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.

Portals

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I miss airports. I know that might sound like crazy talk to those who travel, via air, all around these United States on business trips and therefore find themselves rushing from one terminal to another and one departure gate to another. It might sound like kookiness to other classes of people too. That’s possible, even probable. But to know how I lived for two decades of my life is to understand why I miss airports.

Facts are always important, so I’ll throw a few out there. I have flown over the Atlantic Ocean somewhere around forty times, and I have cruised, at thirty-something thousand feet above sea level, over many smaller bodies of water too. I have lived and worked in five countries—America, Poland, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt—located on four of the seven continents. If my count is correct, my two size-eight feet have tread across the soil of twenty-three nation-states, and planes have taken me to all of them. Ergo, I have been in many airports of the world and have developed a great fondness for such magical buildings.

I don’t use the word “magical” casually.  If you think about it, airports are portals.  A traveler steps into one, boards a flying behemoth, defies the law of gravity by lifting off terra firm, only to be deposited in a new place quite far away from where one started.  At the airport where one departed everyone was speaking English.  And then, when one disembarks, halfway around the world, people are mostly using Turkish or Chinese or Tagalog.  Such dramatic changes are jarring and they have a tendency to wake one up out of the deepest of metaphorical slumbers.  Then there’s the jetway, the most magical of magical places.  The jetway, leading to the plane, is something like an umbilical cord, though the analogy is not perfect.  Once inside the womb of the jumbo jet, one is connected to mother earth.  At liftoff, that connection is broken and one finds himself as disoriented as a newborn.

Though I am in love with airports, I’ve never been that wild about airplanes. It’s not my idea of fun to strap myself into a glorified tin can and hurtle through time and space at hundreds of miles per hour and tens of thousands of feet in the air. Airports, on the other hand, are a different story. Airports are hub spots and make great metaphors. For example, they are hives where planes gather and live. People, like bees, buzz through these great hives too.

Though I had taken short flights from one city in America to another even as a boy, my real experience with airports began in 1994 when, after an incredibly strange series of events, I went around a bend in the road of my life and joined the Peace Corps. The US government, after looking at all my paperwork and interviewing me on the telephone, decided to send me to Poland to do educational consulting work and teacher training.

We soon-to-be Volunteers flew out of JFK International Airport in New York. If NYC is the world, in microcosm, then JFK International is a condensed version of that metropolis. Up until ‘94, I was a rural, small-town guy and a mere amateur when it came to traveling. In JFK, I saw, for the very first time, the peoples of the planet, gathered together in all their infinite variety, and was thrilled to death by the spectacle. It was one of those moments—they come on rare occasions—when the eyes behold something of great wonder and portent.

Many hours after getting airborne, we landed in gloomy Warsaw and disembarked at Okecie Airport.  Poland’s largest portal seemed tiny and poor by comparison to JFK. The Poles we encountered there seemed tired, world weary, very Old World, and fascinated by all the Americans suddenly in their midst. I recall that the locals spoke a language full of soft sounds and unapologetically smoked while we waited for our baggage to come around the carousel.  In airports, travelers get that first jolt of culture shock.  The newness of a new place walks right up to you and gets in your face.

Schiphol International Airport, in Amsterdam, is probably my favorite facility of its type in the world; although, I would give honorable mentions to Barajas Airport in Madrid, O’Hare in Chicago, and the International Airport in Dubai.  I also have a very fond recollection of sitting at a tiny bar that was located near my departure gate in Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental.  I recall that I was ordering the most exotic bottles they had and emptying them like a real pro.  I was the bartender’s only customer so he had time to talk.  I can’t really recall where I was flying off to, but it was probably Egypt.  He was very curious about North Africa and Islam and I had time to teach him a bunch.

Back to Schiphol.  I have been in that airport probably ten times and have taken the train—the station is just below the ground floor—into the city six or seven of those times. If you do so, you end up right at the main train station in the heart of the old city.  The train doors slide open and one exits the building only to be confronted by the grandeur and magic of Amsterdam.  Come to think of it, train stations are places of great wonder too, and I have been in many throughout Europe and in parts of Asia.

