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…

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 5)

I graduated from little Forsan High, in Forsan, Texas, way back when. To say the school was small is like saying that the Sahara Desert is a large area of land covered by sand.

There were twenty-one of us who received diplomas during commencement. It took the superintendent of schools—my mother had married the man not long after our arrival in West Texas so he was actually my step-father at the time—less than five minutes to call all our names and to distribute the fancily printed certificates of accomplishment. We then congregated in the vestibule of the auditorium, with our parents and the other guests still seated inside, and screamed our class chant, a thing we had artfully composed all by ourselves. It was basically an expletive-laced manifesto of how we’d just freed ourselves from tyranny and were about to conquer the world with our brains and good looks.

Of course, it took the world about five minutes to distribute all sorts of humbling experiences, which let us know, in no uncertain terms, that our existences actually meant nothing in the larger scheme of things no matter how clever or pretty we considered ourselves to be.

I left home and enrolled in a little university called Angelo State, located in San Angelo, Texas, which was just down Highway 87 from Forsan. I mostly went there because Dwayne Norton, my best friend in high school, had graduated two years earlier and was beckoning me to join him. That plus the town was loaded with bars and discos I really dug with an added bonus being that many of them featured twenty-five-cent-tequila-shot nights on a regular basis.

Up until that point in my life, I had been a good student, but not the sort who consulted with guidance counselors and such. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up—I still haven’t come up with any definitive conclusions yet—so I wasn’t one of these kids who goes to college with a plan and then follows it religiously. It was more important that I be near Dwayne and in a location where I could party like it was 1999.

I started off at ASU by taking a weird collection of courses that were all over the map. Then, just before the start of my second term, I needed to register for an elective, so I looked at the choices I was offered and picked a class called “Introduction to Philosophy.”

Our professor—I can’t precisely remember her name—but I can perfectly recall how she looked and spoke, was a woman from Belgium, which likely made her the first European I ever had contact with. Her last name might have been Randall—that doesn’t sound terribly Belgian though—and her first one could have been Janine or Jeanne. Anyway, she also taught French in the Department of Foreign Languages.

OK, so I’ll call her Professor Randall. She was probably about in her mid-40s at that time and had greying, curly hair. She wore plastic framed glasses, with thick lenses that magnified her eyes, which was very appropriate because she was able to see so much in the texts we read for class. She spoke with a slightly pinched and nasally voice and a strong French accent. But the thing about her I found most intriguing was her absolute courage. She said things in class that were brave and intended to shake our tiny bodies and minds to their cores—we were, after all, mostly kids from little towns who had never been exposed to any sort of real thinking or ideas in our entire lives.

I suppose it was her job to sort of pull the rug out from under us and she succeeded in that mission. I guess I’m being presumptuous speaking for my classmates—perhaps they all just sat there like giant, single-celled organisms and closed their minds to her talk and the texts—but I soaked it all up like a sponge that had never sipped a drop of water but had been waiting and waiting for the opportunity to do so.

Professor Randall kept pouring out those liquid ideas and I kept absorbing them so fast that I could feel that my mind was bloating. But it never did reach the point of supersaturation. There was always room to take in more and more.