Build Better Software By Going Farther Together

Originally published at Traackr Engineering.

TL;DR: Growing up in an immigrant community in the New York Metro area, you never think the unique, random, and crazy experiences you have in such a setting could have a direct impact on your career in tech, until it does. And I’ve learned many lessons, and here’s one of them. If you get out of your own way, you along with your team, will accomplish great things.

Growing up, my family was quite plugged into a faith community that comprised mostly of recent immigrants to the United States from Egypt. Most of the non-liturgical music generated by the community was geared towards the ears and culture of those who immigrated here. I was part of a different generation, born in the USA, but very much Egyptian. It was very difficult to relate to some of the art and music that had been imported and shared with us.

By the time I got to high school, I had different ambitions than my peers. While most kids were out there being kids, I had felt a deep responsibility to help create art that we could connect with. After a few attempts, my work was often dismissed as dissenting, and non-adherent to our traditions. I stayed persistent, despite doors (sometimes literally) being closed in our faces. Despite the initial rejection by community leaders, our work was getting recognition. The youth of the New York/New Jersey metro area started to know and enjoy our music.

Making A Record


In college I had a new vision: an album. My hope was that it would be an album that would embody the values and essence of our traditions, while connecting them with the creation of something original that our generation could resonate with. I wanted to send a message that even though a ton of art and music was handed to us, that we could be empowered to become creators of art and music, ourselves!

I found an excellent team of like-minded individuals. We sought funding, and eventually partnered with a local church who liked our idea. They offered to bankroll an album, in exchange for inventory. This did mean however, that I did not have complete creative control over the outcome. (dun.dun.dunnnnn!)


While most of our ideas were welcomed, quite a few were met with concern. I was often asked to hold back, edit, or even omit, for the sake of not rocking the boat too much. I had to make a choice, was I going to “compromise” on our vision, or was I going to trust this collaboration with an outside partner? This partner was older, a lot more experienced, and had a perspective that was a lot broader than my own. He knew intimately the ins-and-outs of our community, across multiple generations. He obviously believed in me enough to work with me, but seemed to restrict what we were trying to create for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time.

There were moments I really wanted to lead and just create, yet felt like I had to be a team player, and there were a lot of reluctant compromises.

Unexpected Outcomes


We powered through, and the record was produced. The end result surprised me, and was beyond what I could have imagined: two sold-out printings, and an east coast tour that lasted four years. In 2001, I even got a phone call from office of the Ambassador from Egypt to the United States. On behalf of His Excellency, the office invited us to perform at a gathering of dignitaries and officials from all over the world, at an event honoring the music of Egypt. It was pretty incredible and completely unexpected!


But aside from all this “big stuff” that I’m mentioning, it was the people-impact that mattered most to me. We met and received letters from youth all around the world, with stories about how our work had impacted them, or encouraged others to follow suit and create music of their own.

I am convinced that had it been all up to me, and my direction alone, we would not have had the impact we experienced. Another way to say this: if we did this alone, we would have had total creative freedom. But at the same time, we may have never had reached such broad audience. I was satisfied, although there was less “getting my way” and more “getting out of my own way”.

Ok, great. You may be reading this, and thinking “what on earth does this have to do with building software?” and my answer is: “Everything.”

“Don’t Throw The $necessary Out With The $unnecessary”


As a hot-headed 21 year old, although I was commitment to achieve something for my community, there was a blurred line between the overall desired outcome and the means to achieving that outcome. Art is highly personal. Making the art is as much of a goal as the outcome. If there was a particular song that was going to be cut from the record, or a direction that needed editing, I didn’t always handle it gracefully. I nearly quit the project until my mentor told me, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”. I had no idea what he was talking about. Once it was explained to me, I thought that was the weirdest metaphor ever.

But if you replace baby and bathwater, with the necessary/unnecessary thing of your choosing, the lesson starts to take shape. I was given a choice, if I stayed in this partnership, would the vision still be achieved? As I looked around, and saw how much freedom we actually had, was I willing to throw the whole project out the window because of 1 or 2 cut songs? I eventually decided to trust, and to refocus my attention on the goal, and preserve the relationship through the details. Had I disengaged, or quit, I would have missed out on something huge. The proverbial baby would have been lost.

That piece of advice kept me in the game, but the actual lesson I needed to learn was one that has to do with the importance of “us” over “me”. It’s the fact that if I’m working on something with a group of people, it’s more important for us to be aligned than for each of us to do things their own way.

But, I’m an Artist and I Cannot Be Stifled!


They say that building software is an art. And there are a ton of similarities between those who make art, and those who write software. Unlike the building of a car or a house, where there are clear specifications for how each part comes together, building software retains the imprint of the developer. Even with strict team standards, the developer’s personal style finds its way into the code. By looking at a piece of code, I can usually tell who on my team wrote it. It’s why we say that we “write” software as opposed to “assemble” or “manufacture” it.

When Being Skilled Isn’t Enough


Unless you’re one of the unicorns of 1-2 person teams, who get acquired by multi-billion dollar corporations, it usually requires more than 1 or 2 engineers to create something that can see the light of day. Our VP of Engineering has a saying, “Software is a people endeavor”. We build software together. “Together” would mean, a group of people who have spent various durations of time (from months to decades) perfecting their craft, each with their own sense of “the right way” to do something.

Looking back at the production of that record, yes I had the skills and the expertise, but our partner had a much deeper understanding of our community I was serving. His perspective helped pave a way for this new thing to take root and land on listening ears. Together, we were able to create something that was familiar enough to be mostly* accepted, however different enough to challenge, inspire, and spark conversations among communities in our diaspora. Smart and talented people can accomplish some amazing things, but only if they’re aligned. Make no mistake, getting alignment is challenging.

* Actually, we got banned in one of the dioceses. I received a letter from a well-respected Bishop, telling me that our music was not allowed in any of the churches in his geography. While that may seem like a setback, at the time it reminded me that we didn’t keep it too safe. 

