Friday, February 24, 2012


It is slightly past 5:30 am when the first call to prayer begins, echoing from minaret to minaret across the ancient and sprawling city of Cairo. This is the time when I usually wake up. It is not faith or the low hymn that stirs me. I am simply an early riser. I wake with the birds, the cantors and the boabs – with the spinning tapes of anxious inner dialogue and take a few moments alone before the rest of my family emerges from their slumber.

I live in an Egypt now. I say ‘an’ Egypt, because I believe there are many – I have at least two Egypts in my own life. And there are certainly others. I am not the first person to see the pyramids, to float the Nile, and to leave only to mysteriously return again.

There was the Egypt I knew as a teenager - bustling dirt roads, excitement, loud haggling, and dangerous trips to the desert with suicidal friends. I don’t know where I put the photographs from that Egypt – of that skinny kid, playing adventurer. I can’t even find the building where we lived. It has been lost in a maze of new construction.

I also have several versions of Texas. In the dark moments of my present Egyptian experience, Texas is a perfect hill country spring river. I am totally and blissfully submerged in cold, pure water on a hot day. I am sharing a delicious pale ale with my best friends. Or bringing the whole family together for another perfectly executed Thanksgiving Day feast on my beloved car port in San Marcos. In this Texas I am dazzling people with my keen wit – never missing a beat. I am camping under the stars and understanding everything and everyone I meet. I am in Texas, a Texan but also a foreigner who says ‘yawl’ without sounding stupid. I take my hat off when I go inside, even if the other cowboys never learned that it is the proper thing to do. If I am eccentric, I am also competent in this Texas. But it is just one part of the story.

My new Egypt is dirtier. It is louder, more confounding. And even this new Egypt is not just one place with one mind. This Egypt has no agenda. It is constant motion and sound. It is all the cars that almost run me over when I walk to school in the morning. But it is also each car that never actually does run me over. Sometimes I laugh. Other times I want to yell out, “Just goddamn run me down if your going to!! Would you people shit or get off the pot already!!” Garbage blows past the ugly American with fists clenched, screaming at the waves and hoping to calm an ocean. It is the throng of desperate peddlers at the pyramids who lie and pull and take what I would have just given anyway if they hadn’t been so obnoxious. But it is also the stranger who chases me down two blocks to return the debit card that I stupidly left in the flashing ATM machine. It is a language that sometimes sounds like every word is a curse. But when my mood is right, I can hear the poetry in each throaty syllable. There is gentleness here amid the chaos. But I am almost always confused, and all too frequently frustrated.

The last stanza of the call to prayer fades. Mr. Zaki, the boab who lives in the construction site next door is rising from his bedroll. I am suddenly seven thousand miles away in a pet store next to an interstate in another Texas – the one I always try to leave. Mr. Zaki washes his face, his head, his hands. This pet store occupies at least 8,500 square feet. Mr. Zaki neatly lays out his prayer mat and kneels to worship. His hands are old and rough, but he has cleaned them carefully. There are three aisles of cat toys, including several brands that are hypoallergenic (for sensitive kitties). Mr. Zaki rises, creaky from a long cold night. A woman outside the store is adopting a dog, and I can donate a dollar or just stand gawking at bags of lamb and rice kibbles that are stacked twenty feet high. Mr. Zaki throws a couple of pieces of treated lumber on a small fire. Acrid smoke pushes away the morning chill. I am dumbfounded, considering the variety of dog cushions before me. Zaki pours two cups of tea from a dented aluminum kettle. There is an on site veterinarian and even a book to help you name your new pup. Zaki coughs once, sits back on the sand, and smiles. It dawns on me that I have absolutely no idea where I am.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Sweet Nothings

I love language. In particular, I love the English language. It is rich, utilitarian, poetic, descriptive, flexible, and perhaps most important of all - easy for me. After all it is the language my mom used when she was trying to get me to shut up as a baby. As such, I am pretty good at speaking it and reasonably proficient at knowing when I can get away with ignoring it. But the greatest thing about English is that you can use it to say pretty much anything.

My sister has criticized me for being pedantic at times. You should know that the temptation to write this using unnecessarily flowery words is present. I will try to resist.

I have what, in my country, we call a pet peeve. I am easily annoyed when a person who does not have a huge command of English states something in their preferred language and then looks at me (the English speaker) and tells me, with a touch of sad contempt that, "No, no... There simply is no translation." One of my stock replies is, "Oh, I'm sure there is. Maybe you just don't know it." This doesn't make me hugely popular at parties full of international types. How do you say 'arrogant redneck' in Portuguese?

