Hoover Daily Report

The Arab World's Unknown Son

via Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The discovery that Steve Jobs's biological father was a Sunni Muslim immigrant from Syria who had made his way to America in the early 1950s has occasioned a flood of Arab commentary. A world mired in tribal feuds and technological backwardness has been all-too-eager to lay claim to the magician of the Bay Area, the father of the personal computer, the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

It was Jobs's biological father, 80-year-old Abdulfattah "John" Jandali, now working and living in Nevada, who opened the doors onto a complicated past. The son of a well-off family from Homs, Mr. Jandali had been eager to know the world beyond that ancient city. In 1950, he made his way to Lebanon and to the glitter and brilliance of the American University of Beirut. Two years later he immigrated to the U.S., where he earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Wisconsin in 1956. He then worked a stint as a professor in Nevada, before settling into a management career in that state's gaming industry.

It was as a young student that Mr. Jandali met and fell in love with Joanne Schieble, now known as Joanne Simpson. A boy was born out of wedlock and given up for adoption. Ms. Simpson's father would not agree to his daughter's marriage to a young Syrian. But after the father's death the couple married, and another child was born, a girl named Mona. A few years later they divorced, and Mr. Jandali had little if any contact with his ex-wife. By then their son was in the care of a new family, a working-class couple who had promised that the boy would be given a good home and a university education.

Mr. Jandali didn't look back. Decades passed before he learned in 2005 that Steve Jobs was his son. By 1984, though, Jobs himself had grown curious about his parentage. He found his way to his biological sister, the novelist Mona Simpson, with whom he developed a close relationship. There was a reconciliation of sorts with his mother, who had given him up so long ago.

But there would be no reconciliation between Jobs and Mr. Jandali. "I'm proud of my son and his accomplishments, and of my work," he told Al Hayat newspaper in February. "Of course I made mistakes, and if I could go back in time I would have put some things right. I would have been closer to my son, but all's well that ends well. Steve Jobs is one of the most successful people in America, and Mona is a successful academic and novelist."

Mr. Jandali said he didn't think of Steve as an Arab-American, and he didn't think his son paid attention to these "gene-related things." Still, Mr. Jandali had his "Syrian-Arab pride," he said, and he would not pick up the phone to call his son "if either of us was on our death beds." Yet when he learned of Steve's health troubles, he sent him his own medical history in the hope that it might help him. He could not do more because he did not want Steve to think that he was after his fortune.

When Elaph, the Arab world's leading electronic daily, recently published news of Jobs's death and his Syrian ancestry, the floodgates were thrown wide open. Scores of readers weighed in. The ordeal of Syria was woven into the discussion, as was the anxiety of many Arabs over their place in the modern world.

The death of Steve Jobs, the "grandson of Homs," as one writer put it, was an occasion to reflect on the grief of that city, which has emerged as the principal theater of the struggle between Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the rebellion against him. Jobs was lucky, it was said over and over again. Had he been in Homs he would have been one of the protesters in the streets; his father may have had to go and retrieve him from the morgue, or from prison, as so many parents have done with their children.

The matter of Jobs's genius engaged Elaph's readers. One reader strained for a connection. "If you want another Steve Jobs, stop the killing of Syrian children," he opined. A proud national chauvinist or two noted the educational accomplishments of Jobs's biological father, his doctorate from an American university, and argued that the son's genius was an extension of his father's.

But there were wiser and more honest commentators. It was nurture not nature that decreed Steve Jobs's outcome—the family that raised him, the open and embracing American society that did not bother with his background or social origins. The Arab world was a scientific backwater, they argued, where Jobs's genius would have suffocated. His biological father was no hero. To the contrary, he had a child out of wedlock, gave him up, and eventually quit an honorable teaching career for a life in the casinos in Nevada. The good people of Homs were innocent of such a man, one reader added.

Yet practically all the commentaries were suffused with affection for Jobs, a genius cut down by disease before his time. The very few notes of dissent suggested that perhaps Steve Jobs was ashamed of his Arab origins: How else can one account for the reconciliation with his natural mother and sister, and the hard line he drew for his father?

I write this from Steve Jobs's hometown of Palo Alto, Calif., the place where he lived, where he met his wife, and where he died. On University Avenue is an elegant and spacious Apple Store, now a shrine to the man who so well mastered our age. The sidewalk is crowded with gifts. There are the obligatory bitten apples, sealed envelopes, bouquets of flowers, and countless notes in many languages.

Three notes in Arabic were of particular interest to me, simple and unadorned. "Steve, you have changed the world, may Allah have mercy on your soul." "Our generation thanks you, Steve Jobs." The third was my favorite. "Three apples changed the world, Adam's apple, Newton's apple, and Steve's apple."

I doubt if these three people thought one way or the other of Jobs's Syrian background. More likely, they were believers in his magic and genius, drawn to him by the wonders he had opened up for them.

Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and co-chair of the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.