Fotoeins Fotopress

One photo at a time – one journey to last a lifetime

Interview with astros: Aisha Mahmoud-Perez

The Traveling Astronomer

Once, I was an astronomer, spending time thinking about and working on the formation and evolution of dwarf galaxies.

Astronomers lead busy lives, including teaching and mentoring, research-specific small- and large-scale data programming, and the near endless cycle of paperwork including research plans, funding proposals, budget reports, and paper manuscripts for peer-reviewed journals. Much of the time also involves travel – conferences, workshops, and collaboration meetings around the world, as well as visits to telescopes at observatories in remote locations around the world to collect data for projects.

I liked the travel part more than I enjoyed astronomy. When I’d said farewell to astronomy, I’d accumulated over one million miles with American Airlines, and countless more with Air Canada, the old Canadian Pacific, Lufthansa, the old Northwest (now Delta), and United Airlines. Weary feet and tired wings aren’t surprising outcomes; I know there are still many journeys and destinations left to come.

The best of Palestine and Puerto Rico

In September 2006, I moved to La Serena, Chile to work at the Gemini Observatory. The following January a number of undergraduate students from Chile, U.S., and Puerto Rico arrived at the neighbouring astronomical observatory to spend the Chilean summer on research experience. After meeting these students over the years, I’m happy to remain in contact with a number of them.

Aisha is one of the most unique people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and calling friend. With a Puerto Rican mother and Palestinian father, she successfully blends into her life the influences of two vibrant colourful cultures and two fiery independent dispositions. She loves meeting new people, learning new languages (she’s presently at five), and she loves food, travel, and knitting. She is presently a graduate student in astronomy and astrophysics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

I’m pleased to introduce Aisha Mahmoud-Perez. On Twitter, she tweets mostly about science, life in grad school, and the art of crafting.


I remember the hectic schedules as a former and recovering astronomer. How do you strike a balance between the professional “necessity” of traveling for research with the personal “necessity” of traveling for your own satisfaction?

AM: “As an astronomer in the making, I find it hard to reach that perfect balance between doing research and research related activities and simply taking a week off to travel, but it is certainly not impossible. In mid-June this year (2014), I traveled to Chile for a collaboration trip lasting almost 3 weeks. Most of that time was spent working, but I’d take afternoons off to walk around town and weekends off to wander around the country. I found I was more productive at work after I’d taken some time to discover places on my own.”


With your Palestinian and Puerto Rican heritage, and a large fraction of your time in America, you’ve been exposed to and influenced by a rich cross-section of different cultures. How do these influences inform your travels? What have you learned about the differences and similarities among people?

AM: “I feel very lucky to have been raised under two very different cultures. There was never a dull moment in my house. Every day I discovered how beautifully different my parents were from each other – the saga still continues today – and how much they learned from those differences. Those differences helped me to be more open and to embrace different cultures with passion and enthusiasm. I also learned that those differences I talk about are superficial – one prefers tea over coffee, prefers to dress in a specific way, or prefers Abdel Halim Hafez over Marc Anthony – and that deep down we really love and feel the same way, regardless of where we’re born.”


What and where in the Middle East would you recommend people see and experience for something that’s uniquely Middle East? What and where in Puerto Rico would you recommend people see and experience for something uniquely Puerto Rican?

AM: “As far as the Arab Middle East goes… GO NOW, ‘YALLA’! The Arab world, from Morocco to Iraq, is extremely diverse: the colours, the smells, the food, even the local dialect of Arabic is different. But there is one thing I believe unites the Arab World and that’s their hospitality. I’ve met some of the most welcoming and warmest people in these lands. I’d say a truly unique Middle Eastern experience is to “be yourself” and engage with locals. Perhaps what’s a bit closer to me is if you wander around Palestine, make sure to visit the city of Nablus and try their famous ‘knafeh’ – a delicious cake with a gooey cheese filling. No worries, you will find more many who’ll be more than glad to take you to a place to try ‘knafeh’!

Hebron, West Bank, Palestine - by Aisha Mahmoud

“Kunafeh”, in Hebron, West Bank, Palestine (AM)

Puerto Rico, on the other had, is a complex melting pot between North American and Latin American culture. Given our all-year-long summer, Puerto Rico is a constant party. But, perhaps, our biggest spectacle or where one can experience true ‘puerto-rican-ness’ is during Christmas. The streets fill with Christmas music all day long, moms and grandmas cook traditional dishes and you truly feel the happiness and the excitement of the people in the air. Do note however that Puerto Rican Christmas songs are not your typical Christmas song, e.g. “your guests come, eat, pig out, drink, and then they ask you if you have an aspirin” (No hay Cama Pa’ Tanta Gente by El Gran Combo). Also, Christmas starts right after Thanksgiving and ends the second week of January. Happy Island!”

