Category Archives: Blog

Nature Immersion…


Coming together on retreat

Grateful for a relaxing week-end steeped in nature and meditation in the company of friends–both old and new…

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Anubis Yoga

Anubis the yogi

Anubis the yogi

Anubis really enjoyed his week-end meditation retreat in the woods, and he was particularly fond of the yoga…

Anubis yoga

Guru Anubis

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Cheese Meditation

Cheese meditation

Cheese meditation

No week-end retreat is complete without a communal meditation on fancy cheese (honey included–delish!)…

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Retreating into Sleep…

Anubis bed

Anubis choosing his bed

Here’s Anubis picking out his bed in the loft space of our retreat center for a truly relaxing meditation excursion this week-end in Connecticut…

To the loft...

To the loft…

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Meditation Retreat…

Guru Anubis

Guru Anubis

The perfect relaxing week-end! I joined up with friends and colleagues this week-end for a serene meditation retreat in the woods of Connecticut (Guru Anubis included)…

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My Latest Talk at Yale…

Speaking at Yale

Speaking on Iran at Yale

I was delighted to speak last night at Yale on transsexuality in Islamic law, theatre, and film in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I was delighted that folks came out to it despite the rain, and especially grateful for the positive feedback from Iranians who attended (including those with trans family members back home in Iran). I enjoyed the stimulating discussion it provoked and am looking forward to sharing the paper in print soon (in a leading journal–stay tuned!).

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Slavery in the Middle East & North Africa…

UC Slavery me

Speaking on slavery at UCSB

I was honored for the opportunity to speak about slavery and sexual labor in Zanzibar and Oman at the Fourth Annual Conference of the University of California Santa Barbara Iranian Studies Initiative entitled Slavery and Sexual Labor in the Middle East and North Africa.



It was great to be reunited on my panel with Professor Staci Scheiwiller, as we once lived together in Tajikistan on a Critical Language Scholarship to study Persian and Tajiki–fond memories!


Reuniting with Staci

It was also a pleasure to meet Dr. Mehrdad Amanat, author of Jewish Identities in Iran: Resistance and Conversion to Islam and the Baha’i Faith–whose brother Professor Abbas Amanat is my colleague at Yale (and whose new book on Iran you must read!).


Dr. Mehrdad Amanat

I was delighted to meet Professor Behnaz A. Mirzai whose work on slavery in Iran and films on Afro-Iranians I greatly admire (and I’ve included them in an upcoming publication).

Behnaz 1

Conferencing with Behnaz Mirzai

I was very grateful to Professor Janet Afary, Mellichamp Chair in Global Religion & Modernity & author of Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, for bringing us all together for such a visionary and bold conference. Also such a treat to meet Professor Eileen Boris, Hull Professor of Feminist Studies at UCSB.


Drs. Afary, Boris, Mirzai & O’Dell

Best of all, we ended the conference in fine Persian style–with Persian dance, music, and poetry–the perfect conclusion to a stellar conference.

Persian dancer

Persian music and dance

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Reunited on the Rocks…


Santa Barbara stroll

A joy to reunite with my rock climbing partner in Santa Barbara while I was in town to speak at the Fourth Annual Conference of the University of California Santa Barbara Iranian Studies Initiative entitled Slavery and Sexual Labor in the Middle East and North Africa.

on the rocks

On the rocks in New England

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Perch in LA…


Perched at Perch

Surveyed the Los Angeles skyline at Perch while in California to speak at the Fourth Annual Conference of the University of California Santa Barbara Iranian Studies Initiative entitled Slavery and Sexual Labor in the Middle East and North Africa.

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Santa Barbara Brunch

Dru brunch

Waking up in California

Enjoyed a Santa Barbara brunch with friends while in Santa Barbara to speak at the Fourth Annual Conference of the University of California Santa Barbara Iranian Studies Initiative entitled Slavery and Sexual Labor in the Middle East and North Africa.

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Santa Barbara…


Waking up in Santa Barbara

Enjoyed an ocean stroll while in Santa Barbara to speak at the Fourth Annual Conference of the University of California Santa Barbara Iranian Studies Initiative entitled Slavery and Sexual Labor in the Middle East and North Africa.

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Malcolm X at Yale Law School

Malcolm X at Yale Law School

Malcolm X at Yale Law School

In the winter of 1960, around the same time that four black college students were taking their seats at a lunch counter in Greensboro, Malcolm X set up a string of high profile debates to elevate his platform and challenge mainstream civil rights organizations who were pushing for integration. Between 1960 and 1964, Malcolm participated in more than twenty formal debates, including at Yale Law School, where he argued against integration and made a case for Islam as a remedy for America’s ills.

