At The New Yorker, Pauls Toutonghi lovingly recalls his grandfather, Philippe Elias Tütünji, a writer, poet, and translator from Aleppo, Syria. Tütünji immigrated to America during World War II and never gave up his dream to achieve success as a poet in his adopted homeland. Working menial, low-paying jobs to support his family, and “full of immigrant ambition,” he once visited actor Danny Thomas in a bid to entice Thomas to record one of his poems as a song — a feat Tütünji believed would make him a star.
And so when my oldest aunt, Agnes, got a job as a stenographer at Standard Oil, and, with dizzying speed, met a young Standard Oil geologist, married him, and moved to Los Angeles, my grandfather decided that the rest of the family would follow. He fled again. The Toutonghis raffled off all their possessions to pay for tickets on an ocean liner. On May 26, 1946, they disembarked from Alexandria, Egypt, on the S.S. Vulcania, bound for New York City. On the ship’s Immigration and Naturalization Service Form I-415—a form that is still in use today—my family’s race is listed as Syrian. In the next column, the one reserved for country of citizenship, there is a different word: “Stateless.” Upon arrival in Manhattan, the Toutonghis collected their luggage and spent their last money on bus tickets bound for California. Stateless, they began a new life in a new nation—one that was, for the most part, open and welcoming to these hopeful refugees.
Still, my grandfather was a recent immigrant, full of ambition. He was a poet, and he’d written a few lyric stanzas in English, which he dreamed of turning into a song. It was, he would always claim—even decades later—a poem worth “a million dollars,” and “unlike anything anyone had ever heard.” On the day of his meeting with Thomas, he went to the post office and spent twenty-eight cents to send the poem to himself through registered mail—a poor man’s copyright. On the envelope, he wrote his address, twice, and then added, underlined: “Poeme in English,” and “its title had never been used.”