Letting Go: Side-Effects May Include…


Getting on the same page as a group, requires individuals to give up a degree of control. This is required when building software as a team. Usually, letting-go is usually met with the acceptance that comes with being a professional. But software engineering often attracts people who put so much of themselves into their work. Because of this, letting-go can be met in with the following emotional responses:

  • Frustration: Often times, including myself, I’ve witnessed engineers be frustrated when a particular course of action, or even a pull request, is not approved, or requires changes that would move the outcome in a completely different direction. You think to yourself, ”would the Sistine Chapel been what it was today had Michaelangelo been ruled by a committee?” Righteous indignation takes over, or maybe it’s the blow against one’s ego that can happen when work is challenged in its current state. Been there? I know I have.
  • Apathy: Tables aren’t flipped, but hands are up in the air. (And I don’t mean this celebratory emoji 🙌.) Apathy leads to detaching from both the work and the goal. While the impact of this is not immediate as the previous item, it does make teams vulnerable to morale being slowly chipped away. This will have long-term and debilitating effects.
  • Acceptance: There are others, however, who can remain detached enough from their work, but see it as part of a collective, and will welcome changes and advice, because ultimately, there’s a shared trust in the team, and a strong commitment to what the team is trying to achieve.

But Don’t Follow Blindly


We have to be aligned to make great things happen. And alignment means letting go. That’s not to say that blood doesn’t get spilled, or tears won’t flow. That should happen with a team of experienced individuals, however, there’s a mutual respect and striving for what’s best, collectively. And this sort of refinement by an engineer and their peers, can lead to some great outcomes. (I’m not advocating for decisions by consensus, but that’s another blog entry.)

As engineers who work on teams, we have to constantly manage an important balance. It’s one between what each of us brings based on our individual experiences, convictions, and baggage, with the roles we’re assigned, with the goals of the organizations we work for. Now there’s absolutely a place to draw some hard lines, and offer non-negotiables, when you see a particular course of action is going to put the big goal at risk. Those should be rare occurrences. Be sure you understand the difference between risks to the goal, vs. risks to the way you want to do things.

But There Is Hope: Some Helpful Tips


Having trouble letting-go? Like my experience with making music, and my experiences in the present: here are some strategies that help me do just that:

  • Focus on the goal: The shared goal you and your team have, should be one that you really believe in. If you’re not on board with the goal, you may want to reconsider your employment situation. But let’s assume you’re still on board with what your team is trying to achieve. Having a larger goal that drives you is extremely important for satisfaction in one’s career. That goal has to sit a step beyond how you write code. Commit to a goal and it will  help you entertain other possibilities of achieving it. This will make it possible to let go and try things a different way.
  • Make it about the work: Don’t take things personally! It’s not about you, and most of the time, your team isn’t focused on you, it’s about the work. By having the discipline to not take things personally, you allow your team to challenge you, and then it builds trust that allows you to challenge your team. Because collectively you care about the same thing, the work.
  • Get a hobby: Ok, so your team has a norm of doing very strict test-driven development. (I’ve been on such a team, before.) The engineering lead wants to see the tests written out before a single line of code is written. What a drag, right? You love building software by running and gunning it. So do that! Just don’t do it at work. By having interests and outlets outside of what you’re doing at work, allows you to get go of things that may be very personal to how you work, because you have other areas in life where you get to do these things. You can let go of the small stuff, so you and your team can work better together to achieve the big stuff!

Parting Words


Decades later, I barely remember the things I argued about while making that album. I value the music we made and the things we achieved so much more than what we had to lose. I tell this to all my fellow engineers out there who find themselves sometimes frustrated.  In the constant negotiation and struggle, we hope to make each other become better engineers and help refine our individual an collective crafts. By staying committed to a bigger picture, we give ourselves a better chance to achieving the things we want to. And it goes back to an old proverb that has come across my path time and time again: alone, we can move quickly, but together, we can go far.

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Remembering “Uncle Mak”

10 years ago, the world lost a great man.  To most people, he was Dr. Makram Issa Gobrail, but to me he was my Uncle Mak. There’s not a moment in my (strangely precise and photographic) memory of a period in my life where he wasn’t in it; until of course, when he suddenly left us, after a faithful but difficult battle against liver cancer.  There are many stories and lessons I’ve learned through the duration of his illness that have had a huge impact on my life, some of which I’ve shared with others, and some I’ve chosen to keep for myself. About 7 months before he left us, I had my “Tuesdays With Morrie” adventure with him, as we traveled together across the ocean, to Alexandria, Egypt, where he spent time with our family; it was sort of the farewell tour, if you will.  I look back at this decision to join him on this tour, as a validation that when opportunities come, you must seize and cherish them, because in cases like this, opportunities do not come back around.

On this, the 10 year anniversary of his passing, I remember what was the most joyous but bittersweet family reunion that we had when we all met in Alexandria, and I hope a small glimpse of this reunion, through photos, can help share some of the love we all felt being together in that far away place.

My love and prayers are continually with my Aunt Barbara, his wife and partner, my cousin Jim and his wife Jenny and their beautiful children and all those whose lives he’s touched and transformed through his kindness, service, faithfulness, loyalty and good humor. You didn’t have to be his blood to call him Uncle Mak, as many folks reading this will attest to. As I know is true for my family, I will never, ever, stop missing him.

 

 

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An Egyptian American’s Thoughts On…

Egyptian protester

A few years ago, my mom and dad were sitting at home, nervous in the light of the #Jan25 Movement. According to them, the Muslim Brotherhood was sure to take over because they’re the most organized. The youth and the liberals were naive to make a change. They put the hands of the country in the hands of fanatics, and paved the way for fascism, in the same way many revolutions of the past have opened the doors to tyranny and oppression. I remember talking about this very large, very real concern with my friend Mira. Having just been to Egypt, and having spent time with the people, and having caught a whiff of the spirit of the revolution just assured me that the people have learned that they can make a change, and they won’t stand to see their country overrun by oppressive forces. They did it once, they can do it again.

There’s already a lot of stuff out there as to why I believe the events of July 3rd 2013, are justified as a legitimate and democratic act by the people. To me it’s a no brainer, when the ruler of a nation dissolves any accountability, restricts freedom of speech, appoints a terrorist to run a city that their terrorist organization once bombed. Such a no brainer, to me, why the people did what they had to do.

