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 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.

M****** Wanted to Ride Me Like a Donkey

A few days ago I started penning  a memoir as a way of coming out of a period of creative dormancy.

This post–the part that follows this intro–is an excerpt from that not-yet-titled autobiographical work.

This will be my second autobiography.  The first one was called Blue Yonder.  It was never published even though I sent it off to several literary agents in NYC (and elsewhere) and was able to generate considerable interest.  M****** K******–I don’t remember the name of the agency she worked for–strung me along for months.  She liked the manuscript but requested a few rewrites which I completed.  She also asked me to write up a book proposal.  Again, I obliged.

I sent the proposal off and she took a long while reviewing it.  She came back with a critique of my marketing plan.  She asked me to do a little research on how to market a work of nonfiction and then resubmit the proposal.  Being the good boy that I am, I did all that she asked.

To make a long story short, she eventually, after giving me the run around and building my hopes up, sent a cursory rejection note.  This had been the culmination of months of work on my part and lots of to and fro emailing.

This whole experience taught me lessons.  For one, my writing is good enough.  (She even told me so.)  Secondly, her sole reason for rejecting me was rooted in the fact I hadn’t proved to her that I could be a good salesman.  By the way, I never, not once, not even in the initial query letter, promised that I was an experienced hawker of books.  (Isn’t it asking enough that one be able to write one?)  Wasn’t she supposed to do something other than contact the publishing houses after I’d put years of labor into the project?  Her webpage promised that she would be with her authors every step of the way.  Did she really mean that or were those just pretty words?

What M****** wanted was to ride me like a donkey.  I was supposed to carry her to the place where all the money could be found and then she would jump off my back long enough to fill her saddlebags with dough.  Had I signed up with her and had book sales lagged, I sure she would have taken out a stick and flogged me on my butt along with digging her spurs into my flanks.

Anyway, I’m ready to try again, but not with M******.  The first couple of pages of the first-draft of this second attempt can be found below:

***

My heart is untroubled, and my face wears a permanent smile.  When I close my eyes and try to visualize what I look like, in my current state, I see myself as a contented Buddha-like character, sitting with crossed legs under a lotus tree.

I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, as well as beating around the bush.  I’m trying to say that I’m in one of those rare good places in my life where everything seems to have worked out perfectly well and now, as a result, I am truly happy.  I don’t know if this wonderful turn of events happened because I was able to engineer it to be so or if it’s the result of pure dumb luck.

Most of the last two years—up until about four months ago—have been damned hard, and I was, during that period of darkness, not at all feeling blissful.  Looking back at my recent past, I could say—without being guilty of anything that even remotely resembles exaggeration—that I’ve just come through hell.  On my trip through the fiery pit, I got a bit singed but wasn’t wholly reduced to ashes.

My story starts on the evening of July 2, 2015, the day I landed at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, and was greeted by my father and stepmother.  I hardly remember my arrival in Texas’ capital because I was so exhausted.  I’m sure that the three of us talked about how my flights had gone and other inane subjects while we waited for my two pieces of luggage to find their way onto the baggage carousel conveyor belt and then into my hands.  We then made our way to my parents’ parked car, loaded my suitcases into its trunk, and drove the whole kit and caboodle to Georgetown, Texas, a beautiful, smallish city that’s located just up Interstate 35 about half an hour or so.  Once in Georgetown and at my folks’ place, I went immediately to bed and slept the fitful sort of semi-slumber I always have after completing one of my international sojourns.

This particular trip had been a really long one.  I’d started it in Cairo, Egypt, and had passed over portions of three continents—Africa, Europe, and North America—and two significant bodies of water—the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.  I’d had a long layover at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International Airport where I wiled away the hours awaiting my next flight by wandering among souvenir shops and looking at tiny, plastic versions of the Eiffel Tower.  My movements through said shops bore a strong resemblance to the way a zombie might wander in a post-apocalyptic landscape.  On a side note, many people who travel by plane have the good fortune of being able to sleep aboard those big birds as they cruise high above terra firma, but I am not blessed like this, which means that I always have to find ways to kill time.  Often, while on board, I achieve this by drinking as much alcohol as my belly and bladder can hold.  This method is tried and true for me and I took full advantage of it as I made my slow way over land and sea…

 

 

Forced Awakening

seeing-whats-there

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.

I’m Pretty Sure I’ve Been Here Before

Life takes some incredible twists and turns.  About a million years ago, I was born in San Antonio, Texas, a city that’s a little bit America and a little bit Mexico, and then, back when I was still pooping in diapers, mom and dad carried me off to Garland, a suburb of Dallas.  Over the decades, I have had one or two opportunities to return to my birthplace, but only as a tourist and only for very brief visits.  Mostly, I’ve been estranged from the locale that could rightfully be called my hometown.

