Ties That Bind: Connected to Egypt

On the night before the students returned to their homes in suburban Cairo from L.A there were tears at the final assembly held at the faculty and staff center as Workforce coordinator,Vanessa Marti was presented with a framed photograph of them all together. 

On the white matte beneath the glass are warm words scrawled for their mentor of western culture and vocation.  Marti retrieves the photo from atop a corner shelf against the north wall of her office and shows it proudly.  She talks about how a few of her students are now her Facebook friends.                           
                                                                                    

 “Miss Vanessa, we miss you.”
                                                                                                      – Mohamed Goshan

Two years later, Marti is still the program coordinator for the Egyptian Community College Initiative (ECCI). She told the Collegian that she was sad to see her 23 students leave. 

Marti sits at her desk smiling brightly. The office she shares with a co-worker at the Wilshire Boulevard satellite campus is smaller than a walk-in closet.

Marti’s Blackberry is the same shade of Magenta as her batik cowl scarf. Marti speaks with a friendly voice, barely audible in the digital voice recorder laying on her desk among the piles of folders and open envelopes.

She said that the ECCI, and related outreach programs like it are designed to expose foreign community college students to American work, life and culture. The students were aged 19 to 30 and each came to Los Angeles last June for a single academic year, armed with a J-1 visa, which is issued just for cultural exchange.

            “The point of the program is to show them the side of their chosen fields so they can return to Egypt and teach it to others,” Marti said.  Marti alludes to the fact that these young men and women are trained in their own country as machinists, radiologists and nursing staff.
 
Marti said that she had to research life in Egypt and before the program she was not really exposed to their culture.  She was delighted to accompany the second group of ECCI students on their journey to the U.S at the start of the academic year.

With her visit to Cairo she said that she too experienced culture shock, and the students did their best to make her comfortable while she looked at their world with virgin eyes.

            “I didn’t just go there as a tourist,” Marti said, “I got to hang out with my students from last year, and it was great because we bonded, we created friendships—so they took me into their homes, it was definitely an honor, I have to say.”

By the trailing away of her voice it is clear that Marti is sad to learn that following the current academic year, the program will end. She talked about the next batch of students a little more softly, less enthusiastically.

            “So, I went to greet the phase two students in June of last year, there are just 10 students, so it’s decreased,” she said. “It’s part of a grander scheme of things,” Marti said, “The United States provided an opportunity for the students to adapt to American ways, to bridge peace in the Middle East.”

  Marti did not say why the program was being discontinued.  When asked about the current state of emergency in Egypt and how it has affected her students, Marti said that it really did not have much effect at all, and she responds confidently that her students are not from the Suez Canal.

 “ Everybody stayed in touch, and they keep in touch through text messaging and cell phones everyday–there was really only a couple hours there where it was texting only,”  Marti said.

It is quite a leap to go from facilitating their day-to-day group activities for an entire academic year to scattered dialogue through email messages with a few of them on Facebook.

Gone are the lunches they ate together, the late nights swelling in conversation and laughter;  hopes and future plans revealed.

Marti is left behind but not forgotten, just as the faces in a photograph on her wall.

(LACC Collegian 2011)

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Manhattan Madonna [spoken version]

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The Leo House stands in the heart of Manhattan.                                                                    

In the hollow confessional of the lobby, I stood waiting for the nun to confirm my reservation.                     

My stomach was as empty as the eyes of the portrait of Saint Francis watching from the west wall.

The rooms were single occupancy only and a mere sixty dollars a night. Where the nuns and young priests have slept dreamless and stiff in the host metal beds, my lover and I conceived a child entirely in sin.

First, I hold my husband blameless for the empty marriage that swept the ashes he left of me to ignite in another man’s arms.

Second,  to bring the millennial revision of holy virginity to my loins pulled tight  as a cloche purse a  hazard of uninterrupted nights of unprotected sex and my lover’s botched  vasectomy, blame what the first week of February does to New York. 

The beautiful and hopeful sky between the shadowy concrete spires and the bricks—more shades of gray than a used crayon box could hold. The  lights of the Empire state building glowing in four perfect hearts, just like right before that scene of Sleepless in Seattle when the heat-seeking missile-like lovers embraced their first kiss.

My heart thumped while we rode in the taxicab silent as children in church.  I did not look at him, and he said nothing.                                   

We were sinners to the bones of us. 

I could no more look him in the eyes than he could telephone his wife and say that we were checking in to this obscure hostel for a mid-winter sex fest.

