Monday, November 16, 2009

BEIRUT: Written in 2005

Beirut. City of mystery. Land of turmoil and warfare. Never can an emotional being enter Lebanon and go away with an idle experience. The country personifies itself as an elegant past that has slipped off the silken gloves of aristocracy – of royal palaces along the Cornish, overlooking the welcoming Mediterranean that beckons visitors to stand in awe near Roche with a view of snow-capped mountains. The peaks stand majestically in their protective military-like guard, waiting for the enemy to clandestinely crawl along the shores again. Beirut. Beyrouth. An echo of days alive with thundering excitement and European finery. Lebanese breads winding their way between passers-by permeate the otherwise seaside air and tease one’s forbidden appetite. It’s Beirut. And it is a moment in time. Today is wonder. Tomorrow is crying blood. Tomorrows are uncertain in Beirut; however, something emerges from the soul of those who live there. The stories that are hidden deep inside of women, men, merchants, students, and other land-loving Lebanese keep tapping on their hearts as though to say “Let me out! Let me out!” Many only shed the empty tears while the stories stay untold.
Five or six years ago I recall one of those moments that we are often left pondering as though it were frozen in time. The warmth of the morning sun slowly crawled through the open window and crept across the bed, teasing my eyelids until I submitted to its command to rise. I hate ambiguous situations like this. The freshly scented sheets and comfort of my pillow were too inviting, yet the Beirut life coming alive outside seemed to collaborate with the unseasonably warm February weather to beckon me outdoors. Besides, hotel bedrooms in the Middle East are not too generous as far as space and now I’ve been awake long enough to know it is time to embark on a new journey.
One only needs to experience one trip to this war-damaged city to feel the determination of its people to rebuild their bombed out shelters along with their hopes to rise out of its religious and political venom to take its seat again at the top of the cultural and intellectual hierarchy of Arab states. Beirut, the name which evokes distaste and fear from the Western world and reminders of the Islamic extremist group, Hezbollah’s attack on the marine barracks back in 1982, is the same city that is spoken of in prestigious circles as the Paris of the Middle East. Now, Beirut has called me back an eighth time – to reinforce the spirit of love and friendship that I have come to understand and failed to disregard even after the events of September 11th. Each trip back to Beirut has provided me with additional friends and reinforcement in my belief that people are basically good here in Lebanon. Yes, there is the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah whose fame is now in its success of retaliatory attacks on Israeli strongholds in Southern Lebanon that eventually caused it to withdraw its troops in April, 2000. And, of course, I, like most Americans, never heard of Beirut until that horrific massacre of 260 marines by the suicide truck bomb at the barracks near today’s Beirut airport. Add to this, the 17 years of civil war between the Muslims and Christians that was ignited in the center of Beirut by Christians and Muslims and unfortunately the ears and eyes of Westerners turned away in disgust, planting a permanent memory chip in their mind’s computer hardware that may never be willing to be rebooted again. Finally, Beirut has become the battlefield again in Summer 2006, raped by Hezbollah and Israel both.
Someone once told me that I was courageous to travel to Lebanon. Additionally on all travel documents, the warning “US citizens are urged to travel with caution in Lebanon,” is enough ammunition for many to shy away from the country that propaganda continues to fuel with fear and distrust in the country. However, I can illustrate with absolute confidence that I feel safe and secure in Beirut. Ambiguous as it may be in its history, Beirut on this day as I sit down on the Mediterranean on the Muslim feast of Eid Al Adha, I am witnessing a spirit of happiness, friendship, peace, and even love. I just met Mohammed Safi. He was strolling along the Cornish, a five-mile long, 30 foot wide walkway along the Mediterranean Sea that tempts all ethnicities to step outside the boundaries of despair and hate to walk together in fellowship, happiness, and with a fresh air of liberation of the constraints that choke our politicians. Mohammed’s two-year old son had almost run over my foot on his bright red tricycle, which woke me from my trance as I flipped through the pages of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a story of man’s trip from the civilization of Europe to the primitive interior of the uncivilized Congo in Africa. Ironically, the very spot in which I sit, just 10 years ago had been surrounded by continuous bombing and shelling, in a most uncivilized fashion that brought this city of ambiguity to its knees. Although this moment preceded the recent hostilities in 2006, the sense of civilization continues to permeate the atmosphere. Little Ahmed, Mohammed’s son, intruded on my solitude and yet I welcomed the interruption of the isolation I was feeling in the reading of my novel and little did they realize that they would end up on the pages of an American professor’s journal, one who was desperately trying to patch the holes of discord and misunderstanding. Then there was a young covered Kuwaiti woman, and her family. On the Cornish were Canadians and Americans. Some, here for business. Some, tourists. Within hours, the Mediterranean had drawn in thousands of walkers as the sun continued to light the paths of young and old alike. Except for the slaughtered sheep for sacrificial offerings on the side streets of the Cornish, one would never expect that this peaceful city was once under turmoil or that a woman from Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania was sitting above the waves of ambiguity in a sea of experiences, on the outskirts of Beirut, a city that is finally coming back to reclaim itself as perhaps I am. Pondering, I am like Beirut. I knew it. Something draws me here several times a year. I’m not quite sure what it is. Maybe it is the soul of Khalil Gibran, author of The Prophet. His spirit in some way brought Roula and I together as friends – a special friend from the rolling seaside city of Byblos. Or possibly it is the contrasting scenery from the benches on the Mediterranean as one looks up to the white peaks painting the skyscape. Possibly it is the breathless climb to the hills toward Tripoli. But, somehow, the mystery of Lebanon stretches into my veins and energizes me in a way I can’t explain. I have reclaimed myself too. Just five years ago I was facing the most crucial time of my life and asking questions that couldn’t be answered. Today I am sitting in a Middle Eastern city, alone, but alive in spirit. Vendors roll past me. Lebanese breads. Steaming corn. Toothless smiles. Unshaven cheeks surrounded by hopeful eyes. Before long, I’ll be joining friends. But for now, I am relishing in the moment of ambiguities. It all started when the sun invited me out of the sheets of inactivity to a world alive with music, love, happiness, family, friends. It is the world today in Beirut, Lebanon. And, it is the world in my heart.

