Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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My father. He wanted me to become a writer, but when I did, he didn’t like what I wrote.
He hated my first novel and called it pornography: it features lots of teenage sex and masturbation, as well as an unsavory portrayal of a narcissistic and selfish patriarch. He insisted it was the sex scenes that offended him and not the depiction of the father character, whom I had based loosely on him. Finally my father stopped speaking to me and said he would start again only if I publicly burned every single copy of my book.
I love to imagine myself doing this: my transformation from rejected pornographer to redeemed daughter and biblioclast.
Most burned texts are destroyed because they’ve been deemed heretical by one religious group or another. Torah scrolls were burned by the ancient Romans. The Talmud was burned in medieval France. In 2010 an American pastor named Terry Jones threatened to burn two hundred Qurans on the ninth anniversary of 9/11. He didn’t do it, but dozens of Qurans were set on fire by other people.
My novel was a blasphemous text in our household, where my father was God, and his word was Truth, and anyone who talked back to him, or even just interrupted him during breakfast, was a heretic.
I’ve started indulging in this fantasy of myself as a biblioclast. Here is how I imagine it:
I round up all the copies of my book in my house. I have two paperbacks in my office, six hardcovers in an old chest, and two advance-reader copies on a shelf in the dining room. I burn them all in my backyard barbecue pit.
Next I begin to contact people I know who might have copies and ask them to mail the books to a post-office box in Kyle, Texas — the town in which I began writing the novel, where I rented a trailer for three hundred dollars a month (including utilities). Baffled, they comply nonetheless, because I explicitly state how important it is to my father that they do this. Friends who have heard my complaints about my father — that he was so strict I wasn’t allowed to socialize; that he struck me; that he often made me feel as if my large body were unworthy of love — don’t understand why I would burn my book for him. I tell them that my father did his best to love me; that he praised my early writing; that he took me on a trip to New York City when I was thirteen; that he used to sing with me and laugh at my jokes. I tell my friends that, as I near the age of forty, my empathy for my father has deepened. I work in a place where I am a minority, and I can finally imagine what it must have been like for him, a Palestinian, to immigrate to the U.S. and work at a place where he was the only Arab, perhaps the only person of color. I tell them that I miss my father. This makes it a bit easier for them to understand.
The Quran was orally passed on in the years after the prophet Muhammad’s death, and it was not written down until two decades later, between 650 and 656 CE. In Arabic the slightest mispronunciation can change the meaning of a word entirely. (When my father was a boy and heard the muezzin’s call to prayer — “Hayaa ala salaa” — he thought the word hayaa, which means “come,” was actually the word haya, which means “snake,” and so he would imagine a snake on a prayer rug, which confused him greatly.)
After the Quran was fully transcribed, the caliph ordered that all manuscripts containing any excerpts from the Quran be burned, so that there would be only one official version.
But many people had learned verses by heart, and those may have differed from the official Quran. I always wondered how those versions could be destroyed. How do you erase a memory?
In my fantasy I order every single copy of my book from bookstores and warehouses around the country.
Then comes the tricky part: the book is in several public and college libraries. I try to check out every single copy through interlibrary loans. If that’s not possible, I fly to the libraries and steal their copies. If I can’t steal them, I set fire to them in the library bathrooms and escape before the alarm goes off.
Now the expensive part: the copies of my book in China, Taiwan, Italy, Germany, and Palestine. I ask readers for help burning the books, but they can only do so much. So I purchase a multi-city plane ticket: Berlin, Rome, Beijing, Taipei. I don’t bother to fly to Tel Aviv, Israel, which I tried once: I was questioned for hours because of my Palestinian last name and wasn’t allowed to enter the country. So I call a journalist friend of mine, and she rounds up all the Hebrew copies and burns them in front of a settlement that had once burned down her family’s olive orchard. She takes photos so we can show my father proof that those copies have been burned.
In Berlin I snort coke and go clubbing for forty-two hours straight and then drunkenly collect all the German copies of my book in a sack and carry it onto a flight to Rome, where I drink lots of espresso and do the same thing all over again. I find every copy of my book in China, and in Taiwan, too. I bring all these copies with me on a flight to Austin, Texas.
