“How does one write about the city?” asked my friend Mansour, on an indistinct afternoon in August, as we were grabbing coffee at one of Mar Mkhayel’s most popular bars, Internazionale. I didn’t know it at the time, but Mansour wanted me to write a piece about Beirut. As I fought my way through the incessant flow of summer traffic and general congestion of the city of Beirut, sweat dripping from every limb, my thoughts raced louder than the car horns and spewed profanities of cab drivers. How does one write about a really overpriced city in a developing country? How does one write about a city when one is constantly trying to escape it? How does one write about a city so small and so crowded and so big at once? How does one write about a city when one is leaving it?
This question loomed over me as I forcibly packed twenty-five years into two suitcases. It followed me for twenty hours on the flight to JFK. I moved to New York in September of 2017. It was my first time in America. What could go wrong? I thought to myself; after all, I grew up watching American TV and had more access to American and Western cultures than I did to my own. I spoke the language and understood the currency. Little did I know that a group of white American twenty-somethings who lived in spacious flats, and led financially comfortable and relaxed lives, was a sad excuse for representation. If only it were that simple. The media doesn’t show you the homeless in the stations, tripping on a form of acid or another, surrendering to their untimely death. The first thing we are taught to forget about poor people is that they are people.
“Did we make contact?”
“Yes. Fk. Fk. We did.”
The F train stopped midway in the dark tunnel and I didn’t know if the dispatchers were aware that we could hear them. For once, eye contact was being made in the subway. Strangers were trying to excavate a semblance of reassurance in someone else’s eyes. No one on the train understood what was happening, and after a while, I wondered if they even cared. This body flattened by a notoriously appalling vehicle was just a mere inconvenience in everyone’s day. Amidst this turmoil, and a very convenient lack of underground cell coverage, I looked up and there it was, a sign from the steel frames, a poem that read:
“As you fly swiftly underground
[…] Remember the ones who descended here
Into the mire of bedrock
To bore a hole through this granite,
To clear passage for you
Where there was only darkness and stone.”
“Poetry in Motion” provided the kind of serendipitous chance encounters that speak of the urban experience: an ode to city dwellers.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, after decades of deferred maintenance, was starting to show its age. The vehicles and tracks’ maintenance is being stretched beyond its intended lifespan, causing delays, reroutes and a general state of hysteria. “The last few months have been maddening,” said one passenger, after being stuck on board of an F train for 30 minutes. On one of my commutes, after being held on board due to a police “investigation,” I overheard a passenger telling his friend: “well, at least we have poetry. See? That’s where all the money’s going.”
Every Sunday in the Delancey St. Station, PincLouds consistently wore the same pink flower print dress. The wig was never quite in place, and furry plastic subway rats served as visual accompaniment. PincLouds very quickly became my Sunday staple, monetizing on the F train’s notoriously consistent failure to abide by its own schedule. I don’t know why they captured my attention, why it became important for me to be there, every Sunday, intimately watching their gig, right next to people waiting for their uptown train. PincLouds were, quite simply, cool.
In the checkout line at Wholefoods, I explained to the American lady behind me the color system in place that indicated your turn in the line. It took me two visits to figure it out. People here are often surprised when you’re kind. It goes against everything they want to believe about the “other.” She asked me if I spoke French; so as to not immediately ask where I was from. Apparently, I had a French accent. Daily reminders of my colonized tongue followed me to the supermarket. I said that I did, and then she proceeded to the next question in line: “where are you from?” I wondered how they could instantly tell that I was not from here, as if there was a barcode on the back of my neck. “Lebanon,” I answered. She sighed in a common sadness for the fate of my country, or what she knew of the fate of my country. I told her that I am a writer, studying here in New York. She was relieved at the thought of new voices promising stories of the lands that are so far away from that Wholefoods checkout line, and its elaborate system of separation and color-coding (so very fitting for the current state of this country). She said that Lebanon was so beautiful, and I told her that it still is. “The media only shows you the bad side of the story,” I said, repeating the Cliches, “and pitiful narratives sell more.” The “white” American psyche thrives in defining itself through its opposition to others: the Muslims, the immigrants, the “them.” When it finally acknowledges the other, its first instinct is to mutualize it into a palatable and consumable identity. Something relatable. Mina Zohal writes: “I won’t translate my otherness into a translatable otherness that they can translate into otherness.”
In the past 4 months, I have taken four Uber rides. Consequently, my story, and how I came to be here, changed four times. How elaborate and extreme the lies were depended on how unsafe I felt. On one ride with an Afghani man, I was from New York and had been married for three years. When I rode with a man from Bangladesh, an immediate kinship was established between us, until I was suddenly washed over by shame towards Bangladeshi domestic workers’ misery in Lebanon: that’s when I said that I lived with my parents here, and was a Lawyer. When I rode with an Egyptian man, I was my complete self: confused, estranged, and broke.
