November 20, 2018

middle east

We have this new guy teaching part-time at Palo Alto College.  Mohamed Qashou, my Palestinian-American buddy and a guy who teaches math and engineering courses, introduced him to me one morning several weeks ago.  To respect his privacy, I’ll simply refer to him as “Jay.”  Jay of the beard, mild manners, and soft voice.  Jay of the quiet and introspective personality.

Like me, Jay has more advanced degrees than he knows what to do with and spent a lot of years teaching a variety of writing and similar classes in places like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt.  The first time we spoke together, we discovered that it is highly likely we were both teaching in Turkey and Egypt, in the same universities and at about the same times, though we didn’t know each other while we were living in those places.  Our conversation seemed to prove, as is sometimes said, that the world is an exceedingly small place.

Jay likes to wear Nehru jackets with short sleeves to work.  I am not surprised by this since he is married to a Pakistani woman and spent quite a lot of time in that part of Southeast Asia.  Like me, he lived for a great many years in what is called “the Islamic World,” as if a place could be defined solely by the religion practiced there.  He became a Muslim, but I’m not for sure how long ago that happened.  According to Mohamed, upon his conversion, Jay took Abdullah as the name he uses when he is with other practitioners of the faith.  When we talk, though, I always refer to him as Jay.

Jay dropped by my office early this morning because he was bothered.  Over the weekend, there had been a major conference on the topic of the MENA region in San Antonio.  Why, he wondered, hadn’t the gathering been better advertised?  He just heard about it by happenstance after it had already finished up.  He would have certainly attended, he said with a frustrated look on his face.  I voiced similar thoughts after he’d spoken.

We started talking about things we frequently see on TV, like how these so-called Middle East experts go on CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and CBS, and spout all manner of expert opinions based on what?  Some of them have never lived in that part of the world.  They’ve studied the region and its people in the cool way an entomologist dissects butterflies.  They even occasionally jet overseas, to a place like Istanbul or Cairo, for a few days.  While on such a trip, they hole up in some expensive hotel room, have a handful of conversations with local academics and politicians and the like, and then return to the United States to lecture the whole of America on Muslims, Islam, Arabs, North Africans, the Gulf Region, religion, culture, and fanaticism, among many other subjects.  We both found this both preposterous and aggravating.

I can’t speak with any sort of precision about Jay’s actual experience overseas, but I lived for four years in Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE.  While there, I worked for that country’s military on one of their bases.  I taught their male citizens.  I lived amongst the many immigrants who call Abu Dhabi home.  I had a barber from India, a best friend from Sri Lanka, and regularly bought bread from Afghan bakers who prepared that food staple in a traditional tandoor.  I would chat with them while they baked.  Once my order was done, they’d wrap the hot naan e Afghani in regular newspaper and I’d carry it home.  I was in that country during September the 11th and watched the place as it prepared for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.  I distinctly recall there was a nervousness throughout the region at that time as the giant American military machine began to awaken and move about like a colossus.

After that, I moved to Ankara, Turkey, and taught writing, research methods, critical thinking, and philosophy at Bilkent University, a great place of learning, for nearly half a decade.  While there, I had several Turkish girlfriends and traveled into every nook and cranny of that vast and beautiful country.  I went south, north, east, and west by train, dolmus, plane, bus, motorcycle, and a variety of private vehicles.  I went into dusty, remote and ancient villages where the locals decorated their faces with primitive blue tattoos.  I traveled to Istanbul and Izmir, large and cosmopolitan places that seemed very European.  I went into places where few tourists had ever ventured.  I saw things and did things I never dreamed I’d see and do.

