The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 4)

Before I tell you the full story of how I had my mind blown at college, I want to let you know that I’ll be voting for Bernie Sanders for president this year. Yes, I am truly and wonderfully feeling the Bern—as are tens of millions of other citizens!

What does this political confession have to do with this essay and memoir? Aren’t I in danger of losing my focus by veering off like this?

Not in the least! I’m at least partly a Sanders supporter because he seems to understand what many other candidates do not—that the President of the United States has to be the nation’s educator-in-chief.

We take for granted that all American presidents have an important military job to play when we refer to them as the commander-in-chief. We also understand that they have a vital role in keeping America’s economy humming along. It certainly goes without saying that the head of the executive branch of government has a myriad of other duties to play.

What we often don’t realize is that perhaps his most important job of all is to help the populace better understand the world in which they live. This makes him or her—I hope we have a woman president very soon, but just not during this election cycle—the teacher of greatest importance and outreach in this large and complex nation-state.

It is perfectly clear that Sanders understands all this. That’s why he expends so much energy telling the electorate things that make so many so uncomfortable. That’s why he speaks about how out of balance America has become and about how the super-rich have rigged the political and economic game so that the remaining 99 percent of us have found ourselves incredibly marginalized.

In a sense, Sanders is not saying anything that many of us don’t already viscerally understand to be true. But to watch someone running for president break such a taboo—to suggest that America has a variety of fundamental shortcomings—is downright cathartic. Most politicians talk about the country in syrupy, self-congratulatory ways that some interpret as “patriotism,” but Sanders shows us that all is not well in paradise. In fact, his critique raises questions about the very notion that America is an “exceptional” country.

To see so many responding to Sanders so positively suggests that the nation is ready for such an explainer-in-chief. Sanders happened along at a moment in American history when a large segment of the population was feeling self-reflective and ready to accept uncomfortable truths. Learning is often a painful process whereby the learner has to give up old habits and beliefs in exchange for growth. The nation appears ready to make this tradeoff, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 3)

I grew up just north of a tiny community called Georgetown, Texas, a sleepy place of approximately five thousand inhabitants. The nature of the village was such that it was easy for its citizens to live dreamy lives.

I have vivid recollections of the town, as it used to be before it became fast-paced and congested, before it became Austin’s premier bedroom community. Today, the town—it’s more of a city really—is on fire with development. The few old-timers who still live there speak wistfully of a slower and simpler past.

But, back in the day, it was a quiet village, filled with grand Victorian houses that were shaded by tall pecan trees. There was a stop sign or two and maybe a traffic light. People got their groceries at the little Piggly Wiggly and their clothes at Gold’s Department Store on the square. There were a handful of churches and every family attended one. The schools weren’t crowded, nor did they resemble the fortresses of security that we so frequently see today when we drive past one. I guess it was pretty much Central Texas’ version of Mayberry R.F.D. I realize I’ve dated myself some with that reference to The Andy Griffith Show spin-off. I remember a slew of other programs that are part of the lore of 1970s television. Such is the memory of a man my age.

When my parents broke up, I moved, with my mom and brother, to Forsan, Texas, with the result being that I left my life in a small town to start anew in an even tinier one.

The point of all this is that I came of age in conventional places where people never dreamed of entertaining thoughts that were the least bit radical. Most citizens of Georgetown or Forsan didn’t even know what they didn’t know. The vast majority of children grow up similarly, I suppose, in places like I’ve described. It is universally true that the family and the local community give us our shape. By “shape,” I also mean our “limits.”

When I went off to university, I was a small-town boy who was intellectually stunted due to no fault of my own. But because of the influence of those individuals I mentioned in my previous blog, I was also the fertile ground into which the seeds of all sorts of new ideas could be planted. So, when I registered for classes like philosophy, political science, sociology, psychology, and literature, strange flora began to sprout and the terrain of my mind was changed forever.

Waking Up

on the riverwalk

It’s been really hard to shake the feeling that I’ve just woken up from a really long sleep. That’s because these recent weeks seem so dreamlike, so unreal, or perhaps, even surreal.

Just about eleven weeks ago to the day, I got word that a company that hires civilian contractors for the US military was interested in employing me to do educational work of an intercultural sort. This news came suddenly, while I was visiting my sick grandmother in West Texas. The job offer came with one stipulation—that my wife and I relocate to San Antonio, Texas, within a matter of days.