Monday, November 2, 2009


The daily drive on any of the Kuwaiti roads reveals personalities that defy description. Normally peaceful people, no matter what ethnicity, turn into enraged demons driving vehicles they imagine to be made as indestructible machines. Take for instance this morning. As I approached the end of my road in preparation to turn right and again right onto the Airport Road, I observed a black GMC Yukon approaching from about 100 yards to the left. Immediately, I determined the personality of the driver, unseen by me at the moment. The vehicle sped up as though it were late for a million-dollar give-away. The challenge, as I suppose, in the driver's mind, was "I gotta be FIRST" so with total disregard for safety or consideration, the derelict zoomed past me with all the exhilaration of Jimi Hendrix on the best speed of his generation. After brushing off the dust of disgust, I emerged into the oncoming traffic and soon was coasting along on Fifth Ring Road. A few moments later - the black GMC Yukon! Eeeeek. Not that again! The nervous movements of the driver, swaying back and forth, trying to gain a few inches in the mad race going east, was enough to motivate any normal driver to cautiously stay out of the way. Within one moment of my thought, the bizarre jart of the GMC into my lane, barely ripping off my front bumper, was more than I could believe. STUPID! RETARD! IDIOT! What the hell is wrong with you? Go kill yourself, you ridiculous ASS! Yes, this is the nature of the driver in Kuwait. I wonder each morning as I depart my place if I'll be safe or if I'll encounter the death of some childish, spoiled brat who has had nothing in life except privilege and pampering - who will jump into his or her car without any common sense and go off into the sunset of the nether world, causing great pain to his/her family and loved ones. Such a shame - no regard for life. Kuwait roads are a national hazard. Oh - the GMC Yukon swayed in and out all the way to my university, tried to play games with me when "she" discovered that we were on the same route. She raced past me through the gate and anxiously sped past me into the parking lot, nearly wiping out a nice white Mercedes. I carefully parked my car and observed the "witch" nervously driving around, trying to find a parking spot better than mine. I walked erect across the parking lot with my suitcase of books and course papers, sunglasses breaking the intense sun. Suddenly, there she was. Racing toward me in an attempt to scare me off the path. I kept walking and suddenly did not value my life anymore. Bitch. I didn't even shudder. Didn't twitch. The GMC came to a shreiking halt. A slight smile broke from my face. I stepped over the curb and slowly walked into the lobby. The GMC had lost. As I walked out of the elevator onto my office floor, my knees crumbled and I grabbed my chair for support. But at least the GMC witch did not see me sucumb to my own stupidity.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Best Day of My Life

The Best Day of My Life.