Norfolk Prison Colony

Norfolk Prison Colony

Malcolm’s impressive intellect and brilliant oratory skills had been honed at the Norfolk Prison Colony where was a member of the prison debate team which debated student teams from Harvard, Yale, Boston University, MIT, and Holy Cross. Malcolm easily won every single debate he participated in while in prison. Malcolm thrived on the lost art of debate; for him, confrontation and communication were prime pathways for the revelation of truth. Malcolm debated integrationist black men with whom disagreed, and he debated racist white men with whom he disagreed. He believed that raw debate face-to-face was necessary to “clear the air of the racial mirages, clichés, and lies.”

Malcolm and Castro in Harlem

Malcolm and Castro in Harlem

In September 1960, the month before Malcolm came to speak at Yale Law School, Malcolm was rubbing elbows with Fidel Castro at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, where Castro also met with Nikita Khrushchev, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Jawaharlal Nehru. Castro had agreed to move to the hotel uptown on Malcolm’s suggestion, after a spat about the bill at the Hotel Shelburne in midtown. Castro thought being situated in Harlem would help him convince black Americans to support the new Cuba and his plans for liberating Afro-Cubans from their oppression.

When Malcolm took his place in the hallowed halls of Yale Law School before a standing-room-only audience on Oct 17th, 1960, he declared: “The western world is sick. America is sick.” By chance, on that very same day, Vice-President Nixon spoke with a much smaller crowd on the New Haven Green about getting tough with dictators like Castro and Khrushchev “whose objective is to conquer the world by any means if necessary.” Separated by just a few blocks in geography, Malcolm’s call for the complete separation of the races and Nixon’s strong man capitalist politics were gulfs apart. What united them, however, was that both men welcomed the presence of the opposition at their events – unimaginable in today’s highly partisan political circus.

(Original Caption) 10/17/1960-New Haven, CT- Republican presidential candidate, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, greets an enthusiastic crowd from the top of a car. Nixon hit on the defense of the offshore Islands of Quemoy and Mahsu during his motor tour of Connecticut, pressing for a clearer statement of Senator Kennedy's views on this issue in his speech to the voters.

(Original Caption) 10/17/1960-New Haven, CT- Republican presidential candidate, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, greets an enthusiastic crowd from the top of a car. Nixon hit on the defense of the offshore Islands of Quemoy and Mahsu during his motor tour of Connecticut, pressing for a clearer statement of Senator Kennedy’s views on this issue in his speech to the voters.

Malcolm began his talk at Yale Law School appealing for minds to kept open and reason to prevail. He said: “In this crucial hour in which we live today, it is essential that our minds constantly be kept open to reality. We have both races here in this Yale Law School Auditorium tonight. Let us not be emotional. Let us be governed and guided only by facts.” Joining him on stage was NAACP national youth secretary Herbert Wright who was a grassroots organizer of college students and a champion of nonviolent protests, having organized numerous sit-ins across the South.

Herb Wright

Herb Wright

Minutes before the debate began, Malcolm followed Herb into the men’s room to talk strategy. After looking under all the stalls to make sure no one was listening, he said, “You hit ‘em high, and I’ll hit ‘em low. You’re going to be the State Department, and I’m going to be the War Department. But we’re going to be respectful of each other.” In our current anti-intellectual moment marked by vapid vitriol and toxic rage, such an expression of solidarity with an adversary seems counter-intuitive and strange. While Herb would argue for pushing change through litigation, legislation, and registration, Malcolm would call for reparations, land, and a return to the soul.

Malcolm stated his purpose for speaking at Yale Law School directly: “We have accepted your invitation to come here to Yale University Law School this evening to let you know first-hand why 20 million so-called Negroes cannot integrate with white America, why white America, after 100 years of religious hypocrisy and political trickery will never accept us as first-class citizens here.” Malcolm appealed for African-Americans to be given the “right to hold their heads up, and to live in dignity like other human beings.” Long before intersectionality was a buzzword, he traced how racism drove and shaped postcolonial conflicts in Congo, Algeria, South Africa, China, Cuba, and Panama.

Yale Law School

Yale Law School

At Yale Law, speaking to future foreign policy makers and legislators, Malcolm assailed America for its failure on the domestic and global stage to solve the race problem, and blamed this failure on western diplomats, learned politicians, theologians, legal experts, sociologists, and civil rights leaders. If there was to be a savior, he asked, would such a man of God “be someone from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Howard, or Tuskegee?” White or black? Theologian or preacher? Who best to deliver the world from “such propaganda, mass lies, mass suspicion, mass confusion, mass dissatisfaction, mass unrest, mass hatreds…and the ingredients for such mass bloodshed.”

Malcolm decried America’s “great loss of prestige” in the world despite the “advice of her expert advisors,” and noted the decline of British global influence: “when the sun rises, we can hardly find the British Empire.” He noted the oversized influence the American president exerts upon the world, noting that America’s “president is almost like a ‘god,’ for he has in his hands almost every other country on this earth” and thus the “eyes of even the foreign nations are turned toward the American elections” as they too must know “what type of man will be the next ‘god.’”


