ZAINA ARAFAT

Our Arab

IN THE ’60S A YOUNG PALESTINIAN MAN WAS WARMLY RECEIVED BY A TOWN IN RURAL MINNESOTA. BUT WHAT WOULD IT BE LIKE WHEN HE RETURNED, FIFTY YEARS LATER, IN POST-9/11 AMERICA?

DISCUSSED: The Facts of American Life, The New Left, A Book Report on Of Human Bondage, The American Field Service, Walter Cronkite’s Evening Broadcasts, Christmas Tree Strategy, The Cottonwood County Citizen, Windom High School’s Class of 1964, An American Promise

In the 1963–’64 Windom High School yearbook, there is an entire page dedicated to my Palestinian father. During his one year as an exchange student in Windom, Minnesota, he played on the tennis team, ran track (he hated running, but the other option, wrestling, terrified him), joined the photography club, was elected to student council—“They entrusted me to make decisions for the entire school,” he says, “though I’d only just arrived”—and got voted onto the homecoming court. We joke that he was the Forrest Gump of Windom, able to be everywhere at once, and all in just a year. “Extracurriculars didn’t exist back in Nablus,” he says, speaking of his Palestinian hometown. “We were desperate for any kind of cultural or social activity.”

In the yearbook he is referred to by his nickname, Winnie, short for Winner, the English translation of his Arabic name, Fawaz. He is sinewy and boyish, gap-toothed, his nose still too big for his face. There is a shot of him woodworking, another of him standing poised behind an old-fashioned camera with a caption that reads, “What picturesque cheerleaders!” There is a photo of him sitting beside an older man in thick, black-rimmed glasses, Glen Tews, the junior-high principal and his host father. “Winnie learns the facts of American Life,” states the caption beneath it. The most jovial and ironic of captions accompanies a head-on shot of him standing beside a marked fallout shelter: “Our own little bomb!” In the middle of the collage, in all-caps and boldface type, are the words “OUR ARAB.”

The descriptions are naive, earnest at best, and would be deemed insensitive and offensive today: the voyeuristic and sexist implication of photographing cheerleaders, the patronizing assumption that a foreigner would be unfamiliar with such a thing as “American life,” associating an Arab Muslim with bombs, designating a student by his ethnic background in a possessive, paternalistic tone. But in the early 1960s, the concept of political correctness hadn’t yet infiltrated the American vernacular—it wouldn’t until the 1970s, with the rise of the New Left, exploding onto college campuses and into political discourse in the 1980s and early ’90s. Nor did identity politics extend to Arabs and Muslims, who weren’t yet considered victims of discrimination or excluded in the way that other minority groups in the US were, most notably African Americans, who were demanding equality by braving police dogs and water cannons and state-sanctioned racism via sit-ins, boycotts, and jail sentences. According to my father, part of the reason for this is that there weren’t that many Arabs or Muslims around. “People hadn’t had much exposure to us,” he tells me, “which meant they had no preexisting associations, judgments, or stereotypes.” In Windom, the population was and still is almost homogenously white—92 percent so—comprising mostly Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants: “I don’t remember any Mexican, Asian, or African American classmates.” A quick scan of the yearbook offers a spread of overwhelmingly white faces. “I was the only foreign student at the high school, and possibly in all of Windom.”

In her essay “Back to Buxton,” Eula Biss refers to Zora Neale Hurston’s experience of becoming “tragically colored” when leaving her all-black hometown and entering a predominately white America: “I was not Zora of Orange County any more,” Hurston writes, “I was now a little colored girl.” Though my father stood out in Windom, his othering was surprisingly benevolent, friendly, and inclusive, and unaware of its orientalist gaze. Despite their lack of exposure to Arabs and Muslims, the Americans he met in Windom greeted him with openness and curiosity rather than suspicion and animosity. He speculates that this was “maybe because we weren’t maligned in the media yet”—there were no Limbaughs or Coulters or Hannitys railing against entire ethnic and religious categories of people—“nor were we a target of US foreign policy, or discriminatory domestic ones.”

Indeed, there was no Patriot Act, no surveillance of mosques and Muslim neighborhoods, no travel ban, no inflammatory tweets by a sitting president designed to foment Islamophobia. My father’s year in Windom was before 9/11, before Al-Qaeda, before Afghanistan and both Gulf Wars, before the Arab Spring, before the Iraqi and Syrian refugee crisis.