But there’s something very personal about this whole thing. And it’s about Egypt. And Egyptians. And about Egyptians being Egyptians in Egypt. Growing up, we are taught to be proud of our culture. Our history, our ancestors. Our achievements and contributions, as a people, to science, math, technology, language, and religion. Egypt had always been a beacon of progress and intellect but things have changed for Egypt and a cloud descended upon the culture. Egypt has a long history of occupiers, from the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, British, French, all the while, the culture diluted, the language obliterated, the sense of identity and history questioned, and its people divided.

But Egyptians still hang on, and have been hanging tough for a very long time. However, the Muslim Brotherhood, The Ikhwan, if their agenda ever becomes realized, we’re talking an even further obliteration of Egypt… FROM Egypt. Just watch history re-written before your eyes.

All of this married with a culture of fear of authority (political and religious, regardless of religion), and fear of change. If things aren’t working, it’s just too bad. This has always been part of the conversation I’ve witnessed around me my whole life. A fear of authority and the treatment of precedent and institutions as if it always was, and always shall be.

But if you are Egyptian or if you know Egyptians, there are things in Egypt that still persist. I don’t even know how to put it into words, but there are things you just know are Egyptian, that have persisted in spite of the proclamations, laws, and bloodshed that has mired our past. In our language, our music, our humor, our affection, our stubbornness, our dance, devotion, and family. It’s there. You can build a road through a forest, but even the smallest blades of grass can cut through cement and grow into something magnificent again.

The events of July 3rd speak to me as just that. It was an unravelling of this culture of fear. The people had enough evidence during one year, to see the course of history being written, and it was time to say, no more. It was a people taking a stand for their own heritage and destiny. It was a united people, being a beacon of light for the entire world. It was the chipping away of complacency and it was a defeat even if momentarily, to cultural division. This was not just the toppling of a regime that had been in power for a year, this was the beginning of the dissolving of a cultural trend that has bound our people for longer than we could remember.

Of course I want the leaders of the USA to be on the right side of history in regards to this matter. I want folks to look deeper at the nuances of the events of the last several years, and not undermine a word like democracy to be defined by a single moment in the democratic process.

That said, we’ll see what happens. I’m proud of what the people are accomplishing.

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There and back again…

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Looking out the window of this vehicle I see the plains of southern Kenya, mountains, acacia trees, and Masaai herders with their livestock. A week ago I was surrounded by something very different. 

A number of years ago, a woman began taking in children that were left on her doorstep. As the years went by, the number went from 2 to around 60. This woman was not a wealthy heiress, or a philanthropist who was giving back because she was given so much. No, she was just a woman who lives in the slums of Nairobi. She was a tough lady with years on her face, with a presence that is somewhat intimidating, and in her care were children from the age of 2 to 17. Through the kindness of the neighborhood, and other charities, she is able to put her kids through school. She calls them future doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, musicians, and she’s not joking around. And I was there.

We hung out with these kids for about 5 hours, just hangin out, playing games, being silly, and then some honest conversation with the older ones. In a dog-eat-dog neighborhood, where the task of feeding ones self is a challenge, let alone one’s own family, and confidently this woman seeks to feed 60 children and youth, daily, and for as long as her days will allow her.

Kibera Girls Write Love Songs

After 4 days hanging out in Kibera with my old friends at the Kibera girls soccer academy, I felt somewhat rejuvenated again. I learned some tactics at the orphanage which taught me how to diss someone 5 different ways in Swahili, which was a huge hit at the Academy. Someone would give me a pound (you know, bumping your fists together), and at the last second, retreat my hand, extending my finger and wagging it saying “masaa badu” basically saying “come back later”, would result in screams, giggles, and the occasional threat for retribution.

Seeing Pete walk through Kibera for the first time, reminded me of my first time going through there, and how I was without words because it was nothing like I’d ever seen before. As I walk through the streets which once burned two years ago at the hands of thugs, and violent men and women who were paid by their elected leaders to indulge in ethnic violence and the murdering and displacing of innocent people, and also knowing that as I write this, an arms race is underway to prepare for the 2012 elections, with access to Somalia’s surplus of automatic weapons, I wonder if we can’t learn from very (very) recent history. Kenyans are peaceful, but like most places that struggle in the developing world, many can be easily bought by the wealthy to commit atrocities so that the ruling elite can stay in power. But for now, Kibera is back to normal. It is a place I love. You can’t just see a photo of Kibera and know what is happening there. You have to walk on the streets, and talk to the people, and even then you really don’t know what is happening in this place. Fried fish, grilled corn on the cob, vendors of fruits and vegetables, and the smells of the open market are mixed with the burning garbage and open sewage. There are both smiles, greetings, and suspicious looks on every corner, But through the maze, behind the mosque, and next to the beauty parlor is a haven for education, personal development and equality. And here, the girls of the KGSA are working with my good friend Peter, who is teaching them about singing, and the art of songwriting and it was on Thursday that they wrote their first love song.

During one of the lessons, the news came..

“Paul, did you hear, Mercy died.”

I felt the loss of both meanings of the word. Apparently, she was poisoned, but most people believe it was a suicide. Mercy in 2007 was a girl who worried me, I met her, she was pregnant, and was attending the KGSA with plans to drop out. She was depressed, reserved, and couldn’t look me in the eye. In 2008, I was surprised to have seen her so happy. The baby was delivered, and yet, she was still in school! Getting help from relatives, Mercy was confident, happy, and doing great in classes, I told her I was looking forward to congratulate her the following year as a high school graduate.

The news of her death really broke my heart, as she was so close to making it.

There is no time to waste, we have to act while we have the time.

The weekend brought me to the wild, where I spent a few days with Peter, photographing animals as we drove through their natural habitat. It felt great to be there with the “good camera”. The clear night inspired me to ask a hotel manager if there were any darker spots around the hotel where I could take some star photos without the risk of light pollution.  The manager suggested that he could shut off the lights of one area of the hotel, so I could take a few star photographs. I thought that was a bit of an extreme offer and at first he made it seem like no big deal, and said he would see me the following night at 11pm to make arrangements.

