My father died when I was 39, our 29th year in America. He battled and swiftly lost a brutal battle with some kind of cancer that doctors here in America could not identify. They thought it was some form of rare blood born cancer. No one was sure what it was.
Florescent lights bathed mourners in mostly dark winter jackets who packed the church hall at Sacred Heart Armenian Church in Little Falls, NJ. The priest there wasn’t happy about our request for the wake to be held in the church hall because “we don’t do that here.” My sister called the Arch Bishop who approved our request without question in a nod to our family’s service to the church. In protest, the ecclesiastic didn’t bother to turn on the heat that cold February evening…precisely what Jesus would done. But my father’s spirit, much like it had when he was alive, overcame and the room was warmed with tears, smiles, memories, regrets and condolences.
Deer in headlights, lost at sea; whatever your cliche for clueless that evening, I was it. You’d think at 39 I would have seen enough death in my own family to know how to handle myself and deliver a proper eulogy worthy of my father’s earthy adventures. Hell, I’ve watched enough movies and TV shows and attended funerals to know the drill. Yet, I was removed from death in my immediate family. My paternal grandfather and maternal grandparents passed in Aleppo, while my paternal grandmother passed in La Plata Argentina years ago. We didn’t attend their funerals. When you immigrate to another country these things are sometimes part of the package. Aside from the initial shock of the news of my grandparents’ passing and perhaps brief introspection on their lives and an Armenian Catholic commemorative mass, my parents, sisters and I didn’t really didn’t do much grieving, at least that I could see.
I stood in the receiving line with my wife, sisters and their husbands, and mother shaking hands, smiling sometimes comfortably at other times just to be polite, hugging, and pointing people to the bathroom. The endless stream of people knelt at his gray-silver casket praying, making the sign of the cross to cap off their final respects as they got up. Some mourners reached into the casket to touch his hands which came together folded over his stomach, or his shoulder to say a final farewell.
Sensory overload was nothing compared with my internal conflict. I wasn’t about my dad’s passing, as much about his eulogy.
“Go ahead, get up there and start talking…”
“Nah, he wouldn’t want that…”
“Go ahead, he deserves people to know about his life…”
“Look at the number of people here, they already know about his life!”
“It doesn’t feel right….”
About the only thing I expected that February evening was the overwhelming number of people who showed up to mourn this jovial, kind man who immigrated from Aleppo. Everyone in the room that evening believed he deserved much more time on this planet. I didn’t prepare a eulogy, partially because I tend to speak freely in those situations, and was hoping to do so. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to speak of my father’s life in the past-tense, even as he laid lifeless a just a few feet behind me. I took comfort in the tradition of not eulogizing the dead in our church and I felt myself using that as a crutch to stay silent. Or it could have been nothing but pure laziness.
My father never wished me happy birthday, never told me he loved me or bought me a present. I did the same to him. Those were earthly concerns. He lived his life embracing the spiritual and intellect. But that was totally cool. He showed his love through the tremendous pride he took in us kids, and we understood that. He worked hard, put food on the table, sent us to Catholic schools, and most importantly, in an event that will change me personally and our family’s discourse forever, he brought us to America in 1980. So, love as he expressed it, was something you do, it was action; and I knew that.
I could see the pain of his parents and grandparents in his eyes. It was ever present. When you’re a refugee…when you’re family was stripped of its wealth, property and killed, perhaps you don’t celebrate birthdays and you certainly don’t give presents. You look to the heavens and you look inside. You realize that anything and everything of this Earth is fleeting and momentary. You save your resources for food, clothing and shelter. You’re thankful you’re alive everyday. He learned from his parents to be thankful he was alive. Yeah, birthdays weren’t celebrated, but no one on the Kasbo side of the family was ever at a loss for dignity, honor or serve their community despite their difficult circumstances. Nasser was thankful for everyone and everything in unimaginable and saintly ways.
