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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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…
From 2008 to 2015, I lived in Cairo, Egypt, and taught at The American University in Cairo. In the spring of 2011, about midway through my seven-year stint in North Africa and only two months after Hosni Mubarak was pushed out of office by an enormous uprising of fed-up Egyptians, I met Azza, a born and bred Cairene and the woman who would become my wife less than a year later.
When I met Azza, she had a successful catering business, specializing in Italian food. Now that we are living in the US—in interesting San Antonio, Texas, a place that feels a little like an American city with a whole lot of Mexico mixed in—my wife is once again considering starting her own enterprise. This time, though, she’s looking at opening a home bakery. (The Lone Star State doesn’t heavily regulate the cottage food industry, thus incentivizing those who wish run such a business out of their own kitchens.)
We just finished up with the Christmas holidays. By the way, my wife is a Muslim and she just loves this time of year. In fact, she single-handedly destroys all the ugly stereotypes that many close-minded people—I’m thinking mostly about the Trump Evangelicals as I write this—have about practitioners of Islam. I bring all this up because she did a ton of baking in the run-up to the twenty-fifth of December, and as is usually the case, because she is such a professional in the kitchen, she wrapped a turban around her head to keep stray hair out of the food she was preparing.
One morning I saw her with such a wrap on her head and told her she looked like Aunt Jemima. Knowing that wouldn’t understand such a reference, I tried to explain who this person was. As luck would have it, I went to the grocery store a few minutes later and found the appropriate aisle—the one where they kept the syrups for pancakes and waffles and such—and took a picture of the label with America’s beloved Aunt’s photo on it, only to discover (and quite surprisingly too) that the Jemima of today bears little resemblance to the Jemima of old.
The conspiracy theorist in me immediately jumped to the conclusion that they took her turban off because it looked too much like a hijab. I figured that Quaker Oats didn’t want to feature a character who looked too foreign or too exotic or too Islamic. After all, this is Trump’s America and the rest of us are only living in it.
As it turns out, there was a reason for the company to modernize Aunt Jemima’s image, but it had nothing to do with them trying to make her look less like a Muslim. I’ve included a video that explains the whole interesting story about the politics behind the revamping of the image of this cultural icon.