What is the first book you read in 2018?

All That Man Is by David Szalay (2016)

I enjoyed this book a lot. Nine individual stories of nine different men that, together, trace the “arc of man’s life”. A slightly dark book focused on the emotional struggle of man – his instincts, his place in the world, and his important relationships – made less dark by Szalay’s writing style, fluid, conversational and literary, to the point, does not divulge all the information to engage the reader, albeit sometimes confusing. Definitely worth a read, especially for the introspective man.

From the author in an interview with the Paris Review:

The novel consists of nine separate segments. The basic structure is that the central character in each segment is five to ten years older than the central character in the previous one. They’re not the same character. They’re nine different characters. The first segment is about a seventeen-year-old guy, and the final one is about a guy in his seventies. And the novel moves through the calendar year, segment by segment, from April through December.

It occurred to me that a kind of meaning could be achieved by the relation of one story to ­another—by the structure in which they’re set, by echoes between them, by a dialogue they have amongst themselves.

What does it mean to write a ­series like this? It means that each story isn’t expected to carry its own solitary burden of meaning. It means you get a richer texture. It also imposes a kind of economy. This is important. Each story is short, ten to fifteen thousand words approximately.

I think part of the problem, when I contemplated writing a new novel, was that all the masses of incidental detail—which you need in a novel, if only to make it long enough—seemed pointless.

None of the characters in this book have elaborate backstories. You don’t know much about their pasts. You don’t know much about their family backgrounds. They’re points on an arc, rather than being arcs in themselves. That let me focus on narrative. It’s not as if a huge amount happens in each story, but they’re not nothing-happens stories either. There’s a very clear—simple, I hope—­narrative progression. Working in that smaller form was a relief and a pleasure. I didn’t have to elaborate for the sake of elaboration, which is how it can sometimes feel to write a novel, or how it had come to feel.

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Don’t Look Back

What is the wisest piece of advice a teacher has ever given you?

My high school Spanish teacher was one of the coolest teachers I had. We had a special connection. I was older than the other kids in the class because I took French for a few years before I switched to Spanish. That also helped me pick up Spanish much faster. I would kind of doze off in class when I felt like it, and he allowed it because he knew I was ahead of most of the class anyway.

I used to bargain with him around assignments, grades, tests, etc. He would entertain my attempts at dealmaking and tell me, “Foda, you will be a great lawyer one day.” Sometimes he even accepted my deals. We had a similar sense of humor. He was one of my favorite teachers.

At the end of my senior year in high school (US), after two years learning Spanish from him, I asked him to sign my yearbook.

He wrote, “Foda, you are one cool dude. Don’t look back.” Don’t look back.

Four years later, I saw him at my younger sister’s graduation from the same high school. I was eager to see him and say hello. When I went up to him, I was a bit surprised that I did not get the friendly reaction that I expected. He was polite yet short and unexpressive. I walked away only slightly confused. I thought to myself “Don’t look back – He really meant it.” I was not a high school student anymore and he was no longer my teacher. We had our time, and time itself had since moved on. Don’t look back.

I repeat his piece of advice to myself often, and it often serves its purpose. At any juncture – moving to a new city, saying bye to friends or family, etc – where I find myself conflicted between the hope of tomorrow and the fondness of yesterday, I tell myself Don’t look back. Everything has its time. Don’t look back, because there is still life ahead. Don’t look back, because what has passed is past.

 

Hyphen-Nation: A Time I Felt Most American

Earlier this year, the New York Times did a feature on its website called Hyphen Nation. Testimonials of nine “hyphenated Americans” shared the challenges and nuances of their ‘Americanness’ outside of the majority.  Some shared jarring experiences of direct discrimination or the struggle of being the descendent of slaves in today’s America. In addition to these nine stories are short clips that other Americans had submitted to the Times about moments they had felt most or least American.

I was touched by these stories. The shared experiences and the individual ones are a part of America. Barack Obama’s presidency was a key moment for many, including myself. Personally, I have thought a lot about the “hyphenation” of minority Americans and have written about my own evolution into becoming both American and Egyptian.

But first, I wanted to partake in these testimonials. I recorded my own short clip that shares a time I felt most American. It’s too late to submit this clip to the Times for a wishful chance at it getting selected, so here it is on Common Pursuits:

Taking a step back, here is something I wrote a little while back on my own un-hyphenated identity:

I was born in the Middle East and I grew up in California. My mother made sure to take me back to Egypt often – it is how I know it and can speak the culture and language. But I was raised in America, with a sense that my community is not where I lived.

