans refused to take a stand. Instead they chose the moral convenience of suggesting both side were bad, clearing the way for racism, bigotry, homophobia, Islamophobia and sexism to be allowed back into the mainstream.

All for what? A few extra dollars back in tax returns? To keep immigrants out? To shake up the system? To drain the swamp? To keep a liberal from running the White House for another 4 years? To fill the courts with partial and unqualified conservative jurists? Or simply because conservatives couldn’t fathom casting a ballot for someone from the other party?

None of these things were worth risking our beacon on the hill, unless of course your vision for this country is exactly the one described two paragraphs above.

Our country deserves better.

White Like Obama

One evening while walking through DC, slightly buzzing from consuming medium quantities of beer, I had an epiphany. Not the kind that politicians write about when they change course or the non-believers credit with turning them into zealots. But it was far simpler. One that summed up my whole quest for trying to understand identity, how we shape our own, but also how society shapes their perceptions and how that affects each person’s own self-identity.

I was considering the time my biracial friend had told me he hated white people. He apologized immediately. I had not scolded him, nor had I made some long speech about reverse racism. His frustration, was often my own and I totally understood why he said what he said. You see, his mother, like mine, is white. But because his father is black and he had a darker skin tone, society had put him in a box that refused to recognize his whiteness.

He and his younger sibling had dated white girls through high school—and even now they’re married to women who would identify as white. Unfortunately, some people in our town could not fathom interracial dating. And part of their inability to comprehend manifested itself through making remarks about how unacceptable it was or how it could ruin the white girl’s reputation.

I understood what he was going through. At the same time, I was dating a black girl. Some parents of my white friends would make remarks about interracial dating to me too. Although, it would not be directly addressing my own relationship, their point was clear—interracial dating was bad.

When my friend made his comment, I simply told him we were both equal parts white, but that there was no need to apologize—except maybe to his mother.

I dwell on that interaction often and have longer piece dedicated to it–coming later. But on this evening, high on the effects of several half liters of beer, walking home from my favorite beer garden, I was struck by this thought: ‘Genetically speaking, I’m just as white as Obama. He and I (and even my friends mentioned above) will always have that in common. But only one of us will ever be perceived as white by society. Only one of us will benefit from white privilege.’

What sort of identity crisis does that create for my friends and President Obama? Have they ever sought acceptance from white society? Or did they give up? How would their mother’s feel about that conversation? Did my perceived whiteness have any sort of impact on the experience I had in high school? Does my own desire to embrace my Iranian-ness stem from this feeling that being called white is not enough? What is the genesis of the push back from my friends at home who cannot accept me being anything else but white?

My experiences as a perceived white kid growing up in central Kentucky imparts on me the recognition that white privilege (or advantage as my astute professor friend likes to say) does exist. The perception of being white insulated me from having to face the sorts of venom thrown at my friends and President Obama. It was only when I started embracing my otherness, that I started to receive the same sorts of messages from my hometown.

Dinner Decorum with My Father

For as long as I can remember, Thursday was pizza night at my dad’s house. On Fridays, our ritual was equal parts Viking, Persian, and American.

If there was not a home football or basketball game for our high school, regardless of the weather my dad would fire up the grill. Pork chops (which is where I developed my love of them and why I thought it was okay to out my dad as a closeted pork eater), steaks, chicken, you name it we grilled it.

Inside, on the stove top, we always had a pot of rice—polo not kateh for those of you Iranians keeping tabs. And there was usually a salad of sorts or some greens and radishes.

“In those days, my house was like Grand Central Station for the neighborhood kids,” my dad told me.

We would do our running around the neighborhood, but by dinner time we would all be back for whatever my dad was prepping on the grill.

Most of our friends were regulars, so they understood the decorum. Which wasn’t much more than ‘try a little of everything, AS IS, if not Mo Daddy will find a way to squeeze it on your plate.’

Newcomers would often violate corollary (asking for condiments with your food), we would try to stop them, but we would not be fast enough.

One such occasion came when I was in high school, one of my less experienced friends joined us. Grilled meats, rice (one bowl of plain rice, another bowl of rice with egg yolk), and salad. We had all spent much of the time after school playing basketball. Needless to say, we were famished.

