Building Bridges

building bridges

I met my wife, Azza, when I was employed by the American University in Cairo as an Instructor in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition, a position I held for seven years.

When Azza and I started going out, she owned a successful catering and food vending business in Cairo.  She’d been trained by an Italian chef named Samantha.  As soon as Azza became proficient in the kitchen, the two of them started making money together, and eventually Azza went “rogue,” breaking away from her mentor to open Azza’s Italian Kitchen, a one-woman operation that helped her earn some really good dough.

In 2015, I left Egypt, bringing Azza with me to the United States.  After a month or so of looking for work, I landed a position in San Antonio, Texas, my birthplace and a city with a cool, international vibe.

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Less than a month ago, after scheming and dreaming and filling out scads of paperwork, Azza opened up a home bakery—Zoozoo’s Sweet Treats (and More)—in accordance with the Cottage Food Industry laws of the state of Texas.  During the intervening weeks, we have done a few events and have made a pretty good start to her little kitchen enterprise.

Last Saturday, we sold Azza’s baked goods at a first-Saturday-of-every-month farmer’s market that had sprouted up in the parking lot of Marbach Christian Church, located on Marbach Road in southwest San Antonio.  We threw our tent up in the middle of a huddle of other tents and then covered a couple of tables with delicious, homemade edibles.  Right next to us, Ayse, our Turkish friend and a neighbor, sold some of her paintings and a few lovely ceramics that had come over with her from Istanbul.

During the course of the day, the church’s pastor, a fifty-something fellow named Darnell with a greying beard, came over to welcome us to the market and then chat.  He was a loquacious fellow with a bass laugh that came directly from his core.  He told us about the halfway house—he pointed at it across the street—that his church was sponsoring.  Then he told us about all the other initiatives—for instance, he acquired and repaired old bicycles for those in the area with no other form of transportation—he and his parishioners were involved in.

My wife and Ayse are both practitioners of Islam.  Ayse quite conspicuously covers her hair with a hijab, so the pastor, quite surprisingly, greeted her with a “hamdullah,” an Arabic word that means “thank God.”  A more appropriate greeting would have been “Salaam Ahlaykum,” but we were all thrilled that he’d even made the attempt and were surprised that he knew as much Arabic as he did.

When I told him that Azza was also Muslim but that she didn’t cover her hair, he seemed a touch baffled.  “So why do Muslim women cover their hair anyway?” he wondered.  Then he followed that up with, “And why does one woman choose to do so and another one not?”

We explained that it was all personal preference and that the idea that all Muslim women were required to wear the hijab was a misunderstanding of Islam and its precepts.  It was an example of a misconception that many have about the religion.

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As you might guess from what I wrote earlier, Pastor Darnell is a busy man, so one thing and then another kept pulling him away from our tent; however, after tending to whatever needed looking after, he always came back to where we’d set up shop, and we eventually invited him to pull up a chair and spend the day with us which he ended up doing.

One of my favorite pastimes these past several years has been educating Americans about the Middle East—I lived in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt for about a decade and a half—and the predominant religion of the region.  Given the current climate in America, where fear of “the other” is being used for political purposes, this pastime has become a vital mission.

After learning that I am a published writer and interested in the arts, Darnell started presenting ideas about projects he and I might collaborate on.  For example, he wanted to know if I would like to help him organize poetry readings.  For another, he asked me if I’d like to help him edit some of his writings.

All these ideas sounded interesting, but they prompted me to make a proposal of my own.  I told him that I thought we ought to organize a kind of “mixer” that would bring Muslims and Christians together for the purpose of building interfaith bridges.

He liked the idea a lot and we exchanged telephone numbers.  In my mind’s eye, I can even see Azza and I doing a little presentation on Arabs, Islam, and Muslims at his church.

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The idea of bringing people together during the Age of Trump excites me and fills me with hope.  Speaking of hope, I think everyone should check this out as a way of becoming a bit more informed and enlightened.

Tiptoeing through the Tulips

So I was dining in this Indian restaurant a few days ago.  We’d pushed a couple of small tables together as we were a party of seven.  Six of us were Americans and the seventh, my wife, was Egyptian.  We weren’t drinking alcohol or anything, but the conversation was still silly and random as hell.  Many of us giggled and guffawed as the talking occurred.  If my memory serves me correctly, I believe there were even a few instances of people chortling.  That tells you what kind of evening it was.

