Abbad Alyousef’s Prison Story

Untitled, T4 | From the series: Home is where Teta was | By Mayssa Khoury

Nick’s father. The famed radiologist. The man whose idea of a leisurely Saturday included sipping coffee and leafing through the medical equipment catalogs that came to the house by the box load, peering over the specs of all the newest tomosynthesis models, underlining a few of them in pencil, a reminder to review them later with his colleagues before deciding whether or not to order them for the hospital where everyone called him Chief.  
“Machines, Nazim,” he would say, tapping the point of his pencil on the magazine, not looking at his son fully because he was too engrossed by the equipment on those glossy pages. “Machines are the future of this country.”
And so when it came to father-son time—the summer mornings before he left for work or the rare evening that he came home from the hospital before nine p.m.—instead of doing the things Nick saw boys on television doing with their dads, like playing catch or learning how to fish, he was handed boxes with instructions. 
“Build, Nazim,” his father would say while he looked over the latest kit or model he had handed to him, the sun shining outside, the sounds he thought he heard of neighborhood kids playing roller hockey outside wafting in through an open window. “There will be plenty of time to play later. When all those other children are taking orders from the machines, remember, you’ll be the one who built them.”  
Over the years, Nick’s father gave him lego sets by  the hundreds. K’Nex. Marble runs. And then as he got older, homemade CPUs. Disassembled hard drives. Power tool kits. Summer engineering camps. Science clubs. Memberships in national organizations, newsletters with smiling scientists holding soldering irons, wearing safety goggles, welding together pieces of what looked to be a robot skeleton.
Nick was never under the impression that he had a bad childhood. Not at all. There just seemed to be a vision that his father had for his future that he was more attached to than Nick ever was.
“The first Syrian to win the Nobel prize, eh?” Abbad used to say in front of Nick's mother and younger brother, Fawaz—second born and largely ignored—whose issues were hidden deep down as well, percolating beyond the family’s collective view. “How does that sound? To be remembered by history? To lift your people and carry them to a place they’ve never been?”
Years later, when Nick tried to explain to his family why he dropped out of his Ph.D. program a year into it—this news coming on the heels of his brother’s second relapse—he told them that his heart hadn’t been in the work for a long time. That he couldn’t pretend to be interested in something he didn’t have any passion for. Not that that would have made any sense to his father. Nick admitting that he had made a decision based on something as vague and self-centered as “passion” was an indulgence that only an American wouldn’t be embarrassed by. 
But the truth was, Nick’s choice to drop out had very little to do with that. 
Or rather, the real reason why he wasn’t passionate about robotics wasn’t because he found the subject matter inherently uninteresting. It was because he finally realized that he wasn’t as smart as his parents had once led him to believe. 
Nick had been able to get into the Robotics Ph.D. program at MIT—a feat that had required a herculean effort—but once classes started, he knew almost instantly how outmatched he was by his classmates, the subject matter, the work. It was like being in a race, sprinting as fast as possible, and watching other people pass him as casually as someone running across the street to beat a yellow light. And so he knew early on at MIT that there were obstacles he’d never be able to surmount. Nick was pretty good, but not elite. What could he say? He just didn’t have the chops.
It was around then that Nick decided to visit Fawaz, who was a college freshman at Tufts, and by all accounts an underachieving but bright pothead—not yet the central protagonist in the disastrous tragedy that was to become his life. His entry into college was a brief moment where everyone in the family thought he might have turned a corner, his amazing and unexpected SAT scores proof that the days of snorting crushed-up opioids with degenerate friends and stealing their parents’ car late at night, joyriding without a license, and showing up to classes in high school so drunk that he once vomited on his desk during a Spanish midterm—that somehow, despite all that, because he’d managed to earn near-perfect standardized test scores and get accepted to the computer science department at Tufts, all that juvenile delinquency was now behind him. Although, the family’s sense of foreboding about Fawaz never really left. Not that the family talked about it, but if you pressed any one of them back then to break through that stodgy aristocratic stoicism that Abbad dominated their family with and used to shield himself from things as ridiculous and self-indulgent as “emotions,” the central feeling everyone had for Fawaz was still hopelessness — which was awful, Nick knew that—but Fawaz had this tragic way about him, even as a kid, when their father would be screaming at him, slipping into Arabic every other sentence, which he only did when he was enraged, of just staring straight ahead with this eerie nonchalance, saying with his body, his entire being, “What’s the point in trying to explain?”
