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.

I’m Your Boogie Man!

So this dude got pissed off about my last blog about The Price Is Right and tweeted the following:

price is right blog

I guess he thought I was talking crap about Bob Barker and the early-70s version of the show.  I guess he thought I was some kind of youngster who couldn’t appreciate the “progressive” nature of the program.  I guess he made quite a few assumptions about me, so I had to set him straight.

I messaged him and said that I both personally experienced the 1970s and wore my hair big (and my clothes tight) as was the custom at the time.

Let it be known that he did not respond to my retort.

This talking about the 70s has got me reminiscing.  Those were the days of disco, and like many red-blooded American males of that era, I enjoyed blow-drying my hair, getting tipsy (on beer before leaving home), hauling ass to the nearest bar—one with strobe lights and a dancefloor—ordering rum and Cokes (upon arrival at said joint), and finally, after drinking away any and all inhibitions I might ever have had, getting down in the manner of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

All this recollecting got me so fired up that I went online and prowled around until I found this video from 1976.  It shows a live performance of Dazz, by Brick, one of the all-time best boogie songs and dance bands from an era when folks really knew how to shake their groove thangs.

That performance inspired me to dig a whole lot more.  I ended up unearthing I’m Your Boogie Man (that’s what I am!) by none other than KC and the Sunshine Band.

If these don’t make you want to shake your booty, I’m pretty sure you’re either dead or ain’t got no booty to shake.  Either way, you’re screwed.

 

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.

 

 

 

A Tart to the Heart

Azza
Azza

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.”

“I see.”

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…

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 8)

I may have become a teacher by sheer accident, but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to vigorously stand up for my profession or for my colleagues in the trenches.  By the way, many of these colleagues do incredibly important work under tremendous duress.

In “Teacher Autonomy Declined over Past Decline, New Data Shows,” Tim Walker writes that “classroom autonomy is a major factor in determining level of job satisfaction [among teachers]” because “it speaks to whether educators are treated as professionals.”  In other words, taking away teachers’ freedom of self-determination sends a very powerful message to those who are on the losing end of the stick.  It says we no longer trust you to make important decisions about how you do your work.  We think you are incapable of acting responsibly on your own or thinking for yourself.  We are worried that you’re going to do and say the wrong things.  So, to keep this from happening, we will provide you with a script and ask you to do nothing more than read from it.  Memorize your lines, and for heaven’s sake, don’t improvise.

Is it any wonder that so many teachers are feeling so demoralized?

Listen.  Teachers are not stupid people.  They have been educated in fine universities and deserve the sort of respect given to those with similar credentials who work in other fields.  This whole push to turn educators into functionaries (or automatons or script readers or whatever term you want to use) tells them everything they need to know about how their bosses view them.  If their “superiors” really thought they were entirely capable, then scripts and such wouldn’t be needed.  After all, a script is a kind of crutch that is given only to those who are deemed incapable of walking on their own.  Am I right?

This loss of autonomy isn’t just happening at public schools.  In fact, it happened at my last two university gigs—at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, and at The American University in Cairo, in Cairo, Egypt—places where I was hired to teach credit-bearing writing, research, critical reading and thinking courses to first and second-year students.  Though both cases were bad, the most grievous took place in Egypt.

When I was first hired by the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at AUC, instructors were allowed to design they own courses as long as they helped students meet a broad set of learning objectives.  These educational goals included helping pupils become better thinkers as a result of developing their critical reading, writing, and research skills.  Everything was fine during my first two or three years in the department.  About the fourth year I was there, though, something began to change.  Someone (or some group)—decision-making was kept pretty opaque so none of us had any real idea who was pulling the strings—decided there was too much variety in the kinds of classes being offered.  (No evidence was provided to demonstrate that this variety was having any sort of detrimental effect on students or their abilities to function within the university.)  Anyway, eventually this decision led the department to create a very prescriptive course template that was handed out to all.  Teachers could still apply to design classes provided that their proposals met a very set narrow set of parameters, many of which made no sense to most of the faculty, especially to those with many years of teaching and course development experience.

I decided to play along and turned in a proposal only to have it rejected.  This came as a shock to me since I had been a successful course designer for more than twenty-five years.  Over these decades my creations had been looked at my many dozens of sets of eyes and had passed all sorts of scrutiny.  Additionally, many of my classes had been deemed so well put together and successful that they had been offered as models to other instructors, even to those in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at AUC, the very place that was now telling me my newest proposal was a failure.