So we packed up, quickly. We were only able to take with us the few things we could fit into our Subaru. I managed to get online and was able to reserve a room in a place called Studio 6 Extended Stay—an old Motel 6 facility that had decked out a number of its rooms with kitchens and cooking utensils.

We moved into the place, bought groceries to fill up our fridge. The following day, I started one of the most intense orientation and training programs—along with seven other trainees—ever devised by human beings. I arrived at my new workplace a few minutes after 6 a.m. each morning. Our days were filled with “briefings” and then we did all sorts of practice teaching that was observed by a large number of people who wrote up reports on what they’d seen us do. We were like lab rats sent running through mazes in search of chunks of cheese. Not all of us passed these early tests. It was boot camp for teachers and some of us were let go before the real work even got started.

I find it incredibly hard to believe that it’s been a touch less than three months since we arrived in San Antonio. In some ways, it seems like a year or more has gone by. In other ways, it seems like mere days.

I’ve been mostly exhausted since all this got started. Finally, though, I’m beginning to catch my breath. I’ve even started to wake up from this dream-state I’ve been in. I’ve mostly been in survival mode, just doing those basic things that each day required of me, but now I’m beginning to think about writing. The old creative juices are beginning to flow again. This means more blogging—of a regular sort—is in the offing.

The photo I’ve included, at the outset of this piece, is a nice one and full of symbolism. It was one of the earliest ones I took in San Antonio—on one of our visits to the city’s famed Riverwalk, downtown. In it, Azza and I have just stepped across a threshold and a dome-shaped ceiling can be seen overhead. Behind us is a wall, a waterfall, and the past. We are wearing shades as we are looking forward, toward the camera, into a bright future. We are smiling and wearing expressions of expectation. Something about us in the photo suggests that we are travelers or explorers, embarking on a sojourn that will provide plenty of wonderful surprises.


Several Thousand Tasty Words

I’m adjusting very well to living in America again. I say this because I keep having these moments where I look around and think, “I feel so wonderfully contented!” Such an experience occurred yesterday as Azza and I were sitting on the front porch and watching a cold summertime rain fall. After a particularly bright flash of lightning and then the delayed rumble of faraway thunder, I shuddered and felt completely overwhelmed by the beauty of my surroundings. I didn’t ruin it by trying to verbally express what I was feeling. I just sighed and quietly enjoyed the moment.

I’d like to share a bit more good news but of a different sort. It looks like I’ve landed a job, but I can’t write about it here because Azza would be very mad if I did because the contract is being prepared (as I write this) and thus I haven’t signed it yet. She believes it’s really bad luck to share good news prematurely. So, in a bow to her and her superstitions, I’ll just say that things are about to look up on the money front.

This past weekend, Janie, my stepmother, suggested that we drive over to a place called the Oscar Store, in what’s left of Oscar, Texas, to eat lunch. So we loaded up in the KIA and drove north and a bit east on Highway 95, with Georgetown as our starting point. This route took us through beautiful farmland—of a rolling-hills sort—and a handful of little Central Texas hamlets with names like Weir, Granger, Bartlett, Holland, Sparks, Little River-Academy, and Heidenheimer.

Route of Our Trip
Route of Our Trip

After about forty-five minutes or so, we pulled onto a little off-the-beaten-path road and into a grove of huge oak and pecan trees. Nestled amongst those mammoths was a sprawling structure made of repurposed barn lumber and tin. (There’s no telling how many rickety structures gave their lives so that the “store” could be born.) Actually, this page gives a bit of history on how and when the place came to be.

To make a long story short, we entered the eatery, took seats, looked at menus, ordered food, scarfed it down, paid our bill, bemoaned our bloated conditions, and then took off. We also wandered around, took a few photos, including some of a helicopter that was parked nearby; well-to-do patrons had used it to fly in to the restaurant. Because a picture really is worth a thousand words, I’ve included a few photos here.

We’re Moving

Our Stuff Boxed Up

My wife and I are leaving Egypt. This move has been in the planning stages for months now, but things got real yesterday when the shippers came, boxed up all our stuff, loaded it into the back of a truck, and then hauled it off to a warehouse belonging to Express International Group, a company that moves people hither and yon. In a few days, another eighteen-wheeler will transport our boxes to the port city of Alexandria. From there, they’ll be shoved into a container and then sent across the wide and wild Atlantic Ocean to Houston, Texas, where they will be x-rayed and ushered through customs. Yet another truck, this one driven by a Texan, will then transport them, via highway and byway, through the piney woods of East Texas to the Austin area, their ultimate destination. The next time we see our things, it will be in a totally different context.

