Egypt: Its People, Its Political Battlefield

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Eman’s “I Voted” Index Finger – Alexandria, Egypt – May 2012

Considering all that’s occurred in Egypt since I departed the country three weeks ago, it would be beyond selfish to follow up An Egypt Travel Manifesto with a prosaic rundown of the sights and sounds. I thought of opening with a rant about my detention in U.S. Customs & Immigration at Newark International Airport, but that 20-minute hold up – while totally unexpected and a little frightening – was far more comical than life altering, especially compared to what the Egyptian people are experiencing now.

Egypt’s presidential election was held halfway through our seven-day tour and the atmosphere was surprisingly calm during those two days of voting. In fact, our hotel in Cairo – the Semiramis InterContinental – is a 10-minute walk from Tahrir Square. That climate shifted drastically once we left.

The health of former and dishonorably ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, has seriously deteriorated. Egypt’s first democratically-elected Parliament in more than sixty years was just disbanded by a panel of judges that Mubarak appointed. Two of the original thirteen presidential candidates will compete in a runoff election this weekend, but neither choice seems to be a popular or positive alternative among the majority of Egyptians.

Yes, we visited some amazing places (the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, the Temple of Karnak, etc.) and captured thousands of photos (you can link to some of them below), but I think what we’ll remember most is the people of Egypt.

During our last night in Cairo, the travel agency arranged for the tour group to meet with Ashraf Khalil, author of Liberation Square: Inside Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. In addition to giving us his analysis of the election, the government and the political upheaval, Khalil actually thanked and commended us for visiting Egypt during a time when most will not.

Tourism in Egypt represents 11 percent of its economy versus the U.S. economy which takes in a little under three percent of its gross domestic product from travel and tourism. From the hundreds of unfinished resorts along the Red Sea to the dozens of merchant boys as young as eight years old who swarmed the tour bus doors at each stop, it’s evident that the current turmoil has greatly impacted travel in a country whose residents greatly depend on it. With the few Egyptian pounds we managed to spend in the local markets, I’m hoping we were able to give to Egypt as much as we learned from it.

Our tour guides – Eman and Dalia – possess an overwhelming wealth of knowledge and sense of pride in their home and its richly complex history. They’re academically-trained guides, so I guess this should be expected. However, Eman is currently her blind mother’s sole caretaker, and Dalia is a wife and mother in a country where women are not exactly on equal footing with their male counterparts. To have such an unfailing esteem for your homeland despite this, is an embodiment of courage I think only a few could cull themselves to have, and it was a honor to travel with and learn from them.

Eman proudly displayed her inked-stained voting finger for days following the election. The “I Voted” sticker I acquired this past Tuesday – following Alexandria, Virginia’s primaries for the U.S. House of Representatives and city council – was stuffed in my jacket pocket.

While I definitely appreciate my right and ability to vote, and the U.S. political system is by no means on par with Egypt’s, it’s hard to stay consistently upbeat about any political process that has become so overwhelmingly negative when it doesn’t need to be.

Come November 6, 2012, the “I Voted” sticker I obtain that day might suffer the same fate as its predecessor, but the cartouche pendant that Eman once wore around her neck and gave to me on the last night of our trip, will still be worn proudly around my neck. The pendant’s symbols represent prosperity, eternal life and protection.

You can view my photos of Egypt on Flickr:

Sure, You Can Write a Good Book, But How’s Your Pitch?

Aspiring author at the Politics & Prose Book Store 2012 Pitchapalooza!

  • John Belushi meets Betty White when a newly divorced mother in her fifties tries to turn her life around by reliving her collegiate years and moving in with a group of fraternity brothers – becoming the house mother they never knew they needed and finally living the adventure she always knew she could. 
  • Confessions of a Worry Wart explores the all consuming anxiety of a woman who blogs about “worry”, and worries about blogging and basically everything else. From her dog’s happiness and her twenty-something daughter who moved to Colombia, to her ex-husband’s therapist and her fear of dying by way of an out of control ceiling fan, Ms. Worry Wart is the quintessential protagonist struggling with life and with herself. 
  • A young medical student starts researching the life of his recently departed grandfather – a former Mormon who became a pioneering surgeon in the field of gender reassignment, and gained infamy on the black market of the medical world. 

