Afghan and American: A Father and Son Bridge a Cultural Divide

My father came to the midwestern United States in 1956 for an education. Born and raised in the environs of Kabul, he certainly was in for an education, but perhaps not entirely the one he envisioned. I was the second child born to him and my mother, a third generation American of Scottish ancestry; my sister had been born two years prior. By the time my younger sister was born in 1963, he had already punted on the cross-cultural experiment that was his marriage to my mother, having found another woman whose cultural outlook was more in harmony with his own, to whom he remains married to this day.

Thus, we three children were left invoking or inventing father figures to fill the vacuum -- Herb Alpert (mother seemed to fancy him, so he'd be nice to have around... ), Maurice Chevalier, JFK, Dick VanDyke, etc., and of course, the Beatles. When adolescence hit, my sisters both rebelled, embracing the developing counter-culture. I, on the other hand, conformed as if my life depended on it. Good grades, athlete, straight Ass arrow all the way. But the lurking otherness of my name lingered far after the countless awkward introductions:

"Colin is it?"

"No, Khalid -- K-H-A-L-I-D."

The fact of my father's absence was additional proof of my otherness; I saw him only sporadically in my youth. There was a constant tension to the interactions; him filtering hardwired Pashtun encoding into English, me simply channeling American memes that seemed to me as obvious and natural as apple pie.

Despite the tension, I absolutely yearned for his attention. I know this not so much because I remember a yearning state of mind, but because of the giddiness I felt in his presence. Once, when I was about 10, to my great surprise and excitement, he accompanied me on a Cub Scout camping trip. I was over the moon -- for once, I was not the odd boy out! His mere presence on the trip had me soaring. And he was FUNNY, I mean roll on the floor, can't stop laughing funny. His was a wry, outsider's humor, and when you were in on the joke, it was a euphoric honor.

Ultimately, I chose the Beatles for my role models, turning my back on college and diving headlong into life as a musician, without having any concern about what the material implications of that choice might be.

Through my twenties, I maintained somewhat regular contact with him, and when I became engaged to my first wife, it seemed only natural to try to finally, once and for all, get everyone in the family on the same page. In fact, what happened was that the cultural divide became too great. Expectations, and obliviousness to expectations, were the order of the day, and no one was left unscathed in the drama.

We fell out shortly thereafter and did not speak for 18 years. During those years, it seemed to me that we had both finally made peace with the fact that we were irreconcilably different and were content to let each other pass into memory. So, it was with some surprise that one day a few years ago, I found an email from him in my inbox. As interested as my mind was, my heart was deeply ambivalent about responding. So many points of drama (my family definitely qualifies as an unhappy family, unhappy in our own way, beyond the issues between my father and I) that would undoubtedly be revisited. Why put everyone through the inevitable disappointment?

We met again as adults, over lunch. Laying eyes on him again provoked a profound awareness of where I came from; his intelligence, his wit, his sweetness and his anger I recognized as my own.

Thus, the extent to which we were of the same mind about events was not surprising, particularly events that had been shaped by projections of American military power.

Today, he is considerably more mellow, I am considerably less callow, and the few times a year that we see each other are pleasant and satisfying exchanges.

Last year, I wrote Free The World To Death, a sort of old west cowboy song that conflates the mythical American frontier with Afghanistan -- tumbleweeds rolling through Kabul. On a whim, I asked him if he would translate it into Pashto, his native language, and help me learn to speak it. Not nearly as easy as it sounded, but with his patience and my tenacity, I think the Pashto version, Donya Pa Azadi Mra Ka, is mostly understandable to a Pashto speaker. Or so he tells me.

Khalid Hanifi's album, "A Brief Respite from Shooting Fish in a Barrel," is out on Feb. 19. You can hear it on hisSoundCloud page.