The veterans and I had already scooped up our plates, piled them high with food, and were taking up our spots in front of the TV. Some were on the couch, some sat on the floor. All were busy scarfing down whatever was on our plates. Seconds were a must.

One of our friends, the rookie, was a little slower. As he walked the ten steps into the living room from the kitchen, he mumbled something about soy sauce and turns around to go back to the impromptu buffet line.

As he gets back into the kitchen we hear him start, “Hey Mo Daddy?”

“Yes, my handsome man,” responds my father.

We all know what is about to happen and are powerless to stop it.

“Do you have any soy sauce?”

‘Shit,’ we all look at each other, thinking the same thing, ‘he’s got no clue.’

“My handsome son, do you not like my rice?”

“No, I don’t eat rice without soy sauce.”

“My rice isn’t just any rice, you don’t need soy sauce. Try the rice without it, son.”

At this point, my dad has given my friend two opportunities to walk away without any repercussions.  He has failed to see the clear signs that the road is ending soon and he needs to respectfully exit. For our part, we are powerless to stop the impending train wreck.

“I need the soy sauce.”

“SON! Eat the rice as it is, there is no soy sauce. If you don’t like it, then you can put it back.”

You should realize that my dad was not sitting with us. He was in a nearby room, sitting and eating like a king, happy that his vassals were supplied with all they needed. His contentment was destroyed by the crime of asking for soy sauce with Persian rice. It was something you neither did, nor insisted upon. Decorum was breeched.

Cognizant he would not win, my friend ended up adding some more butter and salt. When he sat down, we all looked at him as if he had committed high treason. All we could do was shake our heads and hope he does not make the same mistake twice—or at least brings his own soy sauce, even then he would be courting disaster.

Get My Gun!

Around the time my brother was born, my parents bought a place in the country several miles outside Bardstown. My dad fell in the love with the plot nearby too, something had spoken to him there. This was a place he would find peace in moments of anxiety. After the divorce, he kept the nearby plot and still returns there—and as I type this he is likely there meditating, drinking coffee, ruminating of the meaning of life.

About a year after moving in, the Iranian Revolution took place. An event thousands of miles away would have a lasting impact on our family. And for a brief moment, in addition to the embassy seizure, it caused an energy crisis that shook America.

Lines at gas stations were long. People’s lives were tailored around when and where to get gasoline for their family vehicles. Instances of theft, siphoning from cars parked in driveways, people driving off without paying, were not uncommon.

One night, in the middle of the energy crisis, my older brother, who was still an infant, was having difficulty breathing. Often, when this occurred, one of my parents would sit outside with him to let him breath in the fresh country air. They would do this even in the winter.

It was my father’s turn.

As my dad was sitting on our large front porch, he heard something rustling in the garage across the road that sat about 50 yards away from our front door. Straining to see what the commotion was, and initially dismissing it as some varmint from the near-by woods, my father saw the shadows of two men moving about in the garage.

Now his senses were on full alert. He was holding his youngest (at the time, I came a few years later), my brother, and his wife and oldest child were inside.

“I was nervous,” he explained to me a few years ago. “I’m holding Jacob, your mother and Meena were inside. And these two were rustling around in our garage.”

They must have not noticed my dad on the porch. Although, to be fair, when the sun goes down, and there is no moon, the place is pitch black. Even if the security light is on near our barn, visibility is close to zero (my city slicker friends from DC who have followed me home during the holidays can attest to that).

Thinking on his feet and taking a larger gamble than he probably should have, my dad decided on one of the biggest bluffs of his life.

“JANE! GO GET MY GUN,” he yelled.

Then he stomped his feet as loud as he could have on our wooden porch.

Almost instantaneously, the two figures in the garage dropped whatever metal vessals they had with them for carrying the gas they were planning on siphoning from my parent’s cars. And before the containers hit the ground they were scurrying away, reversing their path to our garage.

The thing is my dad did not have a gun, nor has ever owned one. To this day, my mother does not allow guns in the house, not because of this story though. This ban, at one time, extended to water guns and any toy weapon that looked like a gun. But that’s for another story.