Sounds like a new lineup for primetime television, huh?

These are actually books. More specifically, they’re ideas for potential books – also know as a pitch, which is a writer’s passport to become a publishing house’s latest literary darling and getting their book to the top of Amazon’s recommended new releases list.

If there’s one essential thing that I’ve learned from years of media and public relations work is the art of a finely tuned pitch – a concise, well-delivered and engaging summary of a story – and how it has the power to earn visibility for an idea and its originator.

While I attended the Politics & Prose Book Store recent edition of Pitchapalooza! and do have dreams of New York Times Best Seller grandeur, I was glad to be a spectator and passed on tossing my John Hancock into the overflowing fishbowl of eager pitch-ready writers.

  • Over the course of 90 minutes and out of a room of a hundred aspiring writers, twenty-three were randomly selected to tell a group of book industry insiders in 60 seconds or less why their story was the sole idea worthy of a personal introduction to an established publisher and agent. 
  • The gatekeepers slash panel of critics – a matrimonially-connected duo of self-proclaimed book doctorsa rep from Penguin Books; and a local book agent who also specializes in publishing and media law – delivered honest, comical and quote worthy feedback on every pitch that was delivered.
  • Eleven of the pitches were ideas for really interesting memoirs. Another was a poetry book about travel. One was about a mischievous pug. The pitch after that was a history of cartography. Two writers wanted to intersect tales of immigration and with third-person narratives. The rest were duds. 

Before J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series made tweens and adults camp out in their pajamas while clutching bookmarks, or Nicholas Sparks became the 21st century’s male reincarnation of Jane Austen, their first successful book needed to be pitched and pitched well. Potential publishers had to be sold on and believe in their stories.

Of the Pitchapalooza! entries, the three mentioned initially above were my favorites. I’ll reveal later on which was designated the overall winner by the panelists. Feel free to guess beforehand, but try not to scroll ahead. I’m about to tell you what I learned from this event and the panelists.

  1. Whether it’s a memoir, biography or young adult novel, make sure your book and its pitch has a clearly defined arc. Your arc is the progression of the main protagonist. If Harry didn’t mature from unproven and orphaned legend into Quidditch all-star and magically unmatched hero, Rowling might still be a struggling single mother instead of a internationally-known billionaire.
  2. If you can’t describe your book in six words, you have a problem. Five sisters fearlessly seek true love (Pride & Prejudice). Black career woman comically navigates dating (Bitch is the New Black). Toddler-aged preacher’s son cheats death (Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back). Teenage boy discovers temperance and friendship (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Take note.
  3. Don’t make your pitch plot heavy. Think of the blurb on the back or inside cover of your favorite book – that’s the pitch. That’s what drew you in. 
  4. Visualize your book’s pitch like a movie trailer. You have one minute, perhaps even two, to hook your audience. Your words should paint a picture.
  5. When in doubt, use comparable titles. If your book is a Charlotte Bronte twist on The Grapes of Wrath, say so. Will readers think it’s like Running with Scissors mixed with a little Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? Don’t be afraid to express that in your pitch. Readers like the familiar. 
  6. Publishers love numbers. If your story centers around an introvert, elite gymnast, Mensa member, or paranoid schizophrenic, say how many there are in the world or the city the book is based. Make the publisher and the reader care about the protagonist and others like them.
  7. The book industry is fanatical about categories. Like a location means everything to the success of a neighborhood shop or restaurant, the same applies to books. The category that designates where your book lands in a book store could mean the difference between a single printing of 5,000 and one million sold. Whether it’s science fiction, humor or travel, choose your book category wisely.
  8. An independent book store is a writer’s best resource. Visit frequently. Study the books that you enjoy and writers you want to emulate. Learn the various category of books and which publishers specialize in those genres.