The room we shared was the number of the holy trinity.  We fell together below the crucifixion mural hanging above the headboard; our lust left us burning blue like the carpet under our bare feet.

In white sheets pulled taut as the shroud of Turin, we bled into each other like the lashes on Jesus. 

We bled with the fury of the openhearted Madonna. We bled like our bodies touching so purely in sin made how we made it together a holy communion.

Slowly turning the breath of God into a body language so passionate that the egg white walls around us cracked and the yolk of our son stirred into life.

Seven days and seven nights, we weaved him into flesh and into bone.

On the eighth day, we rested.

 

(First place performance Poetryslam piece 2011-From Hollywoodland)

 

 

 

“V” is for Victory, Valentine and Vagina

 

V-Day is a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls in every village, in every city, in every country in the world by 2013. The ‘V’ in V-Day stands for Victory, Valentine and Vagina.

 

The V-Day movement is growing at such a rapid pace throughout the world—now in 140 countries from Europe to Asia to Africa, the Caribbean and North America. V-Day, a non-profit corporation, distributes funds to anti-violence groups through V-Day campaigns via local volunteers.

 

One of the best-received community projects is headed by gender studies organizations and hundreds of college students each year produce annual benefit performances of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.

 

Last year, more than 5,800 V-Day benefit events took place; produced by volunteer activists around the world, aiming to bring awareness (and a fusion of cash flow into community coiffeurs) to audiences everywhere.

 

Here at Central, performance is just the beginning. The controversial subject of the meaty, greasy, oily, smelly, graphically celebrated female organ is coming on strong again this year as the go-to event for Valentine’s week on campus. The imagery and the legend of all things “vage” take a team to produce.

Nineteen women sit in a pale room, spanning four sides of a conference room table. The women are casually dressed; wearing stocking caps and sweatshirts, some hold soda bottles and coffee cups. Each one holds a script.

Director Jen Ham, CWU Alum, 2007, and Kaylen Rich, organizer, were both in last year’s cast of the show saying that the play’s subject matter is so important to them they were compelled to stay involved—even bringing the production back again. This year, they will mold the monologues into a wholly new form.

The effort gave way to 1,500 performances of Ensler’s play on U.S. stages alone.

Through workshops, written word, urban theatre, and the courageous voice of playwrights like Ensler, the V-Movement is educating millions of people about the reality of violence against women and girls.

 

In an undressed rehearsal, the mood is informal; the cast sits in comfy chairs and reads aloud in turn.

Ann Fuller, education, freshman, effortlessly reads her monologue, formally named “Reclaiming c**t”, and enunciates the language of the muscle, the texture, and the very vibration of the female body with her voice. Fuller “nailed” the versatility of the four-letter slang-sported word detested by millions of women and even reluctantly used by men in a retaliatory, expositive anthem.

 

“When Kaylen first asked me to read in the monologues, I was shocked and told her that I would be glad to do the costumes,” Fuller said. “I think that we may have even been in class when she told me about it, and I did not know if I could do it—but now, well, here we go.”

 

Larkin Harrington, primate behavior, sophomore, pulls her red hoodie strings as she begins her highly anticipated reading of “The Woman who loved to make vaginas happy”, one of the most critically reviewed segments of the monologues.  Through the voice of a lawyer-turned-sex worker, she lets her voice bleed heavily into her lines and she does not look back.

Following her reading, Harrington talks reflexively about the challenge of spurned satire and the comedy of her role. She says that she does not own a corset or any other dominatrix attire. She thinks that she will just wear “pants”.

 

Harrington is aware that women in leather and fishnets have performed her monologue, even center stage in their underwear in past performances. The abject sexuality of her character’s role is one that she is looking forward to with enthusiasm.

 

“I am really looking forward to reading this, I mean, my Dad will be in the audience.” Harrington said. “I think it will be a challenge and I have not really done anything like this before.”  While Harrington delivers her lines, her co-performers watch her carefully, playfully, and offer bursts of laughter on point. Their reactions to the collective experience are evident in their applause.

 

“I was actually in the play as a performer last year,” Rich said. “And, I would not have been comfortable reading all of the parts.” Ham is very happy with the diverse cast of students who turned out for the monologues, and she muses few of them are theatre majors.

 

“I am not going to make the girls memorize their lines, (we) thought that reading from these black binders would be easier for them, because, well, the subject is hard—I am not an actor, and so, this way, if they are just reading from the script, it is a more direct experience we are looking for.” Ham said.