In 2008 I moved to Cairo, Egypt, after being hired by the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.  From day one, Cairo blew my mind.  A crazy, more chaotic urban experience cannot be imagined.  By that time, I was already a world traveler and had had seen many cultures and a lot of different ways of living, but nothing had prepared me for living in the belly of the beast that is Egypt’s capital.  In 2011, the Revolution kicked off in January, following closely on the heels of what had taken place in Tunisia.  I decided to stay in the city even after almost every foreigner had bugged out and the place went full Mad Max.  I survived but got something akin to PTSD.  Then, Morsi was elected, fair and square in a genuine election, only to be the victim of a military coup approximately a year after he’d taken office.  Then came the Rabaa and Al Nahda massacres and the national insanity that followed.  Political prisoners were jailed, protests were snuffed out, the average citizen became paranoid in the old way.  Egypt slipped back into an authoritarian black hole and the citizens quit dreaming and speaking and acting out in ways they’d grown accustomed to during the brief period that followed the fall of Mubarak…

October 30, 2018

I lived in Egypt from 2008 to 2015.  That put me in the country during the 2011 Revolution.

After the Egyptians flexed their collective muscles, others, including the Americans, were inspired to follow suit.  (Everyone remembers the Occupy Wall Street movement, right?)  Activists squatted in Zuccotti Park just like the Cairenes had done in Tahrir Square.  Then the movement metastasized.

Eventually, though, the occupiers dispersed or underwent a metamorphosis.  (Energy of that sort never fully disappears.)

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square.  And I’ve gained some insights about what happened in those places.  For example, I’ve come to see revolution as a metaphor. It is a kind of human flowering that occurs even during a drought.  Actually it occurs because there’s a drought.  That makes it very ironic.

Revolution is an ending.  It is a beginning too.

It can also be seen as an expression of that which can’t be fully expressed.

October 25, 2018

pumpkin scary halloween

I’m scared.  It’s mid-October, but my fear has nothing to do with the ghouls and goblins that normally occupy the human imagination this time of year.

Trump, politics, and the upcoming midterm elections have me shaking in my boots.  If you’re not scared about what’s happening in these dis-United States of America, you ain’t paying attention.  Pull your head out and open your eyes and ears.  If you do, you’ll certainly see and hear the rambling and wildly irrational speeches of a demagogue with an impressive comb over.  He’ll likely be surrounded by a throng of red-hatted septuagenarians with angrily contorted faces and raised fists.  Many who make up such a mob will likely be frothing at the mouth and hurling insults at a variety of scapegoats.  Their Great Leader encourages their ire and expertly directs their hatred.  He plays them like a musical instrument, but the sound produced lacks all beauty.

These screaming cultists simply need to be given marching orders.  The moment he sets them loose on the rest of us is the moment of the lighting of the fuse.

Not long ago, seeing where things were going, I made sure I knew where my passport was located.  And because I’m married to a North African émigré who practices the religion of Islam, I very quietly and without causing alarm, put together a Plan B just in case Plan A—staying in America—became, suddenly, unworkable.

I’ve lived in countries where things rapidly unraveled because of politics.  What I see happening now, in this “first-world” country, reminds me a lot of what went down in the “third-world” nation-state of Egypt during the run up to the deposing of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

I know that might sound like hyperbole to many Americans who think IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE.  To those who feel this way I would say that IT’S ALREADY HAPPENING HERE.

For folks who are as concerned as I am and want to know what they should be doing to prepare for the Zombie Apocalypse, I leave them with this fantastic piece—an oldie but a goodie—by the brilliant Timothy Snyder.

 

October 23, 2018

zeyneb

Last week was terrible.  Six days ago, at approximately 3 a.m. in the morning, my wife’s mother, Zeynep, died.  As soon as we heard that tragic news, I began to send texts and make calls to a variety of people so that I could stay home from work to tend to my wife and give vent to my own profound sadness.

Zeynep had been suffering from kidney disease for a couple of years or so.  Her treatment had primarily consisted of dialysis treatments that left her exhausted and depressed.  Then, about three months or so ago, something changed.  Her body—for whatever reason—began to reject treatment.  It became harder and harder for the doctors to administer dialysis and her medicine seemed to stop working.  As a result, my mother-in-law’s condition deteriorated which led to more depression which led to a worsening of her physical state.  It was a vicious circle that she’d become trapped in.

On the morning of Zeynep’s death, Azza, my wife, had trouble sleeping.  She tossed and turned in the bed next to me.  A few minutes before 3 a.m., she woke up and called her family in Cairo, Egypt, to make sure everything was Okay.  She started telephoning her brothers and sisters but none of them would answer.  Finally, she got someone on the line only to learn that her mother had just passed to the other side.  So, about the time my wife had had her premonition, her mother was breathing her last breath.