Keep in mind, that even the slightest change in their father’s expression, a raised eyebrow, the slightest bit of skepticism furrowing across his brow, would send Nick into a tailspin back then, as desperate as he was to please him, so watching his brother absorb these attacks without so much of a flicker of shame, staying oddly, almost psychopathically calm, was enough for Nick to genuinely wonder about his origins and whether or not they were even related. It was like his kid brother had long ago been abducted by aliens and that the boy standing there now was the body double they’d replaced with him, sent to Earth to study this planet’s strangest and most complicated family. 
“Watch after him,” their mother told Nick during Fawaz’s high school graduation party, opening up as much as she ever would about the worries she had for her youngest son, sitting with Nick on his uncle’s plastic-covered sofa. Fawaz at that moment was sitting by himself at a table in the corner, hovering over a largely untouched plate of kibbeh, tearing absent-mindedly at his fingernails, and staring into the void while everyone else was laughing and dancing around him. “He isn’t blessed like you are, Nazim. The world don’t smile at him.”  
Fawaz and Nick had never been that close. To start, Nick was almost five years older, and once Fawaz got into skateboarding and the goth crowd and started dressing like he was headed to a circus funeral every day—which included for reasons Nick never understood, wearing mascara and painting his nails black—Nick really started putting up a wall between them. These were the days when Nick still thought he had a chance with the pretty blond cheerleaders at his high school and could make the football team if he tried—aspirations that proved to be delusional on both counts. But because he was invested in being “normal” at a time when Fawaz was becoming more of an outcast, the last thing he needed was to be associated with a freak little brother who would make it that much harder for Nick, one of three Arab kids in his class, to get a date to prom. And so the times when Fawaz would poke his head into his brother’s room to see what lego masterpiece he was working on next, Nick would either ignore him, or yell for him to get out, acting as if whatever it was within Fawaz that made him so radically different from the Platonic ideal Nick sought out in those Massachusetts suburbs might rub off on him too if he wasn’t careful. 
It wouldn’t be until years later, after Fawaz had been discharged from the United States Marine Corps for stealing prescription painkillers from his base hospital and wound up homeless in San Francisco, that not only Nick, but everyone in the family, started to feel the true depths of their guilt for neglecting him all those years. To grow up Syrian and alienated in Massachusetts, unable to shake the stigma that came with being second born, and the total absence of any expectations from their parents, whereas Nick, to listen to their father, was on a path toward the Nobel Prize, probably had something to do with the trajectory of his life being as chaotic as it was—how he went from quiet goth kid to gung-ho Marine grunt to relapse after relapse until he was completely on his own, living in a tent in downtown San Francisco.
Despite the distance between the brothers though, there was a brief time when Nick felt close with his kid brother, which is why he went to visit him during his first year in graduate school—holing up with him in his dorm room while he skipped class and rolled joints. Nick would smoke with Fawaz and tell him about how out of place he felt at MIT and how preoccupied he was with how it was going to feel to kill the dreams of their immigrant parents if he failed. Fawaz would nod and listen, and Nick felt so connected to him for those few short months that he suddenly realized how stupid and blind he’d been when they were kids. That if he hadn’t been so preoccupied with his own insecurity, he might have realized how similar they actually were, and how desperately they were both trying to carve out an identity they could call their own. It was like they became brothers for the first time in that dorm room, sitting together, smoking incredible amounts of pot, comforting each other, and both of them trying to hide from the inevitable waves of failure they felt bearing down on them.
“Fuck,” Fawaz said at one point, reclining in his cheap dorm chair, Led Zeppelin playing faintly on his laptop, his painted fingernails tracing a circular pattern on his fuzzy cheeks, looking at his brother glassy-eyed after Nick finally told him he had decided to drop out and move to Las Vegas to become a professional poker player. “Dad is gonna lay his prison shit on you when you tell him. You know that, right?”