Nablus, West Bank, Palestine - by Aisha Mahmoud

“Family”, in Nablus, West Bank, Palestine (AM)

What place or country has left the most lasting impact with you? What are those impressions?

AM: “For me, that place is Chile. Even if you love traveling, it is always challenging to go abroad either as a tourist or to stay there for a longer period. In Chile, I never had that feeling of being an “outsider”. Chileans welcomed me like one of them right away: very warm and friendly people! Their food is amazing as well!”

Valparaíso, Chile - by Aisha Mahmoud

“Barrios”, in Valparaíso, Chile (AM)

Where is one place or country in the world would you like to live or travel? What are your reasons?

AM: “I can’t pick just one. One of my travel goals is to visit the entire Arab world. Out of all the nations in the Arab world, I’ve visited five; only 17 more countries to go! I was mostly raised in Puerto Rico and was involuntarily away from the Arab World for a long time. I think that that’s why I find the Arab world so enchanting and I still want to visit and be charmed by all of it.”


Sunday TravelerThe photos above were made by and kindly provided by Aisha Mahmoud. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com, and also appears as part of the Sunday Traveler series.

Fotoeins Friday: pull shot over midwicket for six

His final sunset over the Salish Sea

Every day felt like a bonus, a sweet taste of daily magic.

Over the time he spent in the hospital, Dad charmed the staff by chatting with them in broken English; it was a way for him to express some measure of control. As expected with decreasing hemoglobin levels, his body continued the downward slide. His mind and spirit departed at the beginning of the third week; he had become unresponsive. Over the next five days, his body remained, the breathing steady, though shallow and sometimes laboured. He was calm, at peace, and thanks to the meds, without pain.

Sunset over the Salish Sea (English Bay), from St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, BC, Canada - 8 Aug 2014, fotoeins.com

From the top of St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, Canada, I photographed this post-sunset scene on 8 August 2014, with fading light peeking up and over the cirrus, high over the Salish Sea (English Bay) and the downtown peninsula. I’m sure he sensed the daily change in light, even though he could no longer see by the end.

Hours later the following morning, Dad breathed his last and slipped away for good. He marked his 82nd birthday six weeks earlier.

The long road for him has ended; another chapter and another journey begins.


Warmest thanks to the staff at St. Paul’s Hospital, and particularly, the men and women who work enthusiastically and gracefully in the hospital’s Palliative Care Unit. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com.

Fotoeins Friday: shadows from the Berlin Wall

The forgotten’s fireworks from St. Paul’s

Celebration of Light, St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, Canada, fotoeins.com

I’m in one of the city’s hospitals, visiting my father who’s in very bad shape.

I’ve helped feed him dinner of roast pork, peas, and gravy, a direct sensory reminder of his past as cook in a nearby downtown diner. He eats with great enthusiasm, the most I’ve seen him eat in weeks. Dinner’s done, and he’s worn out. I mention we can go “around the corner” with him in a wheelchair to watch the evening’s fireworks, but he gently declines. A twinge reflects the growing reality of him never seeing fireworks again, but the feeling is moderated with long resolved acceptance and mild resignation.

I go out into the corridor where people have already gathered by the windows next to the elevators. From the heights of the hospital, there are spectacular views of the downtown peninsula, towards Burrard Inlet and onto English Bay.

Waiting patiently to catch a brief glimpse of fireworks are other hospital patients, their family and friends, and various hospital staff taking breaks in their work schedule. It’s a four-day holiday weekend here in the province of British Columbia, and early August weather is summertime hot under clear blue skies.

Judging by the look in some people’s eyes, I empathize with the unspoken feelings: “I’d rather be outside, laughing and having a good time, surrounded by family and friends.”

I thought about making a few photographs of the fireworks through the large windows, but something pulls me back, and I decide not to shoot the fireworks directly.

The situation and my thinking quickly clarify. Instead, I’ll record the people watching the fireworks through the windows of the hospital’s upper floors.

They are not forgotten. It’s my promise to capture with the camera’s all-seeing eye an elemental and universal desire for something more, something approaching the above and beyond.

Celebration of Light, St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, Canada, fotoeins.com

Celebration of Light, St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, Canada, fotoeins.com

Celebration of Light, St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, Canada, fotoeins.com

Celebration of Light, St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, Canada, fotoeins.com

Over three separate summer evenings, the 2014 version of The Celebration of Light brings together hundreds of thousands into Vancouver’s West End for a fireworks festival with the participation of three countries: United States, France, and Japan.

I made the photos above on 2 August 2014 from St. Paul’s Hospital in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com.

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