November 20, 2018

middle east

We have this new guy teaching part-time at Palo Alto College.  Mohamed Qashou, my Palestinian-American buddy and a guy who teaches math and engineering courses, introduced him to me one morning several weeks ago.  To respect his privacy, I’ll simply refer to him as “Jay.”  Jay of the beard, mild manners, and soft voice.  Jay of the quiet and introspective personality.

Like me, Jay has more advanced degrees than he knows what to do with and spent a lot of years teaching a variety of writing and similar classes in places like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt.  The first time we spoke together, we discovered that it is highly likely we were both teaching in Turkey and Egypt, in the same universities and at about the same times, though we didn’t know each other while we were living in those places.  Our conversation seemed to prove, as is sometimes said, that the world is an exceedingly small place.

Jay likes to wear Nehru jackets with short sleeves to work.  I am not surprised by this since he is married to a Pakistani woman and spent quite a lot of time in that part of Southeast Asia.  Like me, he lived for a great many years in what is called “the Islamic World,” as if a place could be defined solely by the religion practiced there.  He became a Muslim, but I’m not for sure how long ago that happened.  According to Mohamed, upon his conversion, Jay took Abdullah as the name he uses when he is with other practitioners of the faith.  When we talk, though, I always refer to him as Jay.

Jay dropped by my office early this morning because he was bothered.  Over the weekend, there had been a major conference on the topic of the MENA region in San Antonio.  Why, he wondered, hadn’t the gathering been better advertised?  He just heard about it by happenstance after it had already finished up.  He would have certainly attended, he said with a frustrated look on his face.  I voiced similar thoughts after he’d spoken.

We started talking about things we frequently see on TV, like how these so-called Middle East experts go on CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and CBS, and spout all manner of expert opinions based on what?  Some of them have never lived in that part of the world.  They’ve studied the region and its people in the cool way an entomologist dissects butterflies.  They even occasionally jet overseas, to a place like Istanbul or Cairo, for a few days.  While on such a trip, they hole up in some expensive hotel room, have a handful of conversations with local academics and politicians and the like, and then return to the United States to lecture the whole of America on Muslims, Islam, Arabs, North Africans, the Gulf Region, religion, culture, and fanaticism, among many other subjects.  We both found this both preposterous and aggravating.

I can’t speak with any sort of precision about Jay’s actual experience overseas, but I lived for four years in Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE.  While there, I worked for that country’s military on one of their bases.  I taught their male citizens.  I lived amongst the many immigrants who call Abu Dhabi home.  I had a barber from India, a best friend from Sri Lanka, and regularly bought bread from Afghan bakers who prepared that food staple in a traditional tandoor.  I would chat with them while they baked.  Once my order was done, they’d wrap the hot naan e Afghani in regular newspaper and I’d carry it home.  I was in that country during September the 11th and watched the place as it prepared for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.  I distinctly recall there was a nervousness throughout the region at that time as the giant American military machine began to awaken and move about like a colossus.

After that, I moved to Ankara, Turkey, and taught writing, research methods, critical thinking, and philosophy at Bilkent University, a great place of learning, for nearly half a decade.  While there, I had several Turkish girlfriends and traveled into every nook and cranny of that vast and beautiful country.  I went south, north, east, and west by train, dolmus, plane, bus, motorcycle, and a variety of private vehicles.  I went into dusty, remote and ancient villages where the locals decorated their faces with primitive blue tattoos.  I traveled to Istanbul and Izmir, large and cosmopolitan places that seemed very European.  I went into places where few tourists had ever ventured.  I saw things and did things I never dreamed I’d see and do.

In 2008 I moved to Cairo, Egypt, after being hired by the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.  From day one, Cairo blew my mind.  A crazy, more chaotic urban experience cannot be imagined.  By that time, I was already a world traveler and had had seen many cultures and a lot of different ways of living, but nothing had prepared me for living in the belly of the beast that is Egypt’s capital.  In 2011, the Revolution kicked off in January, following closely on the heels of what had taken place in Tunisia.  I decided to stay in the city even after almost every foreigner had bugged out and the place went full Mad Max.  I survived but got something akin to PTSD.  Then, Morsi was elected, fair and square in a genuine election, only to be the victim of a military coup approximately a year after he’d taken office.  Then came the Rabaa and Al Nahda massacres and the national insanity that followed.  Political prisoners were jailed, protests were snuffed out, the average citizen became paranoid in the old way.  Egypt slipped back into an authoritarian black hole and the citizens quit dreaming and speaking and acting out in ways they’d grown accustomed to during the brief period that followed the fall of Mubarak…

November 8, 2018

old-man-watch-time-160975

I always arrive at work at 7:50 a.m.  That’s ten minutes before I have to officially unlock the writing center door, turn on the lights, and open up for business.

This morning, at approximately 7:55, I made a quick trip to the men’s restroom.  Actually, I’m pretty lucky in that it’s located just a few feet away from our center.  (There’s a lot to be said for convenience.)  Anyway, when I stepped into the place, there was a man just finishing up his business at one of the urinals.  As soon as he zipped up and turned toward me, I noticed that he had a toothbrush sticking out of his mouth.  Seeing this prompted me to ask, “Multitasking are you?”  He found my question humorous.  I know this because he began to smile when I put it to him.  He then walked to the sink, spit a wad of froth from his mouth, and thoroughly washed his hands, face, and brush.

