No Thanks

banana republic

Two days ago, on a Sunday morning, I downloaded a PDF of the full Mueller report.  I plan to read it, in dribs and drabs, as my busy schedule permits, in its totality, because I feel it’s my patriotic duty to do so.

After downloading the thing, I did what many middle-class dudes do on a beautiful Sunday when it’s been a couple of weeks or so since the mower’s been out of the garage.  I rolled the beast out, filled its belly with high octane gasoline, and yanked the start cord.  The things spurted, then roared.  I commenced pushing it all around my yard.  The sweat rolled down my cheeks as countless blades met their gruesome ends.  In an hour or so, the grass had been decapitated and I was done.  Done.  Done.  Done.

I went inside, stripped down to my birthday suit, and climbed into the shower.  The hot water felt good and I started thinking about politics.  For one to ponder politics while he is soaping his naked body up after a dirty job is likely a sign that said person needs to get a life.  Certainly there are many other more pleasant things to think about.  But my mind delves—nearly of its own accord without my permission–into the political nearly every chance it gets.  I think I’m so into politics because I spent a large portion of my early life dirt poor, raised by a mom who didn’t have a husband or an education.  To say that things were tight during my childhood is like saying Donald Trump is a bit obnoxious.  Those early experiences taught me, in the most visceral way possible, that the poor and powerless get screwed in a million different ways and that it’s the rich and powerful that do the screwing.  It should not surprise a single reader to hear me say that the disempowered frequently become the disenchanted.

Thus, politics, to me, is personal.  I can’t claim ownership of that statement.  In fact, I ripped it off from Mayor Pete, now on the campaign trail along with half the Democratic powerbrokers that reside in this land of the fruited plain with so much purple mountain majesty.  I heard him say it recently, perhaps when he was being interviewed by Rachel Maddow?  I liked it so much I decided to commit plagiarism and stick it in this little ditty.

What came to me this past Sunday (when I was in the shower) is the thought that I don’t want America to become Trumpistan.  I’ve lived in Trumpistans before, and I saw how such places work.  Actually, they don’t work.  They stagger along like zombie nations—not dead, not alive, but certainly rotting.  Though we still claim to be the good ole United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave, we are slowly being corrupted by a corrupting influence.  We don’t want to live in a place where the leader is above the law.  We don’t want to live in a place where racism, misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and such become acceptable.  We don’t want to live in a place where there’s one system of justice for those with clout and another for those without.  We don’t want to live in a place where nationalism and patriotism are conflated.  We don’t want to live in a place where America gives the middle finger to its international allies and trashes long-standing partnerships.  We don’t want to live in a place that closely resembles a theocracy.  We don’t want to live in a place that devalues education and educators and poo-poos the idea that climate change is real and a threat to our very existence.

That’s why I’m going to read the Mueller report and advise everyone else to do the same.  If we don’t learn as much as we can about the sickness that’s infected our body politic, this place we all claim to love might cease to be the sort of place we can be proud of.

 

December 18, 2018

fist

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Twitter recently.  The direction of my thinking on this social media platform is mostly aimed at trying to determine if it’s something I want to continue using.  (As I write this, I haven’t tweeted a thing for weeks on either of the two Twitter accounts I’ve created.)

Though I haven’t come to any real firm conclusions yet, I’m beginning to feel more and more comfortable not tweeting.  In the beginning, when I first stopped, I felt like I’d gone cold turkey and was inches away from clenching up and breaking out in a cold sweat.  Then the days began to pass and it seemed like I was beating the beast’s hold on me.  I could clearly feel its grip lessening day by day.  As I write this, I have almost no urge to read what others have posted on Twitter, and I have zero desire to tweet.

I guess, looking back, I had seemingly fallen into what I’m more and more seeing as a self-destructive pattern of behavior.  Because I am such a political person, I was mostly tweeting political things.  (By the way, if you were to ask me today why I’m so politically inclined, I’d answer that I studied political philosophy in college—as an undergrad—and then moved on to other things in grad school, but that I’m still obsessed with politics because it is one very important way humans expressive themselves collectively, and there is nothing more fascinating than human expression.)

