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 Love My Job!

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About four months ago I was hired to manage the Integrated Reading and Writing Learning Center (INRW LC) at Palo Alto College (PAC) in San Antonio, Texas.

“INRW” stands for “Integrated Reading and Writing.”  Our center is a place where students can come to participate in reading and writing workshops and get hands-on tutorial help with tasks that have been assigned by their INRW instructors who teach in the Department of English.

I absolutely love the job for a whole bunch of reasons.  For one, I get to supervise several extraordinarily talented tutors and oversee the daily operations of the INRW LC.  I also get to design and lead workshops as well as work with student-writers on a one-to-one basis.  They bring drafts of papers they’re composing, and I act as reader and consultant as they go through the writing process.  Our ultimate goal, as we work collaboratively, is to have them produce pieces of writing they’ll be satisfied with and that will receive positive evaluations once they’re turned in.

Before coming to PAC and the INRW LC, I was employed as a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo (AUC), a position I held for seven wonderful years.  What I like about my current job is that I still have the opportunity to teach but get to provide more personalized assistance, thus turning teaching and coaching into acts of great sharing and intimacy.

Students often ask me what it takes to become a really good writer.  There’s a lot that goes into answering such a question, but if I’m forced to boil it down, I’d say that the single most important thing a person might do to get better at writing is to focus on becoming a more skilled thinker.  I make this claim because writing is really just thinking on paper, in a visual form that can be shared with others.

In my case, I started getting much better as a writer when I became a graduate student and professors started pressing me intellectually.  By holding me to a really high thinking standard, I had to evolve as a communicator because words were the things I was using to share the ideas I was positing.  If I wanted my ideas to be compelling and precise, then my language had to be compelling and precise.

Graduate school is Boot Camp for would-be intellectuals, and my professors were working hard to turn me into a kind of Thinking Ninja.  I was being tested and stressed and worked out so that I could become formidable.  Because we live in a world where ideas matter, the strongest ideas, presented the most strongly, end up mattering more.  Those who hold them and become skilled at sharing them, become very powerful.

This is why I ask so much of all the students I work with.  I want to empower them.  I want to help them gird them for battle.

LOOK

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I wrote this a little more than a year ago, but it seems, once again, very apropos…

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I can’t believe I’m being dragged back into politics.  But that is exactly what’s happening.

In 2015 I quit visiting all the political websites that had held my interest for many years.  I stopped thinking about politics and discussing the topic with others.

2015 is also the year I left Egypt after living and working there for seven years.  During that time, I was very political, at least from 2008 to 2014.  In 2011, I witnessed the mass uprising against Hosni Mubarak and found myself swept away by the euphoria that followed his deposing.  Then, two years later, during the month of July, I watched in horror as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown in a military coup.  Some very scary characters referred to it as a “second revolution,” but the more apt term was “counterrevolution.”

The counterrevolution crushed my spirit but not because I was a Morsi fan.  I was devastated because I had seen how hard brave Egyptians had fought to free themselves.  And I saw the sacrifices they’d made.  Suddenly, though, they were right back at square one or even worse.  The only way I could survive such devastation was to numb myself.  So, I withdrew from politics and became apathetic, which takes me back to the point I was making about myself in the second paragraph.

I had a bit of a revival when Bernie Sanders decided to run for president.  The old political juices began to flow again.  From the moment he declared his candidacy, I felt the Bern.  Eventually, he built an incredible following and I began to see a glass that was half full.  Egypt had certainly lost its way but America, it seemed, was on the verge of finding its soul.

Then the Democratic Party machine decided that Hillary Clinton was somehow owed the nomination.  Bernie was treated unfairly and his supporters were pushed aside.  Many of us warned that Clinton was too compromised and therefore vulnerable.  Too few listened to those warnings.  Too many people were too certain about what they thought was a foregone conclusion.  There were many ominous signs for those with the ability to see and read them.  With Bernie out of the race and everyone saying Clinton was a shoo-in, I began to lose interest again.

But I never drifted entirely away.  That weird sense of foreboding I felt wouldn’t let me turn completely off.  The mood of the nation reinforced the sense of dread I felt.  It seemed all too possible that something catastrophic might happen.  And it did on November 8, 2016, a date that go down in infamy.

Now that the world as we’ve known it is in the process of vanishing, the old jump-up-on-a-soapbox Troy has reawakened.

I grew up during a period when Americans smugly believed that the nation and its people were somehow special—or exceptional.  They watched as other countries fell apart or came under the influence of evil powers but felt that such things could never happen in the greatest country the world had ever seen.  America would always remain the beacon.  It would always set the model for others to follow.

But just look where we find ourselves now.  Just look.  Look long and hard.  And while doing so, make sure not to turn your eyes away.  Don’t delude yourself into believing that what you see isn’t as bad as many are suggesting.

The truth is, it’s every bit as bad as people are saying.  We cannot know for sure how bad it may get, but it is already way beyond horrific.

 

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.

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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…

 

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.

 

 

 

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.