The Alexandrian: Life and Death in L.A.

15 February, 2022
From the streets of Alexan­dria, Egypt to the streets of Los Ange­les, California.

 

Noreen Moustafa

 

As my father’s chron­ic health issues start­ed to catch up with him, there was a slow peel­ing away of the life he’d built. He’d spent the last year in a con­vert­ed res­i­dence called a “board and care,” akin to a nurs­ing facil­i­ty except there weren’t any actu­al nurs­es. Just under­paid care­givers who in fact, couldn’t care less. The unmarked house on a tran­quil, sub­ur­ban street of the San Fer­nan­do Val­ley looked like the kind of fam­i­ly home any immi­grant would be hap­py to end up in. But it wasn’t. Inside were five or six very sick peo­ple, each sep­a­rat­ed from their fam­i­lies who could no longer care for them. And when I vis­it­ed, I found its white pick­et fence iron­ic and utter­ly heart­break­ing. My dad was falling through the cracks of the very sys­tems he exalt­ed, though he would nev­er admit it. He was “too rich” for gov­ern­ment assis­tance but “too poor” to pay pri­vate­ly for the lev­el of help he wound up need­ing. Yet he bore it all with true Amer­i­can grit and the spir­it of rugged indi­vid­u­al­ism he admired. He nev­er com­plained and rarely asked for help. He con­tent­ed­ly hung in this bal­ance for a long time. As long as he could watch the news, talk to me every­day by phone, and got sug­ar-free cook­ies deliv­ered every now and then, he insist­ed he was fine. For him, the dream continued.

But when he also lost the abil­i­ty to ful­ly extend his fin­gers it became hard­er for him to use his phone. He also had some lin­ger­ing delir­i­um from his most recent hos­pi­tal­iza­tions, which were becom­ing alarm­ing­ly more fre­quent. The tele­vi­sion became hard­er to fol­low. And even when the coast looked clear, a cloud of con­fu­sion always threat­ened to come over him. Espe­cial­ly when he was alone, which was almost always these days. After his retire­ment, he slow­ly lost touch with his col­leagues and saw friends less and less. And when he became hand­i­capped, he couldn’t just drop into the flow of the city that had long been his com­pan­ion, to peo­ple-watch or chat some­one up.

“Nor, Nor. Sweet­ie, sor­ry to both­er you, I need your help. I can’t log into my Kaiser account. It’s all locked up. Jojo here says I’m miss­ing a pre­scrip­tion for three days now. Shit. This button…”

“Dad­dy, what do you mean? You can’t miss your med­ica­tions for three days! They didn’t refill it?” Feel­ing so far away and help­less on a transat­lantic call, I was furious.

“I don’t know, I pressed too many but­tons. I can’t remem­ber my pass­word. I tried Noreen123, Noreen321…everything. We need to send a mes­sage to the phar­ma­cy on the website.”

“A mes­sage? I swear I hate Kaiser — why can’t we just call?”

“Noreen, Kaiser insur­ance is great. If I lived in Egypt, I’d be dead by now,” my dad laughed, try­ing to keep things light.

“Ok, I’ll fig­ure it out, dad­dy. I’ll reset your pass­word and call you back. Don’t worry.”

“Thanks baby, I’m sor­ry. I love you.” His voice dripped with humiliation.

 


 

Even though I was now liv­ing on anoth­er con­ti­nent I was a part of the dai­ly cha­rade that every­thing was okay, when it clear­ly wasn’t. I opened my lap­top but for a moment was par­a­lyzed with sad­ness. My capa­ble father was reced­ing each day. I shook myself out of it and launched into the famil­iar yet dread­ed “For­got pass­word?” pro­ce­dure. Mother’s maid­en name? Got it. Birth date? Sure. Last four of his social? I knew that, too. But the final question…what is your dream job? Real­ly? This was a secu­ri­ty ques­tion? Seemed so deeply per­son­al. I knew that if I answered incor­rect­ly, it would only deep­en the mess he was in, so I thought hard. And then almost instinc­tive­ly, I typed in “engi­neer.” And when the green check­mark indi­cat­ed that I had answered cor­rect­ly, I let out a sound that was equal parts laugh and cry. His dream job had been his actu­al job! I just loved my dad­dy so much, I thought, as tears cloud­ed my eyes and streamed down. Of course, he didn’t pine for a dream job he nev­er pur­sued. That just wasn’t him. He had lived his Los Ange­les dream.

