Photograph via Flickr by Daniel Lobo
Name and pedigree is where it’s at, where you’ve got all your important information stitched. That’s how my family sees it. I’m a rebel, which is why I’ve been going by Fila Perez instead of my full birth name since I was seventeen.
I was born in Salinas, California and I am the bastard child of a Palestinian-American nurse and an Arab king.
(Bastard, probably; nurse, for sure; king, a big maybe.)
There are all sorts of reasonable explanations for being born in Salinas, California. My friend Eva was born there because her parents were picking. They followed the crops and the seasons and when it came time for Eva to be born, they were in Salinas.
Juanito, my other friend who was born there, had grandparents who had settled in Salinas when they immigrated.
Normal poor-agricultural-Mexican stories.
My story is not normal or poor or agricultural or even Mexican. Neither are my parents.
So why is my last name Perez?
I have had three official fathers so far, not as in my-mom-got-remarried-and-this-is-your-new-dad kind of father. I have had three biological fathers.
Because I have been married to Oscar Perez since I was seventeen. We’re separated now and in the carpool lane toward divorced.
I have had three official fathers so far, not as in my-mom-got-remarried-and-this-is-your-new-dad kind of father. I have had three biological fathers.
The first was the one I had until I was ten, Fadi al Hindi, and he is the only one I think of as my real father, even though he isn’t. I should have been given his last name when I was born, but since my mother saw no sense in me spending my life as “Palestine the Indian” she gave me her name instead, Salama. ‘Peace.’
When Fadi found out that he wasn’t really my father, he didn’t act on it right away. He swallowed the information for years until it started growing inside him, slowly, like a vine that crept up from his organs and lodged itself in his throat, choking him and cutting off circulation. He got to where he couldn’t stand to be near me since I was a constant reminder of his wife’s infidelity. So he left.
It’s a long and still incomplete story.
While the updated version of my birth-story (version three) has me believing that my parents met when my father (king) came to the States for medical treatment to the very Los Angeles hospital where my mother (Soraya) (nurse) had just started working, that Soraya had a secret fling with a king but couldn’t be bothered to tell her husband about the royal seed deeply embedded in her uterus, that was not the story she told me when I was ten to explain why Fadi wasn’t my father and who in fact was. My mother said that when it all came down she knew that no one would be able to handle the regal story so she draped it with a simple but detailed tale that involved social ambition, which in my family is usually enough to distract people away from obvious lies.
When I was ten years old, my then-father Fadi walked into our living room just back from a visit with his father in Salinas. I was sitting with my grandparents and my mother and he walked in and spilled the high-cholesterol-beans all over the fancy Persian rugs, said I was someone else’s kid, that our whole family was a lie, and that he had no interest in playing a part in it anymore.
Then he fled the scene.
It happened so fast I wasn’t sure what he said, like when you’re daydreaming and something happens to jolt you out of it, only in reverse.
At first my mother was her usual blasé self.
“Baby, it was like this,” she told me. “I was with Fadi, who I will always think of as your father, and I loved him. I had just started working at the hospital dumping bedpans in preparation for nursing school when I met a doctor who couldn’t get enough of me and I was young and stupid.”
“My father is some doctor I’ve never seen?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Hello! This is my father we’re talking about.”
“Soraya, what have you done?” asked my grandmother who had been sitting dumbstruck since Fadi had left.
My grandfather still hadn’t said a word and couldn’t look at my mother or me, like he’d go blind if he laid eyes on my bastard self. Like he wasn’t surprised.
I think that’s when Soraya realized what she was up against and when the real storytelling started. She took a deep breath and smoothed her hair off her face. For clarity. She turned to my grandparents and began:
“Remember I got accepted to school AND got offered that pre-internship job in Labor and Delivery in the hospital in Salinas a few days after we got married?”
This is my story, I wanted to shout. Talk to me, not to them. It didn’t matter. She had to spin a story for them. I was incidental. Ten years old, just found out my father was not my father, and I was incidental.
“We remember, Soraya. It wasn’t good that you moved so far right away. That was the problem.”
“It was a good school and a good job and we went there for Fadi’s dad, remember? It was convenient for us that Tia Hortensia lived there too and had a place where we could stay.”
My grandfather spoke for the first time since Fadi left the house. “That is the problem. Of all my brothers and sisters, you had to go and live with the crazy one?”
Tia Hortensia is my father’s half-sister and she’s nuts, made my mom seem stable and conservative.
“I met a nice doctor who helped me when I had to attend to a grouchy pregnant woman but couldn’t find her.”
“Couldn’t find her?”
“She snuck outside for a cigarette.”
“What’s she doing smoking when she’s pregnant?”
Leave it to my family to get stuck on the wrong detail.
I looked at my mother’s face. Even then I recognized her as one of the few people who could lie and not show it.
My mother is unpredictable. She squinted her huge and very made-up eyes, the false lashes taking on a freaky spider look, and gave herself a minute before she continued with the telling of her skyscraper tall-tale.
“The same doctor helped me when my patient had difficulty nursing her baby.”
I looked at my mother’s face. Even then I recognized her as one of the few people who could lie and not show it. No eye twitching or squinting. No extra gestures with her hands. No stuttering. No making a situation seem better than it was.