My father now lives in the US permanently as a citizen, just outside of Washington, DC. CNN constantly blares from the living-room television. Upset by the news and its reflection of a different America than the one he first encountered—an America where, to his mind, leaders sought to unite rather than divide, where hatred and bigotry were seen as things to eradicate rather than revive, where a set of shared values guided policy and where American goodwill didn’t come with a price tag—he keeps his Windom High yearbook within reach, in the coffee-table drawer.

As the political pundits argue in the background over Trump’s latest offense or unilateral move (“When I visit the Middle East now,” my father tells me, “people say, ‘It looks like America isn’t sustainable, after all. You’ve got a dictatorship too’”), my father shows me a picture of his English teacher, Mr. Lindaman. At twenty-seven, he was sleek and sharp and bore a striking resemblance to a young Paul Newman. My father has spoken of him for as long as I can remember; he was the teacher who introduced him to his favorite authors and stories, ones he would not have encountered back in Nablus. As soon as my homework began to include reading, my father gave me all of the novels that Mr. Lindaman had assigned: Les misérables, The Catcher in the Rye, The Glass Menagerie. I was the only fourth grader who chose to write a book report on Of Human Bondage.

When my father emigrated to California in the late 1970s for graduate school, at the age of thirty-one, his first time returning to the US since high school, he tried to locate Mr. Lindaman. His search was unsuccessful, and he gave up. Not until 2014, fifty years after their last encounter, would an uncanny coincidence allow them to meet again, and bring my father back to Windom.

In the spring of 1963, my father applied to spend his senior year of high school in the United States through the AFS intercultural exchange program. Originally the American Field Service, AFS began as a volunteer ambulance corps during World War I and became a secondary-school exchange program at the end of World War II, once its services on the battlefield were no longer needed. Its mission was to create understanding between individuals of different nations, with the goal of minimizing war and promoting global peace. In 1947, the first AFS students arrived in the US from France, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Norway, England, and Syria.

My father’s own father had died of ALS when he was thirteen, leaving his mother a widow with nine children. He’d been the dean of the Rasheediya College in Jerusalem, and had helped arrange scholarships for a number of Palestinian students who would’ve been unable to attend university otherwise. An elementary school in Nablus was named in his honor after he died. The emphasis he placed on education impacted my father. “It’s one of the few things that no one can take away from you,” he often tells me, a common belief among immigrants, and one that resonates especially deeply with Palestinians, 80 percent of whom were, in 1948, exiled from their homes and forced into refugee camps in what would become known as The Nakba (“The Disaster”).

After learning about the AFS program through an ad in Life magazine, he sent in an application via the American embassy in Amman, and soon found out he’d been accepted. He was assigned to Windom High School, in the seat of Minnesota’s Cottonwood County, a town with a population of less than 4,500 (the number hasn’t increased much since then). Along with his acceptance packet was a letter from his host family, the Tews, inviting and welcoming him to their home.

My father had never left the Middle East before. He had traveled with his family to Syria and to Lebanon, but nowhere else. In August 1963, just after his sixteenth birthday, he took a bus from Nablus to Jerusalem to Amman, where he met up with five other AFS scholars from Jordan and boarded a flight—his first ever—to Athens, then another to Paris, before finally arriving in New York City.

At the time, the US was regarded positively in the Arab world. During the Suez Crisis seven years earlier, in 1956, when Israeli forces invaded Egypt with French and British support, President Eisenhower demanded that they withdraw. Throughout the region Eisenhower’s stance was seen as a heroic opposition to Israeli aggression, one that, in my father’s view, prioritized justice over military strength. Not a lot of American movies came to Nablus, so my father’s impression of American culture was based on magazines like Life and Time. He couldn’t wait to experience the country for himself.

He landed in New York after dark, and went directly to his hotel to sleep. He’s never forgotten the feeling he had that first morning, of waking up to discover the city. “Skyscrapers were the surprise of my life,” my father says. America felt like a different planet. Almost immediately, he knew he wanted to belong to this country and everything it represented. At the end of a three-day orientation, he and thirty-five other AFS scholars (there were five hundred in total) boarded a bus that would drop them off in various towns throughout the country, at the homes of their assigned host families.

Getting to Windom took five days and four nights—two spent in motels and two on the bus. “Everyone had someone to make out with by the end of the trip,” my father tells me. On the fifth day he arrived in Windom, and was dropped off directly at the home of his host parents, Glen and Blanche Tews, a junior-high principal and a Swedish homemaker. They had lost one of their two sons in a hunting accident three years earlier, the same year my dad had lost his father. They were happy to take him in as one of their own. In her entry in my father’s yearbook, Mrs. Tews referred to him as her “adopted son.” “I knew we would only have you for a year,” she’d written, “and so I wouldn’t permit myself to think of it any other way. I’ve been hurt so much already.”