This rather inconsequential encounter in the john got me thinking about how busy our lives are.  It was both a little humorous and a little sad that this fellow couldn’t focus on either peeing or brushing and found himself having to do them simultaneously.  I hope it doesn’t come to the point that we have to carry around little pocket-sized planners to schedule our bowel movements.

Having lived in other countries I can say for a fact—at least it seems certain enough that it feels factual—that life in America is more hectic than in other places.  There’s always someplace to be, some call to make, a bundle of bills to pay, a job that needs doing.  The rich manage all this by hiring secretaries, managers, publicists, maids, nannies, and so on.  The poor manage this by going insane.  Those that don’t go crazy turn to the bottle or some other form of escapism that’s bound to be at least a little self-destructive.

I haven’t entirely figured it out yet, but I feel pretty certain that there’s some sort of relationship between living under a pretty hardcore capitalist economic system and the sort of panicky feeling I often have.  I’m not sure why that’s the case.  (Maybe it’s because we say that time is money in America?)  I wonder if people who live in more socialistic countries aren’t just a little calmer.  My guess is that they are.

I’m going to spend the rest of the afternoon—after I get all this stuff done that needs doing—thinking about this question of capitalism and anxiety.  There certainly has to be a connection.  I’m positively sure there must be.

 

October 30, 2018

I lived in Egypt from 2008 to 2015.  That put me in the country during the 2011 Revolution.

After the Egyptians flexed their collective muscles, others, including the Americans, were inspired to follow suit.  (Everyone remembers the Occupy Wall Street movement, right?)  Activists squatted in Zuccotti Park just like the Cairenes had done in Tahrir Square.  Then the movement metastasized.

Eventually, though, the occupiers dispersed or underwent a metamorphosis.  (Energy of that sort never fully disappears.)

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square.  And I’ve gained some insights about what happened in those places.  For example, I’ve come to see revolution as a metaphor. It is a kind of human flowering that occurs even during a drought.  Actually it occurs because there’s a drought.  That makes it very ironic.

Revolution is an ending.  It is a beginning too.

It can also be seen as an expression of that which can’t be fully expressed.

October 25, 2018

pumpkin scary halloween

I’m scared.  It’s mid-October, but my fear has nothing to do with the ghouls and goblins that normally occupy the human imagination this time of year.

Trump, politics, and the upcoming midterm elections have me shaking in my boots.  If you’re not scared about what’s happening in these dis-United States of America, you ain’t paying attention.  Pull your head out and open your eyes and ears.  If you do, you’ll certainly see and hear the rambling and wildly irrational speeches of a demagogue with an impressive comb over.  He’ll likely be surrounded by a throng of red-hatted septuagenarians with angrily contorted faces and raised fists.  Many who make up such a mob will likely be frothing at the mouth and hurling insults at a variety of scapegoats.  Their Great Leader encourages their ire and expertly directs their hatred.  He plays them like a musical instrument, but the sound produced lacks all beauty.

These screaming cultists simply need to be given marching orders.  The moment he sets them loose on the rest of us is the moment of the lighting of the fuse.

Not long ago, seeing where things were going, I made sure I knew where my passport was located.  And because I’m married to a North African émigré who practices the religion of Islam, I very quietly and without causing alarm, put together a Plan B just in case Plan A—staying in America—became, suddenly, unworkable.

I’ve lived in countries where things rapidly unraveled because of politics.  What I see happening now, in this “first-world” country, reminds me a lot of what went down in the “third-world” nation-state of Egypt during the run up to the deposing of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

I know that might sound like hyperbole to many Americans who think IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE.  To those who feel this way I would say that IT’S ALREADY HAPPENING HERE.

For folks who are as concerned as I am and want to know what they should be doing to prepare for the Zombie Apocalypse, I leave them with this fantastic piece—an oldie but a goodie—by the brilliant Timothy Snyder.

 

October 18, 2018

brain big

It’s Thursday morning, and I am sitting among intellectuals.  We are talking.  I’m enjoying this interaction.

I have spent most of my professional life working at colleges and universities.  This way of earning a living started a long time ago, back when I had beautiful, dark hair and none of this middle-aged spread.  My point is this—I’ve been an educator for what seems like a lifetime.  It has been a lifetime, actually.

I’ve had opportunities to do things away from academe.  And I have even taken advantage of some of these chances.  For example, I was the director of a non-profit museum for a time and I worked in the corporate world as a “Creative Content Consultant,” a euphemism is ever there was one.  Basically, I did research and writing for a large, fortune-500 company.

I disliked the museum job and hated the corporate gig.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to universities is because I have always loved learning and being among learners and the curious.  I have discovered that one of the secrets to living a happy life is cultivating curiosity.  Curiosity is the mind wanting to eat.  The body needs to be fed, so it makes sense that the intellect would similarly require nutrition on a regular basis.  Plus, asking questions is natural and healthy; it’s innate and self-preservative.  If those who once lived in caves many eons ago hadn’t been curious problem solvers, it’s likely none of us would be around today.  Human beings could have entirely disappeared had our ancient ancestors not pursued answers to all sorts of interesting questions.