.          .          .

A year before Abbad Alyousef, Nick's father, the famous doctor, received his student visa and immigrated to Massachusetts, he’d had his youth ripped violently away from him in a Syrian state prison. Much later, after Nick had been in Vegas long enough to handle himself at a poker table, he would encounter men in the casino with the same look in their eyes as his father had developed in his middle age—cautious men, with that dullness of spirit that said if they played it safe, if they just followed conventional wisdom long enough and never dared act in any way controversial, that there might be some small hope that they would find respite from the crushing onslaught of time. 
Men who’d had their vitality ripped out of them and had become blind to the possibility that there were still unexpected victories out there in the great unknown worth seeking and risking it all for. 
In Nick’s father’s case, this temerity came from his time in prison, although Abbad never told anyone that directly. There are some things his first son did know though—things that would slip out after he’d been drinking or the occasional story their mother would tell when she was feeling particularly sad about something that had happened to Fawaz. Nick knew, for example, that before his father was unexpectedly thrown in jail, America was never part of the plan for him. Abbad had come from a very privileged family. His father, Nick’s grandfather, made what was considered a fortune at that time importing cheap fabrics from India, spooling them into rugs he branded as “Persian,” and then exporting them to Europe for exorbitant profits. By the time Abbad, the youngest of seven, was born, his family was firmly entrenched in Syrian society’s upper crust.
What need to leave then? The life of a third-world aristocrat was good, barring any unforeseen revolutions. There was an optimism in Syria at that time—at least there was in Abbad’s childhood home. His father, Nick’s grandfather, saw himself as a sort of Arab Joseph Kennedy. Engaging in the rough and tumble world of Middle Eastern textile markets, carving out a niche for himself and then building his fortune, bending and breaking whatever rules he had to follow along the way so that his progeny could be groomed for finer things. He made sure that his children had breeding and status. In his eyes, they were destined for top political positions. They would have their hands fully on the levers of power. They wouldn’t have to muck about in the bare-knuckle arena of importing and exporting—and they wouldn’t carry with them the stains that came with doing whatever it took to make a buck. Abbad’s father had done all the dirty work for them. His children’s lives were about reaping the rewards he had won.




There was a story about Nick's grandfather that he would hear from time to time as a child, normally after a dinner party when his aunts and uncles had drunk too much and thought that he and Fawaz had long ago stopped paying attention to what they were rambling about in Arabic. Mostly, they would use this time to lament how terribly everything had turned out in their beloved country, but amongst all the cursing they would hurl at Assad, the butcher, they would sometimes take a more sentimental turn and talk about the way things once were, and about what Nick’s grandfather and what he was like when he was young and intent on making a name for himself.
As they saw it, there was one story in particular that came to define the singular nature of the man’s character. This was early in Nick’s grandfather’s career when he and his wife only had two of their seven children and were still struggling to make enough money to afford the small one-bedroom flat that they rented on the outskirts of Damascus. 
Nick’s grandfather at that time had a deal with the owner of an old warehouse near Jobar, where he would store the fabrics that he was attempting to resell at modest profits to local merchants. As is the case with most visionaries stuck in mundane roles, the simple, repetitive act of buying and selling was slowly driving him insane.
“What am I to become?” he asked his wife, Nick’s grandmother, one evening—a rare moment when both their young children were sleeping. He was nursing a cigarette, looking out their dingy second-story window at the bourgeois crowd pulling up in convertibles to the cafe below their flat. “A life filled with these transactions, these petty negotiations day after day brings me no satisfaction. I want no part of the tedium. If my destiny is to make deals, then I want to feel that I’m risking what’s necessary for a truly great reward. I have dreams of so much more for us. My goal,” he said, exhaling smoke from his nostrils, pointing through the dirty glass to the faint starlight, “is beyond.”