Area map includes Smouha, Alexandria.

Grow­ing up in Alexan­dria, Egypt my dad lived in an upper mid­dle-class, cos­mopoli­tan neigh­bor­hood called Smouha. He recalled vivid­ly one neigh­bor in par­tic­u­lar — an Amer­i­can diplo­mat with a pro­cliv­i­ty for bub­ble gum, Bazooka bub­ble gum. Who knows how this man obtained a lim­it­less sup­ply of the clas­sic con­fec­tion but my dad said that this envoy of the US would often pick up the young neigh­bor­hood kids and take them for a joyride. He would hand each child a piece of gum, almost like a tick­et to board, as they clam­bered into his Cadil­lac con­vert­ible. The kids were ecsta­t­ic, blow­ing bub­bles, gig­gling, and bop­ping to Chuck Berry or Elvis Pres­ley. Turns out, Amer­i­can soft pow­er comes in many forms includ­ing this sac­cha­rine pink delight. My dad was enam­ored with this char­ac­ter, and it was in his boat of a car that he was first sold the dream that is Amer­i­ca. Bazooka bub­ble gum with its red, white and blue wrap­per is quite hard at first, then soft­ens. Sud­den­ly suc­cu­lent and deli­cious, it very soon after becomes com­plete­ly void of fla­vor — per­haps the per­fect metaphor for how so many see the Amer­i­can Dream now: arti­fi­cial and disappointing.

But not my dad, who held onto a gild­ed view of Los Ange­les over the forty years that he lived there, no mat­ter what life threw at him. It was a dif­fer­ent time when he arrived in the late ‘70s. Patri­o­tism and love of coun­try hadn’t been coopt­ed by the right yet and immi­gra­tion was high, gen­er­al­ly wel­comed and facil­i­tat­ed. Though we were exoti­cized and just hound­ed by that Ban­gles song (you know the one) my dad made inte­gra­tion look easy. Despite often mix­ing up his “b’s” and “p’s” — a com­mon pit­fall of native Ara­bic speak­ers — he nev­er let his accent get in the way of his lib­er­al use of Amer­i­can idioms and slang. Grow­ing up, he was con­stant­ly embar­rass­ing me by high-fiv­ing peo­ple hel­lo and order­ing “Diet Beb­si and bob­corn.” He didn’t bur­den him­self with duty to claim roots or to enlight­en the igno­rant. He just want­ed to be free and being Amer­i­can did not feel com­pli­cat­ed to him as it some­times does for me.

My dad always hat­ed his name, Mahrous, even while he lived in Egypt. He said it was bal­la­dy, low-class, show­ing how much he had inter­nal­ized the rigid strat­i­fi­ca­tion of Egypt­ian soci­ety. He was the eighth of nine chil­dren. And with a laugh, he told me that his par­ents nev­er even both­ered to find a name for him when he was born. Instead, on the way to the hos­pi­tal, my grand­fa­ther asked their bawab (the door­man) to choose one. I think my dad was relieved when he was rechris­tened at work with his angli­cized name, Ross. He didn’t find it xeno­pho­bic or racist. Ross was just who he was and per­haps, whom he had always want­ed to be. And he had to come to Los Ange­les to become him. That is why for me, for­ev­er the two, the man and the city are inex­tri­ca­bly linked. So much of what I love about my home­town of LA comes from my dad’s view of the city of his dreams and our rit­u­al week­end dri­ves. But as a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can, more sen­si­tive to Amer­i­can society’s short­com­ings, I could see things that he couldn’t. And since his pass­ing, I have been ques­tion­ing which of us real­ly saw my dad’s LA sto­ry for what it actu­al­ly was.

Just as my par­ents did, I even­tu­al­ly left the city where I was born, osten­si­bly for work but ulti­mate­ly for adven­ture, love, and a desire for self-actu­al­iza­tion. But unlike them, I end­ed up some­where that wasn’t on my radar at all — Italy. Con­verse­ly, my dad’s goal had been fixed for years. It had to be LA, as it has to be for the many bold dream­ers who seek to make a home there just so they can be them­selves. (And avoid win­ter com­plete­ly, of course.)