In his debate at Yale Law School, Malcolm X proposed Islam as a solution to the country and world’s ills. He said, “My friends, Islam is the religion taught by all of the prophets: Noah, Lot, Abraham, Moses, and even Jesus. Islam is the true name of the religion God gave to the prophets in the past to cure their people of whatever moral or spiritual ailments that were afflicting them in that day.” One can only wonder how a black nationalist Muslim freedom fighter today would be received in reciting these exact words in such an elitist space – he or she would likely end up dead too, just sooner.

In front of the most elite crowd in education, Malcolm unflinchingly dared to speak truth to power, and exploited the privileged position of his audience at Yale Law to drive home his powerful argument for reparations. He stated: “If I were to collect the combined wages of everyone in this Yale University Law School auditorium tonight for just one week, I would have plenty of money. If I could work all of you for nothing for just one year I would be extremely rich. Well, what about the millions of black people who worked here in America as your slaves for over 300 years without one payday? What happened to their wages? Who collected the profits, or amassed the fortunes received from their free labor? Facing these unpleasant facts, surely you can easily see now how America became so rich so fast.” He personalized the matter, forcing his elite, white audience to step outside their privilege and into the subjectivity of black people by presenting a theoretical parallel to reveal the injustice of unpaid slave labor and just need for reparations.

Nation of Islam counter-demonstration at NAACP rally in Harlem, 1961

Nation of Islam counter-demonstration at NAACP rally in Harlem, 1961

When the debate at Yale Law concluded, Nation of Islam members wove through the crowd of elite white students to sell records with “A White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell.” Malcolm and Herb would go on to spar at City College, but the race debate at Yale did not abate in the wake of their visit. When Strom Thurmond visited the Yale Political Union the following year, he defined himself as a “regular old-line Democrat of the states-rights, free-enterprise, and individual liberty, who feels that the New Deal-Fair Deal element pirated the party name and perverted it with socialism and communism.” Weeks after his visit, the Yale Political Union hosted Ralph McGill, publisher of the Atlanta Constitution, who attacked Thurmond’s views and passionately argued for the desegregation of schools in the south – his pleas were no match though for the conservative student coalition that voted down a resolution urging the federal government to push for desegregation.

Augustus Kingsolving

Augustus Kingsolving

Inspired by these debates on campus about race, a bunch of young men from Yale (led by Augustus Kingsolving) decided to spend their spring break studying racial injustice in the Deep South, where they planned to meet with representatives of the NAACP, the American Legion, and various civil rights groups. Along the way, as part of their scrappy “Project Truck,” they met with student president Jesse Jackson at North Carolina A&T, stayed on plantations owned by Yale alums, and attended white citizen councils that opposed integration. In our racially charged present, where white men are suspiciously absent from the front lines in dismantling racism, the civil rights activism of these and other privileged young white men from the 1960s seems even more radical than it was at the time.

Richard Holbrooke and Katharine Pierce as students in 1961 at Brown University.

Richard Holbrooke and Katharine Pierce as students in 1961 at Brown University

As for Malcolm X and Herb Wright, in 1961 an undergraduate student named Richard Holbrooke at Brown University invited them both up to Providence for a debate, after the buzz about their stellar spar at Yale Law had spread. But when Malcolm arrived in Rhode Island, he was told that Herb would not be debating him after all, due to a new policy passed by the NAACP which barred members of the organization from debating him — so as not to dignify his views. Though Malcolm and Herb’s dueling days were done, their dynamite duet to be danced no more, they had become friends in the fire despite their differing views, and Malcolm was disappointed to have to give a speech at Brown — instead of ride high in another debate.

For Malcolm, debate was a super highway to personal and communal transformation. Rooted in ideas and facts, not opinions and feelings, debate was an honest and necessary act to reveal truth and convince even the most elite and hateful of his cause. It was not an exercise in civility but a radical strategy in facing one’s enemy head-on and pushing for social change. A debate was not passive or sedate – it was a public exorcism of hate. To win, Malcolm drew upon every asset he had, including his disarming wit – and often liked to smile when going in for the kill. There was joy in the hunt; a surety in victory not victimhood.

Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali

Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali

Malcolm X’s good friend Muhammad Ali, who himself relished a good fight, said of his friend: “He’s nothing but a fellow who was an ex-dope addict, a prisoner, a jailbird who had no education, couldn’t read or write, who heard about the honorable Elijah Muhammad, who took him off the streets, cleaned him up and educated him enough to go out and debate and you might say defeat any opponent that he met.” Any opponent that he met – be it Ivy League debates teams in jail or the youth president of the NAACP at Yale Law School.