My father was exhausted after the bus ride, so Mrs. Tews suggested that he take a nap. He woke up at 10 p.m. and was surprised to find that it was still light outside, thanks to long northern summer days. It’s his most distinct memory from his first night in Windom.

My father could not have arrived in the US at a more iconic moment, one brimming with social upheaval. The summer of ’63 was marked by resistance to a myriad of injustices, domestically and internationally. Ten days after he landed in New York, more than two hundred thousand people traveled to Washington, DC, from across the country to take part in the March for Jobs and Freedom, culminating in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and casting a national spotlight on the suffering and struggles of African Americans. Mrs. Tews cried as they watched Martin Luther King deliver his speech. She explained to my father what was happening in the American South, and that Dr. King’s speech signaled progress after years of peaceful protest and acts of civil disobedience. Less than two weeks later, under orders from President Kennedy, National Guardsmen oversaw the integration of schools in Birmingham, Alabama.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, where the US was engaged in an ideological battle with limited warfare—no ground troops had yet been deployed—Buddhists were protesting an oppressive, discriminatory Christian-minority government. That June, in resistance to persecution by the regime, a seventy-three-year-old monk set himself on fire at a busy Saigon intersection, surrounded by awed spectators, American journalists among them. Photos of the monk burning to death were shown on US television stations, sending shock waves throughout the country and bringing the war in Vietnam into the average American’s consciousness.

Classes at Windom High began two weeks after my father arrived in the US. In Nablus, my father had gone to a school with wooden benches for chairs, seven kids to a bench, all boys. Sitting in a classroom with girls was new to him. “If a girl said, ‘Good morning, how are you?’ I immediately assumed she was in love with me.” His favorite subject was English, mostly because of Mr. Lindaman. Robert Lindaman had moved to Minnesota from Iowa in 1961 along with his wife, who, according to my father, looked like Grace Kelly. It was his first teaching job; his wife was pregnant with their son and teaching at the same school. His style of instruction was surprising to my father. “He actually made us analyze what we read, then write about it and discuss it, even if that meant voicing an opinion that was different than his.” In Nablus, rote memorization was the primary method of instruction. Students feared their teachers, and weren’t ever supposed to disagree with them.

Once my father adjusted to his new environment, he fit right in. He made his bed every morning, mowed the lawn, finished his homework after supper, went pheasant hunting with his American dad, tasted lemon meringue pie for the first time, and went to see Dr. No at the Windom State Theater. He rode on the back of Bart Anderson’s motorcycle, sailed on the lake at Bob Hoyer’s house, took Marian Hildreth to the homecoming dance. He admits that she was his high-school sweetheart, a relationship that would be unacceptable in Nablus, where courtship occurred usually in service of marriage. Any dating back home had to be done in secret.

Bob, Bart, Steve, and Marian were his closest friends; the five of them were always together. They thought of themselves as anti-establishment, protesting US actions in Vietnam by showing up to the prom in jeans. My father has shown me their class pictures in the yearbook; across their faces they signed their names and wrote messages. Steve had facetiously suggested a ten-year reunion in Paris. Bart, the most rebellious of the five of them, had written, “Don’t do anything I would do.”

At Christmas, my father received presents from his host family and others in the community, though everyone in Windom knew he was Muslim. The Tews invited him to church services every Sunday, and if he missed a week, the pastor would ask where he had been. “I’ve been to churches more times than I’ve been to mosques!” he says.

Part of my father’s responsibility as an AFS scholar was to raise awareness about the Palestinian people—their customs, culture, and history. He was invited to several organizations and functions in Windom to speak about Palestine and the creation of Israel. “Half of our country has been taken by another party,” he would tell them, referring to The Nakba. Most people in Windom didn’t know much about Palestinians—they weren’t yet covered in Walter Cronkite’s evening broadcasts—and the community was genuinely curious to learn about them and the conflict. “Almost everyone in Windom understood how difficult it was for an entire nation to be displaced from their own land,” my father says, “and forced to live in camps where their homes became tents.” He felt compelled to bring up the topic whenever he could. “I thought that by telling the story firsthand and putting a face on the issue, before they heard about it on the news, I could preempt any assumptions surrounding it.”

