If one knew my father, then they would understand that the title of this post was uttered numerous times throughout my childhood, and still is. However, in his defense, most times were provoked. It was one such provocation that put his restraint or lack of into question.
I was no more than two years old as my mother was still pregnant with my brother when my father was almost arrested. My mother and I were at home when she received a call saying that the police were at the deli, and my father might be in trouble. I know what some might be thinking…what could the kind, smiling man pictured above possibly have done to warrant the need for law enforcement? Well, let us just chalk it up to a good old fashioned ethnic temper, a trait that I, unfortunately, inherited. See, my father had the smile of a saint, the vocabulary of a sailor, the temper of a viper, and the heart of a lion, true, loyal, and pure to the core. Much of these attributes have stood the test of time. Yes, even his temper.
It was 1986, and my father had stopped taking personal checks as a form of payment as he had been having too many of them bounce. On one such busy day, a customer of foreign decent wanted to pay with a personal check. My father politely declined, and informed the man that he no longer took personal checks. To this, the man became irate. He huffily informed my father that he did not know how to run a business. My father remained calm and continued to explain his reasoning to the man, even though he had the right to refuse the payment. The viper temper had been heroically put into check until the male customer in question made a vital mistake…well, three vital mistakes, in fact. After a few minutes of arguing, the man called my father a stupid Arab, spit on the deli’s glass front door, and spat the words “spit on America”. To this display of irrationality, twenty eight year old Salem Ghanayem, father and husband, who had immigrated to this country when he was five, had only one choice. He punched the angry, spitting customer squarely in the face…twice. It was all very dramatic. The police were called and small droplets of blood were spilled. When my mother arrived with me in tow, and my cousin, who was an attorney, by her side, two policemen had my father outside the restaurant’s front door questioning him. I remember thinking, “Is my daddy going to jail?” In the car, my mother had told me what my father had done, but not why. My mother was not one to sugar coat things, especially to her children. She didn’t hide much from us, which, in terms of parenting, can only go one of two ways. I like to think her instincts were correct, and that my brother, sister, and I are better people for it, even if it was vastly uncomfortable at times. Luckily, my father was never charged and he was able to go about his day, due to a good Samaritan customer, who had witnessed the exchange and convinced the officers that he was an off-duty cop who saw the whole ordeal, and vouched for my temperamental father. In actuality, the mystery customer was just angry at how my father was treated and so he came to his defense. He was definitely not a member of law enforcement.
So, my father was in the clear, until later that night when my grandfather, my mother’s father, called and wanted to see him. My grandfather had heard about the incident, and wasn’t happy. See, word travels fast in ethnic communities, and in the Arab community of Jacksonville, Florida, word of mouth was like wildfire. It took one spark, and the whole thing went up in smoke. Cliché, but no less true. Since, my grandfather’s nickname was “the godfather” as he was the oldest member of our community, the news of the day always got back to him. Apparently, there were some Iranian friends in town, and the man my father had punched was the son-in-law of one of the elders. So, my father was called before “the don” to explain himself. And my father did. He told my grandfather what the man had said and done to which my grandfather replied, with his mouth half open in astonishment, “He did what?”. My father repeated himself twice before my grandfather in his thick middle eastern accent said, “I would have hit him again”. My father was saved for the second time that day.
So, what was it that caused my father to lose his temper in the first place? What was it that allowed my grandfather to promote my father’s obvious loss of control? One word. Patriotism. To men, like my father and grandfather, who came to this country whether to build something better or were the product of that dream, any threat to it was inexcusable. The irate male customer had spit on my father’s “soda pop” dream, literally. He had reduced my father’s heritage to a despicable, slanderous word, and he had unforgivably insulted the country that gave him the opportunity to have a dream in the first place. To them, it warranted a good ass-kicking.
Looking back, I can’t say I blame my father. As we travel through life, especially in today’s chaotic and violent world, we lose sight of the real heart of a tradition. We forget that not all immigrants are the enemy, and that not all natives are friends. Don’t misunderstand. In this instance, he was blameless. However, in all of his confrontations with customers throughout the years, he wasn’t always so innocent. No worries, though. That was my father’s only knock out thus far. The best lesson I learned as I went through life was “Don’t poke the Salem!” I’m still not very good at heeding this advice.