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.

I’m pleased to introduce Aisha Mahmoud-Perez. She 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 completed her M.Sc. in astronomy and astrophysics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, and she is now presently back in northwest Arkansas.


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.”


Follow Aisha

at her website | on Twitter | on Instagram

The photos above were made by and kindly provided by Aisha Mahmoud. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com at http://wp.me/p1BIdT-5oE.

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