Now that my very scaled down version of Book Pitching 101 is complete, I’ll reveal the Pitchapalooza! winner.

The story about the transgender surgeon had attendees gasping 15 seconds into the writer’s pitch. We all should look forward to his book’s debut. And while he’s working on his masterpiece, you and I should continue plugging away at our own, because as one Pitchapalooza! panelist, David Henry Sterry, said:
The good news is that anyone can get published. It’s a great time to be a writer. The bad news is that anyone can get published. There’s a lot of competition out there

Two books every aspiring author should read.

The MLK Jr. National Memorial’s Bookstore: If You Build It, Will They Come?

Child at The MLK Jr. National Memorial’s Bookstore

Seven different conversations with seven different friends: What are you doing this weekend?

Me: Thinking about stopping by the bookstore of the MLK Jr. National Memorial?

All seven friends who asked: The MLK Memorial has a bookstore?!

Me: Uh. Yeah. It’s located next to the Memorial. Directly across the street. 

Their Response: I had no idea. 

The Unfortunate Point: Four friends had visited the Memorial and completely missed the store. The other three had not visited the monument as of yet and had no clue the store existed. 

Much has been said about the newest addition to the National Mall’s tribute to a great American leader and hero – from the now removed wall inscription that took one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quotes out of context to the statue’s likeness of King not being a more accurate likeness of King.

And while the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is not the first National Park Service (NPS) site to receive a wave of criticism for its design and inscriptions – the World War II Memorial, the Franklin Delano Memorial, and Vietnam Memorial are all members of this club – it’s one of a small number of the National Mall-Tidal Basin properties to have a dedicated standalone bookstore.

The Lincoln Memorial has a bookstore inside its walls, but it’s small enough to fit in the palm of Lincoln’s hand. The statue of Lincoln, not the actual man.

With that being said, along with the conversations I had on seven different occasions this past week, I wondered why more attention has not been paid to bookstore of the the first National Mall property to be dedicated to an African American. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Ambiguous Architecture: Perhaps it’s because the building is so nondescript. At first glance, the store’s bland metal exterior makes it look like storage or work space for the Park Service staff dedicated to maintaining the Memorial’s pristine grounds. And while its large windows should make it easy for passersby to see the inside the store, its location always seems to have a sun glare that reflects the outside of the store more so the inside.
  • Banished Branding: The building lacks actual signage – permanent or temporary – designating it as the official bookstore of the The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Not even one of these saying “Get Ya MLK Jr Books Here”.

However, for anyone who is lucky enough to actually go inside store, they’ll be greeted with an array of close to 400 books, DVDs, posters and other items that communicate the direct words of Martin Luther King Jr., explore his life’s work or emulate his teachings of nonviolence, social justice and racial equality. The books range from King’s Strength to Love and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?  to The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas and elementary educational materials on the civil rights movement like This Is the Dream

When I visited the bookstore on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it was of course crowded and I was overjoyed by the number of adults and children browsing and buying books  – here’s a link to the photos I took of the store – but I worried what would be become of the store’s foot traffic after this holiday weekend.

Yes, the store is operated by the same independent contractor that manages all the National Park Service bookstores, but the Memorial’s NPS Web page still lacks information about its exact location and hours, and the foundation dedicated to the Memorial’s creation and funding merely lists information about contributing to the store’s donor wall on its Web site – nothing about the store’s vast inventory of books and other items for sale.

Memorial visitors who miss a chance to join one of the NPS Ranger talks that are started outside the bookstore, might also miss an opportunity to become aware of the store’s existence and actually visit it. Visiting the Memorial is great, but reading and learning about King, and understanding his words and lifestyle is more memorable. More should be done to promote the store.