Los Ange­les is at once the man­u­fac­tur­er, deal­er, and con­sumer of a cer­tain dream — the inter­sec­tion of end­less pos­si­bil­i­ty and equal oppor­tu­ni­ty. An illu­sion pro­ject­ed all over the world and then self-reflect­ed back onto the nation itself. And it is in this reflex­ive turn that the Amer­i­can dream is per­ceived as real, when the man­u­fac­tur­er for­gets the ori­gin of his invent­ed prod­uct and actu­al­ly comes to believe in his own cre­ation. My dad’s believed fan­ta­sy was that he was all Amer­i­can, full stop. No hyphens. No com­pli­ca­tions. No ques­tions. When we would both even­tu­al­ly expe­ri­ence dis­crim­i­na­tion down the road, it ran so counter to my dad’s ini­tial immi­grant expe­ri­ence, he had a hard time rec­og­niz­ing it.

Mahrous Moustafa as a young army offi­cer, cir­ca 1973 (cour­tesy Noreen Moustafa).

I remem­ber telling him about a job inter­view I went on, short­ly after the inva­sion of Iraq.

“Bagh­dad? I don’t get it, why’d he say that?” My dad was puzzled.

“Dad­dy, that’s what he said. He was look­ing at my resume, read my name out loud with an accent and said, ‘Where’d you grow up, Baghdad?’”

“So, what’d you say?” The look on his face changed.

“I said I grew up one mile from here, on Elm Dr. in Bev­er­ly Hills.”

“What an idiot, doesn’t he know this is Amer­i­ca?” my dad protested.

Some­where along the way, our per­spec­tive on the promise of Amer­i­ca had diverged. Because even when he did get it, he thought of it as an aber­ra­tion, an excep­tion. He had so ful­ly embraced his new coun­try, he just didn’t have any room for detrac­tors of the dream or even for his for­mer identity.

The times when we were togeth­er in Egypt were few and I remem­ber him against that back­drop most­ly as a mis­placed item. Though he was born, raised and edu­cat­ed in Alexan­dria, he just didn’t belong. Serv­ing in the army and going through a har­row­ing expe­ri­ence as a pris­on­er of the ’73 war with Israel did not increase his con­nec­tion to Egypt. It moti­vat­ed him to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for his own life and he moved to Sau­di Ara­bia for two mis­er­able years to earn enough mon­ey to emi­grate. Every­thing that came after was the pay­off. Dri­ving his con­vert­ible in San­ta Mon­i­ca, wear­ing a white Fila jog­ging suit, avi­a­tors on, smok­ing a Ben­son & Hedges cig­a­rette, his combed-out curls shin­ing in the sun — that’s where he belonged. In this por­trait in my mind, he embod­ies the time and place com­plete­ly: 1987, Los Angeles.

My dad had been a civ­il engi­neer with the Los Ange­les Depart­ment of Water and Pow­er for over thir­ty years. He worked a few odd jobs upon arrival as a new immi­grant, but it didn’t take him long to start a career in his actu­al field of study. Work­ing for the city meant that he had good ben­e­fits, gen­er­al job secu­ri­ty and he was so proud. He was not exceed­ing­ly accom­plished but he was a ful­filled man, and prob­a­bly the most con­tent­ed per­son I have ever known. As much as my dad was attract­ed to the mate­ri­al­is­tic parts of the Amer­i­can dream, and Los Ange­les in the eight­ies had plen­ty of that on offer, what he real­ly appre­ci­at­ed were the reli­able and what he saw as fair sys­tems that were in place. For exam­ple, your cred­it score. “Noreen, in Amer­i­ca nobody cares what your name is or how nice you are. The only thing that mat­ters is your cred­it score. If you ruin your cred­it, the sys­tem will chew you up and spit you out,” he admon­ished when I got my first card. My dad didn’t find this scheme preda­to­ry, cal­lous or threat­en­ing but instead reas­sur­ing. He felt there was a trans­par­ent sys­tem and if you played by the rules, any­one could eke out a peace­ful, hap­py life. He didn’t need to be rich, he just want­ed to be com­fort­able. When you con­sid­er the hap­haz­ard chaos, injus­tice and cor­rup­tion that defines Egypt­ian soci­ety till this day you can under­stand his appre­ci­a­tion for order. A points sys­tem that deter­mines your trust­wor­thi­ness — Amer­i­can com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion at its finest. He just loved it.

Ross Moustafa, a recent­ly-mint­ed Amer­i­can in the 1980s.

