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…

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 23, 2018

zeyneb

Last week was terrible.  Six days ago, at approximately 3 a.m. in the morning, my wife’s mother, Zeynep, died.  As soon as we heard that tragic news, I began to send texts and make calls to a variety of people so that I could stay home from work to tend to my wife and give vent to my own profound sadness.

Zeynep had been suffering from kidney disease for a couple of years or so.  Her treatment had primarily consisted of dialysis treatments that left her exhausted and depressed.  Then, about three months or so ago, something changed.  Her body—for whatever reason—began to reject treatment.  It became harder and harder for the doctors to administer dialysis and her medicine seemed to stop working.  As a result, my mother-in-law’s condition deteriorated which led to more depression which led to a worsening of her physical state.  It was a vicious circle that she’d become trapped in.

On the morning of Zeynep’s death, Azza, my wife, had trouble sleeping.  She tossed and turned in the bed next to me.  A few minutes before 3 a.m., she woke up and called her family in Cairo, Egypt, to make sure everything was Okay.  She started telephoning her brothers and sisters but none of them would answer.  Finally, she got someone on the line only to learn that her mother had just passed to the other side.  So, about the time my wife had had her premonition, her mother was breathing her last breath.

I cannot tell you how bad I feel for my wife.  I understand her loss completely.  I actually witnessed my grandfather—I man I was profoundly close to—die in his bed in his home.  That was the culmination of a long, debilitating illness.  And when he finally left us, it took weeks for many of us to fully recover from that devastating blow.

Death is so final.  That’s why it makes us feel devastated and sad and angry.  There is no one to complain to when it happens.  You can shake your fist and scream, but none of those actions will do any good.  Death cannot be reversed upon appeal.

From time to time, my wife turns to me, and with tears in her eyes, asks, “Is she really gone?”  To which I quietly answer, “Yes, she’s gone.”

I wish I could tell her that she’ll be back soon.  But that would be a lie.

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.

 

 

 

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

people-sign-traveling-blur

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.