And yet I stand by the general assertion that you can say just about anything worth saying in English, if you know the right words. The language is big. It is immense, enormous, grand, huge, humongous, and large. Among the most beautiful aspects of this language is that if you say a foreign word enough times in sentences otherwise populated by English words, it will magically become English. English absorbs words and claims them as its own. Normans brought words like plague, boutique, and cuisinart to England in 1066. More recently we have acquired brilliant new words from our Mexican neighbors. Most kids in Texas eat salsa now, and they all have mocos in their noses.

None of this is meant to denigrate any of the multitude of other languages spoken around the world (and in the United States). I love other languages too. I am not so very good at them. Arabic is particularly difficult. With a little practice, I can make the sounds and try to pronounce the words. My students love to harangue me about my pronunciation of Arabic words, making me say them over and over until my shirt is covered in spittle and my tongue is exhausted from rattling around my palate. By the time they finally smile and tell me that I am saying 'it' correctly, I have forgotten the meaning of what I was trying to say. It just isn't sticking. This is further complicated by the fact that nearly everybody I meet here already speaks English reasonably well. I am learning, slowly.

Spanish was easier. Though many Mexicans speak English very well, there was an unspoken (actually, often spoken) understanding among my friends there that I should learn as much Spanish as possible - that my proficiency in Spanish was my ticket to gaining any sort of deeper connection with the culture. They were certainly inviting me in, but I would be relegated to the kids' table of conversation until I learned some decent Spanish. I am not fluent in Spanish, but I can be expressive. I had a strangely proud moment yesterday when I opened my trash can lid. Two stray cats jumped out and the first thing out of mouth, without even thinking was, "¡Pinches gatos!" Sure anyone from Texas can curse in Spanish. It is no great measure of fluency. It was the automaticity of the response that made me smile.

As I learn more about other languages, I find that my English is also growing. I try not to be too proud, to swallow my sarcasm so as not to offend. A couple of years ago I remember being at a wedding. A Spanish speaker was whispering 'cariƱitos' to her baby. She loudly announced that she was telling her child, 'cariƱitos' and declared that there was absolutely no way to say it in the base and unpoetic English language. I kind of hated her at that moment and mumbled something under my breath.
"What?" She said.
"Oh nothing." I replied.
Sweet nothings.....

Friday, February 10, 2012

Driving School

I come from a family of storytellers. These stories come in many forms, presented through various media. Jenn cooks and writes, describing the brilliant meals that have sharpened my palate and softened my belly. My daughter Mina is a promising seven year old cartoonist. She is sloppy like her father. But, also like her dad, she has an eye for finding just the right line to tell a story in a scribble. My brother rants. Sure, many people rant. But he has a gift for rapid fire weavings of intensity, frustration, irony, the obvious, the obtuse, and a touch of sadness. He crams it all into little monologues that offend your sensibilities while crystalizing his point. It is the old make 'em laugh and cry at the same time gig that is the hallmark of great storytellers. People in my family don't always have the answers, but we find the words.

As I was walking through Maadi the other day I saw a sign for a driving school. It reminded me of a story my mother often tells. She has many stories from her traveling days when her nine children were being hatched in various cities across Europe - tales of frost bitten ferry rides, broken down Fiats, and endless flights with feverish children. I would classify most of her stories in the genre of historical fiction. The events and timelines are basically sound, but characters and details change to reflect modern realities and interests. The story that the driving school sign brought back is a little different. It is a story of frustration, even anger. The thing is that it never changes, so I've always assumed it isn't really true. It is not my story and I won't retell it in its entirety.

The basic idea is that my mom and dad went to get their drivers' licenses in England. They had to take a test. My dad aced the thing. My mom was cursed with a chauvinistic evaluator and had to retake the practical part several times before being given her credentials. She was angry, livid even. My dad opted to drive home. He hadn't been driving five minutes when he turned to her with some stupid question about how to negotiate an English roundabout. Her face still flushes with anger when she tells this story.

