A Quest for Self-Discovery Through Shakespeare, 2Pac, and the Holy Qur’an
By Yousef Alqamoussi
Part 1 of 9
Anything can be a microphone. An empty soda bottle serves just as well as a banana. I preferred the stack of mini Legos because I loved the colors, and beyond a certain height, I could even bend it like a real mic stand. Once it was assembled, I took my place on the couch in the living room, sitting crossed-legged with a bedsheet over my shoulders and a towel-turban upon my head. I tapped the Lego mic with my finger, closed my eyes, placed my open palm over my ear, and began: “Bismillah i’ Rahman i’ Raheem . . .”
The plan was simple: Grow up and become Sheikh Yousef, just like the Sheikh Yousef from the majma’ down the road from our second-story flat on Appoline Street, or like the reciter from the audio cassette who incanted my favorite Qur’anic sura of all: Chapter 12, Yusuf.
By the age of four, I was ready to launch my career. I knew enough suras by heart to get started. Mama and Baba had been teaching me ever since I was a toddler in Kuwait. I had memorized most of the qisar, or short suras, as well as the Throne Verse—al-Baqarah, Chapter Two, Verse 255—and the majority of surat al-Wāqiah, Chapter 56. Best of all, I was already landing gigs. I was often selected to recite the Qur’an during Islamic school functions, where I could perform all that I was practicing at home. I usually opted for the shorter suras I knew so well, but one day, I hoped to recite surat Yusuf, just like the sheikh on the cassette. Not only was Yousef my name, but I shared it with the great prophet of the Qur’an whose miracles were his wisdom, patience, and beauty; who rose up from the pit of a well, abandoned and betrayed, to become a great king of Egypt; who dreamed of the planets and the sun and the moon prostrating to him. It was, as the Qur’an calls it, the best of stories.
This wasn’t a terribly original aspiration. I wasn’t the first sheikh or the first Yousef in my family. My mother’s father was also named Yousef. Though not a king of Egypt, he did survive the family curse. His mother, Sukayna, had endured a terrible streak of dead babies, and after losing several in a row, her neighbors in Chehour, Lebanon, offered this antidotal advice: name your child after an animal and it will live. Sukayna obliged and named her next two children Deeb—wolf—and Nimri—tigress. Both survived. The spell had been broken. She named the next three boys Yousef, Suleiman, and Ali.
Yousef grew up and married a girl from the village. They moved to Kuwait to work, but ended up settling there and raising six children. My mother was the second child and oldest girl of the bunch. Although Yousef had established his life in Kuwait working for the Ministry of Communications, he had always intended to return to Lebanon, where he often vacationed. “I want to wash my mother’s feet and drink its water,” he used to say.
In the spring of 1980, Yousef arranged such a vacation for his wife and children. “Go ahead,” he said. “I’ll follow you.” He arrived in Lebanon soon after as promised. In a casket. The story goes that he had gone to the bathroom to make ablution for prayer and had dropped dead from a heart attack right where he stood. “I couldn’t have saved him had I been standing next to him,” the family doctor reported. Yousef was laid to rest among his other siblings in Chehour, the hometown he so longed to return to. He was forty-two.
As for the sheikh, that honor belonged to my paternal grandfather, Sadik. He was the ultimate man of letters. “Word Man” is perhaps the most simplified translation of my last name, Alqamoussi. That laqab, or title, traces its roots to Najaf, Iraq. It was first attributed to one of my great-grandfathers, a scholar whose verbal expertise was so renowned that it earned him the reputation of al-Qamoosi: “He [who is] the dictionary.” Sadik carried on this legacy, studying at the eminent Shia seminary of Hawzat al-Najaf and establishing a bookstore in Baghdad, where he eventually settled and authored works of prose and poetry.
Yousef Assaf and Sadik al-Qamoosi likely did not imagine that their grandson would be a Qur’an-reciting Kuwaiti-born Iraqi-Lebanese immigrant to the United States, of all places, but that’s how it played out. My father’s emigration from Iraq at the start of the Iran-Iraq War eventually led him to Kuwait, where he met and married my mother, a daughter of Lebanese expatriates. When I was three, my family was selected to come to America through the Diversity Immigrant Visa program. After a short stay in the Emirates, and an even shorter one with my uncle in Wales, we finally made our way to America.