 

Ham works at Planned Parenthood in Ellensburg, and she says, feels that the V-Day performances change social attitudes towards violence against women, and that is fulfilling for each of the performers who are doing their part to realize the efforts of a global awareness affecting every woman today.

 

Rich works on campus at the empowerment center, spends her time organizing social change events coordinating press, and just appreciates the opportunity to enlighten students to the possibility of realizing a hate-free world. Rich’s, and Ham’s project is a charitable effort, in a long and harrowing tradition of waging art and freedom of expression against inequality, confusion and fear.

 

The Vagina Monologues are echoes of the voices that expose social and cultural attitudes that perpetuate the pervasive violence against women.  Rich and Ham—two women visionaries—bring the monologues back to life in three emotionally charged performances by Central’s, newest and bravest cast of women—in the tradition of social change for the voice of every vagina, let the panties fall where they may.

 

 

(By Mende Smith for the (Scene section cover) CWU Observer Winter 2012)

 

Raw Nerves; Cafe closes to cut losses

Raw Space Café is the brainchild of Dean Decrease, a former Weyerhaeuser employee, who was looking for an investment in 2008. The design and the reality prove to be far from the initial plans of business investors.  The café closed its doors on Feb 3.

Decrease was asked to oversee a new venture by a local entrepreneur and he partnered in after selling his house on Capitol Hill, buying half of the project. In 2008, the stage and the café were still in the remodel and restoration phase. In this phase of the newfound Elmira Arts Project (EAP) designed to create a ‘magnet building venture in downtown Ellensburg’, Decrease and his collective partners were literally putting up the cash to get the job done.

“I liked the idea of, um, doing something in a community, and it touches the community in a personal way, and does something more personal for me than just putting my money into the bank.” Decrease said.

He had hoped that by creating Raw Space Café, a simple food and coffee store as a faction of the venue, the business would bring revenue to continue the project. According to the Raw Space website, this urban development is sited to continue the project.

“Once you have artists and creative people involved,” Decrease said, “you attract others in the community and local businesses to the area, that was one main mission of the EAP and Raw Space, and the other was to bridge the gap between the university and the city, which has historically been a hard thing to bridge.”

From the first venue in late 2009, Raw Space was operating at a loss each month. Decrease saw how the expenses and the harrowing payroll costs factored into seven-day operations.

Pria Joshi, senior philosophy, spends Thursday afternoons there with her coffee and open books.  She has watched many employee turnovers and is angry that the café is closing its doors.

 

“Next week I think I am gonna try out Brix,” Joshi said. “I am really sad to see this place close, I mean, the place looks great.”

According to Decrease at the beginning of the project operating costs were not a big problem.

“We had a borrowed sound system and volunteers running the place, it was simple, and it was exciting, and it worked.” Decrease said.

According to Christy Powell, another one of the local regulars, this plan of “retooling” Raw Space has all been done before with no results.  She has also been coming since they opened.

 

“My friend Laura was running it exclusively this time last year, and even then the owner was really out of touch,” Powell said.  “Both of them, Don and Dean, have traded off who is more involved in the last two years of business. This is the third time they have done this, closing it down thing…it is like dueling burn-outs in here, and so maybe this time they are closing it for real.”

 

Seth Garrido is working his last shift in the café. He is the sole operator during the last open mic venue in the fulltime café space.  Garrido said that the employees were not given any notice of the closure, but they were given one month’s severance pay.

 

“I say we occupy the Sandbox!” Garrido said. “This place has been ran by three people for months and it is still uncertain if the music venues will be enough to carry the business fulltime once the café closes.”

 

Decrease is hoping that they are all able to move through this transition smoothly and hopes to reopen the café as time allows—if they can. He said that the café could not sustain itself anymore and that’s what led to the announcement last week.

 

“We really want to keep the music part of the mission alive, and we are really in danger of the whole thing being dragged down by this unprofitable coffee shop operation.” Decrease said.

 

“Most venues have a bar and a stage and those two are very synergistic,” Decrease said. “I think realistically we have to operate just like that—if we want to save Raw Space.”

 

At 5:30 pm on this last night of open café space, Daniel Arranaga sits at the piano playing one last time. His dog lay beside him on the floor. He finishes his song and takes his empty beer glass to the counter and sets it onto the bus tray. He is also a former employee of the Raw Space café. The dog stands up and shakes his head, stretches.

