My friend Jad Zakhour passed away this week. I was flipping through my Facebook newsfeed and suddenly saw a picture of him with some caption like “we’ll miss you”. My first (optimistic) thought was “oh, maybe Jad is moving to a new city”. But sure enough, as I looked through post after post on his Facebook page, it was clear that Jad was no longer with us.
I was shocked. How could someone my age- just 29 years old- pass away so suddenly? I didn’t know what to say. Shock turned to sadness as it hit me: I’m never going to see Jad again. And how difficult it must be for his family and the many friends he had built strong relationships with.
While I could dwell on the tragedy of Jad’s death, I know he would want me to celebrate his life. Jad and I became friends soon after he came to live in the U.S. He was Lebanese but had been living in Egypt before moving to Maryland. He joined my soccer team, Potomac United. What was clear from the get-go was that Jad was a dedicated soccer player who gave every game his all. But more importantly, he was one of the most lively, fun, energetic, and goofy people I’ve ever met. He was full of jokes- a lot of them inappropriate (which I loved). Once, while me, him, and our friend Zeeshan were hanging out at a pool, he claimed that I said I had a “funny sensation” in my pants. Of course I never said that, but he insisted for years that I did, almost to the point where I believed it myself (sorry Jad, I know you made it up!)! He knew how to get people to laugh at themselves, but never at their expense.
Jad also had a big heart. While he was kind of a macho guy- he always drove sexy cars and had beautiful girlfriends- what few people know is the role he played in me coming out of the closet. When I was 18, second semester of senior year of high school, I realized I liked men. Coming out is not exactly a science (especially in the days before Facebook), but I decided there was a small group of people I wanted to tell personally before my identity became more public. Jad was one of those people I wanted to tell face-to-face. I remember before I came out to Jad, I felt a little nervous. While I knew he was a great guy, saying you’re gay is a hard thing to share with someone. When I told him I was gay, Jad’s reaction was simple and heartwarming: “Ok. So what?” Jad was a straight shooter. He treated me with respect, kindness, and love. I felt accepted and what I want him to know (because I do believe he’s reading this right now) is that the love he showed me when I came out then made it easier for me to come out to other people down the road. I’m eternally grateful for how he helped me accept myself and learn to trust that most other people would accept me too.
Jad not only helped me accept myself as a gay man, he also helped open me up to new cultures. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved learning about other people’s cultures- food, music, languages, you name it. And so when Jad once mentioned to me that he spoke multiple dialects of Arabic, I felt like I had to learn more. I distinctly remember riding with Jad and his mom Randa in a car and there was this awesome music on. I asked Jad what it was and he told me it was Lebanese pop. I was instantly intrigued. I was then inspired to write a research paper for school on the Lebanese Civil War and actually interviewed Randa about her family’s experience during the war. I also got hooked on the delicious Lebanese pistachio candies the Zakhour’s kept around their house- I think I once ate all of the ones that were out in the candy dishes! Jad and his family would often speak in Arabic- or a mixture of English and Arabic- and it really made me curious to learn more about his heritage. Partially because of Jad, I decided to enroll in an Arabic class at the Jewish Community Center my senior year of high school. My teacher was an American guy and didn’t have a great accent, so I remember once when I wanted to show off my new Arabic knowledge to Jad by saying “khalass” (“enough”), he couldn’t stop laughing at my pronunciation. But then he proceeded to spend a solid 10 minutes teaching me how to say it right. Don’t worry Jad, I took three years of Arabic in college afterwards (including a semester of the Levantine dialect your family speaks), so know I say “khalass” right 😉 . While I was initially misled by some stereotypes of Arabs because of the Arab-Israeli conflict and 9/11, I’m proud to say that Jad and his family helped me see all people’s humanity and look past the hateful rhetoric we see in the news.
So where does that leave us now? Obviously it’s hard to make sense of tragedy. We will never truly figure out why Jad was taken from us so early. But I prefer to think about how I’m going to try to make some good out of it despite the sadness. Just as Jad taught me to be true to myself, I will continue living my life as a proud gay man. I will look for opportunities to help gay youth in need of a boost in confidence, just like Jad gave to me. Just as Jad opened my eyes to his culture, I will make an extra effort to advocate for peace and understanding between Jews and Arabs. And every time I tell an inappropriate joke or act extra silly, I will feel Jad’s spirit in the smiles and laughs of my friends and family.
Jad, I’ll miss you bud. But I will make sure your memory is not forgotten and know that your good deeds to me will continue to live on in my life as I pass on that goodness to others.
Allah yerhamak ya akhi. Inte deiman rah itkoon fi albi. May you rest in peace, brother. You will always be in my heart.