MY TURN

A father’s traditions from afar

Meeting my husband’s family for the first time, I learned of culture and heritage passed from a father to his son

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Amman, Jordan – My husband is a good son—the type of son that calls his parents every Sunday; for seven years, FaceTime was their only means of communication. Then we got an opportunity to visit his family in Jordan. I was especially excited to meet my father-in-law, known as “Baba,” or Dad in Arabic. My husband told me stories of road trips they would take to Syria or Lebanon and how special it made him feel to spend quality time with his father, a colonel in the Royal Jordanian Army. Baba had promised to take us sightseeing once we got to Jordan, just as he did when my husband was a child.

The only physical relic I’d seen of Baba was his red-and-white keffiyeh, which was passed from father to son when my husband first came to America. Baba was adamant that my husband not forget his roots, his home, his country—and the keffiyeh, a traditional Arabian headdress worn wrapped as a turban or loosely draped on the head and shoulders, was one symbolic way for my husband to keep his heritage abroad. Since I’d known him, my husband kept his keffiyeh in our bedroom closet—placed on the highest shelf because of its importance as a family heirloom, but also because he had no intention of wearing it.

I didn’t realize how rich in heritage the keffiyeh was until I got to Jordan and saw it for myself.  Descending the escalator to baggage claim at Queen Alia Airport in Amman, I saw a scattering of men, mostly Baba’s age, wearing the keffiyeh. Younger Jordanian men opt for a more Western style of dress, ditching the traditional headdress of their fathers, making the keffiyeh a true story of tradition versus change. I kept this thought in the back of my mind, excited to finally be in my husband’s home country and excited to finally meet the family that I had only known through FaceTime.

Pulling up to my husband’s childhood home, I was shocked by its size. There was a main house, sturdy and concrete with copper spikes jetting from the top floor foundation in anticipation of more stories; a second house, where his brothers and their families lived, stood just across the courtyard. His sisters and their children had come to greet him, holding platters of food that smelled of cardamom and Middle Eastern spices. They stood inside the courtyard, creating a procession to welcome their long-lost brother, whistling and clapping with tears in their eyes.

Upon entering the main house, we took off our shoes and I admired the beautiful Arabian tile work on the veranda, a geometric pattern of no particular shape in beige, cream and gold. Inside, my mother-in-law and Baba sat in anticipation of their son’s arrival, overcome with emotion when we made it through the door. Seeing them for the first time felt magical, like I was meeting a famous celebrity of historical importance, a celebrity who had shaped my husband into the husband, father, human he is now. Baba wore a keffiyeh draped along his back, an exact replica of the one we had back at home on Long Island. Baba grabbed his son, tears in both their eyes, exchanging pleasantries in Arabic; then, switching to English, Baba welcomed me to their home, inviting us to sit for dinner. 

Our first meal together was a culture shock for me. One of his sisters took out a plastic sheet and placed it on the ground. They brought the platters of food and arranged them on the sheet and we all sat down on the floor, eating directly from the platters. Baba, unable to sit on the floor due to his age and health, remained sitting upright as my husband brought him a cool glass of water and a heaping plate of the family meal, considering it a privilege to finally be able to serve his father again. I recognized the meal as mansaff, the Jordanian national dish which consists of meat, either chicken or lamb, white rice and a yellow-tinted yogurt sauce—trust me, it is delicious.

As promised, Baba took us on daytrips whenever his health would allow, to Wadi Alshallalah, to the Bedouin village in Mafraq and to the big city, Amman. We also ventured off on our own. Baba recommended Petra, an ancient Nabatean village most popularly known as one of the seven wonders of the world and as the location where they filmed “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” That last scene is a testament to the father-and-son bond, as Indiana and his dad ride off into the valley, Henry Jones fashioning a keffiyeh-like headdress out of his handkerchief and belt. I couldn’t help but think of my own father there—watching “Indiana Jones” with him as a child is one of my greatest memories.

Outside the main gate in Petra, shopkeepers display a kaleidoscope of different-colored keffiyeh, from the traditional red and white, to black and crème, to ones incorporating rainbows, pastels and neon color schemes. I decided to buy one for my dad and after much debate, I decided to go for the traditional Jordanian red and white.

The morning we left Jordan, my father-in-law gifted my husband a brand-new keffiyeh, attempting again to bring him back to his heritage, his home. I understood why Baba, after seven years apart, had gifted his son a keffiyeh two times—not just as a reminder of his heritage and home, but also as a reminder of family and the traditions that fathers pass to their sons. Whether my husband wears his keffiyeh now or waits until he is gray and our children have grown, the important part is understanding what it stands for. Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers, near and far!

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