“I took a huge gamble. What if they had a weapon? What if they were wanting to do more than just steal our gasoline? Maybe I should have let them. I just reacted,” my father explained a few years ago.

The bottom line is people do funny things in the middle of a crisis. My dad bluffed his way to not having an empty tank when he tried to go to work the next morning. Those would be gas stealers just wanted to get away without having to pay to fill their tanks up—they probably could not afford to. It could have all gone differently for everyone. Thankfully, it did not.

Don’t Get Hyper About It

At some point, every son musters up the courage to stand up to their father. They put their foot down over some trivial matter in an effort to show independence or to show up their paternal figure. It is a rite of passage. And usually goes horribly wrong, but inevitably makes the relationship stronger.

After my parents divorced and after being prodded by my brother to let us meet his family, my father drove my siblings and me to California. None of us were old enough to drive, so he was stuck manning the wheel solo. My sister and brother helped to navigate. I, too young to be of much assistance, sat in my car seat sucking my thumb.

For any parent, a road trip can be an extreme stressor. For my dad, this was a whole other level of stress. He had just finalized his divorce with my mother. He had not seen much of his family in many years. AND he had to drive a 1978 Ford Maverick, what we in my high school years would dub a hoopty, all by himself with three young kids at varying states of defiance. Combine that with his (at that time) notoriously short fuse, it was a recipe for disaster.

The trip itself took nearly a week. We would drive several hundred miles, four to five hours max. My siblings and I would get restless, my father would be on the verge of exploding, and just as things were about to go nuclear, an oasis would appear on the horizon in the form of a rest area, hotel, or some sort of resort. We would pull over for the rest of the day to recharge.

As we entered California on our first trip across the country in 1986, whatever plan my father implemented for relaxation the night before had failed. In all honesty, I think the main stressor was the fact he was about to visit his family. Those visits and any other since then always triggered something in my father. I have never asked him what it is that causes him the most stress or why his family is a trigger.

My father was loading up the car. Something had triggered his fuse. I was being uncooperative, Meena and Jacob were not helping either. Things were going downhill fast.

At some point, aware of the impending doom, and being just precocious enough to not really care of potentially making things worse, I stop sucking my thumb and look straight at my father, who at that time was raising his voice and angrily packing and repacking the car.

“You don’t have to get so hyper about it,” I blurted out. Not really understanding what ‘it’ was or understanding that my father’s rage could have had a second-strike capability.

My siblings, having fully understood what could have come next, looked at each other in shock.

‘David has no clue what he’s stepped in,’ they thought.

I promptly stuck my thumb back in my mouth having satisfied my urge to let my father know I disapproved of his behavior.

For his part, my father seemed to have gotten the message. ‘Calm down, Mohammad, what’s the point of getting angry with your children who aren’t responsible for your anger. You should be happy about visiting your relatives. You should be happy your kids are with you. You should be happy they want to see your family too,’ he told himself.

My father and I have had a rocky relationship, but even in the moments of shouting and fury, we have still found ways to understand each other, to get our message across, even if it took several tries. Maybe this was the first time we communicated on a higher plane.

Trumpism Brings Fear to My Doorstep

As Donald J. Trump prepares to accept the Republican nomination for president, his candidacy is already having a frightening impact on the people I love the most. For the first time in my life, I hear real fear in the voices of my parents. Caused in part by Trump’s tropes about Muslims in reaction to horrific terrorist attacks, the 2016 presidential election has caused them a great deal of concern.

“Of all these years I’ve been in the US, I’m not sure I’ve been as scared as I am today,” my father admitted during one of our many phone conversations.

For what it’s worth, he’s been here for over 50 years, coming from Iran to learn English and falling in love with the country. My father lived through the tumultuous Civil Rights movement, the Iranian Revolution’s hostage crisis, and 9-11.

I was shocked by his admission. Normally positive and upbeat, he seemed almost mournful at the uptick in vitriol and hate speech. The country that had given him so much hope is beginning to scare the daylights out of him. Most of our conversations since then focus on the fear and apprehension he feels.

My mother, for her part, tries to stay positive and steer clear of the political minefield. But when she does talk about the current state of affairs, she can’t hide her feelings.

