The Secrets We Keep

Deena ElGenaidi takes stock of the truths she and her Muslim family members hide from one another.

Deena ElGenaidi | Longreads | November 2018 | 11 minutes (2,651 words)

 

My dad pulled his car over — the Jeep Wrangler he’d bought after divorcing my stepmom — to tell me that he’d gotten secretly married a year ago.

“M said you think I’m a hypocrite,” he’d said a few minutes earlier, just before putting the car in park.

He’d come to New York for the day to see me.

“I didn’t — what did M tell you?”

I was sure my aunt hadn’t betrayed my trust fully, that she couldn’t have told him what I’d found: the women’s bath products in his bathroom, signs that he was still dating the woman 20 years his junior. I was 28 at the time of the discovery, which would have made her 35. I knew that despite his Islamic religious beliefs, he was likely having sex before getting married.

“She said you think I’m a hypocrite because she’s not Muslim,” he said, the second “she” referring to Alexa, the woman whose name we both avoided saying out loud.

My dad had been twice divorced — first from my mom when I was 4, then from Anne-Marie, the woman he married when I was 10 and stayed married to for about 15 years. Now, he’d moved on to someone younger, someone only 7 years older than me.

I told him the truth, that about a year earlier, I’d gone into his room to see if he had any suitcases I could borrow for my trip to Southeast Asia, and spotted the flowery body wash, the women’s deodorant, the pink razor.

“I don’t care what you do,” I said, with the knowledge that I also kept secrets.

Still, though, I felt anger at my father’s hypocrisy. He claimed to be religious and was often judgmental of those who weren’t — judgmental of me. For years, I’ve kept my own secrets from my parents. I grew up in an Egyptian, Muslim home, and in many ways, keeping secrets has been my mode of self-preservation, as it is for many children of immigrants. My family is conservative — not politically, but in their everyday lives. They don’t drink or believe in sex before marriage, and if you are dating someone, it is with the intention of eventually marrying them. They expect their children to uphold the same Islamic values, and they’d prefer us to marry within our own culture, if possible. In this sense, it’s ironic that my dad has been with two white women — Anne-Marie and now Alexa — whose cultural backgrounds are starkly different from his.

I’ve talked to other children of immigrants, and children of religious parents, and have found an almost universal experience among us all. Though the values vary depending on culture, there is the same sense of understanding between us. Our parents, unlike many white parents, absolutely cannot know about certain aspects of our lives. A part of me is afraid to disappoint and disillusion them, but now knowing of my dad’s secrets, I wonder if I even care about their finding out about mine anymore.

“I wish you’d told me when you found that,” my dad said, referring back to the women’s bath products.

“I don’t care,” I repeated.

“Well, no, I want to explain.”

I didn’t know what he wanted to explain, but I absolutely didn’t want to hear about my dad’s sex life with a younger woman.

I grew up in an Egyptian, Muslim home, and in many ways, keeping secrets has been my mode of self-preservation, as it is for many children of immigrants.

“We got married,” he said.

Instantly, my stomach dropped, and I looked straight ahead of me, out the window. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t expect this at all.

“We’re not legally married, just Islamically.”

As he spoke, I played back the timeline in my head. I saw the women’s bath products in May of last year, moved out of my Philly apartment at the end of July, and stayed with my dad for two months until I moved to New York. If they were married at the time, why was there no trace of her beyond the flowery soaps that had since disappeared?

“She has her own her house,” he said, as though reading my thoughts.

They were “married” Islamically, but they didn’t live together. What this meant was that they had to convince an Imam to marry them in the mosque, with no legal documents. An Islamic marriage is no different from a Christian one or a Jewish one, and in almost all cases is accompanied by a marriage license obtained from a courthouse. In this case, though, my father requested a religious ceremony with no legal marriage license. The Imam was hesitant at first, for fear of the woman losing her legal, marital rights in the process — losing alimony or child support in the case of a divorce, for instance. But my dad didn’t want to get legally married, as he’d just finished paying the alimony from his previous marriage, and he didn’t want to lose more of his assets if he went through another divorce. He also wanted his own space, his own home, he said. But in the same sentence, he talked about wanting to eventually make it legal and move in together, and I couldn’t tell what was true and what wasn’t. And I certainly didn’t know why Alexa, whom I’d never met, had agreed to these conditions.