I held on to being Egyptian so strongly as I was becoming American, which made me hold on defensively. I struggled with the tension of not being fully here nor there.

Over time, I learned that I can embrace America not as an outsider in its borders but as a part of its unique history, without being any less Egyptian. The beauty of And, not Or.

I did this by embracing an individualism inside me, acknowledging that this dual “fullness” is a product of my own narrative, one that increasingly placed more weight on myself as an individual.

My relationship with my origin then was in my hands. Though it has not (yet) satisfied any inherent quest for belonging, it has encouraged a kind of birds eye view of tradition, culture, and blood.

This is not a rootless cosmopolitanism, because a bird takes off and lands, inevitably.

It lands home.

I love Egypt. I love America.

Egypt is thousands and thousands of years rich. America is an eternal idea.

I am both, and I am so grateful.

Holy Rock

December 23, 2017: Communal

With their fists in the air and swords in their fists, the Mellijeens stormed to Holy Rock. Word came that the Willenish were seen at Holy Rock just two days after the Artuans announced their crusade to the same sacred stone. Tensions were at their highest in the Land of Lorde.

For around sixty years, these three communities grew further apart. Born on the same soil and under the same sun, they shared common hopes but different claims over the Holy Rock. The Mellijeens, the eldest of the three tribes, claimed Holy Rock as theirs and only theirs. It is where their hope in life began — where the miracle of Misa took place. The Willenish believed that they knew better. They believed that Misa’s purpose was to inspire Eban to hold a mirror to the Mellijeen’s conscious and lead the reformers to a new light, a light that shone brightest from Holy Rock. Meanwhile, the Artuans saw themselves as the gatekeepers of Holy Rock. To the Artuans, the Mellijeens and the Willenish were too consumed with each other. It was the first Artuan, Tovul, who ascended to the heavens from Holy Rock and brought back down the direct word of Lorde. The Artuans took it upon themselves to safeguard the Holy Rock and to spread the Word to all lands.

And so, the historic Clash of Lorde began over the right to Holy Rock. The Mellijeens, the Willenish, and the Artuans stained their hands with each others blood for hundreds of years to come, at the foot of the communal Holy Rock.

 

Reinu

“He got the recognition he deserved. But that was then. Now, he is forgotten.” As he said these words, the expression on Layvin’s face flipped like a light-switch from hopeful longing to anguished cynicism.

Layvin spent his early years following his big brother Reinu everywhere he could. The only things that stopped him were signs that read: “You must be this tall to enter.” Reinu didn’t mind his little brother tagging along. He loved Layvin more than he loved anyone else—and he did love everyone else, even their foster parents Mr. and Mrs. Stinklecrinks, unrighteous beneficiaries of the well-intentioned Foster Parent Tax Deduction.

Young Layvin never understood how Reinu could find enough space in his heart for the Stinklecrinks. They were not kind people. They hardly spoke to the young brothers unless it was to discourage them from doing anything that would cost them a dime. Calling it discouragement is too polite. More accurate is verbal abuse intended to squash any hint of self-esteem. The less the kids believed in themselves, the less they demanded and so the less they cost. But the young brothers had what they needed: each other. Reinu used to remind his brother to feel thankful for the Stinklecrinks and the roof over their head. Although Layvin never understood how Reinu could have any gratitude at all for the Stinklecrinks, it also never surprised him.

Years later, Reinu made his way to college with a full scholarship. Layvin refused to be left behind alone with the Stinklecrinks, who only grew nastier with age. With a heart full of fear and eyes full of rage, Layvin fled down a dangerous path. Reinu checked in on him every night by phone, but there was only so much he could do. For years, Layvin languished where many other former foster children also languished in downtown Memphis—behind prison bars.

Reinu knew what he had to do. He worked, worked, and worked some more. He graduated with highest honors and went onto law school. He created the Association for Opportunity for Foster Children (AOFC) to advocate for more effective foster care policies. Reinu led the effort to remove the Foster Parent Tax Deduction and successfully secured funding for AOFC to design a public program that better matches foster children with love, care and opportunity.

Within two years, the AOFC’s newly designed program had been adopted by 150 cities around the country and supported over 5,000 foster children in education and mentorship programs. Reinu was invited to the Presidential Palace to receive an award from President Hussein Bomo in recognition of his valiant efforts, but Reinu respectfully declined the invitation and sent another AOFC member in his place. For Reinu, it was not about him. Above all, it was about Layvin.