It was in this state that Nick's grandfather wandered into the only movie theater in Damascus that was allowed to show foreign films and found the solution to his problems in the form of Swedish cinema. On the days when he had lost all appetite for haggling with merchants who would quibble endlessly over a few pounds as if their sole purpose in life was to ensure that they took their last breath on this Earth gripping a handful of extra coins, he would wander through the city in the hopes that something unexpected would catch his eye and help transport him to a higher plane. The meager, petty attitude of the people he worked and traded with had left him in a state of near-constant agitation, and when he saw the poster for Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries in front of the theater, there was something in the visage of Professor Isak Borg and the transcendent adventure he was destined to go upon that struck a deep chord.
He bought a ticket immediately and went inside to watch what would ultimately change the trajectory of his entire life. It wasn’t the content of Bergman’s film that moved him, however, despite its relevance. Nick’s grandfather was never much of a reader and the subtitled, nuanced plot quickly bored him, but what did reach out from the screen and grab him by his lapels was the sight of the beautiful rugs that lay on the floors in every scene inside a home. He couldn’t take his eyes off them. He was completely transfixed, not entirely sure why at first, and then it hit him like a lightning bolt so suddenly that he literally stood up in the nearly empty theater and clapped his hands together as hard as he could and thought to himself, that’s it man, by God that’s it! 
He left the theater immediately and scoured every library and bookstore in Damascus until he could find a textbook explaining the basics of the Swedish language. Later that night he stayed up very late, poring over that textbook until he could do his best to develop a pitch that roughly said the following.
Hello I am an Iranian exile living in Damascus. When the Shah seized power, my family, who came from a long line of expert textile artisans, were forced to flee for our safety. The Shah is a fox and cannot be trusted. No one living or dead in Iran has ever made more beautiful Persian rugs than my family. We alone know the secret to the production of the finest rugs in the entire Middle East. We are now setting up manufacturing facilities in our new country, and we would love for the glorious people of Sweden (whom we know love to furnish their homes with these beautiful rugs) to be our first partners in Europe. 
And although there were many grammatical mistakes in the Swedish statement that he ultimately transcribed, he was able to convey the gist of this after working on it for many hours. The next day, he skipped the warehouse entirely, leaving the men he’d been scheduled to trade with sipping mint tea by themselves, and called the Swedish consulate in Syria. He had to dial this number many times before someone finally picked up and allowed him to read his statement, making his best guess as to how those Swedish words should be pronounced. 
This was the part of the story that had Nick’s aunts and uncles slapping each other’s legs and nearly falling out of their chairs laughing, imagining what his grandfather must have sounded like trying to speak Swedish, talking to one government official after the other before he was finally transferred to someone crazy enough on the other end to see the business opportunity in what he was talking about. 
“Talk about a fox,” Nick’s uncle told him once. “That was his gateway into the European market, the West, and all the riches that were there for the taking. None of us would be here today if he didn’t have the balls to make a gamble like that. Our family wouldn’t be much more than peasants if it weren’t for him. The man had courage, I’ll give him that.”
After nearly two decades of cultivating contacts and opening up more and more European partnerships for the rugs he wound up cheaply producing, Nick’s grandfather was finally able to convince his wife and everyone else that he had single handedly turned his dreams into reality. By the time Abbad was born, the youngest of seven children, the family was already quite wealthy. So wealthy, in fact, that Nick’s father had as close to a storybook childhood as you could get in the Middle East. 
Growing up, going to the best schools the country had to offer, Abbad was groomed for a top position in the Ministry of Health from the very beginning (medicine, the family had determined, was the appropriate path for him). “Perhaps I’ll even be the Minister himself one day,” he often thought, dreaming of that top position for almost his entire life. And everything might have gone according to this plan if Abbad hadn’t made an error in his mid-twenties that culminated with state intelligence officers coming to his family’s villa outside Damascus and reading his name off a piece of paper, asking in the most polite way, if he wouldn’t consider coming quietly, sparing his family the embarrassment of making a scene.
Nick’s grandfather, who by then had been dutifully paying bribes to the Ba’ath Party for many years and often dined with the Deputy Ministers of Commerce and Finance, was nothing short of apoplectic at the intrusion. He had allowed his ego to run rampant for years, coming to see himself in his old age more like royalty, someone who was above the petty harassment of the state intelligence forces—an inexcusable hubris, looking back, given Assad’s bloodlust.  