Deep down, I know he would have chosen tradition over words of reflection on his life. But given the fact that in my 39 years on Earth with him I never once gave him a gift, perhaps saying those final words would have at least been something.
I write this perhaps to relieve my guilt, or maybe because it’s what I owe him. With 52 just on the horizon, maybe I’m reflecting on my own mortality by writing and rewriting these words. Whatever circumstances, this is what I probably would have said that evening about my father’s life.
Born on September 4, 1936 to recent survivors of the Armenian Holocaust, he was one of 5 children to Mari and Ibrahim Kasbo. His orphaned mom and dad walked about 215 miles from Mardin Turkey to Aleppo, themselves escaping death. Death and the destruction of their families and wealth was a byproduct of state sponsored murder. Mari ended up in an orphanage in Aleppo, while Ibrahim watched his father’s beheading at the hands of the Turks or their proxies during the 1915 Armenian Genocide. The winds of history scattered his family like dust, its speckles randomly landing in Aleppo after that terrible storm. Though I was never told about how the Armenian Genocide affected our family specifically as a child, growing up I often felt an underlying sadness in my paternal grandparents; in everyone on my father’s side. I later learned that trauma like this could be passed down from generation to generation.
No one who met my father didn’t like him. No, let me rephrase; everyone who met my dad liked him if not loved or respected him, even those who seemed to take advantage of his good nature over the years.
Gratitude for everything and everyone underwrote an undefeated and ever-present smile on a round jovial face marked by deep dimples on each side…his trademark. He lived life through the eyes of a gentle child and felt a personal connection with everyone he met. Humility came as natural to him as the pride he took when his children got good grades and earned praise from teachers. I don’t remember him ever cursing or saying cross words about anyone. He never raised his voice. Ever. Anything that comes out of your mouth must honor God and your family, he’d say to me as a youngster. He was grateful and positive to very the end. A few weeks before he passed, I rushed him to Mountainside Hospital’s emergency room because he couldn’t breath and was very weak. His body betraying him at every turn, he soiled himself in bed. After the nurses cleaned him up, his now sunken face smiled and said, as if to make me feel better about the situation, “look at how great they cleaned me up. They’re really taking care of me here.”
Nasser grew up in the Al Nayal section of Aleppo, a largely Christian neighborhood. His formal education would not extend beyond six-grade, he attended The American School of Aleppo. At the age of 11 or so he began the long road to becoming a master tailor by apprenticing with his father, Ibrahim. In a few short years and by his late teens, Nasser quickly went on to become business partners with his father to help the family make the money necessary to send his older brother Nahum to college to become an attorney and his sister Francois to school to become a teacher. His youngest sister Bernadette would marry in her late teens/early twenties and move to La Plata, Argentina. His brother Elias died at the age of 10 or 11 from an unknown medical condition, most likely, pneumonia. Nasser became a master tailor with a reputation throughout Aleppo for sharp, impeccable work. A profession he wore with pride throughout his life.
A sixth grade education was just enough tinder to light his fire for lifelong learning. He was insatiably curious about the world, people, cultures. He never expressed regrets about his education or career path. Although a week before he passed, sitting on his bed at my youngest sister’s house in West Orange, NJ he struggled to whispered “I worked so hard, I started so young…” A voracious reader, his encyclopedic and uncanny knowledge of history and geography earned him a reputation as a well-informed student of history and current events. Fluent in Armenian, Arabic, French, English, Turkish, he could even handle himself in Hebrew. He beamed when he spoke some Aramaic because it was the language of Jesus. He chuckled when I asked him how he learned all these languages, especially those not taught in schools like Turkish, Armenian and Hebrew, “I learned them on streets,” he’d say. “You see, if you speak two languages, it’s like you’re two people. Thinking and speaking other languages makes you think differently about the world,” he once said to me.