 

“See you ‘round, I guess not here but around.” Arranaga said. “It is time to go.”

(By Mende Smith for the CWU Observer Winter 2012)

 

 

 

 

Sidney Takes it All

Surrounded by tribal masks, fertility charms, and souvenir statues of gods and goddesses, Dr. Robert Brady has a unique view of the world.  For 22 years, Brady has directed the International Student Program at City College.

Brady is the go to guy for the necessities of hundreds of students each year who come by air and by sea to study in Los Angeles.  At first glance, Brady is a serious man.  Introductory banter aside, this man has been places. This man has seen things.

“The guy was retiring who had this job,” Brady said. “And I was interested. Part of my job is recruiting International students, and that is what I do. I think it enriches the campus to have students from all over the world.”

Belize to El Salvador, Arabia to Thailand, Mongolia to Vietnam, every treasure on the chestnut shelves in Brady’s room huddle together like prize trophies of far away cultures given to him by his students.

Brady said that the college advertises in magazines and participates in educational fairs throughout the world to meet new students. He has traveled three continents and brings a wealth of experience and opportunity with.

“They ask questions about the program and also about Los Angeles,” Brady Said. “We set them on track for Home Stay with host American families if need be, and others just rent apartments on their own.”

Brady said City has recruited about 700 International students each year since he took over the job. There is much to be done on both sides of his desk because the students experience all levels of culture shock, social challenges, and financial stress which Brady and his caring staff try to assist them with.

“These people have a lot of courage when they come and they often don’t speak the language,” Brady said.“This program is the first step for many of them into a new culture, and they have to be in school to stay here, they can stay and go onto a four-year university, but they cannot get work study as non-residents. So, the International students have to pay the whole cost of their education.”

Sidney Ngoma came to City from Zambia.  He is a handsome guy who speaks softly but with a little more charisma than most business majors. Ngoma said he is from the southern region of Africa.

“I am kind of nervous already because my voice is going into the machine,” Ngoma said. “I wanted to come and study here because, let me see, there was a story about a girl who came for help with books and stuff and her story was on Oprah.”

Ngoma said that he contacted the show and found  LACC program information there. He took the initiative because he wanted to be immersed in world business and learn a powerful trade.

“There have been obstacles to it, but I did it and it is tough, but I want to be on the best team with the best achievements, and my friends said ‘yes it looks like a good school’ so I came here.” Ngoma said.

He said he has a vision and he is alone in his thoughts. He is doing it for his country. He said he wants to be talked about in history books and then he laughs.  Resident students complain about a ten dollar per unit increase. Ngoma’s program costs him nearly 200 dollars a unit; a full-time schedule costs more than 2,400 each year.  Now that he has graduated he is taking two more courses that he said he just learned that he needs.

“Philosophy 6 and Computer Science are the ones I need to transfer,” Ngoma said. “They tell me that I have to take them and it depends on these two courses so I chose to do it and get it done and then move on.”

Ngoma said he always knew he had a dream to come to study in America. He talks about his mother and siblings being proud of him, Ngoma has two brothers and two sisters; one is a set of twins.  He is the oldest of 5 and the first of his family to study abroad.

Zambia is a solid country with a small economy. Since the 1860’s and the stability of Colonial rule, Zambia’s rich culture is strong.  Ngoma said that his country’s industry is in the mines. Today, he says, many of the region’s developed countries are in competing mineral markets.  He said that everybody wants to be educated enough to have their own businesses but there are few who succeed.

Zambia strives to access a brighter future through students like Ngoma.  Many of his friends in South Africa though spared of the neighboring countries’ social uprisings and threat of famine and war are struggling to grow economically independent.

“The women are protectors of our culture,” Ngoma said. “They are so concerned with structure and with keeping all things strong. Like, the future of the country and the people are just what they care about, but mostly the men like me have the access to opportunity.”

Ngoma is waiting for Dr. Brady to sign off on his courses and the two men greet each other warmly. “Hello Sidney,” Brady smiled as he waved to his student from behind the receptionist’s desk.

“This guy is a good one to talk to, he is a good person too, I will see him when he is finished with you.”  Brady said. It is clear that these two have business to tend to and by the end of this year; Ngoma will be on his way again.

“Dr. Brady is a really big help to me,” Ngoma said. “If everybody would just stick it out and work hard to stay in school and follow their dreams, time is a factor and the world first looks really big, but it is small.”

(Originally Published in The Los Angeles Collegian First Place Feature Writing @JACC)