Norman Mailer calls it “Faction”

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Having now written three historical novels—the third in manuscript form: A Rapture of Ravens: Awakening in Taos—readers pose the inevitably question: What part is fact? What part fiction? Mailer calls this finely blended potion, “Faction,” composed of “fact” and “fiction.”  As he phrased it: that “hybrid of documented fact and novelistic elaboration.”

It puzzles me as well. Let me just say that I know the difference–most of the time. (My husband, Morgan, playfully accuses me of not being sure where that line is.) In each of the novels….here is what is true, or true as commonly believed and practiced:

• the history and historical characters

• religious beliefs, rituals, and institutions

• political themes and issues

• cuisine, arts, and entertainment

• geography, locales, plants, animals

• climate, including many extremes

• many of the current characters—and those I clarify in author’s notes

For instance: In The Cairo Codex, the crypt under St. Sergius Church was once a cave and considered a stopping place for the Holy Family, or believed so by many…but whether there was a codex hidden in those ancient walls…ummmmm.






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Arab Press reviews The Cairo Codex

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

The Cairo Codex 

This page-turner will keep you on the edge of your seat!

Dr. Justine Jenner, an anthropologist and daughter of an Egyptian mother and an American archeologist father is sent to Cairo to work on a UNESCO Community Schools for Girls program.

Before she can even begin her assignment, she is nearly buried in the crypt of St. Sergius Church when an earthquake hits.  She is rescued but shaken and doesn’t realize until later that – in collecting her things in the subsequent blackout – she has inadvertently grasped an ancient codex (the stage between scrolls and books).  The crypt is believed to have been the cave home of the Holy Family during their stay in Egypt to escape Herod’s armies.  When carbon dating is performed on the codex and a team of scholars examines it, they determine it to be the diary of the Virgin Mary.

The book moves back and forth between Justine’s time and that of Mary as we read her diary.  The contents of the codex are so startling to both Christian and Muslim faiths that their disclosure might trigger violent reactions.  The Muslim Brotherhood is further provoked to action as it prepares to take over the political reins of the country.

This discovery will challenge accepted belief in history and religion.  It will also raise questions of just how much knowledge the world deserves – or is prepared – to receive.

The Cairo Codex is the first in what will be The Justine Trilogy.

-review by Arab Vistas Today



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I was Sexually Harassed in Cairo, but…

Sunday, July 21st, 2013

The recent data on sexual harassment, attacks, rapes, and death of women in Egypt is deeply disturbing. It is as though the Islamist ascendency has awakened the fury against women under the thin patina of civilization. The recent UN report (see the NY Times article by Bruni that I recently posted on Facebook) estimates harassment at 93%+.* Ninety women journalists were sexually harassed in the last few months. In The Cairo Codex (West Hills Press, to be released 8/13), I described my own earlier incident through the experience of my protagonist, anthropologist Justine Jenner:

“…By the time she reached the Roman aqueduct, cutting east through the city, the town was waking up. Bean pots on rollers moved into the side streets; bakers raised their storefronts, displaying layers of Egyptian baladi bread that          resembles pita. Young men on bicycles took to the streets.

About a mile from the hotel, she stopped. In this part of the city, new or maintenance construction gave way to houses and stores scarred by vehicle exhaust crumbling around the edges, pressed together like crowded children          scrambling for a ball.

Turning away from the Nile, Justine stood for a moment to get her bearings, bending over, hands on her thighs, stretching her back. A hand, not her own, reached under her from behind, firmly stroking between her legs then             withdrawing as quickly as it had arrived. A wave of terror shot through her stomach and chest. For a moment, she couldn’t believe what she’d felt. She swung around to see a stooped man in a gray kaftan and woolen scarf limping             swiftly away.

She could have caught him easily, but what would she say? What would  she do? Would the authorities pay her any mind? Not in Egypt. She turned and ran back to the hotel, stumbling occasionally, shaken by the violation.”

However—and this is a fierce however—that is not my usual experience of Egypt. I have always found Egypt safe, where I could venture into side streets, Tahrir Square, go out in the evenings with other women. So what has happened? What is different?

* I have had questions about UN estimates in the past, including their projection that 95% of Egyptian women have had a clictorectomy.