  • Signage: Adding a sign or banner that’s either affixed to the building’s roof or side exterior, and clearly identifies it as the Memorial’s bookstore, will give it more prominence. If that’s not possible for logistical or economical reasons, a simple sidewalk sign noting the store’s existence and hours will also increase the store’s visibility. To draw in children and families, add some balloons.
  • Literary Support: Authors releasing new books that explore the historical contributions of minorities, analyze the teachings of social and civil activists, or promote a free and just society should make the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial bookstore a preeminent stop on their tours, talks and book signings.

If you build it, they might come, but any bookstore worth patronizing needs a genuine spotlight shone on its existence – not just the Memorial across the street. The bookstore should serve as complement to the Memorial, not an aside. 

I Love You, Jon Stewart. You Bookworm You.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Not sure which joke in the above interview is better – the one about “The Help” or the references to the founding fathers’ penchant for enslaved labor. 

Among the cast of late night television show hosts, very, very few include much substance in their daily shtick other than Charlie Rose, Stephen Colbert, and Colbert’s comical kindred spirit, Jon Stewart.

In addition to stalking Amazon.com, GoodReads.com, and my local library for literary recommendations, I have come to rely on Jon Stewart’s consistent guest list of award-winning writers, historians and biographers to keep my handbags well stuffed with new books – despite the expert judgement of Dr. Oz.

This week, Stewart interviewed author Elizabeth Dowling Taylor about her new book – “A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons” – which tells the story of Paul Jennings, a slave of President James Madison who was  forced to purchase his own freedom and, as well as the freedom of his children, following the deaths of President Madison and his wife, Dolley Madison.

I’m adding this book to my early 2012 reading list and also hope to catch Taylor discuss her latest work at Washington, DC’s literary haunt, Politics & Prose, on Sunday, January 29 at 5pm ET.

Another great recommendation from my favorite late night bookworm. Thanks, Jon!

Reading Is Not Optional

Photo courtesy of http://www.read.gov

Walter Dean Myers is the newest and the third literary great to serve as the Library Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

A great honor for a man who dropped out of high school, but never lost his passion for the written word and continued to pursue and succeed at this interest for over four decades.

In his new position, Myers will work over the next two years to “raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people.”

I had the pleasure of reading Monster (1999), Myers’ New York Times Bestseller, many years ago, but very loosely recall why the book is such a stirring reminder of the hard-scrabble tales I heard daily growing up in New York City. Nevertheless, I know the importance of sharing books like this with young readers.

One of the Christmas presents I recently gave to my SOHO mentee, Makaylah, was a copy of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Makaylah is twelve years old and at the time, I thought mature enough to objectively absorb the story’s controversial themes of racism and sexual abuse.

But upon hearing that her mother was reading the book before Makaylah, I instantly imagined a scenario where I and Morrison’s book would be banned from ever seeing or speaking to Makaylah again.

Three of Myers’ books have been banned in the libraries and school districts of two states due to their profane language and adult content. Similar attempts have been made against The Bluest Eye. Thankfully,all these attempts have failed, and Makaylah’s mother enjoyed and endorsed the book.

Myers has deemed “reading is not optional” as the theme for his two-year term. I look forward to seeing him at the 2012 Library of Congress National Book Festival and using his campaign as a springboard to making reading a new book a constant part of Makaylah’s life.

If you’re unfamiliar with his work, two of Myers’ most recent books – Game (2008) and Sunrise Over Fallujah (2008) – were eloquently reviewed in The New York Times

My Absolutely Charming Encounter With Harry Belafonte

Signed copy of Harry Belafonte’s “My Song”

Having one’s heart heavily set on meeting the most dynamic and ground breaking African American actor, humanitarian, civil rights revolutionary, and political activist in history is hard to bear when that hope is dashed in mere seconds.

