“When you have a story to tell, tell it till the end. Don’t worry how long it is”, D. MacMaster
As my birthday was approaching, I was in Chicago enjoying a month-long holiday with my family and friends. The 3rd of September was nearing, I was reflecting deeply on my goals, dreams, and accomplishments for the past 40 years of existence on this planet.
Although, I could invite a friend and celebrate it in one of those exotic cities or islands like Cannes, Monte Carlo, Dubai, Capri, or Santorini; I was debating the idea of spending it with my family or flying to Arizona and celebrating with my extended family – the Assyrian people.
In a way, I was thinking about trading the love of being with my mother, father, sisters and a few close relatives in Chicago, for a greater sense of belonging – with the Assyrian community.
I was falling into reveries: imagining a hotel full of Assyrians, people gathering in the lobby, relatives meeting after many years, friends seeing each other again after a long disconnect, activists and political lectures, a swimming pool full of my people, nightly parties, and… all the infidelities. I was feeling the gaiety of the atmosphere. It was poetic.
The Assyrian American National Federation (AANF) stakes a claim to our existence, a plinth to stand on – we, Assyrian immigrants, are the new Americans. I wanted to be part of that. On this note, I share my story.
The 83rd year of the five-day AANF convention was hosted in Scottsdale, Arizona at DoubleTree Resort. That hotel was fully booked, so I made my reservation at Embassy Suites, just next door. And I got lucky, it was a better deal, plus I had a suite.
It was mid afternoon on Thursday, September 1 when I arrived in Phoenix. Nick, who I had met in Iraq, but now lives in the host city of Phoenix, was waiting in his shining white Escalade at the arrivals area of Sky Harbor airport. I surprised him by coming from the back. We hugged and exchanged greetings. The Iraq experiences we had shared created a bond between friends that’s even stronger than family. We spent the 30-minute ride sharing our latest stories. That’s when Nick explained that he would be returning to Iraq. He’d found a new job helping the American Army, and he had to take it. He and his family of five live in America now, so he’s raising kids all the way through college, has a 30-year mortgage, medical bills, car payments, a stay-at-home wife, and of course the occasional emergency, To maintain an average life is extremely expensive in America. The job pays well. He can’t turn it down. So, he’s going back after one year of living stateside.
After I checked-in, and dropped the luggage in my room, we spent the rest of the day at the convention. Many Assyrians have moved in the last few years from places like Illinois, Michigan, and California – to Arizona, making it one of the largest Assyrian communities in America.
Every night, there was a party – the first night was slow. People were still arriving from all over America and Canada, as well as some from overseas, including Germany, Sweden, and Holland. Assyrian immigrants scattered around the globe, separated from their families for various reasons – but mostly, war and bloodshed, were now meeting up in America.
Take my family for an example: I have relatives on both sides of my immediate family in Canada, Sweden, the UK, Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, and Australia. And each one of us has an immigrant story to tell.
On Friday September 2, after our first late night of drinking and socializing, Nick drove 40 minutes from his house and picked me up around 10 am. We wanted to get the day started. As we walked through the lobby, the registration line was getting long, the poolside was filling up, the whole event was starting to pick up steam. We sat at the bar to have lunch, and as we finished, I spotted my friend Z. He is Syrian-born – a U.S. Marines Major, retired infantry – who has done seven combat tours including Iraq and Afghanistan. We were together in Iraq at the same location during the war on ISIS, but lost contact after his retirement.
“Z…Z”, I shouted. He looked at me with pleasant surprise and joined us at the bar.
We hugged, both of us knowing that we were not just friends; we’re war-bonded brothers. He had flown from California and, like me, was traveling solo. Naturally, I mentioned to him that it was my birthday eve and he shared my excitement. We decided to meet later on.
Nick was flying back to Iraq the following day, so he had to leave us early. He dropped me back to my hotel and we said our goodbyes.
I had a couple of drinks in my room, as I was getting ready. I know most men dress in suits at the convention, but lately I’ve been a polo shirt and fashion jeans guy. Over my past holidays to Europe, I’ve picked up nice limited edition Paul & Shark, La Martina, and Diesel. So I decided to let them reflect my age. Hey… I’m only 39 right?
Around 8 pm, Z and I met at the convention lobby and walked to the bar to start the night with some shots. As more people were coming and joining the party, we were outside with our drinks in hand, mingling in and out of groups of friends, some of the old stories made the rounds again, and new ones were shared.
Noticing our drinks were empty, Z and I headed back to the bar for a second, then a third… then a fourth.
