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…

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.