At the end of the school year, he traveled to Washington, DC, with his cohort. American presidents would traditionally invite AFS students to the White House before they returned to their home countries, to thank them for their contributions to US diplomacy efforts. That year, Robert Kennedy delivered the farewell speech to the departing group; the year before, his brother John had spoken. “I hope that when you go back to your country and read all of the horrible things that they write and say about the United States...” President Kennedy teased; in the recording, AFS students can be heard chuckling in the background. The other side of the intercultural exchange, equally important to the AFS’s mission, was to promote America’s standing abroad. The hope was that the scholars would return to their home countries with positive impressions of the United States. The president continued, “that you will occasionally remember that they are talking about a family in Davenport, Iowa, or in Massachusetts, or in California… that the United States is not a unit but 180 million people who are going through the same experiences that your people are going through, who suffer the same concerns, who I think live with the same idealism, who recognize that they fall short of their goals.”

Mr. Lindaman had a lasting impact on my father, beyond his senior year and into adulthood. When he first returned to the US, in 1978, for business school at the University of Southern California, he sent a letter from Los Angeles to Windom High, asking about any upcoming reunions and about Mr. Lindaman. A few months later he received a response—no reunions were scheduled, and Mr. Lindaman no longer taught at the school. The office did not have forwarding information for him or for any of my father’s classmates. Disappointed, he pressed no further. There was still no internet—no social media to use to track him down. So he moved on and finished grad school, and turned his focus ahead toward marriage, raising children, his career—toward the American life that he had dreamed of, many years ago, upon first arriving in New York City.

Decades later, on a Friday night in May of 2014, my father was flipping through channels at his house in the suburbs of Washington, DC, in search of Arabic-language news from the Middle East. At sixty-seven years old, he had been in the US for thirty-six years. Over that time he’d gotten married and divorced, raised two kids, and built his own international-development company. Just as he had in Windom, he maintained a voracious appetite for social and cultural extracurriculars, fixing up motorcycles, dancing tango, pursuing a master’s degree in photography. In place of the Tews, he now lived with a Jack Russell terrier that he’d named Jack. A Christmas tree stood in the corner of his living room year-round, in honor of his favorite holiday. “Why take it down,” he says whenever I ask about it, “if I just have to put it up again in a year?”

For several months before that night, my father and most of his Arab friends had been glued to Al Jazeera, watching as ISIS gained ground in Iraq. In the West Bank, where his siblings still lived, tensions were especially high after months of US-brokered peace talks had collapsed, again. Throughout the Middle East, attitudes toward America had become increasingly fraught. Not only had the US launched two wars in the region and backed significantly more via proxy, but it had channeled more military spending to Israel than to any other country in history, despite a recent publication that showed a negative correlation between increased aid for the Israeli military and US security.

My father couldn’t find any Arabic-language news stations, so he called Dish Network’s 1-800 number to subscribe to one. After being led through a series of automated prompts, he finally connected with a human being. The man’s thick South Asian accent, combined with my father’s own English (his accent hasn’t subsided in three decades in the US; he sounds like the Count from Sesame Street), made it difficult for them to understand each other. As their communication broke down, my father asked to be transferred to someone else. He spent a few moments on hold listening to twangy instrumental music before another representative picked up. “This is Chad,” he said in clear English. “How can I help you?”

In the gaps between network-coverage talk, my father asked Chad where he was based. “Minnesota,” he responded.

Excited, my father proceeded to tell Chad that he’d spent a year at Windom High in the early 1960s. “Get out,” Chad said. “I’m from Windom!”

My father’s heart began beating faster. He hadn’t encountered anyone from Windom since leaving the town fifty years earlier. “I had an incredible English teacher the year I was there named Robert Lindaman,” he told Chad. “I’ve been looking for him ever since. You don’t happen to know the name, do you?”

Chad said nothing. “Hello?” said my father, afraid the call had dropped.

Finally, Chad spoke. “You won’t believe this,” he said, “but Bob Lindaman is my dad.”

As a Dish Network representative, Chad was not allowed to give out any personal information, including Mr. Lindaman’s phone number. So instead he took down my father’s number and promised to pass it along. The next morning he received a call from a Minnesota area code. “Winnie!” said Mr. Lindaman. “Is it really you?”

Over the course of their conversation, during which they attempted to catch up on what they’d each been doing since they’d last seen each other, in 1964, Mr. Lindaman informed my father that the fifty-year reunion of his graduating class was happening in two weeks. My father had somehow managed to stumble onto the reunion that he’d inquired about thirty-six years earlier. “You’ve got to come for it,” Mr. Lindaman said. “You’ll stay with my wife and me on our farm.” There was no asking. He simply instructed him to return.