My own follow up to this story occurred when I was seventeen. My mom took me in her old Chevy wagon to take my driving test. I totally blew the parallel parking part. The little flags that represent parked cars waved frantically as I repeatedly backed over them. My tester was very short in stature. By the time she was able to turn around in her seat, stretch her body up, and peer back over the head rest, the flags had stilled. I passed my test the first time. On the way home, we stopped at a bakery for a celebratory pastry. I smashed into a car in the parking lot, red plastic from the tail light splintered across the asphalt. My mom, who was still covering my insurance at the time, claimed that she was driving and took the fall. She has never mentioned this story again in my presence - funny how much easier it is to forgive a child than a spouse.

She doesn't tell the story, but I will. I am a hack writer. I steal and lie until I find the truth. Facts are only as important as they are useful. Let me tell you a secret. I always start with the conclusion, the last sentence, and contrive my way to the beginning - looking for a starting place where you can join me. It is important that you see it my way. I already know how this will end. I knew before I opened the lid of the laptop, fired up the wireless. But this subject is just too big for my limited skills.

I haven't even tried to describe the way people drive in Cairo. I probably wont. It is a bit of an embarrassment for me to admit that I simply don't have words for it. All I have is a final sentence. It is like trying to capture the Grand Canyon in photographs. I could show you fractured images, tell you about it with intense language. But until you have stood on the rim, gazing in disbelief and lost in the immensity, you just won't get it. I could attempt to describe the car horns, a million near misses, some hits. Even as I stood gaping at the driving school sign and smiling daftly, I was very nearly taken from this world by a passing taxi. Jenn and I saw the sign at the same time. We smiled, then laughed. The anarchy of Cairo traffic was raging about us. There was that funny, magic moment of shared understanding. I don't remember which of spoke first, drying tears from our eyes, "They have schools for this?"

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Happy Gudi Padwa! errr... New Years!!!

Every year Jenn comes up with a set of novel, measurable, and achievable New Years resolutions that she labors over before finally picking one or two that she commits to following for the next year. Some examples include planting an herb garden and catching, killing, cleaning, and cooking a fish. They are invariably positive, challenging her to grow in some way rather than being restrictive and unpleasant (like losing weight). When you consider that she starts with a list of smart goals and that she can be quite determined, it is no surprise that she nearly always achieves her goals.

I normally just try to be funny or vague. I think this is a throwback to my childhood when we would abstain from things during Lent. I was great at denying myself cabbage and premarital sex (I was only 9). Neither did I smoke or over fish cod in the northern Atlantic.

You probably didn't notice (nobody else did) that last year I resolved to be sexier. The year before I resolved to be fabulous, and I very nearly was. There was one year when I followed Jenn's model and it worked well for me. I noticed that my feet, hidden in sweaty leather shoes most of the time, were becoming like those of an old man. They were ugly and course, with dry skin and poky, untidy nails. I actually started to trim my toenails every time I did my fingers. I used lotions and moisturizer every week. There are these cool volcanic stones - I'm a man and did not know this before - that, with a little rubbing, will make a fellow's heels as smooth as a baby bottom. I really did this for a whole year. There has been some carry over. Though I don't use the pumice stone like I used to, I do still at least crouch down to wash my feet periodically while showering. But most years I have not been so practical and Jenn like.

This year I tried the Jenn model again. My first goal was to gain a better understanding of Islam. I have actually started, in my way. I am living in a Muslim country. I do not feel comfortable sharing this experience with you yet. It will be a personal voyage. Sorry.

I was also planning to learn more about ancient Egypt. The ancient gods are easy and fun to draw. What could be funnier than a man with the head of a jackal placing a human liver into a jar? People do not tend to get offended by cartoon renderings of Horus or Anubis. In a sense, hieroglyphics are just really cool old cartoons engraved on walls. Hopefully no ancient Egyptian holdouts will ride in on camels to show their displeasure with my humorous renderings of Isis and Ra. Although that would make a pretty good story if they did.

My other practical resolution has been to always take the stairs. I work on the fourth floor. Here it is considered the third floor - another story for another day. Considering the state of elevators around here and my fairly natural fear of plunging to an early death, this resolution is easy to accomplish. The stair climbing coupled with the constant state of near dysentery that I have been experiencing are doing wonders for my girlish figure. My pants are loosening and my calves and buttocks are turning to iron.

You may have noticed that this letter is pretty late, even if you are a celebrant of Chinese New Years. If you want to get technical, most places in India don't celebrate the new year until the middle of April. But, let's be honest. I just looked that up a moment ago. The point is to have positive, workable resolutions. Perhaps next year I'll give up procrastination.