The way that a single man carries the human race is a mystery. Some men carry it so closely that they have a place to put the catastrophes of human behavior when they come their way. They have a place for them in their body and on their face.
When the newspaper told Kamal Abdi in the morning of Nicaraguans killed or Salvadorans killed or Palestinians killed, he would make a place for them inside him. It was what he had always done. You started with the premise that the space you could make for them was infinite. Until human beings got it right, that was what it had to be.
On Saturday mornings, something very bright and alive would happen. On those days, he would not have to make a place for them inside him because he would have breakfast with his son. His son, who was ten years old, wanted to know. He wanted to know about all of it. It was the world of men. It was something he was going to have to know about when he was older. If he didn’t know about it, who would?
And so Kamal would be very happy when he told his son the histories of Third World nations, the stories of revolutions and counter-revolutions. Not everything had to go inside him. Some things could come out, and have a place on the table right next to everything that was beautiful about the morning – the bread and the honey and the cool air outside. Right there next to them would be the story of how the people of a brown or black nation had struggled for their liberation, and with his son listening, he saw how much it belonged out in the open. It was a wonderful feeling. It was not that the place he’d made inside himself was a bad place, but it did not have to be the only place. And the new place he’d found was just as infinite as the old one, because the person he was telling was a boy.
The Saturday mornings would go like that. The boy wanted to hear, and Kamal wanted to tell. Afterwards the boy would go outside and play with the other kids on the block, but some time during the day he would wonder if playing with the other kids on the block wasn’t secondary, if it wasn’t secondary to the lives of the people in whose struggle he’d found himself that morning.
Meanwhile Kamal would feel his heart lifted for the rest of the day. He realized that he hadn’t had anything other than the place inside him in a long time. He could remember when he was a young man, when he did not need the place inside him because he had so much of a place outside him. The talk was all around him, at the university, the way they were going to change their country and the way they were going to change the world.
Now he had the boy. It was a smaller audience than in those days, but it was often just as hopeful.
Kamal had noticed that the boy never asked him why, why was anybody treating somebody like this. He just took it as the way it was. He just listened and took it in and added what his father said to what he already knew to be true about the world. And Kamal did what anybody would do if they found somebody who listened like that: He told him more and more. The more he told him, the happier he would feel at the end of it. It was as though all those people finally had a stage. Not just an acknowledgement, but a stage, from which they could address the future, even if they could not address the present or the past. The future listened to them even if everywhere else did not.
The boy did not ask why because this was his father speaking, and he felt like only a kid would ask why. You couldn’t hear about tyranny and injustice and ask why when there were men who had fought back. Those men had not asked why. The way his father told it, they hadn’t spent a second on that question. So he couldn’t either. Not if his intention was to grow up to be a man.
Everybody else could do whatever they wanted with their Saturday mornings. At the breakfast table, Kamal and the boy were going to hate the men they hated and love the men they loved.
They both would look for something the rest of the day to match the feeling they had there in the morning – the feeling that the two of them talking was connected to the greatest leaders of human struggles in history. They would not find it. But they could not imagine not looking for it. They didn’t know what people looked for if they didn’t look for that.
There was something different in their searches though. Kamal would have found a little bit of it when they talked because he knew that the search would go on past him at least. The boy was alone in it though. Each time he would tell himself to hold the world his father was describing and each time he would hold it.
At school he talked with boys whose fathers did not do this, did not talk with them in a way that swept all over the world and acknowledged all of its wrongs and its miseries. He didn’t understand it. Didn’t they care? Didn’t they want their kids to know what this place really was?
Sometimes at school something would happen that he would want to tell his father, but when they were sitting at the breakfast table on Saturday morning, everything about it felt like a place where much bigger problems were discussed, and so he would stay quiet until the newspaper gave Kamal the beginning of the problem that he would tell the boy about.
It was better than just being worried about smaller problems, the boy would tell himself.
He could not compete with revolutions. Something somebody had done at school would bother him a lot and seem very big at the time, but when he sat with his father, it would seem very small.
It was true even if his father was not talking. He still wore it on his face: My concern is with the people of the world and what is going to happen to them. It was not anything mean or cold. It was just that a man could only have one main concern. It might as well be the best, most decent one.
So the boy would stay quiet, because he wanted to grow up to have a face like that. It was better than a face that carried uncertainty towards the world. Or bitterness. Or worst of all, nothing.
Something happened to Kamal the more he told the boy. He saw the place inside himself as a thing with boundaries. It was not all of who he was. He had had good friends as a young man and he had found a wife, but he could not talk with any of them the way he could talk to the boy. He could not bring sorrow and triumph into one the way he could with him.
And so one day when they were sitting together on a Saturday morning, and Kamal was telling the boy about how the people of a brown or black nation in the newspaper wanted to live, how they wanted to live without somebody telling them how to live from above, and he was telling the boy how they had done that telling, how they had done that telling with killing, Kamal felt something like the boundary of the place inside him bursting, and he looked at the boy and said, “They killed them. They marched up to the place where they lived and they killed them.”
It came to this: People had killed people. They had considered all the things they could do with life and they had settled on killing people. He looked at the boy and he could not believe it but he knew that it was true. They had been men just like him and they had been boys just like the boy. It was no use pretending they were something foreign and far away. It was the human race, it was their people, it was the only people he and the boy would ever have. And he said it like a statement, but really it was a question, because what were he and the boy to each other in a world like that, what was anybody to anybody, what could love possibly be other than the person to whom you could turn and ask why, and the boy had his own mystery inside him as to why he never asked it, but somebody had to ask it, and in that moment it did not matter to Kamal that he was the father and the boy was the son, it was the only question to ask, it was the only way to reach a love as big as that, and even all of human history out. He asked it with his eyes and with his face and with his body.
And somehow the boy heard it, and knew what he needed to do. “I wish I understood it, Baba,” he said. “I wish I knew.”
‘Why” is about a subject I find fascinating: the way that the roles of father and son can be fluid for a father and son