I have had long layovers in Schiphol. Because of such waits, I have had the opportunity to rent hotel rooms, inside the airport proper, on at least two different occasions. (Most recently, in 2009, I stayed in a postmodern place called Yotel and have vivid recollections of how the hallway leading to my room was lit by purple neon, giving the place a kind of Star Trek feel.)  I know Schiphol so well and find it so inspiring that I would easily choose to live there if I were rich enough and free enough to be able to make that happen.  I know that sounds like the ravings of a lunatic, but I assure you that I’m speaking the truth.  I would actually TAKE UP RESIDENCE inside Schiphol Airport if I were younger and freer and had deeper pockets.

Moving freely around the world and passing through airports is now in my past. My Egyptian wife and I have decided, for a whole bunch of reasons, some of them political, to settle, at least for the time being, in the fascinating city of San Antonio in Texas, USA.  We are doing what some call “putting down roots.”  In my former life, I was in international education and thus had the sort of free time which gave me ample opportunity to travel. Today, on the other hand, I’m working in educational administration and don’t have as many vacation days as I once did. In fact, I haven’t stepped foot inside an airport, as a traveler, since the summer of 2015. That’s a real change in my way of being.

On some day of great import, we’ll pull up these roots and become vagabonds again. When that happens, it won’t take me long to adjust to my old ways. After all, travel is a big part of who I am even if that part of me is now dormant. And the airport, that place that appeals to the dreamer in me, will once again become the closest thing I’ll have to a home.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Love My Job!

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About four months ago I was hired to manage the Integrated Reading and Writing Learning Center (INRW LC) at Palo Alto College (PAC) in San Antonio, Texas.

“INRW” stands for “Integrated Reading and Writing.”  Our center is a place where students can come to participate in reading and writing workshops and get hands-on tutorial help with tasks that have been assigned by their INRW instructors who teach in the Department of English.

I absolutely love the job for a whole bunch of reasons.  For one, I get to supervise several extraordinarily talented tutors and oversee the daily operations of the INRW LC.  I also get to design and lead workshops as well as work with student-writers on a one-to-one basis.  They bring drafts of papers they’re composing, and I act as reader and consultant as they go through the writing process.  Our ultimate goal, as we work collaboratively, is to have them produce pieces of writing they’ll be satisfied with and that will receive positive evaluations once they’re turned in.

Before coming to PAC and the INRW LC, I was employed as a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo (AUC), a position I held for seven wonderful years.  What I like about my current job is that I still have the opportunity to teach but get to provide more personalized assistance, thus turning teaching and coaching into acts of great sharing and intimacy.

Students often ask me what it takes to become a really good writer.  There’s a lot that goes into answering such a question, but if I’m forced to boil it down, I’d say that the single most important thing a person might do to get better at writing is to focus on becoming a more skilled thinker.  I make this claim because writing is really just thinking on paper, in a visual form that can be shared with others.

In my case, I started getting much better as a writer when I became a graduate student and professors started pressing me intellectually.  By holding me to a really high thinking standard, I had to evolve as a communicator because words were the things I was using to share the ideas I was positing.  If I wanted my ideas to be compelling and precise, then my language had to be compelling and precise.

Graduate school is Boot Camp for would-be intellectuals, and my professors were working hard to turn me into a kind of Thinking Ninja.  I was being tested and stressed and worked out so that I could become formidable.  Because we live in a world where ideas matter, the strongest ideas, presented the most strongly, end up mattering more.  Those who hold them and become skilled at sharing them, become very powerful.

This is why I ask so much of all the students I work with.  I want to empower them.  I want to help them gird them for battle.

A Third-Rate President

 

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In Wadi Gedid, Egypt

I have a tendency to go on and on when I blog, but I want to be short and to the point on this one.  I am an American man who couldn’t be prouder to be married to an émigré from Egypt, an African country and one of those places the “President”—I don’t find him one bit presidential so I’m required to use quotation marks—recently besmirched by referring to them as “shitholes.”