There was also an order by which my dad sought to “lev­el up” in LA. From apart­ment to a house. The city to the val­ley. A Toy­ota to a Mer­cedes. And it was all hap­pen­ing because he played by the rules. A year after I was born, my par­ents moved from their rental apart­ment in Hol­ly­wood to a sin­gle-sto­ry house in North­ridge. The dream of home own­er­ship in idyl­lic sub­ur­bia was in fact with­in reach for them as a dual-income fam­i­ly. They bought the house for a tenth of what it is val­ued at now. It was a dif­fer­ent time. He must’ve felt that he had it all.

My mem­o­ries there come in inco­her­ent flash­es. The neighbor’s tire swing. Me, wob­bling on train­ing wheels. Drip­ping cream­si­cles, shared with neigh­bor­hood kids on the side­walk, “Eye of the Tiger” and “Thriller” on MTV. A magi­cian at my 4th birth­day par­ty with an actu­al bun­ny. A sub­ur­ban par­adise where kids ran through sprin­klers on man­i­cured lawns when it got hot.

But the cen­ter did not hold. Short­ly before my par­ents’ divorce when I was 4, my dad booked an appoint­ment at Sear’s Por­trait Stu­dio for us to take a fam­i­ly pic­ture. My mom refused, say­ing she didn’t like being pho­tographed. They fought and my dad took me any­way. This pho­to — of me in vel­vet and ruf­fles, my dad in a suit, and a mot­tled blue back­ground where my moth­er should be — is a frame-able tes­ta­ment to my dad’s abil­i­ty to gloss over real­i­ty. Right when he thought his Amer­i­can dream had been ful­filled, his fam­i­ly fell apart, and he didn’t know how to fix it.

My mom was going through her own self-real­iza­tion jour­ney. Forced to work full-time just months after hav­ing me, she also start­ed ris­ing up the ranks in her career. And like my dad, she found a great job in her field work­ing for the Bev­er­ly Hilton Hotel, an icon of glam­or at the inter­sec­tion of Wilshire and San­ta Mon­i­ca, where the Gold­en Globes are host­ed every year. Exposed to a new world, she start­ed to dream her own dream.  And sup­port­ed by her col­leagues and new friends, she gained the courage and self-esteem to rec­og­nize that my dad’s learned misog­y­ny and tem­per were not things she had to tol­er­ate. And so, she divorced him. The Amer­i­can ideals my dad had spent the first part of his life admir­ing — inde­pen­dence, self-reliance, and free­dom — actu­al­ly end­ed up destroy­ing his fam­i­ly. He felt that my mom had changed too quick­ly. But it was he who for­got to bury this cer­tain part of his “Egyp­tian­ness,as he had done with so much else of his cul­ture. He was heart­bro­ken and resent­ful. I was for­tu­nate though that for all his short­com­ings as a hus­band, I only knew him as an atten­tive, play­ful, and cheer­ful father who absolute­ly adored me. He was a great dad. And I have to thank my mom’s grace for that, too.

When I think of my dad, I think about how the ordi­nary can take on mag­i­cal mean­ing. The way he made nor­mal life come alive for me when LA was our play­ground. I smile remem­ber­ing how he’d pre­tend to trig­ger the street­light chang­ing to green by shoot­ing it with his index fin­ger (with one eye on the cross­walk sig­nal, of course). My dad always found a short­cut into the soul of LA by just talk­ing to every­one. He always chat­ted up the cashier at the gas sta­tion or the super­mar­ket. He’d ask wait­ers when they were get­ting off and what their plans were. On the way out of a movie, he’d ask com­plete strangers what they thought. And every­body loved my dad in the Hol­ly­wood court­yard apart­ment com­plex where he rent­ed for over a decade. There was always some­one to greet us when we car­ried the ham­per to the shared laun­dry room, stopped to check the mail or pulled into the car­port behind the build­ing. He’d honk his horn and wave to any­one in the garage from his new pride — a black, Mer­cedes con­vert­ible. “Ross the boss, you’re the man!” they would wave back. He still loved lis­ten­ing to Chuck Berry with the top down.