“What is this joke?” he said, rushing downstairs in his bedclothes, the hair on his neck bristling. “What gives you the right to enter my home with such an insult?”
The state intelligence officer—cool despite the spittle coming from Nick’s grandfather’s mouth, flecking onto his freshly shaven face, his immaculately combed hair—assured everyone that it was a routine affair. Nothing to get worked up about. It was simply that his youngest son, Abbad, needed to answer a few questions about a paper he’d recently published at University on the use of x-ray equipment in state hospitals. Unfortunately, members of the Muslim Brotherhood—those traitorous Islamists—had been citing certain elements of Abbad’s paper in their propaganda against the state and well, there were a few details that needed some clarification.
“Again,” the state intelligence officer said, his mustache trimmed in exactly the same way as the Prime Minister, his thin upper lip receding to reveal his teeth in what surely must have been an attempt at a smile. “A routine matter. No cause for alarm.”
Nick’s grandfather, of course, would hear none of this. Had he been paying closer attention to the political maneuvers in his country at that time, he might have understood that anything involving the Muslim Brotherhood was no trivial matter at all, rather something to be taken dead seriously, as the country inched closer to armed confrontation between the anti-Ba’athist militias and the government, but by then Nick’s grandfather believed he was above the fray. It was a right he thought he had paid for in full, the privilege to ignore politics, which looking back, was one of the greatest flaws in judgment in the history of the Alyousef family.
So he went about chastising the state intelligence officer in front of the men he’d brought to the family’s veranda, demanding that he be provided with everyone’s name and rank so that he could arrange their punishment personally with their commanding officers, men he was sure he’d dined with many times already and knew well enough that this affront, this unacceptable disgrace and public insult, would receive its proper reprimand—the lightest of which would be a demotion, the harshest of which, well who could say given Nick’s grandfather’s status and influence as one of the most trusted confidants of the Deputy Minister of Commerce, and on and on he went in that fashion for some time. Or so Nick was later told.
The state intelligence officer meanwhile, waited patiently for him to finish. And finally, when there was a break in the verbal torrent, he merely nodded to one of his men, who unholstered his pistol, walked across the veranda and very matter of factly, smashed Nick’s grandfather across the face with it.  
That was when Abbad, who’d been there the entire time and now watched as the blood spooled out of his father’s mouth, truly understood that this was no routine affair. All he could do in the moment was stare ahead blankly while his father tried to pick his head off the ground, and his aunts and grandmother wailed horribly behind him, their shrieking, Abbad later described, was one of the worst sounds he’d ever heard.




In the end, it would be almost a full year before Abbad saw anyone in his family again. Eleven months to be exact, before he was released from state prison. He’d been given no official jail sentence, but his imprisonment, he now knew, was for suggesting in one of his research papers that the standards for patient safety with x-ray procedures in state hospitals were insufficient and exposing people to dangerous levels of radiation. In retrospect, his punishment for criticizing the regime could have been as long as five years, so the eleven months he served was actually one of the milder forms of punishment handed out. Nick’s grandfather, having been thrust into a crisis where he was forced to acknowledge how little power he’d accumulated over the years despite all the money he’d given, and how truly vulnerable he and his family still were, told Abbad that he should be grateful. That there were new rules they all needed to follow. That their country, and their lives, had fundamentally changed.
“I was naive,” Nick’s father told him once, a rare moment of intimacy that was brought on by a few glasses of arak. Abbad was sipping it while listening to some particularly disturbing news about the civil war in his country. “I thought they would view my research as an attempt to help the country improve its health safety standards. People were showing up with broken arms and leaving the hospital with cancer, you know. The problem was very real. It still is, I’m sure. I was twenty-four. I didn’t yet know the art of guiding men to the answer without speaking directly. I thought you could just tell people the truth. Stupid. So, so stupid.”