I am proud because my wife is kind, honest, hardworking, creative, and generous, just to name a few of her positive attributes.  I find it ironic that a day after the “President” belittled those who’ve come here from other places, my wife completed the paperwork needed to start her own sole proprietorship, a home baker business she’s calling “ZooZoo’s Sweet Treats.”  She owned and operated such an enterprise in Egypt and did very well, mostly because she is an artist in the kitchen and a skilled entrepreneur.  I expect that she’ll be a smash here as well.

By the way, has the “President” seen this country in its entirety?  There are places in these United States that could use a little enrichment and beautification.

Why, one wonders, did Trump choose the term shitholes?  He could have referred to locales in Africa and such as “beautiful places,” but he didn’t.  He used such a descriptor because he thinks of large swaths of everywhere else as the “Third World” which equates to “third-rate.”  (Unfortunately, this whole “first-world-versus-third-world way of thinking is widely held in America.)  Those from the Third World are thought to be third-rate because they are poor and backward, which says a lot about what Americans put value on.  Such a way of looking at the world fails to take into account the fact that many in the Third World are actually first-rate when it comes to their spiritual development and the like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LOOK

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I wrote this a little more than a year ago, but it seems, once again, very apropos…

***

I can’t believe I’m being dragged back into politics.  But that is exactly what’s happening.

In 2015 I quit visiting all the political websites that had held my interest for many years.  I stopped thinking about politics and discussing the topic with others.

2015 is also the year I left Egypt after living and working there for seven years.  During that time, I was very political, at least from 2008 to 2014.  In 2011, I witnessed the mass uprising against Hosni Mubarak and found myself swept away by the euphoria that followed his deposing.  Then, two years later, during the month of July, I watched in horror as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown in a military coup.  Some very scary characters referred to it as a “second revolution,” but the more apt term was “counterrevolution.”

The counterrevolution crushed my spirit but not because I was a Morsi fan.  I was devastated because I had seen how hard brave Egyptians had fought to free themselves.  And I saw the sacrifices they’d made.  Suddenly, though, they were right back at square one or even worse.  The only way I could survive such devastation was to numb myself.  So, I withdrew from politics and became apathetic, which takes me back to the point I was making about myself in the second paragraph.

I had a bit of a revival when Bernie Sanders decided to run for president.  The old political juices began to flow again.  From the moment he declared his candidacy, I felt the Bern.  Eventually, he built an incredible following and I began to see a glass that was half full.  Egypt had certainly lost its way but America, it seemed, was on the verge of finding its soul.

Then the Democratic Party machine decided that Hillary Clinton was somehow owed the nomination.  Bernie was treated unfairly and his supporters were pushed aside.  Many of us warned that Clinton was too compromised and therefore vulnerable.  Too few listened to those warnings.  Too many people were too certain about what they thought was a foregone conclusion.  There were many ominous signs for those with the ability to see and read them.  With Bernie out of the race and everyone saying Clinton was a shoo-in, I began to lose interest again.

But I never drifted entirely away.  That weird sense of foreboding I felt wouldn’t let me turn completely off.  The mood of the nation reinforced the sense of dread I felt.  It seemed all too possible that something catastrophic might happen.  And it did on November 8, 2016, a date that go down in infamy.

Now that the world as we’ve known it is in the process of vanishing, the old jump-up-on-a-soapbox Troy has reawakened.

I grew up during a period when Americans smugly believed that the nation and its people were somehow special—or exceptional.  They watched as other countries fell apart or came under the influence of evil powers but felt that such things could never happen in the greatest country the world had ever seen.  America would always remain the beacon.  It would always set the model for others to follow.

But just look where we find ourselves now.  Just look.  Look long and hard.  And while doing so, make sure not to turn your eyes away.  Don’t delude yourself into believing that what you see isn’t as bad as many are suggesting.

The truth is, it’s every bit as bad as people are saying.  We cannot know for sure how bad it may get, but it is already way beyond horrific.

 

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.

***

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…