As he laid in total dependence on the breathing tubes and machines that were pumping his heart and causing his lungs to inhale and exhale, I prayed with a ferocious determination to speed up the hours and possibly the days until my father would be well again. "Dear Lord, I know that I am not always as faithful as you would want me to be. I know that there are many times that I have conveniently forgotten or ignored you. I'm sure it is quite sad that so many of us wait until we are this desperate before asking you for your help." Oddly, as my father labored for air in front of my teary-eyed mother and siblings and me, I never realized that this would turn out to be the best day of my life.Sometimes in life we all need a wake-up call. This was mine. I had been taking life for granted, ignoring my own health and assuming that my parents would always be around. Heart attacks only happen to others. Death is for other people. Suddenly, that day after my father's quadruple heart bypass surgery in August, 1978, I grew up a bit. The foggy existence that had been a part of my life had lifted as the reality of life and death started to set in. "I can't take life for granted anymore. Prayer cannot be given only when I am in need or when I am selfish enough to need God in a moment like this."Prayer had a difficult time making any sense to me during those first 24 hours after my father's surgery. It seemed that the right words would not pop into my brain. So, spontaneously I started to talk with God, my creator. I started to beg for his intercession in my father's healing. I made promises that ordinarily would not have entered my mind, but suddenly there was a greater good - that my father's healing was more important than my procrastination any longer. "Dear God Almighty....I know you are out there....somewhere. I don't always hear you. I get mad sometimes that I can't see you. But dear Lord, if you can hear me, please give my Dad life. I can't lose him yet. There's too much I have not said to him and too much for him to do yet. Please, if you will, make him well. And God, I can't make any promises that I will not keep so all I can say right now is that I will try really hard to keep you in my life in some way every single day"The twenty-four hours had passed. Mom and I walked into Dad's room the next morning and he was sitting up in bed with a big, bright smile. The breathing tube was gone. Only some wires and IVs were hooked up, but my dad was alive!!! I hugged him as best as I could, avoiding all of the hook ups. When I went from his room about ten minutes later, I found myself in the hospital chapel. "Thank you, Lord. You've heard my plea. I love you for loving me and caring enough to hear my prayers. I know Dad will be fine now. Thank you for giving me some more time with him." This was without a doubt, the best day of my life.Yes, the best day of my life was the day that God gave me and my family more time to enjoy loving our dad. That was in 1978. Although he went through another heart surgery in 1989 and cancer treatment for an eye malignancy, he lived until August 16, 1994 when he was tragically killed in an auto accident - when God called him home. I am so thankful that we had sixteen more years with dad after the best day of my life. I am still remembering the Lord in my life because of what He had given me.Losing my dad in the car accident was really painful; however, at age 75, I knew that he had led a very fulfilled life, having had done far more than many other men with his hard work. It's still amazing to me that God knew that we were not able to have coped with his loss so many years before. The extra time with him gave him a chance to meet new grandchildren and to have had experiences with each of us that we can keep tender in our hearts forever. Yes, August 16, 1978 was the best day of my life - when God answered my prayer.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

God Bless Maria Lynn

1:09 AM - I laid down in darkness. Silence. I needed ear plugs to drown the thumping. Thump. Thump. Thump. My heart was digging its way to my back as I lie motionless, face up, on the mattress. Will the tests show evidence of seizures? Maybe I'll pray. Can't pray. I can't think right now. She's too little to have seizures. I'm sure it will be nothing. Oh my God, what if this is just the start of something serious?

2:12 AM - My head hurts from thinking. I want to sleep and forget all this thinking. It's too much to bear. Maybe I should make a trip to Pittsburgh in the morning to visit Tony and Linda and to help support them as they wait for the tests to be done on Maria. For God's sake, she's only four months old! Can't be seizures. How will they ever live with this?

4:32 AM - I must have dozed off a bit. The clock is blurry. Soon they'll be waking Maria to start her tests. I'm going to try to pray. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.......oh my God, this is too formal....I just need you, God to touch your hand on Maria Lynn today and heal her from anything that is not right with her. Please heal her mommy and daddy too so that they can make the right decisions when they have to deal with exams and medicine and maybe even surgery. Please heal her grandparents who have already prayed to you for so many things throughout the years. I know that I"m not always good when I have to pray, but right now I hope these words are good enough for you because I can't act too mechanical at a time like this. Just let me know what I have to do and I will do it in your name. Heal Maria.

8:07 AM - Overslept. I have to be at my friend Gina's at 8:30 AM. Shower - makeup - hair. Of all times for the phone to ring -Dr. Scutella's office trying to straighten out my prescription request after three days! Who cares? I just want to know how Maria is right now. Where is she? Getting her MRI? How do they do an MRI on a baby? I wonder if her mommy and daddy can hold her hand. I hope so. It would make me feel better if they can.

8:24 AM - I get an email from Carol stating "I spoke with Buzz last evening. She is such a sweetie and our prayers are with her and the family!!!"

9:27 AM - Email from Buz: This is our little "love" - Maria Lynn - Tony & Linda's daughter. While this picture seems horrifying she is actually having an EEG. I'm sending this on so my good relatives and friends will keep her in your prayers. The last couple weeks - Linda has seen her "roll her eyes" back on a few occasions - so their pediatrician referred her to Children's Hospital (UPMC) in Pittsburgh for tests. As of this writing Maria has been on this EEG around 18 hours or so and Tony just informed me that they didn't see any abnormalities during this time. Maria's development and vitals are very good - and they are just waiting to see what they do next. Yesterday they mentioned they would do an MRI and perhaps a spinal tap today but as of a few minutes ago they cancelled those because of the good EEG readings. They will keep her on it for a while yet and I don't know what they will do next. Yesterday they talked about the possibility of seizures - but they did not diagnose it as of yet. I'm asking for prayers for our little grand-daughter that whatever this is - it will be either very treatable or something she outgrows without any long term effects.
God bless,
PS: Please forward this message on to prayer chains, other relatives who I don't have on my e-mail list at work, etc. I appreciate your prayers. love, Buz