These days my Egyptian wife needs nearly constant reassuring so I keep telling her that we’ll never entirely be separated from this part of North Africa. This is her birthplace and her becoming the owner of an American passport certainly will not change that fact. So we’ll always return. We’ll always be in contact. I will continue to learn the local language even when I don’t hear it being spoken as often as I do now.

Yesterday’s pack up was harder for my wife than it was for me. I am merely attached to this place via marriage and employment. Her roots run much deeper than that, and I sometimes worry about how well she’ll take to being pulled up and transplanted.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying yesterday was easy for me, not by any stretch of the imagination. Things felt very final as our house emptied out, box by box. And this place, more than some of the other countries I’ve lived in, has gotten inside me over the years. Egypt can do that to a person. Living here can be transformative. It certainly has changed me, in more ways than I can ever fully describe here.

I first came to Cairo in August of 2008, three plus years before Hosni Mubarak was unceremoniously kicked out of office. During the uprising against his regime, I stubbornly stayed on even though most foreigners were fleeing by the thousands. I saw and did things I never thought I’d see or do as those momentous historical events unfolded. After Mubarak’s departure, there was a brief period of euphoria. Egyptians felt like anything and everything was possible and they were celebrated, far and wide, as heroes.

That happy time was short lived. Things began to deteriorate after that. And they continue to do so to the point that I wonder when the final unraveling will take place. Some wishful thinkers see stability when they look around them. I see something entirely different. This place is certainly going to have to get much worse before it can get better, if that’s even possible. These last few years have made me very jaded and pessimistic. And now sadness and disappointment are the dominant emotions I feel when I look around.

All that sadness finally got to me. So we are pulling up stakes and about to start again. It certainly feels like it’s time for a new beginning. Please wish us luck…

The Third Reason

Two blogs ago I said we had two reasons for traveling to Dahklah Oasis and Ain El Oda in southwestern Egypt. I failed to mention that we also wanted to check out and purchase some of the wonderful handicrafts the region is so well known for.

I should back up some and tell you that Azza, my Egyptian wife of three years, is in the home stretch of receiving her green card. About fifteen months or so ago, we hired a fancy immigration lawyer, with an office in Austin, Texas, to help us start the process. I’ve been living in Egypt for seven years now, but recently, let’s say in the last year and a half, the security situation has gotten so that it’s now time for us to get out of this part of the world while the gettin’s good. This point was recently driven home when we had a bomb blow up on our street, not more than a hundred yards away from our apartment building, which is located in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo and a part of the city once thought to be immune from the sort of political violence that is wracking this country and the entire Middle East-North Africa region.

So what does this have to do with us wanting to look at handicrafts in rural Egypt? Well, we’ve been thinking that we might start an import-export business and bring a bunch of super cool decorative items into the US to sell. The Egyptians are not as well-known as the Turks or Iranians for their rugs, but they make some mighty fine ones. And they produce hand-tooled metal light fixtures that are simply to die for. Applique, pottery, furniture, and hand-blown glass can be added to the list of things produced by Egyptian artists and craftspeople.

In this piece I want to focus on baskets and basketry. During our visit to the oasis, we picked up a few of these vessels to add to our collection. They are exquisite examples of the craft and the sort of decorative item many Americans would simply go bonkers over. Don’t you agree?

Finding Albuquerque and Santa Fe in Unexpected Places

I’m pretty sure my visit to Ain El Oda was unprecedented. Never had a non-Egyptian stepped foot in the place. And then here I came, an actually American, wandering the unpaved streets and taking in the sights.

As you might guess my sudden appearance created quite a stir. On about the second day I began to catch villagers sneaking peeks at me. They’d hide behind donkey carts and such. All I’d see would be a curious eye, often wide with amazement, peering out from some dark, secretive place.

Azza’s family’s reaction to my visit was sweet. Many tried their hand at speaking English, not having uttered a word of that foreign tongue since graduating from school. People wanted to give me things. The fatted calf was killed and great pots of food were heaped upon the table. They wanted to make sure that my glass was always full. Did I want a little taste of homemade cheese? How about some fresh bread?

