If you look closely, my father’s pupil has a dark split in it from when he was working in a factory in the early 1980s. He was born into a middle-class family to an elementary school teacher and a government worker. His father, also named Yousief, traveled to many districts in northern Egypt advertising the government’s new chemical initiative to boost plant production for farmers. There is a famous picture of my grandfather sitting in a chair on the balcony, the Egyptian sun watching him as he reads the newspaper. When we traveled in 2006 to Giza, my father recreated the picture with my brother—seven years old at the time—holding an Arabic newspaper.
My father came to the United States in 1983. When he said his name to the immigration officer, he wrote it down as “Yousief.” Though one of the most common cross-religious Middle Eastern names, our family holds this unique spelling—something my dad boasts of.
During the Sadat era, he lost many of his friends to Salafi organizations. He recalls vividly being called “kafir” by an old friend while the friend’s mother pled with him: “Yousief, Yousief, forgive him—he makes our life miserable too.” Baba kept walking, and between that and the metal factory and no college degree, it was time to move on.
He came in 1983 on a travel visa—by luck—and he landed in New York. He lived in New Jersey though, where life was cheaper. He worked for $1.50 an hour as a busboy, and somewhere between the subway, the restaurant, the racism, and his expiring visa, he was stuck. He didn’t see his own father pass away of a stroke in Egypt, and he didn’t see his sister’s wedding in Egypt, and he wasn’t there to see his father’s side of the family divide the land inheritance; leaving him, his mother, and his sisters nothing except their Giza apartment.
In 1994, he married Mary Morcos, an Alexandrian and a US citizen. He didn’t want the wedding to seem like a “green-card wedding,” so he simply would renew his work visa year after year and work with a lawyer to gain citizenship through other means, aware that his friend, who had come through the same process and now undocumented, was struggling.
I think he believed that if he kept working at some point the United States would let up, and so he asked for a promotion. He was in Rite Aid now as a manger, attending many corporate meetings because of his success in a “rough” neighborhood, and when he asked for a desk job, having two daughters and a wife now to take care of, the white manager placed a hand on his shoulder and said: “Diversity quota’s been filled, Yousief. We needya here.”
In 1996, he quit and moved us to Tennessee. My mother’s family was there, and he wanted us to have what he didn’t in the United States: family.
He and Mama had saved enough money for a restaurant—something Baba always dreamed of, ever since his busing days in New York. But with my mother’s family also struggling and the moving costs, the money ran dry and so Baba took a job in the mall. After nine months of unemployment, he finally took a job in the warehouse of a JCPenney’s unloading trucks.
Then, a Coptic man approached Baba in church one day—and by church, I mean the cramped Protestant house cleared to be something Coptic, which was later sold to the Ethiopians. He said that he had a car wash (with an attached convenience store) for sale. The store was across the street, almost, from the hotel Anba Youssef baptized my sister months earlier. It wasn’t what Baba wanted, but it came at a time of need.
Baba and Mama bought the store. Mama worked morning shifts with Erinie and me behind the counter, and Baba worked night shifts. Soon, it grew. Khalti recorded Egyptian movies, so that we could rent them out to our predominantly Arabic-speaking customers; we were the Egyptian cinema’s Blockbuster. We sold strong coffee, kanafeh, cigarettes, chips and soda, mortadella and gebna rumi, and ful (by the cartons). The children’s school bus stopped every weekday around 3 P.M. in our parking lot, not daring to venture into Millwood, the projects behind the store. The parents stood outside, waiting, nursing babies or complaining about how much it rains in this country. People didn’t always come just for groceries, but for help reading bills or reports, a cup of tea and conversation about the flyer outside or what Abouna had said or what was happening in Egypt or Syria or here, or for some fresh bread after their night shift.
A little over two decades in the United States, my father received his citizenship in 2006. And when he did, we finally went to Egypt. By then, my teta, his mother, couldn’t recognize her son. ‘Amiti held her up and said, “It’s Yousief.” Teta merely blinked.
If you ask Baba, he believes in the “American dream” (even though I don’t), but he calls his sister in Egypt every day, every morning, on his way to the store, and he puts icons of saints on the door to prevent hold-ups, and he goes to church every Sunday—for the 6 A.M. liturgy; and he keeps a Rite Aid duffel bag on his side of the closet, blue and zipped-up on the highest shelf, with photographs and documents and letters, and sometimes he’ll bring it down and show us a letter he received from his mother on yellowing paper, or a picture of him in Aswan, or a green passport. And sometimes, if you look close enough, his eyes will shed a tear.
Yousief Yousief (as told by Lydia Yousief, his daughter), Nashville, USA
Glossary of Terms:
Kafir = Heretic
Anba = Bishop
Khalti = My maternal aunt
Gebna rumi = Rumi cheese
Ful = Fava beans (canned or uncanned)
‘Amiti = My paternal aunt
Abouna = Priest
Teta = Grandmother