“This isn’t marriage,” I said. “You just married her so you could sleep with her.”

I demanded he take me home, then locked myself in my room and cried, avoiding interaction with my roommates or anyone else for the rest of that day. I couldn’t believe my dad had been married in secret for a year and kept it from his daughter, from his entire family. He’d waited, even, until his mom died to tell me.

***

I found out about Alexa’s existence roughly three years ago, mostly by accident. My dad, my cousins, and I had gone jet-skiing for my cousin’s birthday, leaving our phones in the car’s glove compartment until we returned. As my cousin handed the phones back, she spotted a text on my dad’s screen.

Alexa: I love jetskiing 🙂

My cousin didn’t tell me until the next day, after my dad had left. We did some snooping, hacking into his iCloud from my computer, almost getting caught through a series of technological blunders, and we confirmed that my dad was, in fact, dating someone named Alexa. So I confronted him over the phone.

“Who’s Alexa?” I said, more of a demand than a question. He’d been separated from my stepmom for exactly a year at that point.

“How old is she?” I asked, another demand.

When I found out how young she was, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of repulsion. My dad had turned into a cliché — the older man dating a woman young enough to be his daughter.

I told the rest of the family, and we all fought, my objection being the age difference and my aunt’s being the cultural and religious differences.

“She wants to convert,” my dad said.

“You tried that before,” said my aunt. “Isn’t that why you got divorced?”

She was referring to my stepmom, the previous white woman he was involved with, who’d also converted to Islam for him, but whose lack of religiosity eventually became an issue for my dad — one of the reasons their marriage didn’t work out.

It was through our conversations about Alexa that I became quickly disillusioned with my dad and how incongruent his values were with his actions. I wondered why I worried so much about my own secrets when he had so many. Was it even worth my effort to keep those secrets? What was I still trying to preserve?


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A few weeks after learning of Alexa’s existence, my dad told me he’d ended the relationship. But that, too, turned out to be a lie, and again, by accident, I found out they were still dating.

“Why do you keep lying?” I asked.

“I’m not lying. It’s just not anyone’s business,” he said.

***

Not long after finding out about my dad’s secret marriage, my mom visited me in New York. That same weekend I saw on Instagram that someone I dated over a year ago, who’d moved to Los Angeles, was in New York for the weekend. Neither of my parents knew he existed because I kept my life a secret, just as my dad was doing. My roommate came home after my mom went to bed, and as we sat on the couch watching a movie, I told her, in hushed tones, that I was thinking of texting him. I didn’t want my mom to overhear. At around 10 pm, I sent the text.

Are you in ny? I wrote.

Sure am, he replied. You around?

I left my apartment an hour later, and as I headed out the door, I turned to my roommate and said, “If my mom asks, I went out with ‘platonic’ friends.”

She laughed, and I said goodbye, worried about what I would say to my mom when I didn’t come home until the next morning. Later that night, in his hotel room, I mentioned that my mom was visiting and currently sleeping in my bedroom. He asked: “What will you tell her when you don’t come home?”

“I haven’t really planned that far,” I said.

“Yeah, but you knew what would happen tonight.”

I texted my mom early the next morning to say I stayed at a friend’s place, not wanting to get back too late and wake her. I felt no guilt or consternation, and the lie came easily because I was so used to telling untruths in order to protect myself — to protect my parents’ idea of me. I would have said the same to my dad, and in many ways, I was acting just like him, keeping the details of my life hidden from my family.

When I finally arrived back at my apartment, my mom was chasing my cat around with a feather stick, trying to get her to play and clearly antsy for me to arrive home. The cognitive dissonance in that moment was alarming, but I put the previous night and morning out of my head as we walked around Central Park that afternoon.

A few days later, I told a friend about the conversation I’d had in bed, when he asked me what I would tell my mom.

“Okay, well first of all you’re an adult,” my friend said. “You don’t need to explain yourself.”

“I mean, I kind of do,” I replied.

