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My Father Was a Closet Bilingual

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

Speaking two languages fluently wasn’t enough. Neither one of them was English, so my father’s family was relegated to the slums. Dad was six years old.

My grandparents and their children were clearly unwelcome interlopers in the town where they would spend the rest of their lives.

My father was the eldest of seven children, born to my Lebanese grandparents who had emigrated in 1912 to the sprawling state of Mato Grosso Do Sul in western Brazil. Dad remembered bathing in the Amazon River near their pioneer cabin in their village, Corumbá, which today is a busy city of over 100,000.

In 1919, with four children in tow, my grandparents left the wilds of the Amazon for the United States. They made the trek through Ellis Island and eventually landed in Sioux City, Iowa, to make their new life in arguably the whitest part of the country. Why from Lebanon to Brazil to Iowa? It’s another story for another time.

When they arrived, my father’s family spoke two languages fluently, Lebanese and Portuguese. Aside from my grandfather Sam who knew a little, none of them spoke a lick of English. Lacking skill in the language of power coupled with swarthy skin guaranteed their place in the community of pariahs. They found a place to rent where other non-White and non-English speakers were consigned: the ghetto section of town near the river where floods, rats, and filth were frequent companions. There, three more children were born to a poor, immigrant family of exceedingly modest means. Today, the South Bottoms no longer exist, long since wiped away as part of “urban renewal.”

As a kid, Dad quickly learned the many lessons of immigrants. Like most immigrants to the U.S., Dad was bullied by Whites who commanded English. Called the “n” word and mocked for his pronunciation, he mastered English.

With my grandfather unable to find consistent work, Dad worked full time jobs while attending high school to keep their family of nine afloat and still managed to become Salutatorian of his graduating class. He became a U.S. citizen, earned his way to college and graduated from law school.

Dad changed the pronunciation of the family name so it sounded more American. While serving in WWII as Master Sergeant in the U.S. Army, he formally changed his first, Arabic-sounding name to an exceedingly American-sounding first name. Like many immigrants eager to embrace all things American, he flew the Stars and Stripes proudly and often.

My mother, a British GI War Bride, spoke only English, of course. Dad was elected to District Attorney six times in the same town that spurned him and his family as a child. As an attorney, the town subsequently saw him as an eloquent and gifted public speaker - in English. His brothers and sisters all spoke English to one another, too, aside from random Arabic expressions, food names, and the rare curse word.

Growing up, I would ask Dad if he could still speak Lebanese or Portuguese. He always answered, “No, I forgot how.” Even when I asked him to say some simple phrases in either one, he insisted he couldn’t remember any of it.

As a kid, I discovered I had a gift for sounds and wanted to speak in another language. Thwarted by a linguistically forgetful father, I earned a Bachelor’s then Master’s degrees in Spanish. Along the way, I also learned French, Italian and German.

As I became bilingual (and subsequently multilingual), I grew suspicious of my father’s claim that he had totally forgotten two distinct languages and yet found a way to master another, totally different language like English. I had no way to put him to the test.

Until we went for that donut and coffee.

When Dad spent time with any of his five sons, going out for coffee and a donut was de rigueur. We understood that this was his way of “having a talk” and catching up on our lives.

Dad and I walked into Dunkin’ Donuts and up to the counter. A swarthy young man greeted us. We said two black coffees please and made our donut choices.

Dad eyed the donut guy’s name “Muhammed” on his name tag.

Without warning, my father burst into a flurry of Arabic words. Fluid inflection and no hesitation, he was using parts of his mouth to make sounds I had never heard him utter before. I recognized the glottal stop of the hamza. The donut guy responded in Arabic and their exchange went on for four or five sentences. Muhammad passed over the coffees and donuts. Dad thanked him - still in Arabic - and we took a table.

“What the hell was that!?” I blurted. “I thought you forgot how to speak Arabic!”

Dad took a deep breath, then a sip of hot coffee.

“I guess I remembered how.”

©️Copyright by David Samore. Excerpts in part or whole may not be used without the expressed permission of David Samore.

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