She's the other half of the fourth hour of the Today show, you know, the one who sits across from Kathie Lee. But Hoda Kotb is much more than that. As a child of two cultures (her parents are Egyptian) Kotb grew up to travel the world to report on groundbreaking events, including Hurricane Katrina, as well as use her own struggle with breast cancer to raise awareness about the disease. Now, her memoir, Hoda: How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer, and Kathie Lee is out in paperback. Here's an excerpt from the first chapter:
Read more excerpts from Kirkus, including this one from Megan Abbott's The End of Everything.
Chapter 1: What Is You?There was a day in Greenville, Mississippi, that didn’t really surprise me, but it did startle me. I was twenty-one, working as a television news reporter at the CBS affiliate, making a call on a pay phone. An older black woman walked up to me in the phone booth, cupped my face in her hands, looked into my eyes, and asked, “What is you?”
There it was. The question. People have asked it in one form or another for most of my life. Always, the answer in my head is: I’m just me. But I don’t mind. I get that my name and my appearance require an explanation.
So, here it is.
I am Egyptian.
So is my name, Hoda Kotb.
What? Rhoda? Yoda Kotba? I’ve even had...Photo Copy?
My name has always triggered a guessing game. Is it pronounced Kotbeeeeee? Isn’t there a vowel missing? NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams once told me that I was the land mine in his teleprompter. (Oh, Lord...here comes that name...)
Both of my parents were born in Egypt. And believe it or not, Hoda Kotb is actually the Jane Smith of the Nile. If you walk down the streets of Cairo and yell “Hi, Hoda!” a dozen girls will turn. Over there, I am every girl. Here, I’m unique. And I like that.
My parents, Sameha and Abdel Kotb, met at a law firm where they both worked after graduating from Cairo University in 1958. My dad, captain of a club crew team, invited a big group of female coworkers, including my mom, to watch him row in a race along the Nile River. He was already in a serious relationship with a girl from Germany, so his invitation was simply for fun.
Well, my mom was the only girl to show up on the banks of the river that day to watch my dad row, row, row his boat. And, as fate would have it, his sole spectator would soon become his soul mate. He broke up with his girlfriend, the two families checked each other out, and in 1959, my mom and dad were married at an officers’ club in Cairo, with the ancient Egyptian pyramids as a dramatic backdrop.
Egyptian weddings are a big deal. The hot-damn-I-think-I-see- a-sparkling-oasis-in-the-middle-of-the-Sahara kind of big. The goal is to dazzle, beginning with what’s known in the Middle East as the zaffa. Picture a shimmering procession of belly dancers, musicians, and men carrying flaming swords. They signify with great splendor that a wedding is about to begin. In America, the next step would be the ceremony and the vows. But in Egypt, weddings unfold in the reverse order. The actual signing of the marriage papers comes right before the wedding, so the couple is already officially married by the time the ceremony begins. My parents’ wedding did indeed follow the ancient tradition of zaffa, complete with a festive march of bagpipes, horns, and drums. Down came my mom from atop a long staircase, wearing a beautiful white gown hemmed at mid-calf, as was the Egyptian tradition during the time. My maternal grandfather was a Supreme Court judge in Egypt, so the guest list included quite a rock star—Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser—and his cabinet members, too.
Loud and lively, the wedding celebration included an amazing buffet of traditional Egyptian food. There were several kinds of savory salads and saffron rice. Meat dishes featured kufta, kebabs, and grilled chicken along with fish. For dessert, in addition to a Western-style wedding cake, guests also were served baklava and other layered, honey-soaked pastries. The celebration lasted into the wee hours of the morning. The now Mr. and Mrs. Kotb stayed in Cairo for their honeymoon and enjoyed a room at the Mena House, a luxury hotel.
Only one week later, my parents departed for a new life in the United States. That fact alone proves that I come from strong, brave stock. If you could actually look at my family roots under a microscope, you’d see countless strands of rebar winding through the female side. So strong are the women before me, there are pioneers everywhere you look. My maternal grandmother, Tawhida, was a pistol. She became a doctor at a time when it was unheard of for women to assume such roles. And she was raising seven kids! My mom’s aunt, my great-aunt Moufida, was the first female lawyer in all of Egypt back in the 1930s. She also became a member of parliament during that time, another difficult feat for a woman. And she achieved it all while raising nine kids! There’s a story about how she bristled when a male lawyer barked at her, “You, get me some tea!” She refused, and said, “No. I’m a lawyer just like you.” (No surprise that my own mother raised three children while she pursued a second degree and worked.) At Cairo University, my father learned to speak four languages and walked away with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in petroleum engineering. My mom graduated first in her class and earned a law degree. So, why did they leave for the United States just a week after they were married?
For a very cool opportunity.
For more on Hoda, pick up the paperback, out this week from Simon & Schuster.
From HODA: How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer, and Kathie Lee by Hoda Kotb. Copyright © 2010 by Hoda Kotb. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.