“I just don’t want to have those conversations with people,” she told me recently. She’d rather stay home and read books than have to engage Trump supporters.

It’s not just those interactions that she’s worried about. Anytime she hears Trump and his followers spewing their Islamophobic hatred, her thoughts immediately turn to my siblings and me. Pandora’s Box has been opened, she worries. Even if Trump loses, the tension and vitriol will continue.

My own actions, my father pointed out to me when I recently visited my hometown in Kentucky, had even contributed to his sense of apprehension.

“If you think by speaking out against the racism, Islamophobia, hate speech, you are making me feel safer, you aren’t,” he told me matter of factly.

It was a jarring indictment of my own attempts at advocacy. I was forced to reevaluate my approach to the rising tide of Islamophobia throughout the country, within my hometown and even within my friend group.

How am I supposed to open their eyes to what their Islamophobia means? How do I show them that their racist, bigoted, hate speech is both unacceptable and dangerous? How do I show them that their conveniently held beliefs that Muslims should be banned, placed under extra surveillance, have their patriotism questioned, targeted for violence, etc. directly affect their own friends—people with whom they’ve broken bread, played soccer, shared life altering experiences? How can I uncompromisingly walk them back from their position of exclusion? How can I make my parents feel safe again?

Fear, we can reason, is a natural response to extreme discomfort. My father’s fear stems from the realization that those he’s spent a lifetime teaching the finer points of advanced mathematical computations will be unforgiving in their own calculations deciding that he and his children are in fact the enemy.

My mother’s fear is much the same. The people she built bonds with through various professional and social avenues could very easily turn their backs on her simply because her former husband is Muslim and her children are half-Iranian. Those same people could then also target her children and grandchildren.

The embrace of Islamophobia by some of my friends, some of my father’s former students, some of my mother’s acquaintances, is aided, in part, by demagoguery on the right, which has a long history of invective and innuendo that Muslims and Islam as a culture (as if a monolithic Islamic culture exists) are America’s greatest threat. Their conclusions, however, disregard the many contributions Muslims–and Islam, for that matter–have made to our country. And they ignore the positive impact my father has had on our community.

My father, always the philosopher, channeled the German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer, when he said, “Every time we reason, our conclusion is a function of the information we have.”

Some of us have nearly unfettered access to information and interactions with other cultures; most do not. But no single person has all the information, all the time. Additionally, information can be denied through subterfuge, which is both internal (a stubborn refusal to seek alternate sources of information) or external (politicians using invective to push constituents in a certain direction).

Our last conversation on my visit home was steered in part by my father’s daily reading of Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. That day’s passage, among other things, discussed the labyrinth of information, which is constrained by both our own willful exclusion of facts and the purposeful exclusion of facts by others. This is the vector through which propaganda enters, leaving us with a sense that we’ve made up our own minds when we haven’t.

If the rise in Islamophobia—and racial tensions, overall—is more a function of access to diverse sources of information than innate bias, it would indicate that bombarding Islamophobes with information would be sufficient to make them walk back from their irrational positions. But some people, as columnist Ross Douthat recently pointed out, view openness (or cosmopolitanism) as yet another mechanism by which elites can rule the land, excluding the world views of those skeptical of inclusionary politics. Thus, they decide exclusion is the antidote to the corrupting power of the elite.

If that is true, how do we bring the Islamophobes in from the cold? How do we convince them that inclusion is far more agreeable and more effective in preventing terrorism than exclusion? How can we open their eyes to the fact that we, as the United States, are supposed to be the beacon of hope rising above the morass of despair in so many parts of the world, particularly the Middle East? How can we show them their position plays into the hands of our enemies? How can I do this without making my family any less safe than they already are?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. All I know is the more I push, explain, attempt to engage, and even lose my cool at times, the less traction I seem to get and the more apprehensive and afraid my family becomes.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I go home, I choose not to spend too much time in public. To be honest, I’m fearful too. The myopia of many running rampant in my beloved hometown (and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, for that matter) is a far cry from the welcoming cosmopolitan spirit that embraced my parents when they moved there in 1973.