10:55 AM - I'm sitting in Dr. Lu's office in St. Marys, waiting for an eye examination. Can't think. I know I should go to Pittsburgh to see Maria and spend time with Tony and Linda. Don't know what to do. Don't want to be a burden to them either. Maybe they want to be alone. Just don't know. Just sent prayer requests out to my Cursillo group, asking for prayers. I don't know if God will listen to my prayers. I need help. Please, someone help. My stomach has knots and I can't swallow very well. There's a lump in my throat and it getting pretty sore right now. I don't know why.

11:29 AM - I hear from Bink. Her email says "Shes in our prayers...what a BEAUTIFUL baby..." and a sweet little cartoon that livens up the mood. I know the others will email me too when they finally get on to read the prayer request.

12:00 Noon - I hear from Buz again:
My friends and relatives,
Never - NEVER - underestimate the power your prayers have. I just received a call from my son Tony and he said, they are going to be released and are bringing Maria home. Yesterday - it seemed almost certain that her symptoms were caused by some sort of seizures she was having. They told Tony & Linda the EEG was normal and that if she had had any seizures the EEG would have shown some irregularities even though she didn't have any during the time she was being monitored. So they cancelled the MRI and the spinal tap that would have followed if they had seen anything at all. This was the concenses of the staff of doctors and not just one opinion. They said sometimes newborns (Maria is 4 months old) do strange and goofy things that seem abnormal but might only be part of their development. Anyway - they (and we) will watch her closely at home and if this continues - then they will do further testing. The consensus is - Maria Lynn is okay and very healthy.
I never expected this quick of a result. I credit this as a response by God to the very special prayers and good intentions of all of you. So thank-you for them and for your concern and for the very nice reply's I have received from you.
Needless to say - I am flying very high right now
God bless you all,

7:00 PM - A turmoil of emotions played with our heartstrings today. Like a tug-o-war. Buz's last email was a catharsis for a very emotional unknown just a day ago - and now we are blessed with such good news. God is merciful - and God is great! And Maria is so beautiful - alive with laughter and love. Happy Birthday Buz - your 59th? What a wonderful birthday gift.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


August 16, 1994: As the sun beat down on the back patio, Emily and Hilary sat at the picnic table as I prepared open toasted cheese sandwiches for their lunch. I was accustomed to having my nieces visit me occasionally while their parents were working. The day was gorgeous - not stifling hot like some. All was right in my little piece of the world: peace, calm, solitude, family, and love. Only the irritating distant sirens that broke into the silence assured me that someone was not as happy as me. Pecon, my little daschund was lying on the porch observing the aroma of toasted cheese and occasionally wagged his tail in hopes of stealing a piece of someone's lunch. Sirens were still annoying the otherwise perfect day. When the phone rang, I was also annoyed. More noise. "Pam, don't be alarmed, but I just passed an accident on the Wilcox Road on my way to the shop and I think the car is your parents." When Kathy McDonald called me that day, it was the first real shock to ever hit me in life. I barely remember gathering the girls and jumping into my car - flying up the Wilcox highway. The stopped traffic was in both directions and the line of cars so long, I could not see ahead. So I drove in the oncoming lane to the front of the line where ambulances were decorating the scene. I told the girls to stay put and jumped out. Mom, I was told, was okay but in the ambulance on the way to the Elk Regional Medical Center in St. Marys, PA. Dad was still in the car, leaning backwards, with blood coming out of his mouth. The jaws of life had already sawed off the roof of the car in order to extricate him. I was visibly upset and talking to dad as I held his hand: "Dad....I'm's are going to be okay....but they are going to take you to the hospital" I'm not sure dad could hear me, but I hope he knew I was there holding his hand. I would have been the last person in my family to touch him before he passed away about 20 minutes later at Kane Community Hospital. The details of the day are sketchy as I remember the waiting room at Elk Regional Medical Center and hoping to know that Mom would be okay. I remember her stone-cold face, one of shock as she lie there on the table in preparation to be life flighted to St. Vincent Health Center in Erie, PA. I remember sitting in my car with my husband Fran, watching the helicopter lift up with my Mom. I wanted to pray but prayer escaped my lips. I could only tremble. Before me was the preparation for Dad's funeral. And I did not even know if Mom would live through the week. All I know is that Dad was in Heaven. That is all I knew that day.