At around 10:30pm, the F&B manager who I spoke with the night before, arrived, but things weren’t as simple as he made it seem the night before. He said he was going to have to call guards because of things that may or may not happen in 4 seconds of darkness, and when I inquired more, the only answer I got was a stern look and the statement “I do not wish to further divulge on this topic.” It was clear that his offer had some strings attached so I quickly rescinded. 

The following conversation with this man, led me to believe that I was dealing with an egomaniacal, but somewhat powerful man, who just made us feel very uncomfortable, making threats about cameras watching me that were bigger than the SLR i had in my hand, and he wouldn’t stop buying us drinks. He went on and on about people with small heads, and dark and shady behavior. He repeated time and time again that he is just a smalltime team player, yet, when he bought a pack of cigarettes, but had his underlings open the pack up for him. It just reminded me too much of Forrest Whittaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin but on a very very small scale. I’ve never seen anything like it before. We had a 2 minute break in the conversation when we thanked him and got the hell out of there.

Back in Nairobi and I have 4 days left. This one flew by.

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A Bus Named “Glory To God”

 

On the 3rd of 4 stops, on a 14 hour journey

The following words I write moving about 50mph in a coach bus, through the planes of southern Kenya, swerving around tankers and playing chicken with oncoming 18 wheelers, I’ve never seen a bus driver maneuver such a large vehicle as he would a motorcycle, with the amount of mud splashing everywhere from the puddles formed in the slippery wet, sometimes paved road, you would think we were on a mountain bike. Off-roading happens every few minutes and my stomach has gotten used to it as well. And for this reason, I am sure, is why there’s a large sign reading “Glory to God” on the front of this bus, for if it were not for divine intervention, things would probably look a lot different.

I chose a seat a bit further back, when I should have taken the front. It was available when I reserved but I didn’t want to be that guy. I’m looking at today’s “that guy” and he’s stretching his legs out enjoying a beautiful view, as i’m holding myself back from kicking the set in front of me if this guy reclines one more time.

I’ve been in Kenya for seven days, and I’m leaving the country for a few days to visit IMUMA, an orphanage / youth center in Bagamoyo, TZ. And because the flight from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam is about half the cost of my JFK to Nairobi ticket, it makes more sense to go by land. The difference in time: Air: 1 hour. Road: 14 hours

Coming back to East Africa, has been a bit different this time, as it usually is. I no longer feel the excitement of being a stranger in a new place, but rather I feel relaxed and at home. Of course I have a zillion things on my itinerary, sometimes I wonder if I’d be more useful doing 1 thing for the entire month, as opposed to multitasking that I do. 

I really need to use the bathroom and this bus is not making any stops.

To reference Maboyz (whom I wrote about in many previous entries) have come a long way since our first meeting, as we watched Lord of the Rings in early 2006 and had an inkling that maybe more was being called from these guys than what society had created for them to be.

Seeing them now, I no longer worry about them, which is a far cry from the words of an old friend who told me not to hope too much. It wasn’t an easy road. There are a few who have passed on due to gang violence and police brutality.

Its hard to on writing when there are such beautiful vistas outside my window. We’re approaching sunset, in 10 minutes we’ll have been on this trip for 12 hours. Imagine only 2 bathroom breaks, yet they keep giving us drinks.

Every stop finds us surrounded by street vendors, selling cashews, oranges, soda, water, biscuits, and candy. And my favorite, they get your attention by making kissing noises: “mwa mwa mwa mwa mwa!”

However there aren’t many bananas around here but as soon as I found one, I bought it.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one on the bus both fearing for his life and with an achey bladder. At one point during the ride, one of the rubber apparatuses attached to the window next to me fell off, causing the window in front to basically flex and bend in the wind, it was sure to be ripped out, leaving no window (its plastic after all) however, before I could notify, the driver’s assistant was climbing over me and holding the window in place (basically sticking his hand out and pressing the window in front against my window. I really was hoping that there were no approaching oncoming cars cuz that would have been a blood bath.

Eventually, we got the thing fixed with some masking tape and rope. 
Or maybe wire?

I’m not sure what returning to Tanzania will bring to me. Last time I was here, I was under house arrest by the immigration police who stole our passports. Hopefully things have changed since 1999.

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Keep Sarah Palin Talking

1930954_87518945170_1392_nI finish my amoeba medication today. I won’t miss the acid reflux that it caused. Yesterday, I had my first full meal since last Tuesday, and I had meat for the first time today. I ordered grilled chicken strips. When I got the bill, it read “Chicken Chunks” appetizing, right?

So this is a story about a girl named Lucy, not the Lucy that I know here, but some girl named Lucy who lives in Mombasa. So apparently her old phone number expired, and Safari-com assigned me her old number. For a while I got lots of anonymous calls and hang ups when i would answer. Finally, the other day, “Where is Lucy???” “I said, excuse me”. He replies “Lucy – has she returned to Mombasa?” “i’m sorry sir, but you have the wrong number” “No! I do not. This is Lucy’s number and i want to speak with her… NOW

“DUDE this is the wrong number” 

“No! I WANT TO SPEAK TO LUCY

This continued for a while, and I had a few minutes to kill.

5 minutes later.

“Sir, you have the wrong number”

Him, in a very pleasant tone: “Oh ok, that’s cool”

So wow, the last few days were jam packed with some good stuff.

Today I went to the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy, one of the partners of Seeds For Hope, to check up on the girls and see how they’re doing. We had a blast. I had forgotten how to get there, since once you get to the main bus stop, it’s a series of twists and turns through alleys and side roads, going thru a few people’s backyards, and back again. Still, every step was familiar, and every face was loving. I love the people of Kibera. Hardworking, honest, and alive. 

The walls along the main road are spray painted with remnants of the post-election violence, as well new messages of a communal responsibility towards peace and unity, once again.

I arrived at the school and saw some of the teachers, and we had some great conversation. Many of the questions were around 1) Education in the U.S. and 2) The U.S. presidential elections.