UNITED STATES - MARCH 02:  Cassius Marcellus Clay (Muhammad Ali) with Black Muslim leader Malcolm X at 125th St. and Seventh Ave.  (Photo by John Peodincuk/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

UNITED STATES – MARCH 02: Cassius Marcellus Clay (Muhammad Ali) with Black Muslim leader Malcolm X at 125th St. and Seventh Ave. (Photo by John Peodincuk/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Malcolm X began his speech at Yale Law School with an appeal for minds to “constantly be kept open” and he ended it with these parting words: “I trust you will weigh well these words.” He knew all too well that critical and open minds, along with rigorous and informed debate, are the bedrocks of a healthy democracy and any hope for justice and social change among the elite. In the halls of the Ivy League — Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, and Brown — the academic centers of elite power and privilege, Malcolm’s words were not censored or muzzled. He was given a stage to criticize American culture and politicians and make his case for the transcendent potential of Islam to heal personal and communal wounds.

(Original Caption) Reverend William Sloane Coffin Jr., 43 the Chaplain at Yale University and his wife are seen here as he appeared at the U.S. District Court in Boston. Reverend Coffin, Dr. Spock and three other defendants pleaded innocent to charges of conspiring to aid young men in dodging the draft.

(Original Caption) Reverend William Sloane Coffin Jr., 43 the Chaplain at Yale University and his wife are seen here as he appeared at the U.S. District Court in Boston. Reverend Coffin, Dr. Spock and three other defendants pleaded innocent to charges of conspiring to aid young men in dodging the draft.

Before he died, after coming back from hajj in Mecca, Malcolm X was no longer arguing for segregation or integration – but recognition as a human being. In his Easter Sunday sermon in 1961, Yale’s chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, said: “Enough of these less than halfway measures! There is something pathetic about people running around lighting lights when what we need is to have the whole bloody night come to an end.” But our national nightmare marches on, as we look on in horror, light some more lights, and refuse to do the real work necessary to confront hate and elite corruption head-on and deliver what’s right with an unshakeable might.

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Malta Memories…


Strolling through Valletta

It’s been a very busy summer, filled with travel and research. I kicked off the summer in Malta, where I was invited to present my research at an international conference at the University of Malta entitled, “Emerging Disability Issues: Varieties of Disability Activism and Disability Studies.” I did find some time, however, to tweet about my adventures in learning Maltese — the grammar of which I had the opportunity to teach at the American University of Beirut. So I was surprised today to find an article in the New Yorker on polyglots which profiles a male polyglot who hit the streets of Malta to learn Maltese (as a hyperpolyglot and woman, I was disappointed to see they only interviewed on woman in this long article). Anyway, the article (which felt oh so familiar) brought back fond memories of my summer adventure in Malta, and perhaps if I ever catch up to myself I will be able to post some photographs from both Malta and Gozo.


Enjoying the infinity pool at the Phoenicia Hotel

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Gone Fishing…

End of summer...

End of summer…

The end of summer is upon us — meaning so much work to be done before the school year officially starts. So I’m ridding myself of all distractions, detoxing from social media, and enjoying the final days of summer by finishing too many projects to count before becoming too busy to keep up with myself. Time to go on a long trip away from the world…enjoy the end of summer!

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Birthday Boy


Celebrating with the birthday boy

Anubis made it this week to 15 years old — 105 in human years! He had a big birthday blowout filled with tons of treats, rolling around in the grass on the Yale campus, and too many snuggles to count. It’s been the greatest honor of my life serving this divine little chihuahua.

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Library Buddy…

Yale University

Anubis at Yale University

Anubis has had the opportunity to get a first rate higher-ed experience at Brown, Harvard, Columbia, and now Yale — and he’s just wild about the library here…but exhausted from reading so many books already.

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New Haven…


Anubis in New Haven

Anubis is thoroughly enjoying life in New Haven — especially all the grass on the New Haven green and Yale University campus (after so many years of living in the Arabian desert)…

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Dream Come True…


Waiting for Maria Bamford (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

With comic genius Maria Bamford

With comic genius Maria Bamford

This week, my dream came true — I got to see Maria Bamford do stand-up comedy live! Lucky for me, I got to sit in the front row–and waited with extreme anticipation for her to come out and split open our sides (while she was liking my tweets backstage lol). Though I’ve been a devout fan of hers for years and mined all of her routines to bolster my own comedy, nothing could prepare me for her absurdly perfect performance live — with incredible sophistication and mastery, she roasted politics, culture, and life itself in a performance that was expertly layered and delivered with astounding vulnerability and fearlessness.

I’ve been lucky to work in television, film, and theatre with a number of artists with impressive comedy chops of their own, like John Krasinski, Olympia Dukakis, Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Aniston, Meg Ryan, Matthew Broderick, Aasif Mandvi, Tara Summers, David Walton, Faith Ford, John Ritter, Tim Allen, Kirstie Alley, Andy Dick, Jesse Martin, Jordan Carlos, Jay Mohr, Dominick Dunne, Kevin Bacon, Jerry Orbach, and Griffin Dunne. But for me, Maria Bamford is really something else — a comedy genius purely her own. She’s on a whole ‘nother plane — and rarely have I encountered a mind that can make so many connections so quickly and with such riveting hilarity.