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The Great Topeka Tornado of June 8, 1966

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Unlike the tragic victims of the Oklahoma tornadoes, we were safe. Our housing development in suburban Topeka was built at the foot of Burnett’s Mound, an Indian burial ground named after Potawatomi Chief Abram Burnett, that had protected the area for hundreds of years. The theory was simple. If a tornado approached from the southeast, it would simply lift off or disintegrate as it raced across the top of the mound.

Two days before, I had graduated from Washburn University. By 7:00 p.m. on June 8 our family, including our four-year old son and five-year old daughter, had bathed and packed for a trip east the following morning. It was raining. The windows were closed. We had gathered near the television in the half-basement to watch the startling storm warnings. Our home, like many others in the area, was designed with a concrete foundation flush with the driveway in front, yet partially embedded in the soil behind.

We felt reassured of our safety by Bill Kurtis, then a small town reporter, but later a well-known CBS anchor, even though he reported that the rapidly forming tornado had struck down a few miles outside of town and was headed for Burnett’s Mound. We stood mesmerized, watching the set when Bill yelled: “It’s on the ground. It’s on the ground! For God’s sake, take cover!” The tornado—now a mile across—had topped the mound, but instead of lifting off, stayed on the ground.

We jumped into action. While I dialed my brother who, with his family, lived in a fragile barracks on campus, my husband lifted a stuffed chair into the miniature half-bath. We edged the children underneath and closed the door behind us, reminding ourselves that a bombing that week in Saigon only had a few survivors—those who had taken shelter in the bathroom.

When the tornado ripped the house off our heads, it was deafening, like a 747 landing on top of us. Everything went dark and time stopped. The plumbing structure above us snapped and water poured into our small space. Later, our children would tell us that their greatest fear was being drowned. We were certain that the event lasted for several minutes, although it was only moments.

The F5 tornado took hundreds homes in our area and stayed on the ground all the way through town. Because windows were closed against the rain, distant neighbors would report that our houses were lifted intact into the air and exploded. The university was stripped of trees and sacred stone buildings. The menace didn’t lift off until it had finished with Topeka, including the downtown. At the time, it was the most expensive tornado in American history.

We learned a great deal that day, and in the days that followed:

  1. Don’t panic. Remain calm and apply what you know about tornadoes. Our neighbor’s five-year old son was killed when he was pinned to a tree by a two-by-four when the family panicked and raced for their car.
  2. Stuff doesn’t matter. We lost everything, but all that mattered was that we still had each other. For years to come, we would never cherish things.
  3. Expect surprises. Our jar of travel monies rolled to the bottom of the non-existent stairs. My Blue Cross insurance card was mailed back from St. Joseph, Missouri. Our tornado insurance policy was stuck on a nail in our front yard.
  4. Families, friends and communities become closer. People can depend on each other for food, for lodging, for protection. For years, we enjoyed block parties with our neighbors.
  5. 5.    If you live in the “tornado belt,” for God’s sake, buy tornado insurance.

A few years later, when we announced to family and friends that we were moving to California, they cried: “Aren’t you afraid of earthquakes?”



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Death of a Saint

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Ansaf Aziz, a young woman with sparkling eyes and intelligence from Upper Egypt fell in love with her English teacher, married him and moved to Assuit, where she would give birth to three extraordinary children, one boy and two girls.

Madam Ansaf, as we called her, later moved to Cairo and began a program of micro-loans for poor women before Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh (winner of the Nobel Prize) thought of the idea. She had been successfully carrying out this loan program for nearly 20 years when we met her in 1989—the year my husband and I moved to Cairo. She loaned monies to women so that she could earn an income for the family and become independent entrepreneurs. A bean pot, a sewing machine, a small oven, plus skills, and craft bazaars for fund-raising—support wherever needed.

Soon after our arrival in Cairo, where I worked as a State Department envoy working with Egyptians to set up a national curriculum center, we had dinner with Andrea Rugh, a Harvard anthropologist and author of multiple books on the Middle East.  We asked Andrea, who is now with the Middle East Institute, how we might work and learn with the poor people of Cairo without going through the cumbersome bureaucracies. She took us to meet Madam Ansaf, a close friend of hers and the focus of the text she was working on at the time.