Abbad’s favorite professor, Mohsin, had been the one who had reported him to state intelligence—a man who was also his advisor and mentor, and someone Abbad had come to think of as more of an uncle than a teacher. 
“I think Mohsin was trying to protect me in a way,” Nick’s father told him. “I hated him for years. Cursed his name. Rejoiced when I heard he’d been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s. But now that I’m older than he was when he reported me, I understand what he must have thought. We all lived in fear back then, you understand. Assad—I’m talking about the original, the father—was a butcher. Entire lineages had been liquidated for offenses no more severe than the threat a mosquito offers to an ox. We all knew the stories. But as a young man, it felt distant. Something that happened to other people. And so when he warned me the first time about my paper, I waved him away. What could possibly be controversial about science? Idiotic, I know, but that was how I thought at the time. I was spoiled, you understand. I grew up with so much privilege in a country where so few were born with such advantages. I believed in things like destiny—that’s how immature I was. I thought it was fated that I’d become the Minister of Health. It wasn’t so much a dream I had, but a religious certainty in an outcome. You see how deep my sense of entitlement was? It was indistinguishable from my very being. Mohsin must have seen that too, as everyone did at that time, I’m sure. He knew I was going to publish my findings no matter what he said, or how he begged—and he knew how it would reflect back on him, and the entire department. He had been born too poor, had seen too much tragedy in his life to believe in ridiculous things like destiny. He had a family too, you know. A lesser connected family than my own. Vulnerable people. Knowing Mohsin, he probably thought through the second and third-order consequences of my incautiousness. Maybe he reasoned that if he turned me in, the punishment would be lighter than it otherwise would have been. Maybe it was his objective to protect the department. Now I imagine him spending a restless night, tormented with his decision to hand over his protege to the state police, finally overcome with relief for all the people he would be shielding from their wrath. Perhaps in the end he thought of himself as a hero.” 
Nick’s father laughed, stirring his arak with his forefinger, pausing to taste it, the milky liquor dripping onto his corduroys.
“I would like to believe this, you know,” he said. “I’m too old for the rage I felt so often in my youth. My memories now, they drift toward absolution. Still, Mohsin never visited me in prison. Never explained to me why he’d done it. He left me there to wonder. Alone.” 
Nick's father later told him that those were some of the darkest times of his life. He had just been married. His wife, who had left him in a near-permanent state of delighted bewilderment after accepting his marriage proposal, was the light of his life. After she’d said yes, every day had a dreamlike quality to it. He’d walk through Damascus—to his lab or his uncle’s restaurant for lunch—and feel light in a way that resembled the effects of some wonderful narcotic, knowing that she had chosen him over the dozens of others who’d made claim to her affections. Up until the moment he was arrested by the state intelligence officers, he felt his life had been blessed in a way he didn’t dare try to understand for fear that he might jeopardize the magic by prying too deeply into the mystery. Things just worked out for him in a way that felt charted by God. And so, finding himself in a damp cell stripped naked with nothing, not even a sheet, to shield his flesh from the maggots and rats, left Abbad feeling shattered in a way that he never fully recovered from. 
“That night,” he told Nick, his cheeks flushed with alcohol, “was when I learned what it truly meant to become a man.”

Anthony Jones

Anthony Jones is a Lebanese-American author and podcast producer based in California. His work has been featured in places like F(r)iction Magazine, PANK Magazine, Miracle Monocle, and MAYDAY Magazine. He is also the co-founder of Jones and Woolf, an audio fiction podcast pairing short stories with original music. The podcast was named as a finalist for the Google Podcasts Creator Program, and it won the bronze medal for fiction at the Australian Podcast Awards in 2022.

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Anthony Jones is a Lebanese-American author and podcast producer based in California. His work has been featured in places like <em>F(r)iction Magazine</em>, <em>PANK Magazine</em>, <em>Miracle Monocle</em>, and <em>MAYDAY Magazine</em>. He is also the co-founder of Jones and Woolf, an audio fiction podcast pairing short stories with original music. The podcast was named as a finalist for the Google Podcasts Creator Program, and it won the bronze medal for fiction at the Australian Podcast Awards in 2022.

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