As the night went on, there I was. No cake. No 40 burning candles. No singing happy birthday. No sisters or parents. No gifts. Just a few good friends in the midst of over 3000 Assyrians. Close to midnight, with several friends gathered around one of the bars inside, we were toasting with shots. People were dancing the Assyrian traditional dance while Ramsen Sheeno sang. It was as lively as I had imagined. I was turning 40 – single – and there was no place else I would rather be!
There was some disappointment when the party ended early, at 1:30 am, due to Arizona law. But I’d met a woman and I invited her to my hotel for some late night food and maybe some vodka out by the pool.
She agreed, we picked up our few provisions, and the next thing I knew, there we were at poolside talking, our voices quiet in the early morning hours. That in turn, led to some moments of silence, each of us wondering what might happen next. So, there at the poolside is where I had my first birthday kiss, and what a kiss it was! I’ll say only this: it gave me shivers.
The vodka bottle, the glasses, the food – all were left behind as we walked together to my room.
And as soon as the door closed… we started again.
Saturday September 3, I felt the hangover as soon as I opened my eyes. I left my room, and as I was walking to meet Z at the pool, I saw the Vodka bottle, half full still on the table. I was tempted to apologize to the staff who were near by – “sorry, that’s mine. I left it there last night” – but I didn’t say a word.
I settled down next to Z and we snapped the first picture of me at a new age. Years from now, as I lose the battle of aging, I will remember how I looked on that day.
We weren’t paying much attention to the political and cultural lectures given by the Assyrian activists and politicians; instead, we spent most of the convention enjoying the music at the swimming pool – and the nightly parties.
On one occasion by the pool, Fredrick, a friend from school days and now a manager at a consulting firm, stopped by for a quick chat. As we were talking, he pointed out and said:
“Do you know Steve Nabil?”
“Who’s Steve Nabil?” I said.
“This guy next to you!” He replied. Then continued, “You should. He is widely known in Iraq. He was reporting on ISIS. He has a great number of followers on Facebook and Twitter”.
“Can you introduce us?” I asked.
Steve had come with his family from California as well. A few minutes into the conversation, we discovered that we’re tribally related. We hit it off like we’d known each other for years.
He shared a few of his stories from Iraq with me. One in particular, took most of our time: his recent incredible survival in Turkey. He and his wife had just returned from their honeymoon in Santorini, and were transiting through Istanbul Airport when the attack occurred.
Check his bristling interview on CNN.
While we continued talking he even Snapchatted about our meeting. Thousands of his followers saw our Snapchat story in Iraq and around the world. (Thanks Steve!)
Then, he invited me to the presidential dinner that evening. The newly elected executive board administration for AANF was being announced. Congressman Trent Franks (AZ-8) was the featured presenter. He gave a rousing speech and unremitting support to the Assyrian right to the Nineveh plains – a degree of autonomy for the Assyrian people in Iraq.
After the congressman’s speech ended, we left the dinner early and met Z at the party. We all had a few drinks and joined the Assyrian traditional dance line till the end of the night on song after song with a few intermediate breaks for more drinks. This time, the party lasted until 3am.
Steve’s poor wife, who is studying to be a pharmacist, ended up falling asleep at the table.
Someone once said, “Friends are the family you choose”. I had some of my close relatives, who I barely crossed paths with throughout my stay at the convention. But friends like Nick, Z, and Steve are my new family. Their entourage was my gift.
Indeed it was the right decision to attend the convention – a place where my heart and mind wanted to be. In Psychology parlance, it is called reaching the state of Flow – I was in that State.
“What is it that makes people happy?” the Greek philosopher Epicurus asked this question back in 341 BC. He discovered that human nature needs friends.
No possessiveness, no drama – just a relaxed acceptance – that is a true friendship.
I am happy to belong to an Assyrian community that provides real friendships like that. It enriches my life. I can move from Chicago to Phoenix, Vegas, or San Jose; Sydney, Marseille, or Frankfort, and I can easily build new bonds.
I can message a few, of the thousands, of Assyrians connected by the Assyrian Network of Professionals group (on LinkedIn) and go out for a coffee. It’s the beauty of a greater sense of belonging.
MacMaster said, “tell your story to the end”. Well, there is more to my story, but as the 83rd convention came to an end, a new chapter started in my life journey.
For various reasons, I couldn’t accomplish a few of my goals before the age of 40, (like visiting 40 countries before my 40th birthday).
So, I made some new ones: By the age of 50 – visit 50 (26 countries left), build more real friendships, see my abs, continue reading – and mainly… continue writing my life story.
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