August 16, 2009: Terry, Carol, and Chelsea picked Mom and me up at 7:00 AM this morning for the 2 1/2 hour trip to Erie, PA. Although the sun could not find its way that early, we had the advantage of slight fog which kept the highway empty, giving us free reign almost all the way to Erie. Stopping in Warren at Perkin's Restaurant was a chance to fill our empty stomachs in preparation for the anticipated baptism of my great niece, Maria Lynn Allegretto. After leaving the restaurant, the sun had finally emerged from the misty sky and guided us the rest of the way. What a celebratory day! I could feel it in my veins and could not wait to witness one of the most beautiful sacraments of our tradition: baptism. The most precious sight greeted our eyes as we proceeded down the aisle to meet Tony, Linda, Anthony, and little Maria in pure white. Obviously, angels are always in white. Her innocent anticipation of events, her roaming eyes from one to another, her willingness to allow most of us to hold her - even for a moment, and her pure spirit, pure beauty helped to capture my attention and set the precedent for the day. Maria Lynn. Angel. Sweetheart. Child of God. As the priest lifted his hand and sprinkled the holy water saying "I baptise you, Maria, in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" it was evident that she was being brought to this occasion by a community of believers who welcomed Maria into the church and the community. What a glorious day. A day that God had chosen to remind us that all days are holy and all days are gifts from Him. It surely was a Heavenly day. Friends, family, food, and fun. And Maria Lynn Allegretto, a child of God's community. Just HEAVENLY.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Midaq Alley: No Escape

Naguib Mahfouz
Anyone exposed to the works of Egyptian Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz will certainly retain some of the dark, dismal alleys inhabited by alienated and displaced members of society - a society that does not necessarily embrace its people through positive feedback or support. Midaq Alley, for one, is an existence of nobodies. Each character is searching for escape from poverty and meaningless lives. Hamida, the main female character, illustrates this well as she tries to escape the stiffling heat and degrading existence that she endures among half wits, lusting maniacs, imbicile-type of neighbors, and mentally instable shop owners - only to fall into the hands of a pimp, who at first, leads her into believing he loves her. Soon enough Hamida discovers that she has escaped one type of prison for another: prostitution. Mahfouz does not pass judgment on his characters. He simply presents a cross section of Cairo in the early 20th Century with the heavy hand of British occupation and does not offer any resolution for his characters, those poor ingrates of society who suffer from meaningless existence and who have no hope for a tomorrow.


So many writers, philosophers, thinkers, and antagonists print their opinions on life and beleive they will have a profound influence on how others will improve their lives. Although Viktor Frankle, in his book titled Man's Search for Meaning, I must disagree with some of his premises for having meaning in life. In his preface to the book, he states that "success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself." Actually, I like the thought; however, it is unreasonable to believe that man cannot have some control over his/her happiness or success when one purposely sets out to climb the ladder to that better playing field. When working as a photographer in a small town and eventually taking on the duties of a clerk in a local CVS pharmacy (the photo studio was on the premises), I realized that in order to get out of the trap of minimum wage, I would have to focus on an education - even at my age of 40. Therefore, I enrolled as a provisional student at a local university, graduated with an AA degree, moved to another university, earned my BS in English, moved on to a third university where I completed my Master's Degree in Education and finally, eight years later, earned my PhD at even another university. Teaching at university level has been both a great honor and a dream for me. I'm not quite sure that I can digest Frankl's viewpoint that "success...cannot be pursued." Perhaps if one is to investigate more of Frankl's background and his time during WWII in concentration camps, one could reasonably understand his perspective on life; however, I believe it should be qualified and not published as a general philosophy on the meaning of life.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Nikki Giovanni

Love. What a complex image. Perhaps it is a non-image. Since "love" is an abstract, we cannot easily cement it to an image. Interestingly, Nikki Giovanni presents love from a first-person and a second-person perspective. In "A Poem of Friendship" she uses the plural first-person "we" to illustrate the love that she and her friend have, not the love they make. In her last stanza, the poet writes, "I will never miss you / because of what we do / but what we are / together" It is through Giovanni's brilliant, yet simple painting of an abstract that her audience is able to embrace love's complexity. Love is free - it does not need cement to trap one to another. In another poem, "My House" provides Giovanni another avenue toward the image of love. The speaker of this poem uses both first and second person to entrap an image of love through the expression of a desired kiss: "i only want to / be there to kiss you / as you want to be kissed / where i want to kiss you / cause its my house / and i plan to live in it ......" The reader is immediately captured by the speaker's intense sense of authority over the second person. Love. What a complex image, yet Nikki Giovanni allows her readers to curl up in front of a winter fire "like a silly poem [because she] want[s] to keep you warm."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Chaotic Cairo