I could go on and on about how her performance left me with a ruptured appendix from laughing so hard — and inspired me with its raw honesty and moral conscience, but I’m still digesting the “experience” (I am tempted to write a think piece about it, stay tuned). All this to say, if you have the opportunity to see her live — DO. It’s an experience unlike any other — and you’ll be thinking about it afterwards for many days and even weeks to come. Also, at a time when suicide and depression are headline news, Maria’s comedy creates a welcome and needed space in which mental illness stigma and shame are tossed to the wind, and being human in all of its messiness and terror is not only normalized but transformed into comedic high art. Ave Maria — thank you for being so bloody funny — and you, completely, you.


Omg, the master at work (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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Сайхан наадаарай

Naadam in Mongolia (Photos: Emily O'Dell)

Naadam in Mongolia (Photos: Emily O’Dell)

All my love to Mongolia this Naadam & People’s Revolution Day. I have been there the past several summers, and though I was offered another fellowship this summer, I had to decline it to start my new position at Yale. But I’m still in Mongolia in spirit! Сайхан наадаарай!!!

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Exploring Emerald Ethiopia…

St. George Church (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

St. George Church (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

“When you think of Ethiopia,” I asked my Lebanese and Syrian students at the American University of Beirut, “what do you think of?” After they rattled off the usual stereotypes, I showed them slides of the “real” Ethiopia — its emerald green pastures, gorgeous fortresses in Gondar, and technicolor mosques in Harar.  “That can’t be Ethiopia!” they protested, only it was. The country is filled with so many jewels of cultural heritage that it is almost impossible to see them all in one trip.   

Addis Ababa food tour (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Addis Ababa food tour (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

My first excursion after touching down in Addis Ababa during the Eid holiday was a walking food tour of the capital. Culinary tourism is a new concept in East Africa, so I was especially excited to join with an enthusiastic group of Europeans and Ethiopians to visit three restaurants in one night to sample traditional vegetarian, fish, and meat dishes. Ethiopian food is my favorite cuisine in the world, so I was in absolute heaven as I went to grab my first piece of injera – the sponge-like sourdough bread that is used in place of a plate and utensils.

Vegetarian feast (Emily O'Dell)

Vegetarian feast (Emily O’Dell)

Since I am vegetarian, I stuck to the palette pleasing globs of carrots, potatoes, cabbage, lentils, collard greens, string beans, split peas, and beets, while my new friends branched out and tried raw beef delicacies and Nile perch. My personal favorite dish is shiro – an orange chickpea stew cooked with berbere sauce — that I ended up eating every day of my trip. I am a total shiro addict and not ashamed.

Coffee and popcorn (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Coffee and popcorn (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Since many Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians and traditionally eat vegetarian dishes on Wednesdays and Fridays, all restaurants carry a “fasting menu” – a magnificent medley of meatless dishes – so vegetarians are always welcome. Our food tour concluded with a traditional coffee ceremony consisting of fresh brewed Ethiopian coffee and popcorn.


National Museum of Ethiopia (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The National Museum was my first stop the following morning as I was eager to visit the home of “Lucy,” the famous partial skeleton of the most ancient early human – or hominin – ever found. In Amharic, Ethiopians call her Dinkinesh, which means “you are marvelous” — and she is. After studying the museum’s famed skeletons, ancient Sabaean inscriptions, and Emperor Haile Selassie’s enormous carved wooden throne, my guide and I headed up the eucalyptus lined road leading to Mount Entoto, the highest peak in Addis Ababa to explore Emperor Menelik II’s thatch-roofed palace, the technicolor striped church of Saint Mary, and the best vistas in the capital. We ended our day at Tomoca Cafe to sip the best coffee in the world.

I love Lucy (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

I love Lucy (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The next day I flew north to explore Ethiopia’s famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites. First up was Axum, the center of the ancient Aksumite Kingdom, considered the holiest city in Ethiopia and thus a popular place of pilgrimage. I was most eager to see its ancient towering stelae, which are thousands of years old. As an Egyptologist, I felt right at home at this impressive archaeological site and delighted in contemplating its possible connections to ancient Egypt.

Stelae at Axum (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Stelae at Axum (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Axum is chock full of archaeological sites – so bring your Indiana Jones hat when exploring its dark and dusty underground tombs and your reading glasses to marvel at the multilingual inscriptions on the 4th century Ezana Stone – which documents the conversion of King Ezana to Christianity and his conquest of ancient Sudan. This unique trilingual monument – often referred to as the Rosetta Stone of Ethiopia – features Ge’ez (Classical Ethiopic), South Arabian Sabaean, and Greek. We also wandered through the archaeological ruins believed by Ethiopians to be the palace of the Queen of Sheba and her royal bath, a solid rock hewn reservoir which has been used as a water source for millennia.