At one point, just before the food was brought to the table, Ruthann, a fellow Texan from Dallas, turned to me and said, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Let’s talk about obscure celebrities from yesteryear.”  That prompted me to respond, “Hey, does anyone know whatever happened to Tiny Tim?”

Of course, Azza, my better half, had no idea who this miniscule person was.  One other individual, a child of twelve, was equally in the dark.  Everyone else immediately fell silent.  You could literally hear cogs turning in heads as people thought about my question.

I was the first person to break the silence.  I said, “Tiny Tim is actually an interesting study.  He’s a great example of how far an untalented person can go in show business.”

“It wasn’t necessarily that he lacked talent,” Lori retorted, “It was just that he had the right sort of talent for the 1960s.”

“Right,” said Ruthann.  “Weirdness was really in in the 60s, so he had what people wanted.”

I’ve embedded a video so you see an example of what Mr. Tim provided to the public during his heyday.

Now, days later, I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Tiny Tim.  In addition to the clip I included, I’ve looked at a zillion videos of him performing and being interviewed.  I even called several colleagues into my office, showed them a few of the things I had watched, and asked them to respond, taking careful notes as they spoke.  Like I said, I’ve been a bit obsessed recently.

Perhaps that was his ultimate goal (and genius?) as a performer?  To create a persona and a sound we couldn’t turn away from and couldn’t get enough of?

If that was Tiny Tim’s goal, then he certainly succeeded bigly.

Funky San Antonio Here I Come!

serpent

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I manage the Integrated Reading and Writing Learning Center at Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas, one of the coolest (but least written about) metropolitan areas in the United States.

I’m blessed to have really good tutors in the center.  One of them, Robin Gara, a retired reading and art teacher, paints and writes.  The two of us, when things are quiet in our place, often talk about all things artsy-fartsy.

This past weekend, Robin showed some of her paintings in an Art Deco pizzeria located on Fredericksburg Road.  My wife and I went to see Robin’s work, and by sheer happenstance, while we were there, they were having an open mic poetry reading.  So, after looking at Robin’s stuff—she does amazing things with a pallet knife—and before taking off, we watched some truly interesting characters read a bit of their writing in a funky public setting.

Robin has been after me to get involved in the local art scene—to read some of my writings at the several locales that sponsor public readings.  After what I witnessed this past weekend, I think I’m going give it a try.

When I was in my twenties, I used to publish a heck of a lot of poems—or pomes.  I kind of stopped, though, quite a long time ago, so I didn’t know if I had anything that I might read.  Then I found an old folder full of some passable stuff.  I’ve included a couple here.

The Free Man

I’m pissed.
There’s plenty of reasons to be.
That my life is not my own
Is one.
I mean I don’t own my life.
If I did, I wouldn’t be here, not now, not never.
If I did, I’d be gone, long gone, gone long ago.
If I did, I’d be sleeping or screaming
Or something other than this something I am doing
Or am not doing now,
This minute.
This thing I’m doing is not a thing for free men
To do.
My doing it proves that freedom is for others,
I guess.
I want to meet the free man, the other man.
I will sit next to him and not speak.
I will sit next to him and watch
And learn.
When he stands and leaves, I will
Stand and leave.
We two will walk together, not one in front of the other
But shoulder to shoulder.

I Am the Son of Eve

To teach is to be taught.
To learn is to unlearn.
To find the straight and narrow one needs to follow
A winding path.
Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge.
For Eve, I am thankful.
Adam was a wimp because he didn’t think of doing this
Before Eve planted the seed.
Poor Adam, a man
To be pitied.
I am the son of Eve.
I am not the son of Adam.
Like Eve, I do not fear the snake.
I listen to its words and make up
My own mind.
I do not follow the serpent without
Good cause.
When it speaks the truth,
I will not fear.
Fear is that thing which made Adam ashamed
Of his nakedness.
Eve walked proudly without
A stitch.

 

Charles Bukowski Currently Teaches English at Starbucks

charles-bukowski
The Real Bukowski in All His Glorious Madness

Last Saturday I met Charles Bukowski at a Starbucks in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in San Antonio, Texas.  He was arriving just as my wife and I had finished up our coffees and were gathering our belongings to leave.