When I arrive in Austin, I get nostalgic, because I can’t afford the rent there anymore. The airport is full of transplants: women in expensive cowboy boots who don’t deserve to live there. I rent a car and drive twenty miles to Kyle; go to the post office, where the rest of the books wait for me; and take them all to a field a few miles outside of town, by the five-mile dam where my son and I used to swim because it was free. I pile the books into a kind of pyre. In my hand I carry long, dramatic matches. My best friend stands beside me and asks if I’m sure I want to do this, and I say I do because, despite everything, I love my dad. Then I light a match and touch its bald, burning head to the base of the pyre.
The books go up in flames. The flames last for a while. The bibiloclasm gives me a small bibliogasm. I take pictures and text them to my mother so she can show my father. After an hour of burning, I check my e-mail on my phone. I have three junk e-mails from Netflix, PEN American, and Change.org.
A few minutes later my mother texts and says that my father wants to know if I also deleted all the files of the book on my computer.
I fly to my house in California, pull up the documents on my laptop, and delete them. Then I find the files I sent myself as backups in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, and I delete those, too. Every single trace of my first novel is eliminated.
In the thirteenth century the armies of the Mongol Empire, led by Hulagu Khan — Genghis Khan’s grandson — stood outside Iraq and asked its caliph to surrender and pay his respects. When the caliph refused, Hulagu and his men attacked Baghdad, ravaging the city. Nearly a million people were killed. All the libraries were burned, including one called the House of Wisdom. It is said that the water of the Tigris River ran indigo with the ink of books that had been hurled into it.
My novel is completely erased. That’s when I imagine my father arrives at my rented bungalow to tell me that he loves me. We hug. Then he tells me that, while we were hugging, he noticed I have back rolls, and that my skin is dry, and if I really loved him, I would lose weight. Shrink. Become smaller.
And that’s when I have to admit to myself that my father might want me to disappear. Might want to erase me. To throw me, and not just my book, onto the pyre.
In 1948 Israeli soldiers ransacked Palestinian homes and looted family libraries. Seventy thousand books and manuscripts were stolen. The six thousand books that remain are now housed at the National Library of Jerusalem. The other fifty-two thousand were pulped or burned. My father was burned — no, born! — in 1950 and grew up in the West Bank. His biggest crime, like that of all Palestinians, was his birth, and the sentence for this crime is disappearance. The main problem with Palestinians is that they continue to exist.
In 2007 the Hamas-run Ministry of Education threatened to burn a collection of Palestinian folklore that it had deemed pornographic, but Palestinians protested this decision, saying the folktales, though sometimes crude, were a cultural treasure. They’d been transmitted orally for centuries. They needed to be preserved. The ministry swiftly revoked the decision to set the books aflame.
Recently I met an elderly artist in West Texas whose daughter didn’t talk to him for years. We sat together by a natural pool, and he told me that he thought my father wanted my respect. He told me that sometimes, though it seems strange, we have to apologize to the people who have wronged us.
Another man, a lover, told me that having a father is better than not having one. His own father had died six years before.
Then a good friend of mine lost her father.
And that is when I decided to contact my father — for real — to see if he still wants me to burn my books.
I fly out to New York to see him, and when we meet, I apologize. I tell him I’m sorry that I hurt him. We hug. Seven years have passed since we last spoke. We are both on our best behavior. He isn’t critical of me, but he also doesn’t apologize. I ask if we can agree not to talk about the hurtful things we’ve said and done in the past, and he says yes, let’s not mention the times you’ve shamed and disappointed me. He laughs, and I try to laugh, too.
That afternoon we go for a walk and stop at the shop that carries his favorite Arabic newspaper. He buys a copy, and I hug him again while he holds the newspaper written in his mother tongue.
My father now has Parkinson’s, and his body is curled slightly inward. His socks are pulled up too high, and his mustache is completely white. Seeing him changed like this stings. And I understand that I need to let go of my old image of my father — tyrant, bully, biblioclast — because that version of him no longer exists.