I'm from London, but I'm currently working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I wrote a book that was published in the US earlier this month: The Perfect Gentleman - A Muslim Boy Meets the West. I have taken two months off to conduct a 50-city speaking tour of the United States during April - June 2012.
Saturday, April 14th
Overnight flight to Dubai on Emirates. Sit next to a pleasant English woman who was in KL on business. She asks me if I'm excited to be going on this 50-city U.S. speaking tour. I say, "Yes, but..." and proceed to tell her about my current relationship woes. Several hours later, she looks like she's contemplating hara-kiri or self-immolation (think Airplane).
Sunday, April 15th
Dubai Airport is now so busy, there are queues for the restrooms and showers. And that's in the Business Class lounge. Outside the lounge? There, but for the grace of God... Board the brand new Airbus A380 and enjoy 14-hour flight to JFK. Eat, sleep, eat, sleep, eat, fill out Customs form.
I don't get sent to Secondary any more, ever since I wrote a book. The moment they ask me the purpose of my visit or my occupation, I put a copy on the counter and say that I'm a writer. Works every time.
Check in to Radisson Lexington hotel. My room is comfortable and has an excellent view of a brick wall. Take a walk to Times Square and buy a slice of pizza in a convenience store.
Monday, April 16th
Up in early hours answering e-mail (I'm not completely detached from work -- I don't want them to discover that they can really do without me for two months).
It's a beautiful day in New York City!
Visit Paul Simon's office to pay for the permissions granted to use three sets of his song lyrics in my book. As I count out the money, Juanita exclaims, "I thought you were kidding when you said you were going to pay cash." (Hey, at least 95% of the people on this planet do not have a U.S. dollar check book.)
My first event is at Fordham University, and I am joined by my special serendipity-family here in New York City:
Dr. Jemilah Mehmood - a friend from Malaysia (in NYC on business), and founder of the aid organization Mercy Malaysia. Was shot in the hip by insurgents in Iraq. Sewed herself up and carried on working -- the bullet was removed by a surgeon several days later. I met Jemilah in Kuala Lumpur -- it's too complicated to explain here (there's a word limit I always struggle with).
Phyllis Rosenzweig - an 82-year-old Jewish lady that Jemilah met at a bus stop in New York last June. Phyllis subsequently visited Jemilah in Kuala Lumpur (where I then met her) and Jemilah's housekeeper took Phyllis to her Indonesian village (where the villagers all welcomed her and had built a western-style toilet just for her). Phyllis has lost two husbands and has devoted her life to deaf children.
Anna Maria Tiozzo - a lawyer and journalist from Venice. Spent seven years in Yemen, codifying the tribal laws -- who does that? Stunningly beautiful, and classic Italian elegance -- I'm just making this observation as a writer. I met Anna Maria when she interviewed me in Kuala Lumpur (immediately after my speech at the World Halal Forum, imploring Muslims collectively to grow up and develop some emotional intelligence). She has some business at the UN, so is able to come to my talks in New York.
And then there's me -- I trained as an accountant, had a corporate career, and then wrote a funny book.
Yes, we are each special in our own way.
The event is well attended and has a receptive audience -- mostly young people. They are all in jeans. Anna Maria stands out a mile in her classy Italian skirt-suit. ("Gentlemen -- she is with me.")
Tuesday, April 17th
Drop into Hertz car rental to check out options. I will need a car when I leave New York at the weekend. I will be driving about 15,000 miles all around the U.S. over the next two months, doing approximately 50 speaking events.
I was a Star Trek fan for over 40 years, and would previously have described my shiny hi-tech rental car as a Star Fleet shuttlecraft. But having watched the entire series of Battlestar Galactica on DVD recently, I have been converted. If it's a small car, it will be a Colonial Viper, and if it's a mini-van, it will be a Colonial Raptor.
Jemilah, Phyllis, and Anna Maria all join me in the limo that my publisher has arranged to take me to Tom's River in New Jersey, for my speaking event in the evening. I'm so tired, I fall asleep on the way. The town center of Tom's River is implausibly tidy and picturesque. My event is at the Ocean County library. Before I begin, a pleasant man from the audience comes up to tell me that he has already read the book, and he gushes about it. I ask him if he wouldn't mind speaking a little louder.
The audience is definitely a lot older than yesterday. They are attentive and appreciative.
Wednesday, April 18th
Review in Maclean's magazine describes me as "a feminist and a peacemaker."
Fantastic -- I'm so happy! But, that's Canadian -- does it count?
Macy's with Anna Maria, Jemilah and Phyllis; Museum of Modern Art; taxi to NYU bookstore for my event. Poorly attended, but at least Jemilah, Anna Maria, Phyllis, Kate (editor), Jessica (publicist), and Andrea (marketing) make up the numbers.
Dinner in a restaurant with Jemilah, Phyllis and Anna Maria, and I practically fall asleep into my plate. This jet lag is a tricky business (Kuala Lumpur is 12 hours ahead of New York).
Anna Maria suffers from a twinge of pain in her knee, which slows her down.
Thursday, April 19th
Catastrophic event at Columbia University bookstore -- zero attendance. That's actually better than 2-3 people showing up, because then there's an obligation to deliver, rather than cancel. This reminds me of a John Cusack film, in which he played a writer. It begins with him doing a speaking event in front of two people -- I've been there, done that!
Dinner at Phyllis's afterwards -- traditional Jewish food, apparently. Phyllis, Jemilah, Anna Maria and myself -- we sit around the table and enjoy our common humanity. We are a 21st century, Age of Aquarius, soul friends family.
Friday, April 20th
No event today -- it feels like a holiday. Pick up a rental car. I decide to take a Colonial Raptor -- a silver Chrysler Town & Country. At least I won't be lonely on the road -- she responds to my voice and speaks back.
Today, Anna Maria and I are tourists: Broadway, Staten Island Ferry, World Trade Center, then meeting with my publisher about Italian and Arabic versions (both of which Anna Maria is going to expedite). (The Government of Qatar blocked an earlier Arabic translation publishing deal, due to "unsuitable content" -- whatever that means.)
In the evening, take Anna Maria to JFK in the Colonial Raptor. Obviously, I have to say goodbye at the checkpoint. As she's passing through Security, her knee pain suddenly flares up, and she's clearly in agony as she removes her shoes etc. I tell the Homeland Security people that she needs a wheelchair, and they tell me somewhat dispassionately that we should have requested that from the airline. She collapses on the other side of the scanner. I watch helplessly from behind the barrier, but lose sight of her. The guard has been hassling me, and I've been ignoring him, but now he's getting angry: "Sir, MOVE AWAY!"
This is what the terrorists have done -- they have dehumanized everything. Before 9/11, I would have helped Anna Maria through security, had dinner with her on the other side, and seen her almost to the door of the aircraft.
I think the guard is going to arrest me, so I move away, calling her on my cell phone. No response.
I drift away in a daze, crippled by my helplessness. Eventually, I do get a text message that she's reached the gate and is boarding, but is in pain.
I drive back to the city in a state of melancholy.
Saturday, April 21st
Phyllis is the only family member still in town. She accompanies me to Jackson Heights, for my library event. To say that the crowd is diverse would be an understatement. They are engaged and ask interesting questions afterwards. But they all want to borrow the book from the library, not buy it. How annoying.
I'm so tired, I go to bed at 6 pm, then wake up in the early hours and start packing.
Sunday, April 22nd
The beautiful weather has ended. It's a truly miserable day -- cold, wet and windy. I load everything into the Colonial Raptor, program in my destination coordinates, and head south out of New York.
See the 50-city U.S. tour plan on the website.
Photos are on the Facebook page.