It was the hottest part of the afternoon--a dry 110 degrees--when my father and I reached Iraq's northern border. We were queasy after a stomach-churning four-hour taxi ride from the airport in southeastern Turkey but saw right away that the Habur border crossing offered little in the way of rest.
Cab drivers were playing chicken for parking spaces before dashing off with passengers onto a dusty street lined with customs offices.
Our driver, Tariq, a wiry young Turk, grabbed my father's passport and mine, scribbled some numbers in a ledger and led us to a small office where a throng of other drivers pressed against a counter clamoring for passport stamps.
Tariq tore off a paper ticket. But to judge from a semi-functioning electronic sign with flashing red numbers, more than 100 people were ahead of us.
It was July 2005. My father was 67 and had knee and back trouble. I led him through the crowd to an empty chair, then went out for some air. A torrid wind was scattering empty water bottles across the pavement. Knots of men in sweat-stained shirts leaned against the walls, talking or clicking prayer beads. Boys peddled warm soda from plastic buckets.
I tried to sit on the curb, but the pavement burned and I shot to my feet. Two hours passed and the numbers on the sign had scarcely moved. Tariq tried a bribe, then begged for pity. His fare, he told the police, was a distinguished American professor who was not feeling well. "Please, let us get our stamps so we can get him someplace where he can rest," he said in Turkish, nodding toward my father.
A uniformed official behind the window sprang out of his seat, gesturing angrily and shouting.
"What did that guy just tell Tariq?" I asked my father, my heart thumping.
"Emm," my father said, clearing his throat. "He said, 'I don't give a shit who that old man is or where he's from. He can stay in his seat and wait for his God-damned number, or he can go to hell.'"
I looked at the sweat gathering at my father's temples and the way he clutched his briefcase to his chest like armor, and wondered whether our trip had been a mistake. He was nearing retirement and living a life of simple comforts in southern California. What was I doing dragging him halfway across the world, to the edge of a war zone?
My father and I had sparred for months over my idea of traveling together to his Iraqi hometown. I had quit my job as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun to write my father's story--how a boy born to an illiterate Jewish mother in the hills of Kurdish Iraq wound up at the University of California at Los Angeles as a professor of Aramaic, his ancient mother tongue. But I wanted my book to be something more: a way to repair a relationship with a man I had always kept at arm's length.
Trying to grow up cool in the 1980s, I had wanted nothing to do with him. His hair, a froth of curls combed over to one side, embarrassed me, even though some of my friends compared it to Einstein's. His pastel-plaid J.C. Penney suits would have won more style points on the back nine than at the faculty club, except that he didn't play golf or any other sport. As for his books, devoted to a 3,000-year-old language almost no one speaks anymore, they never made Oprah.
I was a son of Los Angeles, a skateboarder in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses. He was a son of Zakho, Iraq, raised in a mud shack in one of the world's oldest and most isolated corners of the diaspora. We quarreled. I lied to friends about his heritage, mortified that he was from a part of the world many associated with hostage crises and fanatical ayatollahs. At some point, as a teenager, I even stopped calling him abba [dad]. He was just "Yona." He was the odd-looking, funny-talking man with strange grooming habits who lived with us and who may or may not have been my father, depending on who was asking. …