Total chaotic masterpiece! Cairo defies any description by mortal man. As it levitates between smoggy corruption and intellectual inquiry, Cairo offers ice-cream flavors of diverse living. Once, as I was searching for one of the new wave publishing houses for an interview with a fairly new author, the taxi stopped in front of a dark, ominous building in the heart of Cairo. Honking, dust, debris blowing along the streets, multiple languages cancelling one another out in the loudness of the atmosphere - that's Cairo. But I was lost. As I emerged from the taxi, the driver asked if I wanted him to wait. "Of course!" After all, I wanted some assurance that my escape from the uninviting building would be a fast jump into the waiting car. Slowly, I climbed the damp, broken cement staircase into a darkened and dirtied dungeon-like lobby. A man runs up the stairs past me and voices something in Arabic. Then I realize he wants me to walk the stairs up to the next floor instead of taking the primitive elevator in front of me. The twisted staircase narrowed as I emerged on the third floor where the publishing company was located. The rooms were like coffins, only smaller. Shelves of paper and books stacked along the walls from floor to ceiling. Smudged windows prevented any possiblity of meeting the outdoors. As I observed the immediate atmosphere, I realized that in the very small space surrounding me, a wealth of intellectuality was slowly embracing the wary visitor - me! Authors, journalists, artists, playrights, musicians. The crappy ambiance was suddenly alive with robust intelligence and activity. Cairo is so crazy - so unpredictable. Unlike any other place in the universe, Cairo defines itself. I will go back very soon.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Nature. Un-nature. Is nature instinct? "In our own wild nature we find the best recreation from our un-nature, from our spirituality," according to Nietzsche. A maxim, indeed of Nietzsche, but what is he saying? The quotation is tantalizing for those of us who like to operate on philology or syntax for meaning. So I shall begin: wild nature. Nature, in itself, is already wild. So why is it necessary to add the adjective, "wild"? For emphasis, of course. What about "recreation"? Instantly, one thinks of activity. However, the word means to create again. Keep creating: recreate (verb); recreation (noun). If nature is already wild, what is un-nature? Not wild? Is it quiet? Perhaps, un-nature is synonymous with spirituality. What was Nietzsche's attempt in this quotation? I suggest that Nietzsche's is provoking his audience to a critical reasoning about the nature of the universe. Is it that in our own natural wildness, after shedding our superficial skin, when we stand naked in front of the wilderness, that we find it possible to create again and again from our most pure state of being? Is it then that we define our spirituality in unison with our God?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Moral Complexity: Gender Relationships in Naguib Mahfouz's The Cairo Trilogy