I think I’d kill myself if I had to be surrounded by the braindead and incurious all day long.  If this were the case, I’m afraid I would eventually end up like them.  That’s because stupidity is one of the most contagious diseases of all.  It breaks down the carrier’s immune system and destroys its host from the inside out.  Who wants to live with such a condition?  Certainly not me.  I’d rather hang myself than deteriorate to that point.

The incurious end up dying early, and after breathing their last breath, their bodies totally decompose in a matter of minutes.  This happens because they are hollow.  Their meager remnants are easily dispersed by the slightest breeze.

October 16, 2018 (Tuesday)

I’m sitting behind my computer.  I’m the manager of this place, so I need to have my eyes on this screen.  But I need to keep my eyes on other things too.

I have noticed that the computer seems to be an interesting contraption.  Of course, people know that computers are interesting, but I’m not simply referring to what they show us on their monitors.  I mean they are interesting because many of us hide behind them.  We don’t always use them as a kind of mask or shield, but we certainly do, when needed, use them this way.

What are we hiding from?  Why do we push these things around on our desks, positioning them just so, making it harder for people out there to see us?

Are computers turning people into introverts, making them shyer, less friendly?

While writing this, my mind returned to an earlier time in my life when I worked in a different place—I was doing writing assignments for a large, well-known American corporation—and had two computers sitting on my desk.  I could shuttle between them and would, from time to time, get this weird feeling that there was no reality beyond that which existed on those two screens.

In the job I currently have, the IT department switched out my old computer not long ago for something newer and faster.  When the technician was in my workspace making the change, he asked me if I wanted two monitors.  I told him I didn’t think so.  One was enough.  That made me wonder if the use of two monitors is becoming more the norm.  Probably so.  This makes it even easier for us to disappear.  With two of these things sitting in front of us, the wall is much bigger and certainly more concealing.  One of these days, I suppose, people will be requesting three monitors and then four and so on.  It will eventually be possible to completely wall ourselves off from a lot of the rest of the world.

I could have told him that I want two, but my natural tendency is to try to keep things simple, to streamline, to downsize.  As a matter of fact, I often find myself saying that less is more which is almost always true.  Less really is more, although I am afraid of making categorical statements.  A part of me is very much the ascetic, so this kind of thinking may be that part of my personality asserting itself.

I sometimes think I should have become a monk of some sort.  A part of me is made that way.

A part of me would like to withdraw from everything—even food—and spend the day sitting cross-legged in some quiet place.  My body would probably wither, but my mind would certainly expand.

I think I’ve said everything I’d like to say right now.  So, until my next blog entry…

 

Goodbye, Tony

anthony rip

I still find it hard to believe that Anthony Bourdain is gone.  On the morning of June 8th—not yet a month ago—I woke up, brewed myself a cup of Joe, looked at my Twitter feed, and saw that he’d used the belt from his bathrobe to hang himself in his hotel room in Kaysersberg, France.

I immediately Googled his name and started reading.  I needed to confirm that such a thing had really happened.  After looking at the internet for a few minutes, I turned on CNN and a variety of journalists—many of them just hearing about this and now teary-eyed—were talking about Bourdain’s life and his death.  Indeed, this horrifying news was true.

Anthony was one of the most decent people I’ve ever known.  I wrote “known” without consciously deciding to do so.  It is perfectly normal that I wrote it, though.  So many of us knew him.  He was our brother, our father, our son, our uncle, our best friend, the guy we could see ourselves hanging out with.  He was a fellow traveler.

It goes without saying that we are all travelers.  We are all on our way.  We are all wandering and looking for the right path.

While I was living abroad for nearly two decades—in Poland, the UAE, Turkey, and then Egypt—I only occasionally got to see Tony because I rarely looked at television in those faraway places.  But when I came home for vacation during the summertime, I watched, as regularly as the beat of a human heart, No Reservations and then Parts Unknown.  In Anthony, I saw myself.  He was the famous me.  Both of us traveled and explored.  His adventures made it to TV while mine didn’t.  This meant he spoke for me.  I turned on the TV to watch him tell my stories.  Thank you, Tony, for telling them even better than I could have.

Tony was an unapologetic internationalist and we will miss him for that too, especially now that so many Americans seem to be proudly proclaiming themselves “America First!” ultra-nationalists.  (Every time I hear America first, I can’t help but think “Deutscheland uber alles!”)

By the way, blessed be the internationalists because they promote a message of peace and mutual respect.

If you ever watched Tony on television, you know he had a really good time when he was out and about, but he also carried an enormous responsibility.  He explained other countries and the peoples who live in them to a nation of individuals many of whom don’t own passports.  This made him a teacher who didn’t lecture or draw up lesson plans.  In other words, he taught without teaching and he preached without preaching.  And we all sat raptly listening and learning and were converted.

So, Tony, I end this by simply saying goodbye.  I will miss you, and this nation and the world will miss you too, especially now.