My father had his own complicated relationship with the notion of returning. For Palestinians, there are few things more coveted than the right of return, a demand that has forestalled any sort of viable peace deal since negotiations began. It has become just as much a conceptual idea as an attainable, implementable reality. As a ’67 Palestinian (a designation that refers to Palestinians from villages seized during the 1967 Six-Day War, including Nablus), rather than a ’48er (the year of Israel’s creation and the subsequent exodus of approximately 750,000 Palestinians), my father was fated to grow up under occupation rather than be exiled. Although the decision to leave Nablus made sense for him, it was a choice that effectively kept him out of the West Bank, which was under occupation and very difficult to visit. “It’s a wound in your heart,” my father says, “the feeling that you can’t go home.”

After my father sent his bio and updates to the reunion organizers, Mr. Lindaman called again. “So your daughter’s a writer?” he said. “Bring her along; I’d like to meet her.”

Two weeks after the call, my father flew from Washington, DC, to Minneapolis. On the plane he felt anxious for the first time about returning to Windom. In any return, there is the desire to gauge the effect of passing years, to exhume the past and hold it up against the present, to restore something lost. There is the fear that things will have changed, and with it, an implicit hope of finding something familiar. But in 2014 America, let alone in the future, post-Trump America, was it possible to return to anything that resembled the 1960s version of Windom?

In his essay “Once More to the Lake,” E. B. White describes returning to a lake in Maine with his son, one he himself had visited each August as a child. He takes comfort in the consistency of place—in the water’s stillness, the dragonflies, and especially the afternoon thunderstorms. And yet he observes one particularly notable change: the sound of the lake, caused by technological advancements in boat engines. The different motor sounds serve as a jarring break in the illusion that no time has passed.

My father isn’t someone who likes change; he gets attached to things easily. Rather than selling his beat-up Ford van, even after our neighbors complained that it was an eyesore, he paid an annual fee to store it in a remote parking lot for over a decade. “In the back of my mind,” my father told me, “I worried that Windom no longer existed as it once did, not as I knew it. I’ve seen how America has changed.”

Even before 9/11, a wave of anti-Arabism and Islamaphobia had been forming for several decades. Anti-Arab sentiment had crept into the country, partly triggered by acts of extremist violence. In 1968, Robert Kennedy was assassinated by a Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan. In September 1970, Palestinians hijacked five planes bound for New York City and London. Two years later, at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, eleven athletes were taken hostage and killed by Palestinians in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners. Then in 1979, just over a year after my father returned to the US, a group of Iranian students who supported the Ayatollah and were enraged by the US decision to grant entry to the deposed Shah, stormed the US embassy in Tehran and captured sixty American hostages. Mobs of Muslim students wearing hijabs, marching and chanting anti-American slogans, appeared on the nightly news for over a year, solidifying the association between Muslims and violence in the American psyche.

Twenty years later, on September 11, 2001, my brother and I were both pulled out of classes and sent home by our high school’s administrators, in case other students took their anger at the attacks out on us. The international line on my father’s cell phone was cut off immediately by his service provider, as ordered by the Department of Homeland Security. In 2008, my brother received a letter informing him that the CIA had been tapping his phone for months. My father began giving a different name when making dinner reservations and when reaching out to companies for new business ventures, introducing himself as Frank instead of Fawaz to avoid any potential backlash.

“After 9/11,” he says, “that’s when I really knew I wasn’t in Windom anymore.”

On the drive from Iowa City to Windom, I, too, was nervous. I was afraid that, although he knew better, my father’s emotional attachment to the town had allowed an image of it to crystallize in his mind, one that had yet to disintegrate in the face of a harsher reality. I preemptively forgave him for what I foresaw as an inability or unwillingness to revise Windom in light of the current American landscape. I understood it; I had applied the same nostalgic gaze to Palestine. For me, Nablus was crystallized in nights on my great-grandparents’ veranda, sitting on my great-grandfather’s lap and receiving candy or shekels depending on which hand I pointed to, the smell of cigarettes emanating from the living room as my great-aunts smoked and offered tiny puffs when I peeked into the room. I refused to update my childhood memory of the place despite changing circumstances and the ever-worsening political situation, exacerbated by settlement expansion, tighter checkpoints, and diminishing hope for any solution.