So, for the first time in my professional life I was not allowed to create a course and ended up teaching from a syllabus that was simply handed to me.  Needless to say, I never really believed in the class—I’m a veteran who has trouble teaching unless I feel that I have “ownership” of the thing being taught.  I’m sure this lack of passion manifested itself in many visible ways, which meant students could feel, from day one, that my heart wasn’t fully involved in the project.

Two semesters later, I handed in a letter of resignation and shortly thereafter said goodbye to the school after seven years.  I was certainly not alone in my decision to leave.  As a matter of fact, the department lost twenty-five percent of its instructors the term I departed.  This, by the way, was an unprecedented loss and should have sent a strong message to those in charge.

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 7)

I think I’m having a midlife crisis. Some men, when they find themselves in a similar situation, go out and buy themselves a toupee or a snazzy sports car, but that’s not my way. My way is to sit down and write about my life as a teacher. I guess you could say that this blog has become therapy.

It’s funny (and a little scary too) how big of a role the workplace plays in turning us into the human beings we eventually become. My work certainly has played a key role in causing this crisis I’m facing.

This morning, when I was getting ready to step into the shower at 5 a.m. to get ready to go to work, I started thinking about my retirement. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the day when I can finally walk away from the classroom. That thought led to a memory of a conversation I recently had with a fellow who teaches at my current place of employment. He is seventy and still coming in, every day, to put in his six hours up in front of students. When I asked him about retirement, he said, “I tried that, for a while, but got bored, so I decided to start working again.”

FYI: Words you will never hear coming out of Troy Headrick’s mouth: “I got bored with retirement so I went back to work again.”

Yes, I’m sure I’m having a midlife crisis. I know this because I have little patience for silliness at work. I also have little tolerance for people who want to preach to me about how I should be doing my job. These “experts” are often about the age my children would be, if I had children. Lately, it’s been students who’ve been offering this “advice.” Would I use “anger” to describe my current mindset? Not really. I’m more like exasperated.

Lots of teachers end up getting beaten down by what our education system has become. Actually, come to think of it, it’s “schooling” that’s the problem, not education. There are important differences between the former and the latter. The former is what drives so many teachers crazy. Education is pure and wonderful. It sets us free. Schooling enslaves us. It turns us into bureaucratic idiots who have crises. The distinctions between these two is further clarified in this very interesting letter, written by Gerald J. Conti, a long-time teacher who finally decided to throw in the towel, primarily because schooling today is “data driven” and emphasizes teacher “conformity, standardization, testing, and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core.” Conti also points out that “creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled.”

One of the things that has bothered me over the years is this: Back when I was a serious learner, when I was in college and grad school, I could honestly say that I was engaged in something noble and enriching. But not long after I became a teacher, especially at the college and university levels, I got caught up in a system that was far too often dispiriting and demeaning. Like Conti, I had to begin focusing on petty things, which turned me into a petty person. Too much of my time was spent on learning how to navigate the territory of the academic department I was working for without getting into trouble. As a result, I got good at acting like a robot and playing workplace politics but almost forgot how to read and think. Meanwhile, I’d been hired to do reading and thinking with my students.

Right here, I’d like to insert an important qualifier. My current place of employment, the institute I’ve been working at for nearly half a year, has hired me to “train,” not “teach,” even though I work in a classroom. This difference in terminology suggests something important. There is not even a hint of pretentiousness at my new gig. What I do is very mechanical and straightforward, and thus the expectations are crystal clear. This allows administrators to be a lot more honest with me, and I, in return, can be honest with myself and my students. And, as the old saying goes, honesty is the best policy.

The university taught me how to think critically and to cherish such thinking. Then I went to work and listened to a zillion school administrators speak emotively about the importance of instilling critical thinking in students. (By the way, those who practice critical thinking are, de facto, required to question everything and to accept practices, ideas, and beliefs only after they have survived a very withering scrutiny.) This double standard—critical thinking is a good thing to ask others to do and to apply to everything except us and our institution—puts teachers in a bind. They are torn between the way they have taught themselves to live and think and how their bosses tell them to live and think. My last sentence raises an important point: Being a critical thinker is about how one lives in the world and interacts with reality. It is a mode of being. Critical thinking is not something I turn on and off like a light switch. I live it all the time.

I can see that I’m doing a little critical thinking right now and wonder if I should be praised or chastised for doing so?

That’s a very good question, one I’ll have to ponder awhile. As I do so, I can feel my crisis deepening…