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On finding hidden castles

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FEBRUARY 23, 2015

One especially snowy winter, my dad decided that it was the perfect time for a road trip. He, along with my three siblings and I, bundled up and piled into his beat-up powder-blue Ford pickup, inviting along our longtime friend Adventure to drive along with us into central Syria. Most details of that specific road trip are now fuzzy, buried among the numerous memories I have of getting lost in the beauty of my country’s rural regions. What I do remember is the Ford coming to a halt in the middle of nowhere, my dad squinting at a bulky, snowy mass in the distance.

“That’s a castle,” he pointed out. “I’ve never seen it before. How have I never seen this castle before?”

The decision was made before he had even finished his question: We were going to the castle. It didn’t matter that it was freezing, that the only way to get there was a narrow one-way road, that we were risking our lives driving his enormous car on a frozen road whose sides bent down to an abyss of nothingness: We were going to the castle, simply because my dad loved castles. We never traveled anywhere in Syria without stopping to see at least two castles on the way. I know every crack in Crac des Chevaliers and have wandered around in numerous cities’ citadels. Castles combined two of my dad’s many passions: rich history and beautiful, ancient architecture.

In order to get to the other side and not skid down the valley, my dad started driving his right-side tires on the road, tilting his car so that the left-side tires drove on the walls of the canyon itself. My siblings in the back all huddled on the right side, to lessen the chance of the car tilting over and tumbling down the cliff. Every few minutes, we would switch.

When we got to the castle, my dad stepped out and stood there in his signature ugly wool sweater — the one he always swore is the reason he lived through the wintery nights of Nepal. He smiled widely and victoriously, his hands planted on his hips. I could practically see his brain itching for a history lesson. He was triumphant, happy.

That is, until he realized that the castle was closed. Then he realized that he had actually already been there before. We piled back in soundlessly, bracing ourselves for the perilous drive back.

I have learned everything from the man with the signature ugly sweater: He taught me how to love reading and raised me to believe that music has to be sung out loud to be fully enjoyed, regardless of musical talent. I learned how to slow-dance, how to barbecue and how to swim from him. He taught me that you don’t have to peel potatoes for them to taste good and that a sunset is the ideal destination for a bike ride. He taught me that you don’t need a person to be in the same room to feel their hug engulf you, slowly drawing out your sadness and leaving you with sunshine in your heart.

But more than anything, my father taught me how to be my own person. I do not know anyone who has lived more or who has seen more than my father. Throughout my whole life, he has shown me how to reject being defined by nationality or language or profession. He has shown me how one can be an emergency physician and yet still have the time to take on the identity of a camper, a historian, an adventurer, a teacher. He devours history books, falls in love with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s characters, whips up the best brunches, plays beach soccer like a pro.

He breaks barriers, and he has given me the tools to break my own.

The society I grew up in was not an individualistic one: A person’s happiness and self-interest do not trump familial obligations or certain societal norms. You are taught, at a young age, to uphold specific values and to fulfill certain expectations. My father did not fight this. He was, and still is, immensely proud of his heritage, and he passed that on to us, along with his soft hair and tall stature. But my father found his balance and taught us to find our own.

In the midst of a society that places so much emphasis on marriage, I grew up in a bubble. While other girls got makeup and jewelry as presents, I always got books, and while they guessed at what their future husbands would be like, I was being taught that no dream of mine was too big and no goal too high. My father instilled in me a belief in myself. It is still the best gift I have ever been given.

When I was much younger, I overheard my father telling someone that he was planning on sending me to a university in the states to study. I heard the pride in his voice, and I felt his shock when the response was, “But why? She’s just a girl, after all.”

He quietly took my small hand in his big, callous one and walked away.

In his role as my dad, my father took the road not typically taken, much like the frosty pathway leading to the forgotten castle. And while some may have questioned his methods or decisions, I stand here — and will again, ages and ages hence — thankful beyond words, because he has made all the difference.

Sarah Dadouch writes the biweekly Monday column on lessons gleaned from her father. You can contact her at [email protected].

FEBRUARY 23, 2015