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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Azza, Christmas Cooking, and the Great Aunt Jemima

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.