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.

People Who Drive Station Wagons Are Nerds

subaru 2

I just now looked out my window at work and saw him walking on the sidewalk.  The timing was perfect.  As luck would have it, I began writing something about him—he was front and center in my mind—and then, while I was trying figure out what I wanted to say, here he came, walking on the sidewalk right on the other side of this pane of glass.

I’ll have to keep using male pronouns when I refer to him because I don’t know his name.  I do know a few things about him, though.  I’ve bulleted these factoids:

  • He’s in in 60s
  • He wears a necktie and sweater vest every single day even when it’s very hot
  • He is retired and now does part-time work in one of these offices around here in one of these buildings
  • He drives a 2006 Subaru Forester station wagon

On point number four, I’d like to mention that I also drive an older model Subaru station wagon.  Mine is a 2002 Legacy.  That’s the difference.  Here’s the similarity:  Both are silver in color.

I got to know him because we work together at Palo Alto College, a little school that does yeoman’s work in an economically depressed area of south San Antonio.  We also arrive at work a little earlier than is required on most mornings.  (I’ll leave it to you to determine what this says about us.)  Anyway, because we are such eager beavers, our cars are often the first two to arrive and are thus the only ones around.  Despite having a million choices about where we might situate our rides, we both enjoy parking right next to one another.  (I’m beginning to wonder if this practice isn’t turning out to be something akin an almighty Subaru show of force.)

He arrives slightly earlier than I do on some mornings.  When this happens, I find him sitting behind the wheel—perhaps he is waiting for me to arrive?—and smoking.   I don’t know what brand he prefers.  (He’s probably a Marlboro man if I had to hazard a guess.  He doesn’t wear a ten-gallon hat or chaps or anything like that, nor does he generally go unshaven for a day or so or have that rugged sunburned look, but I’m pretty sure he’s a Marlboro man nonetheless.)  I pull up next to him and look across the little space that separates us and wave.  He fills his lungs with smoke and nicotine and other chemically things and waves back.  This is how we greet each other almost every morning.

Once parked, I’ll gather my things together and open the door to get out.  Often—maybe it’s a coincidence or maybe it isn’t?—we’ll lock up at just about the same time.  This synchronized exiting of vehicles gives us the opportunity to actually exchange a few words.  Because we have old Subaru station wagons in common, we mostly talk about our cars.  “How’s the Subaru running?” he’ll ask.

“Pretty good.  About a month ago, the ‘check engine’ light came on.  Other than that, pretty good.  How about yours?”

“I’ve got a little engine clatter, I’m afraid,” he said earlier this week.

His mentioning of the engine gave us a chance to stand in the parking lot for five minutes and discuss the famed “boxer” motor that older Subarus are so well known for.

As soon as the engine talk was done, we walked silently, side by side, until he veered off to the left and I veered off to the right to enter Nueces Hall.

I still don’t know what his name is or where he works.  Note to self:  Find this out next week.

 

 

 

Unfortunately, I Give a F*ck

On Saturday and Sunday mornings, I rise and shine quite early, get myself dressed, usually donning shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, and drive over to a Barnes and Noble, the one located just off 410 and across from North Star Mall in San Antonio.  I do this to meet a Venezuela woman who wants to develop her conversational skills in English.  When we first started working together, she was pretty cryptic when I asked her what she was doing in Texas.  She said things about visiting family and wanting to be a tourist.  Slowly, she began to open up, and I’m now convinced—though she’s never openly said so—that she’s trying to leave her home country because of the chaos there.  I guess she thinks the political and economic situation in the US is better.

Of course, I frequently remind her that America is being led by one Donald J. Trump, Russian agent and head of a crime syndicate, as a way of subtly reminding her that she might want to think things through before making any rash relocation plans.

As usual, it’s taking me forever to get to my main subject.  I’m really hoping to blog about a book that I saw while working with my Venezuelan friend this morning.  It was shelved directly in front of the table we were sitting at.  Its title—one of the best I’ve seen adorning the cover of any book in recent memory—The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck:  A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life— immediately grabbed my attention.

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As soon as my English lesson ended and my student had taken off, I walked over to the shelf and got a closer look.  I saw that it was written by Mark Manson.  I picked it up, opened up to the first page, and saw a reference to Charles Bukowski.  (The author immediately scored bonus points with me.)  I then turned it over and saw that it was selling for $24.99.  Because I am a cheapskate by nature, I decided I’d see if I could find it at any of the libraries I have access to.  Free, in my way of thinking, is always preferable to $24.99.

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This is certainly a book I very desperately need to read.  For almost my entire life—I did have a brief “bad boy” phase that doesn’t count—I’ve given too much of a f*ck.  From just about the moment I exited my mother’s womb, people have used words like “conscientious,” “responsible,” and “meticulous” when describing me.  Of course, these aren’t necessarily bad things, but when taken to the extreme, such attributes can turn one into a neurotic perfectionist who obsesses about everything.  Such a person wakes up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat because the water bill is due in less than five hours and the possibility that the online payment might not be processed in time fills him with existential dread.

