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.