After delegating the task of slicing cabbage to me, the teacher said:
“We love Sarah Palin! With every word she speaks, Obama gets more points. Keep her talking.”


I laughed as I sliced and diced cabbage.

Teka, one of the teachers, told me to leave the heart of the cabbage. So I did this, but Byron asked me why I left it behind? So he kept on cutting the hearts. Mixed messages!

I visited the 10th Grade (Form 2) class. I’m not a good teacher, so it took a while to warm up. By the time I got to the 11th Grade class, I was ready to go. It ended up being a Q&A. Some of the main questions asked:

- My position on the presidential elections
- What are the political issues I care about the most?
- Have I ever attended the Tyra Banks show as a studio audience member?

We got into a long discussion about Tyra Banks, actually. And then I taught them a little bit about ancient Egypt. 

Onto the 9th Grade (Form 1) class. They were so inquisitive about the curriculum structure of the American School system. After a description of my high school classes, and them telling me what they learn in class, the summary was that in Kenya they study way more subjects than we do in the states in any given high school year. 

The 9th graders alone study all four sciences, as well as 2 languages, history, math, and literature, as well as other subjects. The four sciences stood out to them the most as a big difference, when someone asked me:

“If we study so many things in Kenya, why are we struggling so much, compared to your country?”

It was not a question I was prepared to answer.  It got me thinking about global inequality in general. Volumes could be written to answer this question, in fact volumes have been written on this subject.

After some discussion about this, my main focus was not to bring the girls down. Their education is absolutely not in vain. They have to understand this. We started talking then about what each of them wanted to do. So many journalists, lawyers to be in the mix. One in particular, had a very serious look in her eye about her desire to end corruption and crime.

These kids have experienced it in a very blatant way.

The subject of foreign languages came up, and they got pretty stoked when I told them I learned Spanish in school, and before I knew it, I spent about 30 minutes teaching them Spanish from English and Kiswahili. Was hard to juggle all three but I managed to get the words in all languages on the board without much help. We got right into conversational Spanish and before long, the girls were speaking to each other in Spanish, with perfect accents. 

The day ended with the echos in my ear of the girls chanting the numbers in Spanish, from one to ten, as I left the classroom and proceeded back into town to continue with the rest of my schedule.

Afterwards we met with Maboyz, and we had a great meeting today. We saw some old faces and made some new friends. It was such a powerful time of togetherness and hopefully the re-ignition of something new.

Tonite, a buddy of mine and I saw a film, Taken, with Liam Neeson. I find out later on that this movie won’t be released in the USA until January of next year. I mean, come on. Am I supposed to believe Liam Neeson, as a kick-ass international spy, who kills everyone in sight to find his abducted daughter? My friend was suggesting maybe Arnold should be cast in this role. I’m pretty sure the film still isn’t even finished yet, and this was some sort of test audience kinda deal. There’s a whole section of plot that was just not there.

I mean this guy is searching for a man, he can’t find this man, he has no idea where to find him, then it fades out and fades back in, and not only has Liam Neeson found this guy, but has him tied to an electric chair and is using non-geneva-convention-approved torture methods to get answers to his questions.
Ok, it’s time to sleep.

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Bound For Egypt

I landed in Egypt in a manner similar to how I arrived: blind. I had an aisle seat and could not see the approaching terrain, beyond the heads of my fellow window-seated passengers. I didn’t know how high or how low we were, all I knew is that I was on a plane, and eventually, without much warning, I would feel the vibrations of wheel and steel hitting concrete, with the jolt one feels, as the plane (and our bodies) absorb the shock of hitting tarmac, followed by the cheeky applause of a safe arrival. I refuse to participate in such things. But it was only in that moment, would I get the inkling that I was actually somewhere.  In a similar manner as I arrived, I’m here in Egypt, almost blind… not sure exactly why I’m here to be honest. For the last 3 calendar years, my time-off has been spent in East Africa, doing volunteer work. While this trip is going to comprise a portion of my yearly leave, somehow I found myself booking a trip to Egypt first.

I am Egyptian. Born in New York in 1978, to parents who had been in the USA almost 10 years already, with one uncle (my mom’s brother) in Ohio. I’ve made two trips to Egypt to visit family, in 1979 and 1981. My entire childhood was spent in Long Island growing up, feeling slightly as a stranger in his own home-town: Totally American, but kind-of not. My parents spoke a different language, and my house always smelled like all kinds of foods that my friends couldn’t pronounce. Sitting in the car with my father, windows rolled down at a red light, he would blast tapes of Om Kalthoum, and I would beg him to put on the radio (100.3 FM, Z-100, to be exact).  I didn’t want the society around me to discover how Egyptian I was.  And despite all attempts to be as American as possible, I figured that if my mom stopped feeding me Egyptian food, I would somehow morph into something similar to those around me, but that didn’t quite happen. Feta and pita was consistently on the menu. While my dad would proclaim his love for the tunes of his youth, my parents barely spoke Arabic to us, as in a brave and well-intentioned effort, they believed that when living in an English speaking country, one should do as the Romans do…. or something. My only real immersion in anything remotely Egyptian was on weekends  when we would take trips to Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, to buy blocks of feta and bag-fulls of olives from crowded, aromatic marketplaces, which caused more fear than familiarity in me, but most of all was the church community. It was at church, where on on a weekly basis I was taught about what God wanted me to do, and what he didn’t want me to do.  I was told when to sit, when to stand, kneel, repeat, and where I was asked on a weekly basis why I didn’t speak Arabic.

I found more comfort and familiarity amongst my American peers in school than I did amongst the Coptic diaspora, until I started to find some real and true friends there, did I begin to integrate these broad and far reaching sides of my identity. I noticed that even as I am in most ways, culturally, an American, recognizing so many of the “brown people” sensibilities that I possess: a generous smile, a penchant to share my food with others at my table (soup included) insistance that someone else go before me, standing up to shake your hand, jealousy, passion, and stubbornnes, and of course.: the ability to laugh until I cry. I saw and embraced my Egyptian-ness. But still Egypt itself, was off my conscious radar, but not off the radar of my spirit.