Because he could see that we were getting ready to take off, he walked right up to us and asked, “Are you finished here?”

“Yes,” I answered as I stared at his acne-scarred face and misshapen nose—the bulbous proboscis of a wino.

“I ask because you’re at my favorite table, and I want to claim it if you are leaving.”

“You can put your stuff here if you’d like while we get ready to head out.  By the way, has anyone ever told you that you look exactly like Charles Bukowski?”

“Charles who?” he asked gruffly.

“Never mind.”

In fact, he was a spitting image of the renegade poet-madman-drunkard.

Because we’d bought books and had to put on coats and scarves to gird ourselves against the cold, it took us awhile to get our stuff together.  During this period, a conversation began to blossom.  “So you come here often?” I asked him.

“Every Saturday.  You see, I’m retired, but I give private lessons on the side to people who want to learn English.  Right now, I’m working with three young girls from Djibouti.  I always teach them at this particular table.”  After saying this, he leaned in to me and whispered, “Their English is very weak.”

Azza, my wife who speaks Arabic as her mother tongue, is not really a shy person, but she sometimes has a hard time inserting herself into a conversation between Americans when they are speaking a hundred miles an hour.

“I bet they’ll learn very fast, though,” I told him.  “They will probably be better at learning our language than we would be at learning theirs.”

“Maybe.  But who would want to learn whatever it is that they speak?”

“Ask them to speak their language to you and really listen to what they say.  I bet what you hear will sound beautiful if you open your ears and mind.  It’s my opinion that more Americans should learn a second language.”

He kind of frowned and then said, “So many people from crap countries want to come here.  They are just flooding in.  They have to learn English because it’s the lingua franca.”

I could feel the hair stand up on my neck.  Only days earlier, Donny Trump, the Hairpiece, had called African countries “shitholes.”  I had the feeling this old fart was likely a Trumper, and a part of me wanted to snarl.

“By the way, I’d like to introduce you to my wife, Azza.  She’s from Africa.  Her country and the people who call it home are beautiful in many ways.”

“I’m sure it is and that they are,” he said a touch snarkily.

“I think Americans should be a little more careful about judging others.  Don’t you think this country has its share of problems?” I asked him.

“Compared to other places, America is el paradiso,” he said, suddenly shifting to a foreign language.  “By the way, where, in Africa, is your wife from?”

“Egypt,” she said, finally asserting herself.

The man’s face suddenly changed and he started speaking Arabic to her.  As it turns out, he was born in Egypt and lived there as a child.  He asked her where, in “Misr,” she was from, and she said Cairo.  He, as it turns out, had been born in Alexandria.

From that point forward, I faded into the background because the language shifted to Arabic.  At one point, he asked her what her religion was and she said Islam.  He then called himself a “Yehudi,” which means “Jew,” and explained that this fact had played an important role in why his family left North Africa.  He shared some stories about how they had been victims of religious persecution under President Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Hearing these personal accounts saddened my wife.

We ended up talking until his three students showed up.  They were sweet girls.  Before they arrived, we found plenty to laugh about—the irony of an Egyptian Muslim and Jew meeting at the same table in a Starbucks at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in San Antonio.  We were reminded how small the world really is and how big it is too.  And how much we have in common despite our superficial differences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tart to the Heart

Azza
Azza

Often, when people find out that I’m married to a woman from Egypt, they ask me, “So, how did you two meet?”  The following is the story of how I came to know my lovely and talented wife.

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I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on Azza.  It happened on a hot April day in Cairo in 2011.  Only months earlier, in January to be precise, the famed Egyptian Revolution, the upheaval which would result in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-time dictator, had kicked off and the nation was still jittery and recovering from those cataclysmic events.  Anyway, on that fateful April day I happened to have a day off—I’d come to Cairo in August of 2008 to teach at the American University in Cairo—and was working out at the gym at the Community Services Association, a hangout for expats and English-speaking Cairenes.  I finished up, toweled the sweat off my body, and left.  On my way out of the compound that housed the gym, coffee shop, café, and other CSA facilities, I passed by a group of tables where several women were selling international dishes.  Behind them, on the wall they’d positioned themselves in front of, was a big placard that read “Cook’s Day Off.”