A reader can often capture the essence of a culture in its quest for truth as we generally know, through the fiction of its authors. As with any quest dating as far back as medieval romances, “morality” is part of the chivalric code of conduct. But what about morality in the 20th century? How do we attach a universal definition to “morality” when the codes of conduct are so different from one continent to another? No matter how we try to define it, “morality” is a subjective term that originates with the religious, social, and political structures of a culture. Adding to this complication, oftentimes “morality” is redefined within a culture as a result of the changing demographics and philosophies, causing a conflict within the boundaries itself. Finally, it goes without saying that when we think of a culture’s code of morality, gender relationships automatically take a front seat.
The purpose of this paper then, is first, to present a political backdrop and time frame and then to illustrate the moral complexity in Naguib Mahfouz’s masterpiece, The Cairo Trilogy which is due to varying cultural interpretations of gender roles. Let me begin by stating that Naguib Mahfouz is an Egyptian and the first Arab author to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. The Cairo Trilogy, written between 1946 and 1952, traces the radical changes undergone by three generations of a Cairene merchant family, dominated by the towering figure of its tyrannical patriarch, Ahmad Abd al-Jawad Al-Sayyed. Politically, it resurrects Cairo between 1917 and 1944, a crucial period in the history of Egypt which witnessed the rise of Egyptian and Arab nationalism under the leadership of Sa’d Zaghloul. It was a period in the transformation of a society passing brutally from a phase of relative innocence to disconcerting modernism with all its challenges and threats. Here, Mahfouz portrays the private agonies and pleasures of individual characters, paralleling the sociopolitical panorama of Egypt under British occupation. Rashed El-Enany points out that “[this] novel is invaluable for its perspective on the agony of the author’s generation oscillating between the medieval religious values of their society and those of the modern, scientific and godless world they have come to know about through their contact with European thought” (212).
Religious and academic institutions are no less decayed than political parties as is witnessed in the third volume of the trilogy. In Sugar Street, the narrator philosophizes:
Literature is certainly a means of liberation. But, it certainly could be a tool for
regression. From Al-Azhar and the academy, sick literatures have grown, which
have for ages ossified minds and killed spirits. . . science is, no doubt, the basis
of modern life.
The moral issues in The Cairo Trilogy become more complex as Mahfouz narrows down his scrutiny of society to family relationships which are at the basis of a patriarchal system in which oppression and coercion prevail. We readers are privileged spectators, observing at close quarters the after-hours debauchery of Al-Sayyed. Even Mona Mikhail in her book titled Studies in the Short Fiction of Mahfouz and Idris, highlights the fact that “this formidable patriarch, conscious of his role as custodian of stringent societal norms, is confident in his double standards” (12). Pious and sensuous, beloved of friends and women, feared and cherished at home, Al-Sayyed certainly embodies an ambiguous morality well described by his mistress the singer Zubayda, who tells him:
What a man you are! On the outside you are dignified and pious, but inside you are lecherous and debauched. Now I really believe what I was told about you. (Palace Walk).
Following her accusation is a description of Al-Sayyed’s lusty nature as he sits in Zubayda’s flat, intoxicated with her fragrance, getting ready for an amorous night. He certainly loves women and friends; he also delights in music, singing, and dancing. This man, however, does not allow himself any expression of emotion at home apart from being stern, strict, and even cruel. This tyrannical patriarch is definitely the ruler of his home while living a secret life of self-indulgence. As is often customary to a man of such authority, Al-Sayyed’s despicable morals are highlighted by the gentleness and purity of his wife, Amina. In the beginning of the trilogy, as a newly married woman, Amina objects to her husband’s night-time escapades. Since a male was considered the dominant being in Egyptian households, Al-Sayyed would not tolerate any objection from his subservient wife. He raises his voice and shouts:
I’m a man. I’m the one who commands and forbids. I will not accept any criticism of my behavior. All I ask of you is to obey me. Don’t force me to discipline you. (8)
These commands would cause an adrenalin rush in most western women of the 20th century, but even more so after hearing Al-Sayyed later tell his wife after she was afraid to voice her opinion about the choice of a husband for their daughter:
“You’re just a woman, and no woman has a fully developed mind”
Western ideals of equality immediately put into question the position of morality as it applies to gender relationships in Egyptian society during this time. These commands of Al-Sayyed set the tone for patriarchal dominion that was to instill fear in all of his family members, but oddly, he still remained the center of respect as that authority and caretaker of the family. Elizabeth Fernea, in her book titled Women and Gender in Islam shows Zaynab Ghazali in a 1981 interview as saying “a woman’s ‘first, holy and most important mission is to be a mother and wife” (241), which may contribute to the reason why Amina continued to accept her husband’s commands without question. It is especially disturbing to a western reader to know that Amina, completely isolated from society, has not been permitted to leave her home for over twenty-five years except on rare occasions when her husband accompanied her to her mother’s home. One must ask “Is this a moral decision on the part of Al-Sayyed – to keep his wife isolated from men like himself? Or is it simply, brutality?
In a pivotal event in the trilogy, Amina dares to disobey the powerful Al-Sayyed one day when he is away in Alexandria. All of her married life, she had functioned as a meek, obedient, loving wife and mother; however, on one fatal day her youngest son, Kamal, begs her to go out with him and visit al-Husayn’s Mosque, which had long been her dream. After going out with Kamal and terrorized by her daring act, Amina falls down in the street and breaks her shoulder. After her recuperation, and much to Amina’s chagrin, her husband evicts her from his home. This was an action to punish Amina for her moral indiscretion. Additionally, her absence from the home was a lesson to her daughters to obey the authority of the home. Rafaa Al Tahtawi reminds us that “strict upbringing creates good morality” and in Al-Sayyed’s house, the sons suffered as much as the cloistered daughters. He “demanded blind obedience from his sons,” however, the tragic and idealistic Fahmy, the dissolute hedonist Yasin, and the soul-searching intellectual, Kamal, all try to move beyond the father’s domination as they seek their own moral identities.
In order to consider the complexity of the moral systems of early twentieth-century Egypt, we must revisit the definition of “morality”. The concept of morality is generally considered quite ambiguous; however, with the difference in culture between the East and the West, the discussion of morality is automatically a complex one because of the nature of values. The term “morality” covers a vast area of human conduct that examines our interaction with other human beings. Morality touches every aspect of our lives. It governs all our contacts with family members, with the public sphere, and with our religious life. Morality determines our attitude to politics, to war and peace, and to spiritual questions.
When the topic of “morality” presents itself in Western discussions, an interpretation and acceptance of certain behaviors is severely different than what would be acceptable in the Middle East under Islamic tradition. Two totally diverse vignettes are presented from West to East. For instance, in America premarital sex is now considered quite acceptable, normal, well within the bounds of morality. Dating begins at a very young age and most socially well-adjusted youngsters have dated all through high school. However, Leila Ahmad tells us directly that “dating is not a moral issue in Islam. Men and women simply do not date. As for sexual encounters, premarital sex is a punishable crime and adultery is a capital offense. No sex unless you are married to your partner!” Even a simple act of a female being seen with a male in public would be scorned and the morals of the female could be ruined for the rest of her life. Egyptian males tend to be chauvinistic in a society which acknowledges and rewards male domination. That patriarchal system requires the support and loyalty of all members of the family in return for security and protection. In the absence of a credible social welfare system, supporting the family always comes first in Egypt. Therefore, morality issues are quite diverse from the western culture that has gradually moved to the “ME” generation of self-satisfaction and gratification.
While female voices began to raise humanitarian efforts in this male-oriented culture, an “alternative voice to Western feminist was brewing,” claims Leila Ahmad, “ and it was wary, eventually opposing Western ideas, and searched a way to articulate female subjectivity and affirmation within a native, vernacular, Islamic discourse – typically in terms of a general social, cultural, and religious renovation” (174-75). The renovation was understood to be regenerative for the entire society, not just for women, hence the rights of women were not the sole nor even any longer the primary object of reform, but one among several. Part of the moral complexity develops out of imported Western doctrines like socialism and communism, whereas Matti Moosa asserts that “Mahfouz desired an egalitarian system which would benefit the majority while not offending Muslim believers, something between capitalism and communism” (1). The discussion of morality continues in both Western and Eastern cultures in the idealistic search for a truth that encompasses the needs and dignity of all people.
When Mahfouz takes the reader on this journey through the Cairene neighborhoods, he focuses on an ambiguous morality of people who struggle for identity. They do so in the midst of religious idealism in the brewing unrest in the struggle for power and in their personal struggles to find individual meaning to their lives. Mahfouz is most interested in a truth that can speak for all of his people, men and women alike. And in an article titled “The Arab Artist’s Role in Society,” Mona Amyuni explains that Mahfouz’s morality calls for “an absolute commitment to justice and truth” with “violent attacks on hypocrisy, cruelty, [and] corruption” (205). With excellent use of irony, Mahfouz denounces tyranny at home, in political parties, in leaders, and Amyuni quotes Mahfouz in saying it is “Egypt’s chronic disease.” Mahfouz is quoted again, this time by Jareer Abu-Haider as he wonders bitterly:
How long has this country of ours resigned itself to endure successive blows?
Today Tawfiq Nasim, and yesterday Ismail Sidqi, and the day before Muhammad
Mahmud. This sinister chain of tyrants which extends to prehistoric times. Every
son of a bitch, puffed up by his own power, claims that he is the chosen guardian
and that people are minors (incapable of managing their own affairs).
Therefore, the gender relationships provide a vital link between Mahfouz’s narrative and the cultural, socio-political and religious movements in Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century. As we view these events through the complex moral lens, interwoven with various voices in feminist theory, both Western and Islamic, it becomes obvious that Mahfouz is what Cole claims “the grand chronicler of Egyptian life” and even “a personification of Egypt itself” (1), as he provides a complex morality emerging from one generation and being modified in part to the various idealisms affecting Egypt. On Mahfouz’s mind is the idea that “we have fashioned [our life] ourselves . . . There is no credit for this to any god. . . solving our social and moral problems may alleviate our alienation, but it will not solve the original tragedy of death or isolation . . . We live by hope, which means by myth . . . and in the final analysis if we ask Mahfouz to which religion he belongs, he will probably say: ‘To a religion whose God is reason and whose prophet is freedom.’”