A brilliant conversationalist, his friends gathered daily in his modest shop on one of the city’s grandest avenue, Kostaky Hosmi. They discussed issues of the day, politics, the prices of tomatoes and meat, religion, theater and traded local gossip. It seemed like he did more talking than work in shop. He knew everyone; who married whom, how people got rich or poor, and why so and so moved to Venezuela and so on. If there was a human Ancestry.com in Aleppo at the time, it was my father. His social life was filled with dinners with friends dovetailed his service and devotion to the Armenian Catholic Church. Wearing the best suit to church on Sundays was a must.
He admired the experience of the aged and listened to their stories with reverence. On any given day his shop hosted a few grey-haired gentlemen in their seventies, exchanging stories or one-upping each other’s expertise of Arabic proverbs in poetic and melodious classical Arabic. They were his connection to the past, it’s where he uncovered lineages, folklore, traced local history, and most importantly wisdom of the ages that can only come with experience and long life. From my very young perspective, this ritual seemed to connect our family’s fortunes, our name the larger community. Unlike in America, the elderly in Aleppo at the time were revered, and having them at his shop was seen as validation or a blessing. Nevertheless, The house of Kasbo’s name held enjoyed and and excellent reputation in Aleppo. It was his job to be the keep and promote its legacy by his deeds. He did a great job and it did it with kindness.
He started traveling in his early twenties. Regional trips to Beirut were routine, it’s one of the places where he sought some of the finest fabrics for his clients. He visited stunning Kassab and the Mediterranean blue beaches of Latakia and Tartous when he needed a break from work, especially in the oppressive Aleppo summers. He bused to Amman, and trained to Baghdad where some cousins landed after the Armenian Holocaust. He hopped on planes to visit Cairo and Paris, but fell in love with Detroit, Michigan and Paterson, New Jersey on his epic visit to America in 1964.
He talked about America since I was a fetus. His prolific smile radiated more than usual when he reminisced of his time in the States, especially Detroit. He always pronounced it “Detroitmichigan.” One word. One place. Detroitmichigan. He never said Detroit without Michigan, ever. Inexplicably, he also never said “1964” in Arabic, only in English. In “Nineteen sixty-four in detroitmichigan…” seamlessly switches back to Arabic “when I did this or that…” It was like when American news mindlessly, to this very day, translates everything someone said in Arabic except the word “God,” which they would reflexively plop in “Allah.” Kinda the same thing? Anyhoo…(he would have loved me throwing this in). He waxed fondly of his friend George Gibney who lived in Paterson, NJ. My little sister would laugh when he said George Gibney’s name because Gibney in Arabic means cheese. George Cheese was funny to us. Incidentally, George would prove to be a wonderful friend and be a tremendous help to my parents after we immigrated to the States helping from everything like securing social security cards to openning bank accounts.
Nasser admired America from approximately 5,560 miles away, the distance from Aleppo to New York. Talking politics in public and fully participating in political life was a fleet passion in Aleppo. There was also that Genocide thing hanging over his head. It was still too close in time and distance. I think he needed to physically get away from it and start a new somewhere else. America would be the perfect place. Though imagine deciding to leave the only world you’ve ever known for something completely unknown. I mean about four years ago my wife and kids moved 20 minutes from where we lived for 14 years and people were asking us about how our kids were adjusting. Are you kidding? Try leaving your family, friends, food, business, and language. He’s one of millions who have had the courage to do so.
On September 3, 1980 a KLM Boeing 747 flight carrying our family touched down at JFK Airport, seven years later we would receive the coveted Green Card and in 1996 became citizens of the United States of America, fulfilling his dream. And while my family’s immigration story wasn’t exactly a fairly tale, he literally gave his family a whole new world.
He was master tailor at Saks Fifth Avenue in Riverside Square Mall in Hackensack, NJ and later at Moe & Arnie’s, a small clothing shop in Clifton, NJ.
Nasser Kasbo was born in Aleppo, Syria the place that gave him life, and died in Woodland Park, New Jersey, in the United States of America, the place that gave his family new life. He is buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Totowa, NJ.