So here I am, 2007, the fourth trip in my lifetime, and my first trip as a conscious adult to visit my home, outside the comforts of a tour bus, and honestly, I’m hesitant. I hope to find some deep connection, some sort of love that may not be reciprocated. My lack of fluency in the Arabic language, I fear may be a barrier in connecting with a family I love so much, even though I’ve barely spent time with them in my life.

It’s fitting that I read “Tuesdays With Morrie” on the flight over here, as in a way, I’m here for the same thing. I mentioned before that I had an uncle in Ohio. Last year he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and wasn’t supposed to survive past Christmas 2006. Somehow he is alive today and planned a trip to visit the family in Alexandria around the same time I was planning to go to Kenya.This is the man that taught me many of the values I keep today. I see much of him in myself (and others have told me they recognize this as well). He has been a constant support and source of love and affection for me and my family. “Prince Paul” is how he addresses me, as his belief that a child of God, who is a King, automatically makes me a Prince, and in my less zealous late 20s adult life, that still makes me smile. I decided to change my ticket and spend a few days talking with the man that gave so much of himself for me, in a land that he came from.

Was this the reason that Catherine bought me “Tuesdays With Morrie” for our 1 year anniversary, or was it that it came up randomly in conversation just a few weeks earlier with my good friends Chris and Jamie? Who knows? But the parallels are striking. I relate to Mitch in one very important manner: how he turned out way different than he was “supposed” to be, based on his teaching from his mentor. In many ways, if there is an area of discomfort, is realizing that I am not the kind of devout Christian that I was trained to be. While I am a Christian still, my spiritual path has taken me places not easily found on the map.  My ideas and values have been shaped because of, and in spite of, the culture and life I grew up experiencing. I won’t get too much into my beliefs here, but feel free to send me a shout, and we can definitely talk about it.

But I am willing to put myself and my differences bare before the man who had a part in shaping me into who I am, to spend some quality time with him, asking him questions about everything … anything and everything. I look forward to a few good arguments as well, the kind that only certain people can have, that seem so heated and abrasive, but have an undercurrent of love and trust. I’ve had many of these lately, and have lead to some of the most wonderful expressions of love I’ve experienced so far in this lifetime.

I sit on a bus from Cairo to Alexandria. Briefly saw my cousin Maged, who once visited us when I was a child. Now I’m on my way to see the whole clan. I look out the window and I see people that look like me, and yet are so different. I look at other young men my age, and wonder if I was born and raised here, who would I be? How much of me would I be? I look out into the eyes of these strangers, and I wonder if I would be any more a culturally integrated person for the duration of my life, without the early struggle to fit-in. I wonder who I would have been…

So I try to make peace, right here, and now, as I write this, with who I AM, where I’m from, as an Egyptian American… emphasis on American… and emphasis on Egyptian. I am one…. ask my friends… check out my dinner table.

So I sit on the bus, not sure where I am in my journey, but I have decided not to brace myself for impact, but to experience every moment along the way, and once I land…. I’ll have landed… ready to take on a new adventure.

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Meeting the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy

I woke up today, just like any other day. Opening my eyes minutes before my alarm clock, and the usual tension between my bed and the outside world, as to which would serve me better for the next few hours. My bed will serve me, but I could serve the outside world… and so I got up, and out.

But first Current Stats (changes in red)

Arrests: 0
Police Searches: 2
Near Death Experiences: 1
Stomach Issues: 7
Illnesses: stomach parasite, bee sting
Bandwidth: 1.5 KB/sec
Kilometers Ran Without Injury: 10km

Ok back to business:

As many of you know, I am on the board for Seeds For Hope, a non-profit org started by my sister and a few friends, in order to provide the means for young people to get educated when their circumstances prevent them. The vision is clear, and while we are small, and sponsoring about 20-30 young people, the time has come to expand. We’re working on a campaign now, to create more awareness in the US about the growing need of education in countries like Kenya in the way of fighting and eventually crushing poverty. While there are many actions needed to be taken to end poverty, education is just one of them, and that’s where SFH fits in.

Nadia gave me the responsibility to go out and find contacts and make relationships with people, that we can both build relationships with, and also interview, as part of a short film that will be one of the main venues of our campaign.

Coffee With Gerald


Gerald was a man I got in contact with, through a friend named Debs. Gerald who was brought up in Western Kenya, has made it his life’s mission to educate young people. This guy is SO active, not just in his full time job as director of a Primary School in Riruta (outside of Nairobi) but he volunteers at Vision Africa, and administers a 118 school partnership in the Kibera slums, among MANY other things.

Gerald and I spoke over coffee, and then he invited me to take a trip with him to Riruta, to check out his school and meet the kids, and see if we could arrange for some video footage, and interviews for Saturday. We took a nice but bumpy Matatu trip out to Riruta, to a place called “Precious Junctio” named after the Precious Blood Catholic Mission in the area.

We arrived at the St. John’s Academy, a primary school for the equivalent of K through 8. One room for each grade level. 9 Rooms. The teachers are paid roughly 4500 KSH per month, which is about 60 dollars, roughly 2 dollars per day. School fees cover all expenses from rent, to salaries, to food, to logistics… and they’re barely making it. The kids however, are resilient! Many of them are performing better, according to the national standards, than the “upper class” school, JUST next door. They are proud of their school, and proud of their work. Unfortunately, many will not be able to continue to high school.

The grade 7-8 classes were much smaller, and mostly women were attending. Turns out that many children drop out after grade 6, because it is a weed-out year, in the Kenyan system. Many people don’t see the need at all to be educated because jobs are just unavailable. Why spend the money for a degree if you can’t even get work afterwards? This is the big question that many people ask.. and it’s a question that our organization will have to face.

I got a chance to meet the kids, and talk with Gerald in depth, and I see this as a great opportunity to find a school to partner with.

Kibera Girls Soccer Academy


Later that afternoon, I met up with another man that my friend referred me to, named Abdul. Abdul is a technician for one of the major telecom providers in the country, and he has made it his life’s work, outside of his day-job to change the lives of a group of young women in Kibera. It started out as a soccer club, where these girls could get away from the stresses of their home lives, and some of the high risk situations that they are in, in order to form community and partake in something positive.

