Standing on a sidewalk somewhere on west 21st, my friend Sumeja says: “In America, my dignity is a metaphor.”
In Chinatown, I don’t feel foreign. It’s like a city within a city. I don’t know whether it was the language that I didn’t understand, which made it okay for me to belong differently in New York, or the fact that the display of food reminded me of local markets back home.
Seven hours away. I am in a time zone that is seven hours away, even though it took me twenty hours to get here.
Seven hours away, our conversations are reduced to mediocre topics: the weather, here in New York, the weather, there in Beirut.
I am reading Rabih Mroue’s plays. They’re wonderful and painful and make me understand a lot of things that I have rejected all my life. About the war and the discourses that I thought were so outdated. I thought the war was so outdated. But I still think about it when I think about what I left back at home.
Secondhand wars. What do you inherit from your parents besides money and real estate (if even)? Trauma? Despair? Fear?
In the fall of 2017, I was following very closely the revival of the East Village and its drag/queer culture. I had become somewhat of a regular at Club Cumming—for research, I said. Club Cumming, the new replacement of the historical Eastern Bloc, is run by actor and activist Alan Cumming, and inspired by the “Cabaret” themed parties he began throwing in his Broadway dressing room two years prior. The “revival” of the East Village quickly found a stage there; harboring many a conversation about race, gender, performance and being “culturally queer.” I liked the sense of the familiar and I liked having people recognize my face. Which they did not. But they did recognize my mustard yellow lighter, which I clung to in the hopes of finding great stories and starting good conversations. Some objects carry in them the hope of something spectacular.
“See enough and write it down, I tell myself. And then some morning, when the world seems drained of wonder, some days when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is to write, on that bankrupt morning, I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there. It all comes back. Remember what it is to be me. That is always the point.” – Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Sometime between October 30 and October 31 of 2017, I began to realize that New York is the greatest place to be. I don’t know if 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.
“To be a reporter requires a perpetual straddle between empathy and detachment,” wrote a journalist in a review of “The Center Will Not Hold,” the Netflix documentary about Joan Didion’s life. “But without detachment, how would you ever have the stomach to write anything at all?” we both asked ourselves.
Beautiful moments in New York: Crossing the Williamsburg bridge and listening to Placebo’s version of “Where Is My Mind.”
“Anyone needs food? Anyone needs shelter? Ladies and gentlemen, free sandwiches, free water. Thank you brother, thank you sister.” Two individuals walked around in the crowded F train on a Tuesday afternoon, distributing food and water for free to anyone who needed it. You know you’re starting to get along with the city when you close your eyes in the subway – so long as you hang on to your bags tightly. Here, you’re always on guard, always paying attention, always avoiding eye contact. But then you see people walking around the shaky vehicle, carrying some 50 sandwiches and bottles of water, asking if anyone needs shelter.
Beautiful moments in New York 2: arriving at the same time as the F train.
I cried when I saw Jerusalem in one of my favorite American TV shows, Transparent. They were not portraying the violence or the war, just the plain city, the land, the same way anyone would portray Los Angeles or Berlin. It was so beautiful, so close to home. I had never seen it in such a light before. I don’t know why I cried, but maybe, on some level, I did.
In this city, I have an expiration date. It’s difficult to fall in love with a place that you know you will eventually have to leave. While I was interviewing 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. A statement I felt to be so true. As I reflected on this later in the day, I realized that New York’s the first city where I never hear the ear-splitting roar from a minaret, calling for prayer. I had not heard a call for prayer in 4 months. It’s interesting how somehow this became an important aspect of my existence. The call for prayer unconsciously made me realize that time was passing, that it was no longer day but it turned into evening and then later on into the night.
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 empty suggestion filled boxes, 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 ask me to be reduce myself to a singular letter. F for female, A for Arab.
Mina Zohal writes: “I won’t translate my otherness into a translatable otherness that they can translate into otherness.”
I am asked: “what does social justice mean to you?”
I asked her where she was from. She said ‘Around,’ as if someone had told her that’s what made women irresistible: being from nowhere and standing for nothing.
Walking down a nondescript street somewhere in the Lower East Side, I see a poster calling for submissions for an upcoming exhibition. It was called “Before We Were Banned.”
Fernando Pessoa writes: “To think with emotions and to feel with intellect.”
Beautiful moments in New York 3: To remain in a state of constant departure while always arriving.
I wrote an imagined correspondence between Eva Hesse to Sol Lewitt:
Perhaps Metronomic Irregularity I was my way of telling you that I did not and could not exist as freely and easily as you relinquished your lines. I worked on tangling and untangling in an attempt to relinquish my convolutedness. Metronomic Irregularity I was an exercise in anger. I was tied and not tied and could not find myself in the spaces in between. The second version mended some of my anger. It allowed me to exist continuously, maybe aggressively so. I might have failed at that, and you might have noticed it. But I tried. There is something beautiful in the possibility of building surfaces with lines. You can go anywhere with them. Perhaps I should explore more versions of irregularities. More odd numbers, five planes, millions of never-ending lines, nonsense. Maybe that way I would relinquish my fear of the regular (or the irregular?). I think about this often, when I can’t sleep from the noise outside. I am struck with visions of mapping this city sonically. Just imagine what interesting lines that would make: like seismic mapping of human noise. City noise. I would like to make more work about the city. In a way, it is one never-ending geographical line. Do you ever pause to wonder at the maps plastered all over the subway? The lines in them are, in a way, the nerves of this city. Irregular nerves that sometimes intersect and sometimes go in parallel. But they are finite and they have borders. I’m slowly learning to come to terms with that.
I pondered one too many times about the significance of my fascination with the sea and its creatures, especially the ones that never die. Everyday, I crossed thresholds, virtual lines that stood between understanding and oblivion. There was always something getting in the way of my getting to myself. They disguised themselves as drawings, line drawings, memories that seeped through, illustrations whose meaning was beyond my grasping. My fingers, much like the tentacles of jellyfish, flowed absent-mindedly on the paper, drifting with the currents, reacting to stressful environments. I had so much control over the lines that I would draw: they were meticulous, precise, detailed. When my black pen would cross over to the paper, and mark it with a dot, I was marking a space. I was marking my existence. Drawing lines became my assertion that I existed: that I am here, alive, drawing with my limbs, making sure I was immortal through creating something outside of myself. You see, lines are not just about drawing; they’re about the implementation of power, the fear of the intrusion of otherness.
We can put it this way: our lives are a series of lines. Some determine our height, others our death. We cross them everyday, some more significantly than others. Most times, we don’t even notice them.
What is a line anyway? It is a series of finite dots. Much like the nerve endings on the tentacles of jellyfish. The last remnant of this earth will be a glowing sea of jellyfish.
The waves won’t stop rushing to the shore after you depart.
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.