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In the aftermath of a Middle East war, a son broaches a tenuous ceasefire with his father

by Mubarak Dahir

It seems to take a Middle East war for me to be able to call a ceasefire with my father.
That is because there has been a personal, more private war going on between Sabir, my Palestinian father, and me, his gay son, for nearly two decades.

The battle between my father and I began more than 20 years ago when my parents accidentally found out their only son was gay.

My mother, an American raised in the South, progressed from thinking I was mentally ill to eventually volunteering for AIDS organizations and helping drag queens get dressed for their shows and marching in gay Pride parades.

But the leap was too big for my father.

As the years went by, a cold war of sorts set in between us abou t my sexual orientation. He refused to talk about it. I refused to stop talking about it.

When Sabir retired in 1988 and moved with my mother back to the Middle East, I couldn’t help but think it was at least partially to escape me.

But he could not escape the knowledge that I would not give him a grandson.
Soon after their return to the Middle East, the news came that after 30 years of marriage Sabir was divorcing my mother to marry a woman half his age. If his only son would not produce the obligatory grandson, he reasoned that the burden of carrying on the family name once again became his.

My mother, left heartbroken and penniless, moved back to the United States to live out her final years with the gay son she had come to embrace.

And at the age of a grandfather, Sabir became a new dad again.

He eventually fathered four more children, two daughters and two sons. But as far as I was concerned, he had lost his oldest son forever.

Strangely, though, throughout this entire time, Sabir continued to write me letters, professing he loved me, but insisting that I was sick and needed mental help.

Out of a sense of loyalty to my mother, I suppose, I never answered those letters. But I did save them and still keep them tucked away in a filing cabinet, tied together by a rubber band as fragile as the bond that holds together a father and son who have not seen one another in 17 years.

Then, a few years ago, after my mother’s death, I somehow felt compelled to answer one of those letters and strike up a tenuous relationship with Sabir.

Sabir seemed happy to hear from me. But he showed no remorse for what he had done. And at some point, I finally accepted he would never say he is sorry.

And Sabir put an unconditional demand on our truce: He does not want to hear the gay details of my life.

After sacrificing so much to be openly gay, I doubted whether I could accept this stipulation for a ceasefire. It wasn’t long before I lost heart in our fragile, faltering and flawed peace process. Our contact dwindled to the occasional email.

But now, once again, there has been a horrible war in the Middle East and suddenly, in the face of so much destruction and bloodshed, the years and obstacles separating me and Sabir seem smaller.

Despite all the hurt and anger, I still worry for his safety whenever Israel flexes its military might with typical hubris and disregard for civilian life. No matter what happened between me and Sabir, I do not want him to end up a casualty of war. Now more than ever, that seems like a tangible, constant fear.

International human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, have resoundingly condemned Israel’s actions in Gaza and The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, John Dugard, has said Israel is violating “the most fundamental norms of humanitarian law.”

Though there is now a shaky ceasefire in Lebanon, no such agreement exists in the Palestinian territories and observers fear the situation there could get worse.
So this time, I skip the email to Sabir and pick up the phone.

The connection is tenuous and it is hard to hear Sabir’s voice when he answers his cell phone. Yelling over the static and the years of estrangement, Sabir tells me that he and his family are fine, though life has become very difficult.

Israeli soldiers from the nearby army base continue to conduct military exercises in the streets of the village. Sabir believes it is a scare tactic, to remind people that the occupation is still there, that the war goes on. It works, Sabir says. He is scared.
I think about our own, personal war as Sabir fills in the details of the larger one that engulfs him.

When we hang up the phone, I do something I haven’t done for 17 years: I cry over a peace I know will never come.

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