After some time, Abdul kept seeing the need for these girls to get educated, and to overcome their situations, but unfortunately, the money to pay for secondary schools is just unavailable! Usually girls in their early – mid teenage years can be taken to early marriages, and other less-favorable situations, but he wanted to give these girls a chance.

With very limited resources, he decided to start a secondary school of his own, and not only is he running it, but the girls themselves take on MUCH of the administration. They are making and building their own school! While their school is not government approved, the idea that they will devote 6-7 days a week to their education, even if it doesn’t have a presidential stamp on it, is something impressive.

I met these girls, and they really really were a blessing to me. On their own accord, they are taking their education into their own hands, despite what the society around them would rather have them do. The name of the school is the Girl’s Soccer Academy.

When the number of girls doubled, and private funding for meals did not increase, the girls decided that they will skip meals, in order to make sure ALL are fed all the other days.

I cannot wait to spend more time at this school, next week. This is a story that has really touched my heart, and I hope that through this campaign, these young women will be able to tell their story to you all.

Old Friends, New Opportunities


So back to my old friends, Alex and Joseph.  Yvonne Poulin, a massage therapist and CEO of African Touch, an organization that provides low-cost formal education in Massage Therapy for people in Kenya, is also friends with these guys as well, and actually has known Joseph for about 4 years! She has been working so closely with him during this time… totally encourages me to know that he has a lot of support out there. Yvonne has basically connected Joseph with the opportunity to belong to a Mechanics Apprenticeship. After we met with the man who would be J’s teacher, Alex and Joseph and I just hung out for about an hour outside the Yaya mall, where we just chatted. Spending time with those 2 is always so special to me. They are survivors, with so much potential, but so much risk at the same time. Asking me questions about life in the states. While they are able to survive in the toughest conditions, and have been knee deep in the harsh life of the Nairobi Streets, they maintain an innocence at the same time, its just humbling.

These guys share their food with me, even if it comes little at a time.

I’m hoping for the best for them. These guys, ever since my 2006 trip, have just been so much of my motivation for returning.not just for them, but the idea that they represent something huge… the potential of the human spirit, undermined by circumstance, but ready to just grow, and come alive. Empowerment. That’s what it’s all about for me. Empowering people to just live.

Small steps, small steps, small steps. But I have to keep going with this, even if it is for a short time every year. It’s the short time that I really do live for.

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Going East But Thinking of 14th Street

(Changes marked in Red)

Arrests: 0
Police Searches: 1
Near Death Experiences: 1
Stomach Issues: 3
Bandwidth: 0.9 KB/sec
Kilometers Ran Without Injury: 5km

Violence, But The Work Continues


Busy day today. I went to Yaya (the mall here) to look for some of the guys I know who live behind there. I really hope I can find them; it’s been over a year since I’ve seen one of them. Glad to know they’re alive, I saw one of them as we drove by last night. Gonna try again in a few hours.

It’s been a bit unnerving here, even though all the violence and stuff is happening on the other side of town. This is the first time I’ve ever felt unsafe here, but I’m continuing on as normal.

Horrible Missionary


Last night we hit up a restaurant called Pavement, where I actually had Thanksgiving Dinner last november. We left before the live Salsa music started, we were all really tired. They make a great Dawa (Vodka + honey + lime). Tonight we’re on our way to Mombasa for a few days of relaxation!! I can’t wait, really, I haven’t really had time off to relax in a long time. I am bringing my work with me of course. I don’t know how to sit still, honestly. I’ll try to read a book or something ;)

Going to salsa clubs, going to the beach; many people I know would say , “Paul, you’re a horrible missionary.” I remember telling some one at a gathering where I gave a talk about my experience here last year, how I had been to the coast a few times, and he just looked at me in shock and said “wow, you’re some missionary, goin to the beach and stuff”  It’s funny but are you kidding me? The truth is, they’re 100% right! I’m not a missionary; far from it. Being a missionary against my religion. wink

Stay Focused


It makes it tricky though when I work at a mission part-time while I’m here, but for me it’s all about the goal, to help people who are living with HIV. I’m working with a few different organizations here, but sometimes there’s a certain expectation to conform to a certain set of beliefs, but I’m definitely comfortable and at peace focusing on the end result and just being myself. I value what a lot of these orgs bring, even if I won’t always agree with the tenants, at the end of the day we all want the same thing.

The work is going well, been very busy, the goal next week:

  • Update our data model to sync with an SPSS legacy database
  • Help solve a bunch of network issues. (hopefully that can be done by Wednesday)
  • Continue learning Flex 2.0
  • Finish up the Joomla CMS for Seeds For Hope

We’re actually gonna start a campaign I’m very excited about, so keep an eye out for that. We’re planning to go out into mix, and talk to people about education, and see what an education brings, and what a lack of education can prevent. I’ve got the chance to see many sides of this spectrum, so hopefully we can get a solid learning out of this. Basically we wanna raise awareness of how inaccessible a basic education can be for some, and with a few dollars here and there, but mostly with respect, truly a life can be changed.

With that, I’m gonna pack and get ready. Until then, I’ll leave you with the words of my man, Rufus Wainwright:

You’ve got my lost brother’s soul
My dear mother’s eyes
A brown horse’s mane
And my uncles name
You walked me down 14th street
For the doctor to meet after thoughts of the grave
In the home of the brave and the weak

I’d love to sit and watch you drink
With the reins of the world gripping a smoke
Vaguely missing link
Don’t ever change you hungry little bashful hound
I got the sheep poor little bo peep
Has lost and filed for grounds

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The journey with Maboyz

Jamboni marafiki wangu! Hello my friends. It is interesting how my language changes when I am overseas. Certain nuances in the way we talk in the states are different than the English spoken here, and it takes a few days to get acculturated to these differences, but its great when I return, and I throw in a few Swahili words by accident when I talk to people ☺ If I speak to you in the week after, expect an accidental “sawa” or “sindyo” thrown in the conversation. I’ll tell you right now sawa means “OK”, and sindyo means “Yes, No?” or the best equivalent is “Ya know?”