A few years later, Reinu went to visit Layvin, who by now had left prison and lived in a small studio east of the Memphis River. Layvin’s time in prison hardened his heart for anything in this world, except for Reinu. Reinu was the only thing that kept Layvin from taking his own life, let alone the Stinklecrinks’ (who did not adopt any more foster children after the termination of the Foster Parent Tax Deduction). The two brothers sat out on the front stoop together. Layvin wearing sweatpants, old Nike’s, a white tank-top and tattoo’s of symbols that Reinu could not read, and Reinu also wearing Nike’s, jeans, and a simple, light grey collared shirt. Reinu put his hands on his little brother’s shoulders, looked him in the eye, and told him that all that he does is for him, then got up and left. It was the last time Layvin would see Reinu, who took his last breath shortly after he fell asleep that night, at just 36 years of age.

Layvin took it on himself to continue what his brother started. He set his life straight and joined the AOFC. He moved up the ranks and reached the presidency in just five years – it is amazing how hard one can work with a sense of purpose. But Layvin always felt out of place. He was surrounded by high achievers with graduate degrees who were there for little more than a resume boost. He struggled in this environment, wondering what Reinu would think of AOFC today.

As we leaned over the rail of the Memphis Bridge that autumn evening, overlooking the steady stream of the Eastern River as the sun retreated, Layvin uttered those words to me as remembered his older brother and lamented over the turn he saw the AOFC taking: “That was then. Now he is forgotten.”

I turned to Layvin and admitted to him that I never heard of Reinu, but that one year my old foster parents gave me up when the Foster Parent Tax Deduction ended, and it was the best thing that happened to me. I joined a newly formed mentor program and was guided to college, where I dedicated my own life to create opportunities for other foster children. Layvin turned to me, then back onto the river. We both looked ahead and watched the sun fade away.

 

The World Above

December 18, 2017: Compass

In only 24 hours, we compassed the world. It was hard to see exactly what was happening 30,000 feet below, but we knew when we were above Ghana, India, the Black Sea, Turkmenistan, and all other pockets of the world. High in the sky, we heard their stories that had drifted into the clouds above them. Above the Nile, we met all-powerful gods and goddesses. Above China, we danced with dragons and filled our bellies with the splendors of cuisine. Above the Pacific Ocean, we flew among pterodactyls and swam with magnificent whales. Twenty-four hours later, we descended back to land. I hailed a cab and gazed out the window onto the city streets, then up again at the world above.

 

The Guardsman

September 12, 2017: Disobey

Not one comrade disobeyed the order. The order was strict, non-negotiable, and without exception. Yet, the guardsman could not hold on any longer. He collapsed. His friends did not even watch, the rules did not allow it. So, the young man lay there, unconscious, with his comrades by his side, obeying orders.

 

Jaromir’s Peculiarities

September 10, 2017: Peculiar

Jaromir was not the most handsome gentleman around, though a gentleman still. He had a strange face – very small forehead, very large eyebrows, super small eyes, a razor thin nose, a fat upper lip and skinny lower lip, very long cheeks and a triangle chin. Chessa was his love, and he was hers. Chessa was slightly taller than Jaromir. She had a symmetric face and warm brown eyes. Chessa did not love Jaromir despite his physical peculiarities, but partly because of them. They helped make Jaromir who he is, a gentleman with a range of loving, charming and caring personal peculiarities. They make him as resilient and hopeful as anyone she has ever met.

 

 

Stuttering Stan

September 9, 2017: Overcome

Stan’s stutter often stopped him from realizing his potential. He would watch his classmates in the debate club argue over issues that mattered to him. Issues of justice, equity and social welfare. He watched from afar, resigning his own participation, held back by his stutter. He stuck to listening, passively and helplessly. When his friends would talk about girls, Stan would timidly step back, knowing that his stutter added too much pressure for his courage to handle – approaching her was already hard enough.

When he saw his ideological opponent win the debate competition, when he learned his friend asked out his crush, and when he realized his life would only continue this way, Stan set out to make a change. He began to meditate. He began to practice speaking more often, despite the laughs and awkward looks. He began to accept himself. He slowed his thoughts down.

He practiced day and night, night and day until he overcame. He still stuttered, but not like before. The difference for Stan, he realized, was that he was not at peace with himself. He wanted to be like the others around him. In the end, Stan overcame his stutter by being himself.