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A Culture Gap the Size of an Ocean, Bridged by Facebook

This is a beautiful story about friendship. It’s why we work every day to make the world more open and connected.

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A few months ago, my 75-year-old technophobic father, who still works full time as a big-city mail carrier, asked me to sign him up on Facebook, leaving me nearly speechless with surprise. When he added that he was doing it to keep in touch with a 26-year-old Saudi Arabian woman he had met on his mail route, I was even more stunned.

His small step to join social media in 2015 was as giant a leap for him personally as Neil Armstrong’s step onto the moon was for the United States in 1969. In many ways, my father still lives in the 1960s. With his strict Italian-American Catholic sensibilities, he’s a man with values closer to “Father Knows Best” than “Modern Family.”

When I find my father reveling in the black-and-white mainstays of his childhood, such as Roy Rogers Westerns, I worry about him retreating into the past as well as becoming too reclusive. He has many friends but prefers watching AMC to seeing a buddy. His request to join Facebook, therefore, was the most out-of-character move he had ever made, at least in my memory.

The day he met the woman he calls Anah (a simpler version of her hard-to-pronounce name), he saw someone in a hijab who avoided eye contact. When he said “hello,” she hurried away. But day by day, she grew more comfortable with him and his gentle humor.

They began to chat. She shyly initiated conversations when he arrived with letters and packages. She also began to assimilate more into Western culture. She still dressed modestly but now wore makeup and bright nail polish. She bought stylish clothes and fashionable glasses.

My father also knew Anah’s sister and brother from the same apartment building, but it was Anah, the quietest sibling, to whom my father grew so close that he even left her a small gift on her birthday. He had deliberated long and hard before making such a gesture because he feared insulting her; instead, she was touched.

Then, a few months ago, he told me that Anah was returning to Saudi Arabia for good. She was leaving in two days.

When he asked me to help him with Facebook to maintain their contact, I realized that his feelings for this friend ran deep. I had recently spent time overseas and had encouraged him to join Facebook to follow my travels; he had wanted no part of it. Now he requested his own account with a personal profile picture.

When I suggested that he use an image of Roy Rogers’s horse, Trigger, to maintain the privacy he fiercely clings to, he refused.

“I’d like a picture of me,” he said. “She might want to show her family who I am.”

Before she returned to the Middle East, my father took her to lunch at his favorite Italian restaurant and for dessert at a cafe blocks from where he grew up. These are the places he is most comfortable, the places he has taken me. As with the birthday gift, he had deliberated over the invitation, worried he would offend her, but she happily accepted.

I tried to imagine their conversation: a Muslim girl with limited English and my Italian-American father, Vinny, with his inimitable accent of dropped Rs, asking her if she wanted a “cawfee” and a cannoli.

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