I was intrigued so I stopped to have a look.  The first woman I happened to notice was someone who looked to be from the Indian Subcontinent.  She spoke up and said, “Would you like to buy my Indian food?”

“Maybe.  What is all this?” I asked, waving my hand to refer to the spread of food on the tables in front of me.

“We’re with Cook’s Day Off.  We sell international food here at CSA twice a week.  These are small-sized portions for you to eat when you get home this evening or you can stock your freezer with them.”

“I see,” I said, and then I noticed that there was an Asian woman selling food from Thailand and someone—she didn’t look Italian—hawking perfectly packaged smallish portions of various raviolis and lasagnas as well as tiramisu and some other things I was not able to immediately identify without reading the attached labels.

I began to pace back and forth in front of the tables and look down at all the varieties of food.  Suddenly, the woman selling Italian spoke up and asked, “Do you like ravioli?”

“I do,” I said, and then, for the very first time, I looked directly into her eyes.

“Are you Italian?” I asked, thinking, all the while, that she was stunningly attractive.

“No.  I’m Egyptian.”

“But you cook and sell Italian?”

“Yes, because I was trained by an Italian chef and partnered with her in the past.”

“I see.”

In the end, being the bachelor that I was and perfectly helpless in the kitchen, I bought a little bit of everything, including two packages of spinach ravioli and two Italian tarts that featured chocolate.

On the way home, I couldn’t get the Egyptian woman out of my mind.  I started thinking about how wonderful it would be to go out with her on a date, but how would I ever get to know her name or find a way to make contact with her?

I was on foot, and I suddenly stopped on the crowded sidewalk.  People began to jostle into me but I took no notice of them.  I reached into the Italian bag and retrieved one of the tarts as I remembered that each package bore a label.  I took off my glasses and brought the tart up close to my face so that I could read the fine print right below the production date and list of ingredients.  Right there, in black and white, were the words “Azza Omar” and a telephone number.  That discovery prompted a huge smile to turn up the corners of my mouth.

I put the tart away and rushed home.  As soon as I got inside my apartment, I popped the plastic cover off the tart and cut a slice which I immediately crammed it into my mouth.  A plan was forming while I chewed.  Immediately upon swallowing, I took out my mobile phone and looked at the label again.  I then composed the following text:  “Hi.  My name is Troy.  I just bought two of your chocolate tarts.  As soon as I got home, I tried one and it was great.  Thank you.”  I clicked send as soon as I’d checked it for grammar and spelling errors.  I then began to pace back and forth in my kitchen.  In about two minutes, she responded, “You are welcome.”

***

Three weeks to the day after buying tarts from Azza and then texting her, I was sitting in front of my computer in my office on the campus of AUC.  My phone was sitting next to me and it rang.  When I looked down and didn’t immediately recognize the number, I let it ring until the caller eventually hung up.  I had a class to teach in about an hour and was busy prepping for it, so it was easy to ignore the call I’d just gotten.  A few minutes later, my phone rang again.  It was the same number belonging to the same unknown person.  I sighed and then decided to answer it.  “Hello,” I said.

“Hi.  May I speak with Troy?”

“This is Troy.  Who am I speaking with?”

“Azza.  You bought some of my Italian food two or three weeks ago.”

“Oh, hi, how are you?”

“I’m fine.  And you?”

“I’m good, thanks.  I’m sorry but I’m at my work today and won’t be able to come to CSA to buy any of your goodies, but I promise that I’ll come soon and get some more.”

“Actually, I’m not calling about my food.  I just wanted to say hello and to see how you’re doing.”

“Really?  You’re calling to say hello?”

“You seemed like a nice person when we met, so I thought I would see how you’re doing.”

“You seemed nice too.  Hey, would you like to meet in Maadi sometime for coffee or a Coke or something?”

“I’d really like that,” she said.

“I’d like it too.  How about this coming Thursday at six or seven in the evening?  Would that be a good day and time for you?”

“That would be great.  As it just so happens, I’ll be in your neighborhood at exactly that time to deliver an order to a customer.  I also cater and do a lot of parties, especially for Italians.”

“That sounds interesting.”

“It is.  Anyway, Thursday evening is fine.”

“Great!  Let’s meet at CSA then.”

“CSA is perfect.”

***

So, that’s how things got started between the two of us.  The rest, as they say, is history…