Saturday, August 8, 2009


The fascination with Friedrich Nietzsche is evident in the younger generation's quest for meaning in their lives. Often, students of literature and philosophy seek Nietzsche as a source of inspiration for their response to a hollow world existent without credit of a higher power. Nietzsche writes that "the intellect, as a means for the preservation of the individual, unfolds its chief powers in simulation; for this is the means by which the weaker, less robust individuals preserve themselves, since they are denied the chance of waging the struggle for existence with horns or the fangs of beasts of prey" (The Portable Nietzsche 43). This statement certainly provokes further discussion. This exemplifies the binary opposites of the weak vs. the strong. Apply this thought to the current and ongoing struggle of the Palestinians and the Israelis. The strength of Israel through their Western allies has continually been the horns and the fangs of the beast of prey over the weak and disabled Palestinians. One must wonder why Israel has not been held accountable to the UN mandates when other nations are continually called into question for their abuses. So where does Nietzsche stand among the youth of the literary and philosophical world today? If he were alive today, how would he address the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? What would he have to say about the intellect of today? What about America's role? Is American's involvement simply for the preservation of its own; thus, America uses its strength to take advantage of the weaker? These, and other questions permeate the minds of those who seek a truth that is no longer definable. What is truth? Shall we ask Keats?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Bendigo State Park, Johnsonburg, PA, USA

As I was driving through the massive evergreens aligning the narrow, twisting road from Johnsonburg to Bendigo State Park, I suddenly contemplated the mood and attitude of Henry David Thoreau as he committed himself to Walden Pond, a piece of land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau placed himself among the natural wonders of the landscape, void of societal chaos, noise, and expectations. Instead, he listened to nature and fed himself the beauty of God's fine earth, untouched by artificial constructs. Today, I thought of Thoreau. Then I saw a man fishing in the river and lost my train of thought.