Sawa, let me continue this journal of my time overseas. Sawa? Sawa!

Quick recap: meeting with Maboyz again here in Nairobi has made a huge change in my plans here. I basically talked a lot of smack before I left. Many of you heard me say “Yea, I’m gonna climb mount Kenya!” or “Hey! Gonna climb the highest mountain in Kenya” but really – things change when you get here. And being here and seeing Maboyz again, I realize I’d rather spend more time with them, so, instead of taking a 4 day trek into the wilderness, I’m gonna be spending one night in Nakuru, which is a lake town and game park, north of Nairobi. I hope to see some Rhinos and Leopards, sindiyo?

Sawa.

As I wrote before, I have felt kinda torn being here. I have so much attachment to the guys I’ve been working with since my last visit, earlier this year, and seeing how much they’ve changed and how much their group has grown in numbers, maturity, and consistency, makes me want to be a part of it so much more, but it is sad because I know I have to leave.

But it’s been both difficult, wonderful, painful, and rewarding. Last night they had at the church , what they call, a Kesha, or an all night vigil of prayer, singing, skits, games, movie, etc. As for me, I’m not one who can pray for 8 hours straight, most of my prayer, I like to spend alone, I guess. But its good with the masses every so often. A few of the guys showed up, and as they were arriving, I was upstairs in my flat, getting ready to play some guitar and leading the group in some songs. It’s been a long (very long) time since I’ve done that sorta thing, and so I was nervous. Plus the guitar I was to use, had a broken string. And I get very particular about sound, and if I’m missing a string, I get worked up. So I was lucky to have a friend downstairs named Tim who had a guitar and was generous enough to let me borrow it for the evening.

Once the gathering started, one of the guys walked in, and let’s just say he wasn’t doing too well. We told him he should go home, get sobered up and then come back. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do, but it did make sense at the time. Maybe it’s about building discipline, if he can control himself one day a week? I dunno, I have no idea how these things work, but as far as addiction goes, I can sympathize. I think we all can. There’s always something that has us kinda bound: big things, small things. It’s all the same at the end, just some have bigger consequences than others.

He ended up leaving and the night continued. But with a sort of bittersweet note, for me.  I was spending most of the time worried about this kid. As I started playing Tim’s guitar… the most amazing thing happened, the strap broke. Then, a string popped, then another string snapped! And my one hour gig, turned into 15 minutes of clumsy, yet very musical, playing and singing, and for those 15 minutes, everyone was feeling it. Well, at least I was for sure ☺

It was also special because it was the first time Nadia and I sang and played together in such a long time and it was kick-ass for sure.

I’m writing this in MS Word (for Mac) (since I have no net connection right now), and I’m surprised to find that “kickass” is not recognized by the spell checker, and is telling me that I’ve misspelled it. I guess it’s time to add “kickass” to the correct spelling list ☺

OBAMA 2008!

Sawa.

At around 1:30am, in the middle of an intense game of Bible trivia, boys vs. girls, I’m told that the boy from earlier, was passed out on the street right outside the gate, and had been sleeping there in the cold for bout 2 hours.

Mena and I tried to wake him up, but he would not budge, so the guards kept an eye on him and we went back at 2:30 to get him.

Mena and Junae and Kimani, three brothers who are living here in Kenya. I’m just so amazed by them, and their love for the guys, and how much work they’ve put into their group in the last 7 months. I’m happy to know that they are here as I don’t think anyone else could do the job, sindiyo?

We brought him in, and spent until 4:30 with him keeping him company, trying to get him to stay alert. We got him food and tea, it was hard. This guy was a really amazing person, yet, covered by so much crap. You see the potential, yet you know he doesn’t really want help, or maybe he doesn’t think there’s a way out. At the end of the day, it’s a challenge in letting go, but loving and pursuing, and staying dedicated unconditionally. But how that balance is achieved is very hard.

He couldn’t even hold the tea, because he was shaking so much.

At the end, I feel just so inadequate. Inadequate to help, and inadequate to have any answers to why this is the way it is. But you have to keep on going, because it isn’t about me. But you can’t do this kinda work without seeing yourself in these guys. You have to relate to  your own struggles, and your own challenges. These guys serve me, I think more than I serve them.

Couldn’t sleep at all, but finally passed out around 6am, waking up at 10. Not much sleep.

We had the Maboyz meeting a few hours ago, and we tried a few new exercises with them, challenging them to go deeper. What a lovely time it was though. To see these guys open up, and learn to trust each other more. It is really something magical to just witness.

One of the guys in particular, told me how sad he was that I was gonna leave in a week.

“What have you decided about Maboyz, Paul? Will you come stay with us?”

How do you answer such a question?

It feels good to be loved. It humbles me. I know for sure that for now I am supposed to be in New York. What the future has, I have no idea, but one thing is for sure, being in Kenya is part of my yearly plan.

Earlier that day,I was thinking about how the new guys I really don’t connect as well as the older ones because we didn’t have time to spend one on one like I had with the others.
But fate has it, that today, the new guys all showed up earlier, and the rest showed up an hour later, and it really gave us a good chance to bond.

We had fun though, one of the guys taught me some Kempo Karate. I told some of the guys the story of Che Guevarra, Che’s image is an icon all over Kenya, yet no one really knows who he is, where he came from, or what he did. Matatu vehicles all over the country have his icon branded on the rear window, and as they drive by, and you hear the muffled sound of what is to the passengers, piercing Ragga (not reggae) music, vibrating down the sometimes rocky, sometimes smooth roads of Nairobi.

But I digress.

I am here now at the Java house, unwinding with a cup of coffee, and writing these things out. I’m an introvert, actually, and I need these times every day in order to stay sane ☺

I have a lot to think about, but I look forward to a few relaxing days in the countryside amongst the rivers, the mountains, hyenas and flamingos.

More to come, and more photos as well – - Give my best to my city, and my country, and I miss you all so much. CHAU LOCOS!!

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