I cannot tell you how bad I feel for my wife.  I understand her loss completely.  I actually witnessed my grandfather—I man I was profoundly close to—die in his bed in his home.  That was the culmination of a long, debilitating illness.  And when he finally left us, it took weeks for many of us to fully recover from that devastating blow.

Death is so final.  That’s why it makes us feel devastated and sad and angry.  There is no one to complain to when it happens.  You can shake your fist and scream, but none of those actions will do any good.  Death cannot be reversed upon appeal.

From time to time, my wife turns to me, and with tears in her eyes, asks, “Is she really gone?”  To which I quietly answer, “Yes, she’s gone.”

I wish I could tell her that she’ll be back soon.  But that would be a lie.

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

The Man My Father Was and Is

My wife and I just got back from Georgetown, Texas, the town I grew up in and the place my father and stepmother still call home.  And now, this Sunday morning, I’m looking inward, to see what sort of thoughts bubble up about this recent visit with two people I’m very close to.

I feel that there’s a story I want to tell this morning about the visit.  There are thoughts, some tinged with a sense of melancholy, that need getting down and organizing.

Earlier this week, days before we took off to Georgetown, my father was much in my thoughts.  This preoccupation was triggered when I got into a box of old photos and found two of him that were taken when he was just a boy.  I spent a long time holding those pictures in my hands and looking at them.  They were likely taken in the early to mid-1940s, at a time when a great war raged and the world was a much different sort of place.  Today, in 2018, my father is an octogenarian, but I can still see signs of that boy when I look at those images.

 

Last night, I sat across the dining room table from my father after dinner and while the dishes were being cleared.  As often happens on such visits, I prompted him with questions about what his life had been like decades ago.  He often complains about how bad his memory has gotten, but he somehow always manages to recollect past events, in minute detail, and then share them.

“Did I ever tell you about Billy Dowdy?” my dad asked as he removed his glasses, an act which allowed him, I suppose, to see way back.

“I don’t think so,” I answered.

“So you didn’t know Billy Dowdy?”

Janie, my stepmother, said, “Roy, he couldn’t have known him.”

As it turns out, Billy Dowdy was a man several years younger than my father.  He’d grown up in a little shack of a place that was located in a field behind my father’s boyhood home and not far from the San Gabriel River, a vein of blue-green water that the two youngsters knew well and swam in together.

In 1953, after finishing high school, my father joined the US Air Force and was sent overseas, for four years, to places like Guam and Japan, to learn and send messages in Morse code.  Before being shipped off to those faraway places, he recalls saying goodbyes to everyone he’d ever been close to.  Of course, Billy Dowdy was one of those who’d received such a farewell.

In 1957, when dad had completed his military service, he returned to Georgetown and went to see Billy, to let him know that he was back in town.  Much to my dad’s amazement, Billy, the boy, was now Billy, the alcoholic man.  He’d aged more than four years could account for.  Dad recalls that his boyhood buddy now carried a bottle with him wherever he went and that he would take his first swig immediately upon waking up and wouldn’t take his last until the booze ran dry or he’d pass out.  Where had Billy, the lad full of life and possibility, gone off to?

My father liked to party too, and sometimes he’d pick Billy up in his old roadster and the two would go honky-tonking together.  Dad remembers how his boyhood companion could sing exactly like Hank Williams.  He had a beautiful voice, and my father would drive and listen to Billy sing those sad cowboy songs as the two moved through the dark night with the windows rolled down and the breeze ruffling their combed and oiled hair.

Billy got arrested a lot and died in the Georgetown jail.  That was how Billy’s story ended.  It was also the point my father stopped telling it.  He put his glasses back on and looked down at the table.

When he looked back up again, he asked, “How had Billy gone from what he’d been to what he’d become in four short years?”  Such a transformation was beyond my father’s understanding.

I’m sitting here thinking about the question my father asked and how universal it is.  How have any of us become the people we are now?  How much of all that was by choice and how much was outside our human control?