On the phone, whenever I am asked, “Where are you?” I am inclined to answer “home” even though I am not. Several variations exist: “mine” “my place” “and “my room,” all of which seem more appropriate than home, and all of which are untrue. Mine, my place and my room all indicate a certain level of ownership: that I own this space that I inhabit, claiming that it’s mine, when really, it is not. Of ownership, Mira Gonzalez writes: “last night I cried for no discernable reason / in an apartment that doesn’t belong to me / in front of a person who also doesn’t belong to me (because people can’t own other people). / I say that I don’t like owning things / but I’m not sure if that’s entirely accurate.”
In this city, I have an expiration date. It’s difficult to fall in love with a place when you know that you will eventually be asked to leave. My non-resident alien visa expires on 07/07/2022, on my 30th birthday. While I was interviewing New York based visual artist and barber Gogy Esparza in his Chinatown studio, we got to talking about time in New York: “It slips you by so quickly, you don’t even feel it passing,” he said. New York’s the first city where I never once heard the ear-splitting roar from a minaret, calling for prayer. I had not heard a call for prayer in four months. It used to be something that made me aware of the passage of time.
“I don’t tell you this, but deep down, I still feel like a Muslim.”
More and more I find myself faced with empty boxes that require me to fill my gender and ethnicity. I sit, motionless, in front of these heavily empty squares, and I do not know where to place myself. This is where I end the application process, before even beginning it. This is where words become ever-looming questions that require me to reduce my entire existence into a single letter. F for female, A for Arab. I am not really interested in filling anyone’s diversity quota.
In an online application, I am asked: “what does social justice mean to you?”
I took a walk with an American friend sometime around the end of October. As we turned left on Ludlow street, she enthusiastically turned to me and declared: “dude, it’s so funny, I was just thinking that if there were minority Olympics you’d definitely be a runner-up!” I didn’t know whether I wanted to laugh or cry, or do both at the same time. So I laughed. Everyone has a sore spot that needs a comedy routine.
What stood between the rest of the world and myself was a glass window on the 16th floor of a nondescript building in the Lower East Side. My room overlooked the Tenement Museum. I’ve never been inside. The Tenement Museum recreates and preserves the history of immigration by telling the stories of immigrants who started their lives anew on the Lower East Side. It is very fitting how I landed here, across the street from the architectural living embodiment of displacement.
Sometime between October 30 and October 31, I began to realize that New York is the greatest place to be. I’m not sure whether it was the massive Halloween parade, or the terrorist attack that happened earlier during the day (which didn’t derail any of the festivities), but there was something in the icy air that evening, as I rode the J train down to Bushwick. The greatness of this city revealed itself very slowly, and very subtly, through the sliver of a view of the skyline from the speeding train.
This city shatters you and builds you all at once. It uproots you from your feet and thrashes you against the wall of a white room on the 16th floor. And then on some bankrupt morning, when the world seems devoid of wonder and it’s all grey outside, you get up and slowly glue your pieces back together with some cheap tape that you bought at a Chinese convenience store. A couple of bucks can get you a long way here.
On Sunday, the 10th of December, when I needed it the most, PincLouds was not in the Delancey Station. I felt somehow cheated out of my routine. That weekend, the F train was running surprisingly on schedule. PincLouds’ retreat corresponded with the same week of the arrival of countdown clocks in the station.
On my last night in Beirut, which felt like my last night on earth, I threw a farewell party at my favorite bar in the city: Demo. Demo played a big role in my moving to New York. Not only did the owners let me use the space for cooking nights, which financed my flight and most of my cash flow, but the entire application process took place on its outdoors round table. I always tell people that it was in this exact spot that I came of age. On a Sunday, such a thought can weigh you down. It is here and now that I realize that it was immature of me to think that I came of age in Beirut, on that round table, at Demo, sometime around the end of August. Perhaps, our lives are a series of coming of age. Perhaps, in longing for a city, one becomes it.
To be here, to claim the share of this space, this present, when your existence is compromised by constant historical deflections: presence becomes a form of labor. Constantly carrying the burden of your time, your place, challenging a chronology, unable to account for or embrace this strange experience of diaspora, of being both here and elsewhere, at the same time. This simultaneity is exhausting.
But maybe this is it, what ultimately defines a city, is another city.
 Collins, Bill. Subway. New York, 2016-2017.
 Fitzsimmons, Emma G. “Subway’s Slide in Performance Leaves Straphangers Fuming.” The New York Times. February 12, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/12/nyregion/subway-complaints-straphangers-fuming.html.
 Zohal, Mina. “Baaraan-e Digar.” Apogee Journal, Issue 05. Accessed December 7, 2017. http://apogeejournal.org/2015/06/17/baaraan-e-digar-by-mina-zohal/
Sahar Khraibani is a writer, editor, and designer based in New York City. She is interested in the intersection between language, visual production, and geopolitics. Her writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, TERSE Journal, Queen Mobs Tea House, and Bidayat Mag, among others.