Then, in the latter days of September of 2015, a few months after I’d left my post at The American University in Cairo, a very sudden job offer in San Antonio came my way while Azza—my Egyptian wife of five years and new America émigré—and I were camped out with family, in their guest bedroom, in another part of the Lone Star State.  Of course, I signed on the dotted line, right where my new employer told me to.  We then loaded up, headed to south Texas, down where the beautiful language of Spanish is ubiquitously spoken, and set up house.

All these years later, I am back in San Antonio, the place where I (literally) got my start.  From time to time, when I’m tooling around the city, I get this weird déjà vu feeling.  As a matter of fact, this past weekend, Azza and I went to the San Antonio zoo, and while standing in front of the flamingo cage, I had this odd sensation that I had stood in this exact spot before.  The bird scene before me seemed bizarrely familiar.  I lifted my camera, took a few photos of the pink, hook-nosed birds, while goosebumps rose on my arms.

flamingo

We spent three hours among the animals and enjoyed our time more than I can accurately articulate here.  I’ve always been a nut for creatures—this nuttiness was especially acute when I was a tyke—and I felt that old delight resurface as we moved from cage to cage.  For some reason, on this particular outing, I especially liked the fish in their various watery enclosures.  They swam past us, flashing a zillion neon colors as they went.  In fact, I was so captivated by them it took me a while to actually notice that in one particularly large aquarium there were two hippos, their grotesquely large bodies magnified by the water, floating among those finned and gilled darters.

I’ve included a few photos here and am upset with myself that I didn’t get a good shot of the gibbons as they swung through the treetops, picked insects off on another, and otherwise reminded me of how humanlike they are.  While watching them do their monkey business, I got so enthralled—my mouth was probably agape—that I simply forgot to lift my camera and click the shutter.

 

 

 

 

One of the Weirdest Experiences of My Life

My life has undergone a radical transformation since the last time I posted here. I left Egypt, my home for the past seven years, flew back to Georgetown, Texas, and then moved in with my family. All this in an attempt to restart my life in the United States.

For a bit more than a month, I had to live apart from Azza, my Egyptian wife, while she awaited her green card interview with a bureaucrat in the American embassy in downtown Cairo. Federal law requires the authorities to do a face-to-face chat with potential new immigrants to see if they harbor any criminal aspirations or political ill will toward the land about to accept them into its fold. Azza did her interview with her usual aplomb and charmed the person she spoke with, proving, in the process, that America had nothing to fear if she packed her bags and moved there. (Her gift of gab is only surpassed by her skills in the kitchen.) As a result, the American government made her the proud owner of a permanent resident visa.

Azza and I now share a guest bedroom in Georgetown, and I’m busily looking for work. When I’m not sending out résumés and pounding the proverbial pavement, my wife and I spend our days going to thrift shops and rummaging around at garage and estate sales. The buys we’ve been making are meant to supplement the shipment we having coming in from overseas. Said container of personal items consists of forty-two boxes, some of them nearly the size of an old-fashioned Volkswagen Bug.

This brings me to the subject of this blog. This past weekend we drove to an estate sale located in a part of Georgetown I was totally unfamiliar with. We parked, walked up to the front door, and entered, only to find a domicile full of people pawing over the contents of the place. Azza and I separated and I headed toward one of the back bedrooms which was mostly filled with all sorts of Christmas stuff—Santa Clauses, tree ornaments, and the like, all piled up on card tables. I moved deeper into the room and found myself standing in front of a closet with its door open. I looked into it, and my eyes were immediately drawn toward a stuffed animal—a “plush” as collectors and pickers like to say—in the shape of Snoopy of Charlie Brown fame.

The Snoopy was completely covered with writing. As I looked closer, I could see that the toy had been autographed by dozens of people. I was shocked to see names I remembered from my elementary school days—I grew up in Georgetown before moving off to college and then farther afield. I then noticed, to my shocked amazement, my own name amongst the others and nearly had an out-of-body experience as soon as I made the discovery.

I took the plush in hand and carried it to the woman sitting at the cash register located near the front door. “Who lived in this house?” I asked her.

“The Simmons family, long-time residents of Georgetown,” she told me.

“Wow!” I said, and then I showed her Snoopy and my own signature on the dog’s head.

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, a classmate named Barry Simmons was burned in a house fire. His injuries were horrific, and he missed months of school while he was recovering. During his absence, our class bought a stuffed animal—the Snoopy I found and purchased at the estate sale—signed it, and gave it to him as a way of showing that he was in our thoughts. So, for the price of two dollars, I now own a little piece of my boyhood history.

This blog is my latest telling of this story. Everyone who hears it finds it as unlikely as I do.

I’m not a superstitious sort, but I’m hoping that the finding of Snoopy is some kind of sign, one suggesting that Azza and I are about to begin a period of many wonderful occurrences and good fortune.