From that day forward, Ansaf adopted us and our three children when they visited. We had many dinners at her home in Shoubra and became friends with her family, especially son Hanna and his wife Laurence and daughters. Her joy was contagious as though she knew that her path was blessed.  I had the honor of accompanying her into the back streets of Boulak and meeting with groups of women who gathered to talk about their lives. As a Coptic Christian going into Muslim homes, she annoyed the Brotherhood, but no one dare touch her. For the next two decades, we contributed to her work.

My husband, Morgan, then working as a page editor for The Middle East Times and part-time instructor at American University, Cairo, wrote a tribute to her entitled, “Mother Teresa of Cairo.” Indeed she was.

I remember when she was around 85 (she thought—no one knew for sure) and she had never been to a doctor. Her son told her that as long as she was doing God’s work she would be well. Her grandson, Nader Wahbi, just wrote to us that his grandmother turned her faith into action. Indeed she did.

We last saw Ansaf in May, 2011, when we visited Cairo to learn about the aftermath of the revolution. She was in decline by then, but insisted on staying in her own home, which was leaning significantly as a result of the last earthquake. She would eat very little and told me, “I cannot eat when I know there are so many without food.”

Madam Ansaf, known as the Mother of the Poor of Boulak, was a saint. She passed away peacefully on March 10, 2013.

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President Obama & Women: Remarkable Achievements

Friday, May 18th, 2012

On the day that President Obama took office he signed the Lilly Ledbetter bill, ensuring equal pay for women.  This was only the beginning of what has become an unprecedented track record of accomplishments for women. Further, he established the Equal Pay Task Force to enhance enforcement of equal pay laws, increased the participation of women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and signed into law the Affordable Care Act so that “being a woman is no longer considered a pre-existing condition.” This Act prevents insurance companies from discriminating based on gender and provides women with preventive services without co-pays or deductibles, including maternity screenings, mammograms, birth control (as of August 1), and well-woman visits.  His defense of Planned Parenthood is unwavering.

Our President appointed two women, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, as Supreme Court Justices and sought out key women leaders for such roles as Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Secretary of Health and Welfare, Katherine Sibelius. Through the US National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, women are integrated into all aspects of foreign policy, global health systems, combating violence against women and promoting economic opportunity.

In addition to promoting equal pay and fighting pay discrimination, President Obama has worked to provide tax credits for working families, support for women entrepreneurs and businesses, workplace flexibility, fair labor standards for in-home care workers, and an American Jobs initiative designed to open job opportunities in all arenas.

Educational opportunities have been expanded for women and families through access to Head Start for more than 60,000 more children, redesigning “No Child Left Behind” to provide both incentives and standards for growth, and maintaining maximum Pell Grant awards. The newly-established White House Council on Women and Girls works continually to bring equality and opportunities to women in every field.

President Obama has personally benefitted from the support and sensitivity that extraordinary women provide: his grandmother, mother, wife and now two daughters.  In early 2010, the President assured us that “I didn’t run for President so that the dreams of our daughters could be deferred or denied.” He has kept that promise. As a woman who is preparing to vote in her 14th presidential election, I am pleased to vote for the person who has—more than any other President—helped to pave the way forward for women and girls for decades to come.



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Building Leadership Capacity: To ASCD Chicago…and Beyond!

Friday, February 4th, 2011

by Ryan Land

Last spring at one of our Leadership Team meetings (comprised of principal, vice principals, department heads), I pitched the idea of a trip to Chicago to attend ASCD’s 2010 Teaching and Learning Conference. The conference theme was “Closing the Learning Gap” and the emphasis on teaching and learning in high stakes times, while working with at-risk learners in their many forms, seemed like it would be useful and engaging for the instructional leaders in our school. I am the principal of R.D. Parker Collegiate in Thompson, Manitoba. In my second year as principal, I know both the legend and the reality of our context for teaching and learning, and I truly felt this would be an opportunity worth getting excited about. We have been working with the Manitoba School Improvement Program for a number of years, and this was to be the catalyst for building leadership capacity within our recently reinvigorated department head structure. Add to the mix the fact that it was looking like the bulk of the funding would come from outside the school-based budget, and it was starting to feel like an ever-elusive win-win.


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