Dearest Anita, June 27, 1975
It has been ten days since you left. The first few days seemed to drag out forever. I became very restless and depressed. Yet I really couldn’t get myself to get up to do anything. From morning to night seemed like such a long time. Somehow this state is beginning to change a little – although I don’t know whether to ascribe it to just getting used to the realities of life here or whether I am beginning to think about the fact that I’m not going to be here much longer. Anyway, I’ve stated making more use of the car, even if it is only to drive around in circles, sort of like going up and down main street on a Saturday night in a small town during the fifties and sixties. For a little variety I drove back out to the place north of town where we saw the shantytown and the dhow building yards. I was amazed and even impressed by how quickly things change around here – because in the two weeks since we drove up there with Sally the shantytown has virtually disappeared – literally – almost all of the shacks have been carted away and there are just big piles of junk lying around plus a few people who seem to be mainly scavenging. I went up there with the idea of taking some pictures of the dhow builders and it turned out to be fairly worthwhile since they were fairly friendly and didn’t really seem to mind.
Today being Friday I decided to drive down to the great beaches “in the neutral zone.” It seems that by complete accident we had in fact stumbled onto the end of them when we took that detour to Mina-Saud and then walked along the beach picking shells. Just before one gets to where we stopped there is a turn off to the left over the pipelines and then a rough sandy road along the back of small dunes that stretch along the coast for several miles. Summer cottages have been built up along a good part of the coast but there are some sizable clear areas and I spent a little time lying on the edge of the beach letting the tide roll in and out over me. It was very relaxing and the wind from the water plus the haze that was present prevented the sun from becoming too oppressive.
Afterwards, at about 4:30 I went over to the Morassos for afternoon “tea” (real tea I’m afraid). About six other people were present, two couples connected with the embassy plus an English acquaintance of theirs. This was my chance to discuss the work we are commissioning before they go off to Europe and eventually California. I left the details to Louise but I suggested that we would prefer a round, three-dimensional hanging rather than one of the flat ones. She will either create a single piece or she will send me pictures of several that she intends to do and let us choose from among them. They leave on July 3 and apparently are spending most of the European stop in Prague which I indicated was a very good choice in our opinion. Louise indicated that she will try to give you a call when they go through Chicago.
Among my other great exploits I finally went to a local movie theater (the TV is still showing our usual favorites). I picked the one in Salmiya – mainly because it was showing an English language film. I brought a dollar ticket in the “family” section where the “decent” people sit. The audience up there was fairly evenly divided between young men and Kuwaiti teenage and slightly older girls, mainly chaperoned and all trying to look very cool and nonchalant as they were sharply eyeing all the passing males. Works has been rather slow for the most part but things may pick up in the next dew days.
I hope your week at camp was a smashing success. Please write and me know how you and Alexandra and all the inlaws are doing.
I wish I could hold you and crush (?) you against my chest – I miss you very much.
Another beautiful letter from my father, and more surprise and confusion from me. My father was very smart, so it’s not a shock that he was a good writer (who hated commas, like his daughter), but it is hard for me to accept that he was, at one point, so articulate and sweet. He obviously really missed my mother and wanted to share his experiences with her. And although he sounds like he was enjoying himself, he seems to find himself unmoored without her.
Though I’m attached to the idea (fact?) that my dad was a “bad father” and therefore at least a somewhat bad person, that belief conveniently disappears when I consider his work in the Middle East and Africa. History tells us that men, often white, go to these places with shady agendas, whether it’s their own or the companies they work for. I don’t believe my father’s work had anything to do with oil, which is the main draw for exploiters, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t somehow involved with ventures that hurt locals.
According to his obituary, my father worked in “international, commercial and merchant banking.” I don’t know a ton of details about what he did—I know he helped open branches of his bank in Nigeria and Cameroon, specifically, and maybe he did that all over West Africa and the Middle East. I know he was gone a lot when I was a kid, and that he loved his work. I don’t actually know that he loved his work, but it was obvious that he loved traveling and working abroad. This letter certainly shows that he knew how to entertain himself. He always shots tons of film and came back with stories about his new friends and adventures. And my parents were so obsessed with diversity and other cultures that it seems natural he’d conduct his business in an informed and respectful way.
I have a very hard time imaging that he was exploitative in his work. In this one area of his life, I have chosen to believe that everything he did was okay. It’s difficult, even a bit physically painful, to consider “letting go” of my ideas about my father’s fathering, but I have the same reaction when I imagine finding out he didn’t have the purest intentions in his work, or that his agenda wasn’t right for wherever he was. Every part of me says, “NO.”
I’ve considered this before, but what really got me thinking about it was his reference to the clearing of shantytowns, which he found “amazing and impressive.” Slums are bulldozed all the time, and my father’s mention of it doesn’t mean his work was related in any way. The Kuwaiti government had plenty of money and it’s own agenda –-it’s as likely they were behind it as anyone else. I was in Shanghai last year, and entire neighborhoods—not slums—were being razed left and right.
My father’s comment strikes a strange discord, and it makes me doubt him. He seems to have thought it was a good thing, and although I don’t know the context, I can imagine arguments for why it would be. But the arguments for why it’s a tragedy are the ones I would actually make. I was in Zambia in my early twenties, and my boyfriend and I were adopted by a group of teenagers who lived in an enormous shantytown outside of the relatively touristy area we were staying. They brought us home and we ate dinner in their tiny, one-room house that was constructed out of wood, tin and a lot of trash bags. What struck me was how clean and organized their home was, and how clean and organized the whole area was. Our hosts shared ugali and beer with us (actually, I think we provided the beer), and as we talked to them under a dim, oily lamp, it became clear how understandably despondent they were over their situation (parents dead, raising their younger siblings)—but they were also proud of the home they’d managed to create. I’m going to stop here because I’m straying into “How to Write about Africa” territory, but the point is, the disappearance of shantytowns is bad. I could have said that without sharing all of my inside knowledge, but I didn’t.
The other part of this letter that jumped out at me was my father’s mention of “real” and “unreal” varieties of tea. What does that mean??? How often were my parents doing drugs?
I started smoking pot when I was 13 (and I can’t remember jack shit anymore, so yes, I’d say that was a mistake), and like most teenagers I thought I was baaaad. However, my pot use wasn’t really terrible behavior because my mom (my dad was working in Ukraine by this point) didn’t have a huge problem with me doing it occasionally. I’m not certain when she learned about my pot habits. It might have been when I asked if my boyfriend and I could smoke pot in my room. She said yes, and it was a pretty great night. My mom unabashedly decided to fuck with us and blasted opera throughout the house, which was weird, because no one in our house listened to opera. My room was on the top floor and I remember running into the hallway a bunch of times and sticking my head in the stairwell and trying to figure out if what I thought was happening was really happening. It was.
Maybe a year later we were having dinner as a family and my parents mentioned a trip they took to Jamaica. I can’t really remember how the conversation went. I may have randomly mentioned smoking pot because I needed to feel cool, or my parents might have just started talking about their trip. Either way, I distinctly remember my mom saying, “God, we were so stoned. Your father went out to get something from the balcony and when he didn’t return I went to retrieve him. He was standing with his hands on the railing and said, ‘I can’t remember what I came out for. And I couldn’t either!’”
I was delighted and horrified by the conversation. That was a nice dinner. My father was home and my mother wasn’t angry at him, and I wasn’t being a dick. It’s actually a really nice memory.
Also, what was the piece of art they commissioned? I have no idea.