I was also nervous about spending a weekend with my father. At the time, our relationship was especially tense. I felt constant, irrational guilt about what I perceived to be his loneliness, his disappointment at how his life had turned out. He was divorced with no grandchildren; his own kids lived in different cities and came to visit only occasionally. It was a different existence from the one he could have had in Palestine, the one he’d grown up with, where economic opportunities were limited, but where family and community were integral parts of daily life. Life in Nablus could be suffocating. The weight of living under occupation was rivaled only by small-town nosiness and gossip, but it was also an intimate, convivial, and supportive existence.

I arrived in town in the late afternoon and passed a meat market advertising smoked sausages, a quilt shop, the Windom State Theater. The buildings felt preserved, straight out of a photo from the ’60s. I stopped at a general store for coffee, and picked up a copy of The Cottonwood County Citizen. Among my father’s fears about returning to Windom was anonymity. “I worried that they’d think I was some random foreigner,” he told me, “and that my visit would have no impact on anyone.” But contrary to what he expected, his return was page-three news in the county paper, overshadowed only by Russian aggression in Crimea the day before.

I got back into the car and followed the GPS’s directions onto a dirt road. Cows grazed around me in a vast, seemingly unending prairie, and gravel popped beneath my tires. I drove several miles until a farmhouse appeared, its roof covered in weathered wood shingles. An old tractor sat in the yard. LEGOS, bouncy balls, and Nerf guns lay scattered on the front porch: signs of grandchildren. I parked the car and called my father. He immediately stepped out from inside the house with his phone pressed to his ear, waving at me dramatically and smiling.

As I got out of the car, Mr. Lindaman stepped onto the porch in a blue-and-white parka, loose khakis, and New Balance sneakers. Silver hair peeked out from beneath a baseball cap; his face was bright, his eyes the same as in his yearbook picture. I was immediately struck by how much he still resembled Paul Newman, albeit an older version. He walked out toward my car, extended his arm, and offered a firm handshake. He then proceeded to take my suitcase out of the trunk without asking if I needed help.

I followed him onto the porch and hugged my father. In the front foyer, a staircase leading upstairs was lined with framed pictures of an interracial family that included an adopted African American son and a Cameroonian son-in-law. He pointed out the picture of Chad, one of his two biological children. “He’s been having tough times professionally, up there in the Cities,” Mr. Lindaman said, referring to Minneapolis and St. Paul. “The Dish Network job was meant to be temporary.”

Mrs. Lindaman rushed into the room; she was blond, short, and chubby. She gave me a warm hug. “Come with me!” she said, and I followed her into the kitchen. She pressed the start button on the microwave, and when it beeped, she removed the Saran wrap covering a bowl of buttery string beans. In the dining room, the furniture was made of simple stained wood, with more family pictures placed on a credenza against the wall. The table was already set for dinner. I looked at my watch—it was 5:30 p.m. The four of us sat down to a meal of bacon-wrapped chicken, glistening vegetables, and green jelly. My father and I aren’t bacon-eaters; as Arab Muslims, we are rarely served pork, and I was admittedly surprised they wouldn’t have considered this. But we implicitly agreed not to mind in front of them.

Mr. Lindaman led us in a Christian prayer—my father seemed familiar with it—and we bowed our heads until he spoke the word Amen. Mrs. Lindaman then served us each individually from the various dishes. They appeared to have a traditional husband-and-wife dynamic left over from the ’50s, one that also suggested a loving comfort in the roles they had implicitly agreed upon. When neither my father nor I touched the green jelly, Mr. Lindaman insinuated that his wife must not have purchased the good kind. Embarrassed, we both scooped giant spoonfuls onto our chicken. My dad then asked about the Tews. Mrs. Lindaman informed us that Blanche, Mrs. Tews, had passed away in 1986, a few years after her husband. Their son, Tom, my father’s American brother, had long since left Windom. My father was quiet for a moment. “They were the people I was most intimate with,” he said. “They were my family.”

As we ate, Mr. Lindaman described the schedule for the next day. The commencement ceremony of the graduating class would take place in the new school building, with the class of ’64 seated in the middle of the auditorium, surrounded by graduating students and their parents. Immediately after the ceremony we would make our way to the reunion. He described the schedule in meticulous detail, as though he were a military officer. I was barely listening as he spoke. Instead, I watched my father listening, looking up at the man and nodding as though he were his son. For a moment, I could see the vulnerable and hopeful sixteen-year-old boy who had faced personal loss and collective tragedy back home, and who had come to Windom to escape it, if only for a year.