Arriving to the original Busboys & Poets in Washington, D.C. a little over thirty minutes before Harry Belafonte’s appearance proved pointless and frankly, dumb. Plans to get there over an hour prior with one of my gal pals crashed and burned with a last-mintue arts and crafts run to Michael’s (I’m making a jewelry box for one of my mentee’s Christmas gifts).

The line outside the esteemed restaurant slash cultural hub was more than 100-plus individuals long. Couple that with a blustery overcast, forty-three degree temperature, and an already packed establishment, Dominique, I and another friend who was circling for a parking space quickly bailed on the idea of hearing Harry Belafonte’s sage wisdom up close and personal.

Dominique and I retired our plans directly across the street to Eatonville (also owned by Busboys’ founder Andy Shallal) in an effort to eat, drown our disappointments in a fancy libation mix, wait until Belafonte’s talk was over and at least try to get our books signed. Luckily, we were smart enough to purchase copies of My Song: A Memoir at Busboys the day prior.

This is when fate decided to enter into the picture and take pity on us. Crap. Perhaps it was a Christmas miracle. 

Upon being granted instant seating, my gal pal quickly declined two table options that were offered to us – one was too tight and the other too close to the front door.

The hostess then graciously gave us a table on the opposite end of the restaurant and near its open kitchen. Thankfully, my friend was pleased. Feeling so dejected about missing the event, I, honestly, was fine with the first table we were offered.

Well, shame on me for not being the picky diner, because mere moments after she drops her bag at our table and heads to bathroom, Harry Belafonte walks by Dominique’s chair on his way back from the bathroom.

After sitting in shock for a few seconds, gripping the table to the point of almost getting splinters and crying inside for Dominique to return quickly, I thought that this might be our one and only chance to meet him and get our books signed.

Dominique returns, I tell her Belafonte is about four tables to our right and we decide to catch him at the door before he and his entourage walked across the street for the event.

About eight minutes passed before we made our move to the door. Belafonte enters the doorway with the help of his son, smiles at us, says hi, sees my book and happily signs my copy, along with Dominique’s. We must have repeated “thank you, Mr. Belafonte” at least six times.

Next comes the most charming thing to happen to me in my lifetime. Before departing, Belafonte gives me a long and slow look over, looks directly into my eyes and says “I love the hair”. 

I gasped, smiled uncontrollably, covered my mouth and blushed. Any chance of me EVER changing my current hairstyle died today. 

P.S. If you don’t know Harry Belafonte’s story, haven’t purchased his book yet, but subscribe to HBO, please try to watch “Sing Your Song”. It’s a really great cinematic look at his life, work and passions. 

Harry Belafonte’s “My Song”

Danielle Evans: A Literary Maven

Author Danielle Evans at Busboys & Poets

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a talk/booksigning by Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self at Busboys & Poets in Washington, D.C.

Got my weathered copy of the short story collection signed and picked up another for a friend. Definitely a must read for short fiction lovers and female readers who will connect to the coming-of-age theme that’s omnipresent in each piece.

The story I enjoyed the most in this beloved opus is actually one of the last and titled Robert E. Lee is Dead. In this particular piece, the teenage protagonist undergoes a time of self-discovery under the watchful eye of a new friend who is at times her polar opposite, her kindred spirit, her worst enemy and in the end, her ultimate hero.

My favorite line from Evans came when an attendee asked her about the difference between writing a novel and writing a short story: “My mother hates it when I say this, but it’s like being married versus having a one night stand. You can leave one for six months, come back, work on it and it will be okay. You can’t do that with a marriage, but you can do so with a novel.”

Her next work – a novel about DC charter school teacher who tries to introduce a progressive book into her school’s curriculum – should be out late 2012/early 2013.

Her favorite recent literary works – Edinburg: A NovelThis Is Not Your Cityand Pym: A Novel.

Catch a short video of her talk at: http://vimeo.com/33201422.

Copy of Danielle Evans' "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self"