New Year's mass (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

New Year’s mass (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Lucky for me, I was in Axum for Ethiopian New Year, called “Enkutatash” in Amharic. This joyous holiday in September marks the end of the rainy season, when the yellow daisies dotting the hills are in full bloom. At 5 am, my guide and I slipped into the streets, and through the darkness spotted hundreds of people wrapped in white shrouds walking from all directions towards the outdoor mass in the city center. It was like Halloween but completely silent and with a somber and surreal feel. The priests processed regally through the sea of white bodies, carrying a replica of the Ark of the Covenant which they laid atop an altar as prayers were recited in Ge’ez. Each one of us lit a candle, which we carried with us as we marched through the streets in an orderly and spirited procession as the sun began to rise.

Wedding in Axum (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Wedding in Axum (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Whether I was crashing a wedding to take photographs or asking for permission to study saintly paintings in religious manuscripts up close, everyone in Axum was very friendly and accommodating. I was even invited to attend choir practice, and watched with amazement as dozens of men sang while shaking silver sistrums — ritualistic rattles that go all the way back to Hathor and Isis cult worship in ancient Egypt. Since I was the first professor to teach Ge’ez (the liturgical language of Ethiopian Christians) in the modern Middle East while at the American University of Beirut, to behold sacred texts in situ written in this ancient Semitic language – the grammar and vocabulary of which is close to Arabic — was a dream come true.

Depiction of St. George (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Depiction of St. George (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Biblical Ark of the Covenant – containing the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments — resides in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Accordingly, this church is where many Ethiopian emperors were crowned. When I got to the small unassuming building next to the main sanctuary where the sacred ark is believed to be kept (no one is allowed inside), the heavens literally opened wide – unleashing a torrent of rain which was a welcome blessing, since I hadn’t seen rain in the Sultanate of Oman for years.

In front of the Ark of the Covenant building (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

In front of the Ark of the Covenant building (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

After that sacred deluge, it was on to the UNESCO rock-hewn monolithic underground churches of Lalibela, named after King Lalibela, who tried to recreate Jerusalem in the Ethiopian highlands. Ethiopia claims to be the oldest Christian country in the world, since the state adopted Christianity in 330 AD. Weaving in and out of Lalibela’s otherworldly medieval churches magnificently carved from massive single pieces of rock made me feel like I was in Petra’s sister city. The moss-covered alleyways between the smooth rock walls brushed with a weathered blush offered plenty of natural stone seats in the shade from which to admire each of the eleven historic churches. Inside, the darkness was penetrated only by narrow beams of sunlight channeled through the cross chiseled windows. The most impressive church of all, of course, is St. George Church, carved in the shape of a Coptic cross from volcanic tuff and often called the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Speaking Ge'ez in Lalibela (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Speaking Ge’ez in Lalibela (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

A highlight of my trip was getting to speak Ge’ez with Ethiopian priests in Lalibela. As the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Ge’ez is used for religious purposes and rarely if at all for daily conversation — as the main language in Ethiopia today is Amharic. Imagine the surprise on the priests’ faces as I rounded the corners of these ancient churches speaking in Ge’ez and wanting to ask detailed questions about Ge’ez grammar in my book which I had, of course, brought along. These priests are the custodians not only of ancient chapels but also linguistic history. Teaching me how to shake a sistrum and parse Ge’ez grammar, these friendly Ethiopian priests made me even more gaga for Ge’ez than I had been before.

St. George Church (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

St. George Church (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

In the mood for a mummy adventure the next morning, I traveled twelve miles by car up Mount Abuna Yosef to Yemrehanna Kristos Church, an 11th century striped wonder made of stone and wood and tucked inside a sacred cave. What sets this church aside is the exquisite mural paintings – colorful crosses in entrancing geometric patterns considered the oldest in Ethiopia – decorating its striped arches and walls. Behind the church further back in the cave I came face-to-face with skeletons of countless monks and lay people wrapped in reed mats, some still with tuffs of hair on their heads. As an archaeologist, I marveled at their pearly whites, and turned on my flash to photograph their dusty bones.

Yemrehanna Kristos Church (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Yemrehanna Kristos Church (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The main reason I had journeyed to Ethiopia was to celebrate Eid in Harar, the sacred Muslim city of Ethiopia. Pressed for time, I hopped on a plane in Lalibela to land in Harar the evening before Eid began. At early Eid prayers the next morning, the stadium floor was like a blooming garden with flowers blowing gently in the wind, as Ethiopian women decked out in abayas of every color bowed and rose in repeated prostrations. Afterwards, I joined with a group of friendly Sufis processing in the street and singing devotional songs to the beat of the East African drums they carried. Once we reached their Sufi lodge, we communed in an ecstatic zikr filled with soulful dance, devotional songs, and so many smiles.

Zikr in Harar (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Zikr in Harar (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

As I whirled the next morning through Harar’s narrow, cobblestone streets, to the accompaniment of Arabic call of the muezzin, I marveled at the city’s small pastel houses, and let myself lose my way in the dizzying labyrinth. It was easy to see why the whole walled city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As women passed by with woven baskets and even mattresses balanced on their heads, I tried imagining what Harar was like in medieval times when Harar was a famed center of Islamic learning. I wandered by so many Sufi shrines I eventually lost count.