After dinner we sat in a living room lined with books and more photos, and we listened to old records. Mr. Lindaman stayed quiet; the music was sacred to him, and he seemed lost within it. Not until the next morning did I hear him speak again. He woke us up at seven for breakfast, and after we’d all showered and dressed, we piled into his truck for a tour of the old school building, where my father had attended classes. Mr. Lindaman had purchased the building from the school board, and had turned it into the Windom Business, Arts and Recreation Center. He led us through rooms with green chalkboards and oval-shaped desks attached to wooden chairs, into the room where he’d taught his English class. He told a story about a time that he’d given my father a D on a paper about Les misérables. “All your father had written was ‘I love this book so much,’ so I assumed he hadn’t read it.” My father had told me the anecdote before; the truth was that he had still been recovering from the heartbreak of the story and so couldn’t write anything more. When he’d tried to tell this to Mr. Lindaman, he’d nodded and said, “That’s nice, but tough luck.”

Mr. Lindaman led us into the gym, which was already set up for the reunion. There were round tables with tablecloths and ten chairs apiece in the middle of the court, the hoops cranked up toward the ceiling. Pictures of the class were pinned to the movable walls. I came across a few candid photos of my father that I’d never seen before. There was a picture of the “Our Arab” yearbook page, by now unambiguously problematic. But in Windom, no one seemed to notice.

Once we left, we drove up the street to the new school building, where Mr. Lindaman gave us a tour. Computers and electronic whiteboards and plasma screens filled the classrooms. Even though he tried to seem engaged, I could tell my father was far less interested than he’d been while touring the old building, which for him was filled with memories and significance. Afterward, Mr. Lindaman took us to his factory, where he produced wooden shipping pallets. All of his employees were ex-convicts, individuals who had become societal outcasts, but whom he felt deserved the same chances as anyone else.

We returned to the farmhouse to rest and change clothes, and at around 4 p.m. we arrived at the graduation ceremony. We were early—Mr. Lindaman had insisted that we be there on time. My father and I sat down in chairs set up on the auditorium floor and waited until his classmates began to arrive. Later, he would tell me he was amazed at how drastic their aging appeared to him, not having witnessed it happening gradually. All I could see was how much older they seemed than he did, and when I mentioned this, he reminded me that he’d been young for his grade; he’d enrolled as a senior though he was only sixteen. Soon my father was chatting eagerly with his former classmates, introducing me to everyone. My eyes wandered to the bleachers, filled with parents whose kids were graduating this year. I took note of a few African American families, several Asian ones. It seemed that a bit of racial and ethnic diversity had finally crept into Windom.

During the ceremony, the principal took a moment to honor the class of ’64. He asked them to stand up. I remained seated, looking up at my father, who seemed proud and at ease. I felt a closeness to him in that moment; I wanted him to look that way for longer.

Afterward, we made our way to the reception. My father chatted with his old friend Bart: he still lived in Windom; he still rode motorcycles. The classmates who had served in Vietnam and who had made it home had ended up in a range of professions: many had stayed in the military; others had done aid work and contracting. One of my father’s classmates whom I spoke to was a diplomat, and would soon be stationed in Beirut. I chatted with his wife. “I’m nervous about moving there,” she told me. “Don’t they oppress women?”

I wanted to tell her that most of the women in Beirut dressed in far more risqué clothing than American women did, and were vocally more expressive than their husbands. “I think you’ll be OK,” I assured her.

We ate and socialized, and my father was announced as the special guest. Toward the end of the evening, they all stood to take a class photo. As they lined up, the gym doors burst open, revealing a woman with long gray hair who looked at my father and playfully called out, “Winnie! Did you think you’d be able to come to Windom and not see me?”

It was Marian Hildreth. She hadn’t planned on coming to the reunion, but when the event organizer told her that Winnie would be there, she’d changed her mind and booked a flight from Florida. Even though Marian now had grandchildren, my father told me she looked exactly the same as she had at sixteen. I wondered if he would have fared better with an American as his wife rather than a tumultuous Arab woman like my mother. Marian hugged him, and they held each other for what felt like a very long time. “She acted as though I’d never left,” he told me later. “We gossiped about the others in our group as though we were all still sixteen.”