Although he loved talk­ing pol­i­tics and was a vocal crit­ic of the government’s for­eign pol­i­cy, my dad was so grate­ful for his Amer­i­can life. And that trans­lat­ed into real loy­al­ty. After the 9/11 ter­ror attacks, he even applied to the FBI when they made a pub­lic call for Ara­bic trans­la­tors. We laughed uproar­i­ous­ly when after his sec­ond inter­view he was reject­ed because of his sub­par Ara­bic pro­fi­cien­cy. So he just kept show­ing up for his oth­er dream job with the DWP until he jumped at the chance for ear­ly retire­ment. More time to cruise in his con­vert­ible. I remem­ber look­ing at him once wait­ing at the car wash, amazed at how much peace he had. With the sun on his face, he closed his eyes and smiled, as if he was med­i­tat­ing on how lucky he was to be there.

Noreen and her baba (cour­tesy Noreen Moustafa).

In his final year of life, bed bound and declin­ing in the San Fer­nan­do Val­ley, the pan­dem­ic end­less­ly sep­a­rat­ing us, he told me that in most of his dreams he was dri­ving. I can still hear his boom­ing and jol­ly voice com­mand, “Come on, let’s go for a ride,” as we did so many times in my child­hood. To the beach and back. Up one canyon, just to come down anoth­er. When the dri­ve itself was the des­ti­na­tion. I won­dered if he dreamed about the mag­no­lia trees in Han­cock Park that solemn­ly watched over us for years, like the elders they are. Or was he wind­ing through the palm-lined streets of Bev­er­ly Hills, where the trees looked like they were wear­ing hula skirts? Maybe he was sail­ing down the Cal­i­for­nia Incline, dri­ving head­first into the marine lay­er, tak­ing big gulps of the ocean mist. I had a dream recent­ly of us singing with aban­don to KOST 103 bal­lads on the free­way, our voic­es evap­o­rat­ing into the wind.

In that peri­od, he also start­ed watch­ing old, black and white Egypt­ian films. Some­thing he had nev­er done before. I laughed, ask­ing him if he could even under­stand the Ara­bic any­more. He said he appre­ci­at­ed the sim­ple plot lines. “So and so wants to mar­ry so and so, blah blah blah” and that he loved the music. He also just liked to think about the “good old days.” With a lot of time to think, I imag­ine it was his way of recon­nect­ing to his for­mer self, his for­mer home and clos­ing the cir­cle of his life. “A good life,” by his own assess­ment. Maybe it was also his soul’s way of reach­ing out to the col­lec­tive he had left behind in pur­suit of well, him­self so many years before. If he ever had any regrets about how that pur­suit served him in the end, he nev­er let on. Just the oppo­site, he insist­ed that I con­tin­ued my own, no mat­ter what. (Though he did always won­der how I could live some­where that got so cold.)

Although often stereo­typed, LA can be a hard place to fig­ure out and an even hard­er place to explain. There are so many moments of fleet­ing and sub­lime beau­ty only an Ange­leno can appre­ci­ate. Like a pow­er line’s shad­ow bend­ing at an illog­i­cal angle, against a con­crete wall, in the pur­ple dusk. Or the cama­raderie of sit­ting in traf­fic on the 405, all of us in union, fac­ing a sea of brake lights. Each face glow­ing red, just try­ing to get home. These things were nev­er explained to me, just shown to me. By my dad and through his eyes. The reli­a­bil­i­ty of June gloom. The unnerv­ing San­ta Anas. And how you should always, always take Foun­tain. I’m so grate­ful that his roman­tic view of Los Ange­les, is my Los Angeles.

 

AlexandriaAmerican dreamEgyptFatherimmigrationIndividualismLos Angeles

Noreen Moustafa was born in Los Angeles to Egyptian parents. She is a writer and news/documentary producer who began her career at Current TV, working on the international documentary series, Vanguard and ‘the world’s biggest online news show,' The Young Turks. She later worked as a producer for both Al Jazeera America and Al Jazeera English. She lives with her husband and two children in Florence, Italy where she is working on a memoir.

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Steven Oh
Steven Oh
7 months ago

Thank you, Noreen, for a beau­ti­ful por­tray­al of your father and his/your life in LA! It was an absolute joy to read and I was so impressed with the com­plex and com­pli­cat­ed, yet total­ly relat­able, descrip­tion of your dad’s immi­grant expe­ri­ence. As an immi­grant myself who came to the US at the age of 7, I empathized with both your dad’s and your per­spec­tives of life in Amer­i­ca — the love for this coun­try and the desire to be and be seen as 100% Amer­i­can as well as the sad dis­ap­point­ment when con­front­ed with racism and oth­er short­com­ings of Amer­i­can soci­ety. This is one of the best essay’s I’ve ever read! Thank you again!