Such a person is me.  That’s yours truly in a nutshell.

 

 

 

Funky San Antonio Here I Come!

serpent

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I manage the Integrated Reading and Writing Learning Center at Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas, one of the coolest (but least written about) metropolitan areas in the United States.

I’m blessed to have really good tutors in the center.  One of them, Robin Gara, a retired reading and art teacher, paints and writes.  The two of us, when things are quiet in our place, often talk about all things artsy-fartsy.

This past weekend, Robin showed some of her paintings in an Art Deco pizzeria located on Fredericksburg Road.  My wife and I went to see Robin’s work, and by sheer happenstance, while we were there, they were having an open mic poetry reading.  So, after looking at Robin’s stuff—she does amazing things with a pallet knife—and before taking off, we watched some truly interesting characters read a bit of their writing in a funky public setting.

Robin has been after me to get involved in the local art scene—to read some of my writings at the several locales that sponsor public readings.  After what I witnessed this past weekend, I think I’m going give it a try.

When I was in my twenties, I used to publish a heck of a lot of poems—or pomes.  I kind of stopped, though, quite a long time ago, so I didn’t know if I had anything that I might read.  Then I found an old folder full of some passable stuff.  I’ve included a couple here.

The Free Man

I’m pissed.
There’s plenty of reasons to be.
That my life is not my own
Is one.
I mean I don’t own my life.
If I did, I wouldn’t be here, not now, not never.
If I did, I’d be gone, long gone, gone long ago.
If I did, I’d be sleeping or screaming
Or something other than this something I am doing
Or am not doing now,
This minute.
This thing I’m doing is not a thing for free men
To do.
My doing it proves that freedom is for others,
I guess.
I want to meet the free man, the other man.
I will sit next to him and not speak.
I will sit next to him and watch
And learn.
When he stands and leaves, I will
Stand and leave.
We two will walk together, not one in front of the other
But shoulder to shoulder.

I Am the Son of Eve

To teach is to be taught.
To learn is to unlearn.
To find the straight and narrow one needs to follow
A winding path.
Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge.
For Eve, I am thankful.
Adam was a wimp because he didn’t think of doing this
Before Eve planted the seed.
Poor Adam, a man
To be pitied.
I am the son of Eve.
I am not the son of Adam.
Like Eve, I do not fear the snake.
I listen to its words and make up
My own mind.
I do not follow the serpent without
Good cause.
When it speaks the truth,
I will not fear.
Fear is that thing which made Adam ashamed
Of his nakedness.
Eve walked proudly without
A stitch.

 

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.

This Morning’s Commute

commuting

I opened the front door and the cold hit me.  I stepped out into it.  The sun was just coming up in San Antonio, and the outside colors were muted and tending toward the grayscale.  We live a short distance away from Loop 410, the Alamo City’s inner ring road, and I could hear, even as I walked down the sidewalk toward the truck, a roar—the collective voice of a million cars being pushed along by human beings.

It was cold as I slid into the seat, closed the door, inserted the key, and fired up.  I shivered, blew steam from my mouth.  I punched a button that would, in a few minutes, get heat going into the cab.  The truck was ready now, so I released the handbrake, put it in reverse and left.

I know a way to avoid the nearby school zone.  San Antonio is a big city that is filled with people, many of whom have children.  For the commuter, school zones mean slowing down and pausing for buses and children crossing streets.  For the commuter, these delays are maddening.  What we commuters turn into, at 7 a.m., is something single-minded and harried.  We curse those things we would normally tolerate.  We become something other than what we naturally are.

There is a moment, shortly after I turn off Marbach Road, when I can see the on-ramp to Loop 410.  I punch it then and my machine, made by the Nissan Corporation, makes a guttural sound.  I feel like an astronaut in the early moments of liftoff.  The force of acceleration pushes my head back as I rocket toward the great flow of vehicles.

I know this route and routine well.  I am one of a million now, jockeying for position, weaving in and out, and watching for signs of danger.  We are heading south.  Soon, I will make the big eastward turn and the sun, just peeking above the horizon, will cause me to squint.  The sky is becoming more interesting, moment by moment.  I would love to spend more time studying its shapeshifting clouds and nuanced colorations, but I have to remain wary.  Surrounded by these machines, madness, and speed, anything, at any time, could happen.

We pass by all sorts of landmarks, including the factory that puts out plumes of steam or something else.  The place produces God knows what.  It marks the moment we turn toward the east, and I adjust the visor to keep my eyes shaded.  What I am witnessing now, all around me, in this great flow of machines, is the human condition writ large.

I eventually take the Palo Alto College exit and the frenzy dies down.  I have a left turn to make and then two right ones.  A sign tells us we may drive our machines at forty miles per hour but no faster than that.  I make those turns and then pull into a lot where I turn the key in the ignition, putting my machine to rest.  Its engine pings and pops as it begins to cool down.  It will spend the next few hours resting up and preparing to carry me home as the day moves from light to dark.

I envy my machine as I step away from it.  It’s now my time to roar.

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.