Whirling through Harar (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Whirling through Harar (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Each alleyway boasts unusual architectural gems – like a small pink and purple mosque that reminded me of a wedding cake, and dome like homes that looked like alien space ships had landed unnoticed. To my surprise, I also found a few bed and breakfasts tucked away, traditional homes designed to give visitors the authentic experience of living in the medina instead of staying in a hotel. At night, tourists tend to venture to the walls of the city to watch locals feed hyenas from their own mouths!

Mosque in Harar (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Mosque in Harar (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

For my research on the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, I paid a visit to the Rimbaud Museum – housed on the site where he once lived while gun-running in East Africa long after having turned his back on poetry. As I was interviewing the museum’s director, a huge gust of wind blew through the entire house violently slamming the windows open and shut like in a horror movie. Papers began to blow around, and biblical rumbles of thunder made us fear the whole wooden house would crash down upon us. “Look at that — you’ve awakened the spirit of Rimbaud, and he’s here with us now!” the director exclaimed, hurriedly trying to close all the windows as it began to pour.

Rimbaud Museum (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Rimbaud Museum (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

When we got back to Addis Ababa, I had one last thing to do – go shopping. My guide knew I had been on the hunt for the finest Ethiopian clothes, and he kept reassuring me that he knew the perfect place in the capital. As he drove me around the grounds of a dilapidated old hospital, I feared he had misunderstood me. Imagine my surprise when we rounded a corner at the hospital, and there before us was the most chic boutique I had seen in all of Ethiopia. Even cooler – this hip store, run by a German NGO, was filled with high-end designs and textiles made by Ethiopians with leprosy who had been successfully treated at the hospital. I justified my shopping spree comforted by the knowledge that I was helping support Ethiopians with disabilities.

Hyena feeding in Harar (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Hyena feeding in Harar (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

As a parting gesture, my guide gave me the best gift of all – cooking lessons in his family’s home. Alongside his wife, I learned how to make injera – though my first attempt at making this pancake like bread was marked by an abundance of batter splatter. To make the shiro, we combined fresh chickpea powder, garlic, onions, and berbere into a pan which I stirred with great anticipation, hungry as a hyena in Harar to taste my own creation. To top it all off, his 11-year-old daughter taught me how to brew traditional Ethiopian coffee – and to this day, I have not tasted a cup of coffee as savory as hers. As we sat down to break bread together, we feasted on the magical moments of my grand Ethiopian adventure, and began to plan my next trip to visit Omo Valley Tribes in the south. One visit to Ethiopia is really not enough — you will want to keep coming back for more.

Shiro at home (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Shiro at home (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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Anubis on the Beach…

Anubis on beach

Anubis in Oman

I took this senior citizen to the beach this week for some fresh air and a change of scenery — plus it pays to have a trusty sidekick to help me collect shells!


Look what Anubis found in the sand, while running from the waves…

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Journey to Al Ain…


Welcome to Al Ain (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization.

— Wilfred Thesiger

Just 24 hours before the week-end began, an American expat friend in Oman asked me if I wanted to drive with her to the United Arab Emirates to check out Dubai’s “Global Village” (like Epcot’s World Showcase on steroids) and the city of Al Ain.  Since I haven’t spent much time time in the UAE, I said sure and looked online for hotels.  After booking a room at the Hili Rayhaan by Rotana, I packed my bags and hopped in the car with her the next morning to drive from the Sultanate of Oman to the border crossing near Al Ain — one of only two currently open to expats.


Hili Rayhaan by Rotana (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

At the border crossing, we got our retinas scanned and passports stamped in under ten minutes before we journeyed onwards to Global Village in Dubai — where we shopped in each country’s pavilion for local goods (porcelain whirling dervishes from Turkey, Moroccan lamps, and Yemeni honey).  I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would — the shopping was impressive but most of all I enjoyed speaking in Arabic with merchants from all over the region (and I even picked up some new Amazigh words).  The trick is to get there early to avoid the large crowds.


Dining room of Hili Rayhaan by Rotana (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

After driving from Dubai to Al Ain, we were exhausted from a long day on the road driving across the Arabian peninsula. So we were delighted to finally reach the charming dining room of our hotel — Hili Rayhaan by Rotana — to enjoy a big feast for dinner.  As luck would have it, we arrived on “Arabian buffet” night, and we were pleased to encounter some creative sushi fusion surprises.


“Arabian” sushi (Photo: Emily O’Dell

I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I was when I found all kinds of “Arabian” sushi displayed as part of the buffet.  I have worked in the Middle East for two decades, and lived in the Middle East consecutively for six years, so I was thrilled to encounter this playful new culinary delight.  “Arabian sushi” — whoever thought of that deserves an award!  When we finally got to our room to unwind and sleep, we were greeted by a pair of stuffed camel toys on our pillows — a sweet local touch.