So I am very progressive and I was using Twitter to declare my version of Holy War on regressives.  (I won’t refer to them as “conservatives” because they aren’t trying to conserve anything.)  In fact, they want to take us back to a time when WASPs effectively owned the country because they suffer from a kind of white angst.  Of course, there’s great irony in the fact that political regressives feel this way since they think America suffers from what they call a “culture of entitlement,” meaning that too many feel like government owes them something.  At the same time, they want the rest of us to unquestioningly recognize their preeminence and to behave appropriately subservient.  If that isn’t acting privileged and entitled, then I don’t know what is.

Back when I was still tweeting about politics, I had a few favored individuals I liked to seek out and clash with on a daily basis.  I began to realize, though, that these Twitter wars weren’t helping me to feel better or victorious or good about myself and what I was becoming.  In fact, the more I engaged in these skirmishes, the more spite and anger I experienced.  A kind of red-face rage began to fill me, and I started feeling disgust with both those I was tweeting against as well as myself.  Despite the fact that I often “won” these Twitter conflicts, I didn’t feel like a winner.  I felt hateful, mean, and petty.

I really feel so much calmer now that I’ve walked away from Twitter and have stopped tweeting nasty things to those I disagree with.  I like to think of myself as someone who eschews violence.  But there is more than one way to attack a person.  One can pick up a weapon and inflict physical pain, or one can login to one’s Twitter account and send out hurtful messages which leave ugly scars that are invisible to the naked eye.

The self-reflection I’ve been doing mirrors the self-reflection our nation will eventually have to engage in once it moves past this moment of anger and brutal tribalism.  We will have to come to terms with how we’ve treated our political opponents.  This reckoning is likely to be painful.  It is likely to be instructive as well.  Let’s hope our nation learns an important lesson from this difficult historical moment.

 

 

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.

 

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.

Strange Fruit

strange fruit

I am married to a Muslim woman from Africa.  One of my closest friends is a gay man who was born and raised in a small town in flyover country.  I am an avowed socialist.

Question:  What do I have in common with my wife and good friend?  Answer:  We are all outliers.  There is something about each one of us that is “abnormal.”

I’m not the sort of person who feels comfortable thinking in this way.  What, after all, is “normal”?  Even using the word, to describe myself and others, is troubling.  I don’t think about “normality” when I think of human beings.

Suddenly, though, America is changing.  Islamophobia, homophobia, and hatred of “liberals” is on the rise in many quarters.  So, even if I don’t like labeling folks, there are plenty of my compatriots who have no problem doing so and then shunning (or worse) those they think of as foreign, deviant, or un-American.

That and the country is certainly more divided than I ever remember it being.  I keep hearing pundits say that “tribalism” and “tribal” thinking is on the rise.  Actually, tribal thinking is really an oxymoron.  Tribalism and primitivism are the ultimate knee-jerks and have almost nothing to do with sober consideration or rationality.  Primitivism is a celebration of some mythic past, some simpler time, a time that never truly existed except in the imagination.  (When I hear radical Trump supporters say that they “want their country back,” I think I’m hearing a kind of primordial wail by those who believe in fairytales.)  I also think of snowflakes and those who suffer from some form of persecution complex.

Trumpism is really an interesting mix of primitivism, nativism, and fascism.  Too many pundits use the terms “populism” and “populists” when they describe the movement and its adherents.  Populism is a euphemism.  Populism sounds innocuous, and the reason many use it is because they are afraid to admit that there is a large fascist movement afoot in America and elsewhere.  By referring to fascism as populism, we feel more assured that there is no monster lurking under the bed.  The use of populism is us sticking our heads in the sand.  It’s our way of whistling past the graveyard.

Not long ago I asked my gay friend if he was ever afraid.  His answer went something like this.  I used to not be, but now I don’t know.

Could gays ever be scapegoated?  Well, we have seen scapegoating in the past, haven’t we?  We’ve seen genocide in the past, haven’t we?  We’ve seen lynching and cross-burning and bombing.  We’ve seen almost everything in the past, haven’t we?

For those who think such horrid things couldn’t happen here, I’d like to remind them that this sort of ugliness has already happened right here.  Just Google “lynchings” and then click on the “image” link.  It would also help if such skeptics went to the nearest bookstore or library and checked out Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, penned in 1935.

Read the novel and then turn on the TV.  Watch for a day or two and then get back to me.