Like a sociopath.
That’s Miguel’s voice. Miguel is my best friend and owner of the voice of reason in my head.
“Who has difficulty nursing a baby?”
Soraya also has weird stuff happen to her, which is something else that makes it hard to tell when she’s telling the truth and when she’s lying. She weaves truth and fiction so tightly that it’s hard to tell one thread from the other.
Shut up, Miguel.
“So the doctor I met was Palestinian.”
She let this information sink in and talked about other things, mostly how bad the food was at the hospital.
“You’d think with all the fresh vegetables up there that the hospital food would be better.”
“A Palestinian doctor?”
She kept talking, now about Tia Hortensia, who is as wild and outspoken as ever.
“We were in the grocery store once and there was a lady wearing a bikini top and shorts and the lady was like a double D and Tia Hortensia walked right up to that woman like she was the morality police and told her to take her melons right on out of the store and none of us needed to be seeing all of that and did she think she was at the beach?”
“A Palestinian doctor?”
“What, Mama?” Soraya asked innocently.
“The doctor you mentioned, Fila’s real father, he was Palestinian too? From what village?”
You could practically hear the grinding in my grandmother’s brain. A Palestinian doctor was a good catch, a good deal better than Fadi who both my grandparents say now they never liked. They were nice enough to him, and they were enthusiastic about him marrying my mom because Soraya was wild (according to family legend) and they were worried that she would never be able to get married. My grandmother was always saying things to me like, Don’t you think your father is lazy? Isn’t his voice too loud?
This bought Soraya a little time, though I think she would have been happier if she could have prolonged the story into a weekly novela with juicy episodes that didn’t quite tell everything and cliffhanger endings that left you waiting until the next week.
“Habibti, you were married.” The voice of judgment; the voice of my grandfather.
“I was, Baba, but I loved him.”
I was speechless. I still couldn’t believe that Fadi, who had cared for me all my life, who had read me bedtime stories since the day I was born, had bathed me, fed me, loved me, was not my father.
My grandmother shrieked, “You loved him? You loved him? But you were married to another man and you only knew him for a few minutes. Was he already a doctor or was he doing his residency?”
My grandmother was all over this story, which helped to distract me from the fact that I had just lost my father and gotten another one in the space of five minutes.
Instead of answering her question, my mother bragged about her lover, my supposedly real father. “Habibti,” she said, finally turning to me. “He was such a good man. A good doctor. He volunteered for the kids in ICU and he’d give nutrition classes for pregnant mothers. One time he even brought me twenty-four roses to work.”
My grandfather interrupted my mother’s laundry list of excellent activities with tacks in his voice. “You were married.”
Why didn’t she have him jumping off buildings while she was at it? Or, if she really wanted to impress my grandfather, making peace in Palestine?
Even though my mind was racing, I was speechless. I still couldn’t believe that Fadi, who had cared for me all my life, who had read me bedtime stories since the day I was born, had bathed me, fed me, loved me, was not my father.
Scheherezade kept talking.
“He asked me to marry him.”
“You were already married.”
“I know. Obviously I said no, but it was such a storybook romance and he really loved me. I mean like really. He got me. Didn’t judge me. I think he was the love of my life.”
What the fuck?
This last line jolted me out of my internal conversation because Soraya was famous for her outspokenness and ability to appear more ghetto than the most inner-city gangbanger. She has twenty-foot cement walls surrounding her heart and in those last few sentences she went from telling someone else’s story like it was nothing to being teary-eyed. Until then, I had seen Soraya cry on exactly one occasion, so to see her losing control freaked me out more than I already was and even though I was the one who should be comforted since I just had my father erased and another one drawn in, I scooted closer to her on the couch and hugged her.
“So was he a doctor or a resident?”
Leave it to my grandmother to ask the question that would slap Soraya back to reality, suction-dry the tears that had formed underneath her eyelids, knot her muscles from head to toe.
As soon as I released my mother from my hug, she turned and wrapped her arm around me and spoke slowly. “Things were not great with Fadi from the get-go. I loved him, or thought I loved him, but we were kids. I met this guy, the doctor, and he was so different. So smart and intuitive and loving. He understood me.”
“What village was he from?”
My mother turned and looked my grandfather in the eye. “Deir Yassin.”
Gasps from around the room.
I pulled back to stare at her.
“I thought that didn’t exist anymore.” Even at ten I knew that.
“So how could he be from there?”
“His parents were from there. They were traumatized by what had happened and had him late in life and died. He grew up in a refugee camp. He was an only child.”
“Seriously, habibti. He was a really good man.”
“What was his name?”
That’s when I was sure she was making it up.
“No, the doctor.”
“That’s the thing. His name was Fadi too. Ma,” she said, turning back to my grandmother. “Do you remember when I called you to say I was pregnant?”
“I do. I cried so hard. I was so happy.”
“I was happy too, but I suspected it… she… Fila… wasn’t Fadi-my-husband’s. He had problems getting it up. Sorry, habibti, but these are the facts of life and you need to know them.”