Dolma sushi (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Seriously, what could be cooler than “tabbouleh sushi?”  It even kind of rhymes!  In addition to the tabbouleh sushi, there was sushi stuffed with local cheese (delish!), and even dolma sushi — stuffed grape leaves (a staple of Middle Eastern cooking).  I love sushi and I love Middle Eastern food, so I was in tastebud heaven.  I ate as much of this “local” sushi as I could, since I knew it was likely I would never see this eclectic and unique sushi platter (east meets east!) again.


Waking up at Rotana (Photo: Emily O’Dell

After some much needed sleep, we rose well-rested the next morning and were happy to find that the breakfast spread was as satisfying as our dinner.  A nice cappuccino, of course, was necessary to help push us out the door, as it was hard to leave the comforts of the hotel behind to explore the sites of Al Ain and then head home to Oman.


Al Jahili Fort

Nearby the hotel, we visited the impressive Al Jahili Fort — erected in the 19th century. Lucky for me, since I am interested in travel writing from the Middle East (being an intrepid traveler and writer myself), the fort contains a permanent exhibition of black and white photographs by the British traveller Wilfred Thesiger, entitled “Bin London and Freedom of the Desert.”  Having lived in the same desert sands on the Arabian Peninsula as he once did, I read his words with a sense of strange kinship: “In those empty wastes I could find the peace that comes with solitude, and, among the Bedu, comradeship in a hostile world.”


Permanent exhibit at Jahili Fort (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Thesiger had come to “Arabia” to “find peace in the hardship of desert travel and company of desert peoples.”  He lived with the Bedouin in the extreme environment of the desert and came to appreciate their skills, customs, and indigenous knowledge of the landscape and their beloved animals. As Thesiger wrote: “Here every man knew the individual tracks of his own camels, and some of them could remember the tracks of nearly every camel they had seen.  They could tell at a glance from the depth of the footprints whether a camel was ridden or free, and whether it was in calf.  By studying strange tracks they could tell the area from which the camel came.”


Permanent exhibit (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Studying the old photographs depicting the harsh realities of Bedouin life in the desert, I was struck by how much in the United Arab Emirates had changed in the past several decades.  While we were surrounded by the trappings of modernity in Al Ain, we were also pleased to be surrounded in some corners of the province by endless desert dunes.  Always more at home in the desert sands than the skyscrapers of Dubai, I found myself daydreaming about moving to Al Ain and escaping on the week-ends to the dunes to live like Thesiger once did — without trappings of Orientalism, of course, just for some fresh air.  On our drive back to the Sultanate Oman, I kept thinking of Thesiger’s words, and wondering if I too might have the chance one day to share all that I have seen in my twenty year travels as a solo traveler in the region: “The chill wind whispered among the shdowy dunes and fingered us through our clothes and through the blankets which we wrapped about us.  They talked till long after the moon had set, of camels and grazing, of journeys across the Sands, of raids and blood feuds and of the strange places and people they had seen.”


Al Jahili Fort (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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Waking up in Oman (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I try to go to the beach as much as I can in the Sultanate of Oman to clear my mind, get a good sand and sea workout, and search for shells. After powering up on espresso at Costa one week-end morning, I hit the shoreline in search of shells. To my surprise, I stumbled upon the odd looking creature below, which was squirting water quite far from its body when I approached it. I later learned (from my Columbia University colleague/mentor) that this is a paper nautilus — and its paper-thin shell is actually an eggcase that the females secrete. When some onlookers (children and migrant workers) noticed me studying it, they came over and wanted to hurt it — but fortunately I was able encourage them not to disturb it and move on. Once they had wandered away, I carefully lifted it by its “shell” and placed it back into the water (it had seemed to be in distress on the beach), watching wistfully as my new strange bobbed away in the waves…

Paper na

Making friends in Oman (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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Anubis in Oman…

Anubis in Oman

Anubis in Oman (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I brought Anubis to the beach to help me collect shells after he got his monthly manicure in the Sultanate of Oman…

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Heating Up…


Pool time in Oman

Things are literally and figuratively heating up in the Gulf — so I find the best way to escape the heat (weather induced and political) is with frequent trips to the pool!

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Kempinski Hotel Muscat


The beach at Kempinski Hotel Muscat (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Kempinski Hotel Muscat has officially opened its doors to guests after a three year delay. Nestled in the “Al Mouj” (The Wave) community in Muscat, this luxury hotel is the latest luxurious property to hit the hotel scene in the Sultanate. I usually enjoy the beach on which the hotel is located twice a week, so I am looking forward to watching the hotel start to fill up with guests soon (though the beach will be more crowded!)…

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Kusharina in Oman (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Excavating at the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt for seven winters certainly got me addicted to koshary — a splendid Egyptian dish with pasta, rice, lentils, fried onions, chickpeas, and more. So whenever I need my fix in the Sultanate of Oman where I live, I head over to Kusharina for the best koshary in town…


Koshary at Kusharina (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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