I told her that though I’m almost thirty, I know that in order to protect myself, to protect my relationship with my parents, I had to lie. It’s difficult to imagine what would happen if either of my parents knew the truth. Sometimes, I wonder if they actually do know, but don’t say anything. Just as I’ve discovered some of my dad’s secrets over the years, has he discovered mine? Maybe it’s willful ignorance, or maybe I’ve developed a knack for lying. In the end, it’s just easier to keep secrets. It’s easier to live my life the way I want, and avoid conflict. Perhaps this was my dad’s thought process when he chose to get married in secret.

“Wait, so do your parents think you’re a virgin?” my friend asked.

“Yes,” I said.

***

A few years back, my younger brother and I had a conversation about the secrets we keep from our parents. He spoke of a desire to come clean entirely.

“Don’t you want them to know who you really are?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

“I just want the same relationship with my parents that some of my friends have,” he said.

“White parents are different,” I told him, though I knew also, the rules were different for him growing up — maybe because he was a boy, maybe because he was 10 years younger than me. Though he kept secrets, the stakes always seemed lower for him. He didn’t care as much.

My mom grew up in Egypt, and my dad came to America at the age of 7. They divorced by the time I turned 4. I don’t know everything about their childhoods, their teenage years, their 20s, but I’ve gathered a bit from my own fuzzy memories and stories from relatives.

A few years back, my younger brother and I had a conversation about the secrets we keep from our parents. He spoke of a desire to come clean entirely.

One day when I was in second grade, my dad was supposed to pick me up from school. My parents both worked, so I was in the after-school program. Usually, my mom would pick me up, but for whatever reason, she couldn’t that day. At a certain point, I was the last child left waiting, afraid my dad had forgotten about me entirely. The after-school teachers stuck around, past the time they were supposed to, I assume, and I tried not to cry. Eventually, my dad showed up. He apologized for being late and drove me home to the apartment I shared with my mom, where we waited and watched TV until she arrived.

I don’t know the details, but somehow my mom knew that my dad had picked me up late. Maybe the school called her. Maybe he told her. They went into the bedroom and left me alone in the living room, but I could hear them arguing.

“You were drinking,” she said.

We didn’t drink. We were Muslim. He denied the accusation. I don’t remember what else was said, but that day stood out in my mind for years after.

Now, as an adult, I know that my dad did drink in his 20s and 30s, after he divorced my mom. He’s never told me this, and I don’t believe he ever will. I learned it from another member of the family. I know less about my mom, about her sins, but my dad’s lies stand out the most. He claims to be religious and pious, refusing to admit to any past transgressions.

It’s normal for parents to keep secrets from their children and vice versa, but I’ve often felt that I’ve had to hide details that seem innocuous in American culture. In my case, this is a combination of both cultural upbringing and religion. My parents grew up with Arab, Islamic values that they expect me to uphold to a certain degree. However, from the looks of it, neither my father nor I have managed to uphold these values. The only difference is that I don’t claim those values to be my own, preaching one set of ideas and acting in another way altogether.

In a restaurant a few weeks after finding out about my dad’s secret marriage, I asked him why he lied for so long, why he kept the relationship a secret.

“I didn’t have any other choice,” he said.

I balked at that answer. “You had a choice, and you chose to get married secretly. Is that Islamically sound, do you think?”

“You were so against it,” he said. “I didn’t want to upset you.”

He was referring to my anger at learning of the relationship in the first place — learning that she was so close in age to me. I never guessed he would marry her.

“How is this better?” I said. “To find out a year later?”

He didn’t apologize for his actions, instead repeating that he had no choice.

“Are you 19 years old?” I asked.

I was trying to imply that people his age didn’t behave this way — eloping in secret because of family disapproval. But maybe I was also thinking about myself. I wonder when I’ll grow out of the secrets. I’ve been lying to protect myself and also out of concern for my parents’ feelings. But at this point, it feels like none of that matters. Maybe my dad deserves to know the truth — to know that we are not very different, keeping secrets from one another.

* * *

Deena ElGenaidi is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She edits for Hyperallergic, and her work has been featured in Electric Literature, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other publications. She is currently at work on a novel.

Editor: Sari Botton