On Sunday morning, we had a final meal with the Lindamans, a hefty brunch that I feared would put me to sleep behind the wheel. As I packed up the car, I watched a Christian Midwestern man take a Muslim Palestinian into his arms and give him a fatherly hug. “It felt like the same hug he’d given me the last time I saw him, in 1964,” my father said, “before I returned to Nablus.” The divide that separated their lives and backgrounds condensed, fifty years evaporated, and for that moment, they were just Winnie and Mr. Lindaman.

On my way back to Iowa, I would drop my father off at the airport, where he would catch a flight back to Washington. I could tell that even though he had loved every minute of his exchange year, this time two nights was enough.

As we drove away from Windom and toward the Twin Cities, cornfields giving way to solar-powered windmills and eventually to the Minneapolis skyline, my father confided that aside from the new school building and the town limits extending a mile or so farther than they had in the 1960s, Windom had seemed mostly the same to him. He’d found none of the hostility that he’d feared he would encounter. Its absence was what had surprised him the most, given the drastically changed country.

And yet looking at the country now, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, I wonder if the country has in fact changed drastically. In ways, the landscape of 1963 America was similar to the present one, despite a different global adversary. Martin Luther King’s speeches calling for universal equality came in response to African Americans being unjustly targeted by police officers—beaten, arrested, and often killed on the basis of their race. Five days after Alabama schools were integrated, a bomb exploded before services at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a hate crime that killed four African American girls and signaled that desegregation would be met with violence. The Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups, ones that disturbingly resurfaced in Charlottesville, Virginia, in fall 2017, wreaked havoc across the country.

Globally, President Kennedy implemented a travel ban that prevented communist Cubans from entering the US due to differing ideologies, and the CIA’s forbearer began spying on American citizens to root out any Soviet sympathizers. In Vietnam, the Kennedy administration signed off on a coup against the South Vietnamese president, destabilizing the country and creating a power vacuum similar to the one that the Bush administration left in post­–Saddam Hussein Iraq.

But in spite of these darker undercurrents, it is clear to me that my father saw only America’s benevolence while he was in Windom, its commitment to justice and freedom and human rights. His impression of the US from his time there stuck with him after he left and kept him in such a perpetual state of longing that he chose to return and build his life here. This was a place, he’d thought, where he could find community.

In “Back to Buxton,” Biss describes a nearly mythic, mostly black mining town called Buxton in the predominately white state of Iowa, a place that, during the Jim Crow era, “enjoyed unusually good race relations,” and was described by its residents as “a kind of heaven.” Like Buxton, Windom seemed unusual; an exceptional bastion of tolerance in Middle America, a small-town “sanctuary,” despite its overwhelming whiteness, a town that promised to remain accepting even as the country’s attitude toward Arabs and Muslims continued to worsen.

But what was Windom, both then and now? Was Windom, like Buxton, an exception, one that my father had erroneously built his life on? Or did the fact that he wasn’t yet the wrong kind of immigrant allow him to subscribe to an idealized version of the country? I wondered how a kid from Palestine would fare at Windom High today. Would he find the same acceptance that my father had?

But maybe it isn’t Windom that’s exceptional. Maybe there is something about my father that endeared him to its people. Something that was established fifty years ago, when a sixteen-year-old boy came into their community and embraced it fully, engaged with every aspect of it, and chose to love it fiercely and blindly. It was a place far away from home, from family obligations and the guilt he felt about his single mom, away from the responsibility of caring for younger siblings. A place where he was given the freedom to become himself. “Perhaps it is only through leaving home,” writes Biss, “that you can learn who you are. Or at least who the world thinks you are.”

I can’t say for sure how much of 1963 Windom has remained, but I’m certain my father needs to believe that most of it has, that the anti-Arabism and Islamaphobia of post-9/11 America aren’t present everywhere, and especially not in Windom. As a Palestinian, having hope can often mean ignoring a harsh reality and choosing to see otherwise. It can mean choosing to hear a different lake.

Windom had made a promise, at least in my father’s eyes, to remain a place of acceptance, love, and self-determination. And as he discovered upon returning, it had kept its word, even if the country at large couldn’t, even if his own life didn’t. There were personal failings that could not be attributed to shifts in policy or changes in leadership. From his living room in the DC suburbs, amid rising discrimination and fear, Windom’s promise of what America once was and could still be—for its citizens, its immigrants, its nostalgics, and its dreamers—provides its own kind of sanctuary.

When I visit him now, he seems happier for knowing this.

Zaina Arafat is a Palestinian American writer. Her essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, Granta, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Vice, on BuzzFeed and NPR, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and is currently at work on a novel and an essay collection.

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