They also planned a lot of events. So, every afternoon and evening, they’d load me into a car and shuttle me around. I think they were worried I’d find the place too off the beaten path, so they wished to assure me they had places to go and things to see too, just like the larger world did.

I was driven to see two nearby hotels and given tours of each one. Both were funky-cool by any set of standards a person might want to apply. One of the places was called Badawiya Dakhla Hotel and was situated in El Qasr, an ancient place known for its wonderful folksy handicrafts. The other was Al Tarfa Lodge and Spa which is owned by a member of Sawarises, a family with pockets so deep their bottoms cannot be seen without the use of a high-powered telescope.

I’ve included a selection of exterior and interior photos. Note how reminiscent the buildings are of New Mexican adobes.

Sitting with Khadra

Azza and I are very tired today. Last night, around 10 p.m., we returned from a week-long road trip across a good portion of Egypt. We made this journey—a bumpy and sandy one—in a tough-as-nails Jeep Grand Cherokee owned and driven by Magdy, my wife’s oldest brother. Accompanying us was Basma, Magdy’s wife, Zeineb, Azza’s mother, and “Mehdu”—short for Mohamed—Zeineb’s youngest grandson.

The purpose of the trip was twofold: have a Spring Break adventure and visit a number of Azza’s uncles, aunts, and cousins, a sweet bunch of country folk who reside in an area of southwestern Egypt known as the Dahkla Oasis. To get a sense of where we went, find El Kharga on the map (see below) and then go west from there until you come to a place called El Qasr. That’s about where we ended up. The village we actually stayed in is not depicted. It’s called Ain El Oda.


If you’re into distances and that sort of thing, that’s a thousand miles, round-trip, across potholed highways that occasionally disappeared due to the creeping encroachment of mountain-sized sand dunes. In fact, portions of our sojourn could realistically be described as “off road.”

I envision this blog being the first in a series about the trip. What I did in Ain El Oda, and its environs, and the people I met there. My impressions. That sort of thing.

I’d like to do this first one on a woman named Khadra, one of Azza’s great-aunts.

I first met Khadra on her bed in the room where she slept, a dark space, made of Egypt’s version of adobe, with a dirt floor underneath our feet. The ceiling consisted of raw timber rafters and more mud. The bed was pushed up against one of the walls and the door was standing wide open, allowing flies to freely enter and exit. Semiha, one of Khadra’s daughters, was visiting her mother when we arrived. Of course, we all greeted one another in typical Egyptian fashion—a kiss applied to one side of the face and then the other, alternating like that until three or four smooches had found their mark.

There were no chairs so we simply sat on the bed itself. Khadra was wearing mourning black—Azza later explained that she’d dressed herself in this color nine years earlier, at the loss of a close member of the family, and just about the time she was ready to return to her regular attire, one of her sons died. Those traumas had been enough to cause her to grieve in perpetuity. Before the end of that initial visit, I asked Azza to ask Khadra how old she was. Khadra thought for a moment and then shrugged her shoulders. She wasn’t for sure. Eighty something, she guessed.

Khadra in her Bedroom
Khadra in her Bedroom

I immediately felt a strong kinship with Khadra. She talked about her physical ailments but never seemed to dwell on them. She had this marvelous way of suddenly turning toward me and looking me straight in the eyes before sending countrified Arabic my way. Of course, I wasn’t able to understand most of what she said, but Azza kept translating. Her utterances often had something to do with how happy she was to meet me and how glad she was Azza and I had gotten married.

In the evenings we made sure to return to Khadra’s place for a bit of socializing. After dark she’d leave her bed and go to the “sitting room,” a space that included a small television which she completely ignored. Instead, she would busy herself by talking with the ten or so visitors who’d come to say hello.

Visiting Khadra
Visiting Khadra

At one point, I told Azza to tell her great-aunt that she reminded me of my maternal grandmother, a woman I’m sure I’ll eventually blog about. As soon as she heard that, Khadra smiled and her face lit up. I’d given her such a compliment that she insisted I allow her to give me a kiss. Of course, I immediately obliged. Luckily, Azza had her camera at the ready and was thus able to digitally capture the moment.

Khadra Kissing Me
Khadra Kissing Me