Thank God I had no idea what she was talking about. Both my grandparents hissed and said Arabic words under their breath.
“Did Fadi-your-husband know about Fadi-the-doctor?”
“Not until much later. See, even though he had issues, we were young and he didn’t really know as much as you’d think a grown man should know about how things work. He may have suspected, but he didn’t know for sure until years later when I didn’t get pregnant again and we both got checked. When he found out there was no way he could ever make a woman pregnant, or ever could have, naturally he flipped, but by then you were five or six or seven, I forget, and he loved you and loved me and my affair with the other Fadi was over and done with and he didn’t want anyone to find out that he was defective.”
“We all knew he was defective. That pretty-boy face was covering something. I’ve always known it.”
“Tayta! Stop. He’s still my father.”
I ran out of the room and locked myself in the bathroom.
I didn’t cry. I just stared at myself in the mirror and tried to pick out my new father’s features until my grandmother banged on the door and told me I needed to come out because it wasn’t good to go through this alone. What she meant was my mother wouldn’t tell the rest of the story until I was there to hear it.
When I walked back into the living room, my mother looked relaxed.
My grandfather’s face was pale and white as though all this infidelity had sucked away his blood.
I sat down next to Soraya and she directed the rest of the story at me. The rest of the story that I knew (but wouldn’t let myself admit until I was older) that she was making up.
“We had been in Salinas for seven or eight months and that whole time I was working and pregnant and I would see Fadi-the-doctor at work and I was so happy. And then it happened.”
“He had a car accident. I didn’t find out until the next day, but apparently he had been driving too fast and went off the road and his car flipped and he died. The shock sent me into premature labor. That’s why you were born several weeks early.”
That’s two fathers gone in less than an hour.
There were all sorts of things wrong with her story. Like the fact that my real father had the same name as my supposed father. And that my mother had managed to find not just a doctor, not just a Palestinian doctor, but a Palestinian doctor from Deir Yassin. And that she had managed to find the only Palestinian on the planet who did not have three hundred relatives.
“There are some things you shouldn’t know, and sometimes the truth falls into that category of some things. Better to believe that you come from two happy parents.”
The most unlikely part of the whole story, which didn’t occur to me until much later—I was only ten at the time—was that I could have weighed eight pounds, two ounces when I was born several weeks premature.
“Fadi-my-husband didn’t know anything and he was super worried that something would be wrong with you because you were born so early. I was really lucky and you only had to stay in the hospital a couple of days extra.”
Tia Hortensia, Fadi, and Fadi’s dad took turns taking care of me while Soraya finished nursing school. She and Fadi moved back to L.A. shortly after she graduated.
“And that’s that. The story of how you came to be. Sorry, baby.”
“Would you have told me if Baba hadn’t said anything?”
“I don’t know. Maybe not. There are some things you shouldn’t know, and sometimes the truth falls into that category of some things. Better to believe that you come from two happy parents.”
For the next few months, Soraya offered reruns of her novela, frequently enough that after awhile we both started believing them.
In the beginning I tried to catch her by constantly nagging her with questions like, “he must have some family, a brother or a sister or a cousin.”
“Nope. Orphaned. Grew up in a refugee camp. Brilliant, but orphaned.”
“What did he look like?”
“He was very handsome. Dark hair. Big eyes. Lovely olive skin.”
That narrows it down.
“Do you have any pictures?”
I bugged her about this more than anything. I wanted to see this man who provided me half of my genes and I decided if she could produce one picture of him then I would accept her story and move on.
“I was married, remember? Why would I have a picture of my lover?”
“Because you might want to be able to show your daughter what her father looked like.”
“Habibti, I didn’t even know he was your father. We only did it once. I wasn’t ever really sure until Fadi-my-husband got tested and by then Fadi-your-father was dead. Fadi-my-husband wanted more children. He wanted boys. He wanted to make sure everyone knew what a man he was. I couldn’t get pregnant and it was such a production because he had issues. Things were pretty bad for awhile between us. He actually took the initiative to get tested and you can imagine what he must have felt being told that he wasn’t capable of getting someone pregnant.”
“Why didn’t he leave then?”
Soraya paused for a minute and stared at her hands.
“I told him a story that would make him stay.”
“What did you tell him?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes it does.”
“That is between me and Fadi.”
No it’s not.
Soraya is the Queen of Stubborn, so I tried another angle.
“Did you have other boyfriends too?”
“No, habibti. I’m not like that. It was just him. He was an amazing man, which is why you are such an amazing young woman.”
That was her way of putting an end to our conversation.
No pictures. No proof. Nothing.
To any objective eye, there were craters in this story. For me, my mother was feeding me safe, Gerber bites, even if deep inside I knew it wasn’t true. I didn’t come out and challenge her until it was too late, until I allowed this second story to replace the first and embed itself in my brain (hippocampus) and tissue and organs (heart and liver in particular). Until I let myself believe it was true.
Laila Halaby is the author of two novels, West of the Jordan and Once in a Promised Land, as well as a forthcoming collection of poetry, My Name on His Tongue, from Syracuse University Press. She was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship for study of folklore in Jordan, as well as a PEN/Beyond Margins Award. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her family.