Time Hasn’t Forgotten the Palmyra

Almost 2 years ago, this video was picked up by the local blogs and had its 15 minutes of social media fame before passing the baton to the next flavor of the week. It was the first time I had ever heard of the Palmyra. How did such a magnificent time capsule go unnoticed? Was I the only one who didn’t know Baalbeck had more than Roman pillars, sfee7a, and the summer festival? Even with my insatiable curiosity, I’m also guilty of ignoring what we collectively take for granted but usually of being oblivious to the existence of these treasures altogether. After passing through, I know the title of that video is off. Palmyra isn’t the hotel that time forgot, it’s the hotel that the Lebanese forgot. Time is a permanent tenant there.

Whenever I venture outside my bubble, there is a closeness among strangers that I have only seen in this country with no degrees of separation. Before my group headed over to the temples, we discovered that one of my fellow explorer’s grandfather was a manager of the hotel for 25 years. Somehow, residents of Lebanon have a backlog of each others’ stories as if they are common knowledge. Google searches are unnecessary when you have updates flowing across seas and digital devices. The question, “wein sar?” is for the analog Newsfeed, the oral source of the whereabouts of people you once knew yet still know. Upon hearing of my plans to drive up to the city of the sun, I learned all about the Husseinis from dad before even getting in the car. He and his brothers were school classmates with the Husseini brothers. Baalbeck, like Tripoli, is dissociated from Beirut to the extent that Beirutis could mentally categorize it as a city in another country. This is why I find these overlaps to be humbling: we are not as separated as we try to be.

“But I don’t know Rima Husseini though. She must be Ali’s wife.
He’s the one who bought the hotel back in the 80s.”

After I tell Rima, it’s confirmed to be true. But she’s not just Ali’s wife, she also happens to be a university professor of Cross-Cultural Communication & Conflict at LAU. She talks about the hotel and I recognize snippets from interviews she’s given with international publications. Romantic one-liners aside, what I admire is the fervor she has when she speaks about gender roles, the patriarchy, and internalized misconceptions about Baalbeck although she is not originally from there. She’s like the aunt who you hope is coming to the family gathering so you can have Turkish coffee and complain about your dad’s archaic overprotective ways. Her energy is ineffable.

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Please note the humans circled in red just so you grasp the size of the Temple of Bacchus

Baalbeck is home to ancient temples of Bacchus, Jupiter, and Venus. When fit into the ethereal narrative of the Heliopolis, the hotel is a contemporary ruin in itself. According to Al Jazeera, “The Declaration du Grand Liban – which established the boundaries of modern-day Lebanon as determined under the French Mandate – was signed at the hotel following World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.” Considering those who were guests there, it is stitched into the fabric of Baalbeck’s place in history. It has a twin in Athens just like our Bacchus Temple mirrors the Parthenon of the Acropolis.

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Built in 1874, it is not a Hyatt but an overnight stay is equivalent to staying in an old mountain residence with loose doorknobs and antique plumbing. Ghassan Karaa, the concierge, is camera-shy which is a shame; I feel a strange familiarity to him because he reminds me of the grandpa I never met. Even the smell of the building reminds me of my jiddo’s home in the South. In early December, the cold isn’t piercing yet; it’s just enough to give you the sniffles while reading a book by the soubiya which has you going in and out of consciousness like a narcoleptic. You can go for a more expensive room in the L’Annexe, the renovated wing, but I felt that’d be skipping the entire point of staying at the Palmyra. And I’m not alone. I had thought that L’Annex was built to accommodate those who wanted an upgraded experience but Rima says it was so they would be able to renovate the pipes and heating of the original building while guests stay in L’Annex. They still haven’t been able to complete that though; visitors come for the real deal which keeps them from tearing open the walls.

Before going, as I was skimming article after article about one of the oldest hotels in the Middle East, the impression you get is that tourists are afraid to head inland to an open plain not far from the tumultuous Syrian border. However, when I asked Baalbeckis, I got the opposite opinion. Our temple guide, Mohamad Wehbe, said he gets mostly French and German visitors. Rima said the hotel’s guests are mostly foreigners eager to stay in the same place that saw so many royals of the past. It seems the reality is that tourists are the first ones who hop onto a bus to make the 2-hour journey up there from Beirut while it’s the Lebanese that are hesitant to challenge the reputation that anything beyond Aley is unsafe. Many factors contribute to this: the Syrian war, cars stolen and sent off to Baalbeck’s neighboring town of Britel, 4 or 5 army checkpoints, numerous Hezbollah flags, and sensationalized reports of feral hashish growers of the Bekaa Valley. But ultimately, refusing to break barriers is allowing this false association to persist, much like when Beirut is used as the West’s favorite synonym for a chaotic war zone. Our response to foreigners who fear our capital is, “visit and you’ll see what it’s really like” but we don’t apply that to ourselves when it comes to our own cities. In Baalbeck, if stones could speak, if temples could talk, they would tell you the stories of our people. Or you could go ask some of them that are still there.

The weekend we visit turns out to be the same weekend the hotel is exhibiting a collection of photographs commemorating the Baalbeck festival since its start in 1956. There are two older men, in their seventies, who have been working at the Palmyra since they were teens. Ahmad “Abu Mustafa” Kassab tells us how he witnessed it all, how he was there for all the big names we see on the walls in black and white. Ella Fitzgerald, Sabah, Miles Davis, Oum Kolthoum. Manhal “Abu Ali” Abbas said, while he was firing up the heater in my room after he brought me tea and cookies, that he has been at the hotel for 50 years. He had once tried his luck at joining the army but got rejected because of his poor eyesight. Had he been in the army though, he would’ve been sitting comfortably decades ago; however, he hopes to retire in a few years. Being a person who doesn’t know how to be pampered, I teetered between not wanting them to serve me and not wanting to offend them by rejecting their service. The dignity in these old men’s souls is palpable but they’re my elders yet pity would be an insult to all that they still give to this establishment. I was sufficiently awkward as I told him I hadn’t been to Baalbeck in over 15 years to which he retorted, “I haven’t been to Beirut in 15 years either.” He told me he’s only been 4 times in his life, that he doesn’t have work that calls for more frequent visits.


The hotel’s name has its own layer of complexity. Palmyra translates to “city of palm trees” and is also an ancient city in present day Aleppo, Syria. Restoration of the temples there is being mapped out after most of the site was destroyed by ISIL in 2015. The palmyra is also a palm native to Southeast Asia where a tree deity linked to it is related to fertility. This was the name chosen for a hotel built by a Greek who saw the potential in a spot along the pilgrimage road to Jerusalem in the French mandate which was then excavated by Germans & Ottomans. For me, I see a parallel. The hotel is like Lebanon: an aging structure that is ignored, an identity that is multicultural with colonial roots, a place that is haunted by the memory of glory days that are no more. Its foundations need reinforcing but it is still open and welcoming to those who seek refuge. Rima tries to bring the Palmyra back to life, to show the world that the Palmyra had a fundamental role in the history of its surroundings, to keep the Palmyra breathing because it’s worth saving. She does this even when her own faith in such a fight falters. Rima is the youth of Lebanon. Rima is me. Rima is all of us who are still here.

sfee7a: meat pies, specialty of Baalbeck
wein sar: what has come of him?
jiddo: grandfather
soubiya: fuel powered furnace/heater

 

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Oh My Darling, Levantine

First Week Back

  • After being used to anonymity abroad, bump into 3 people you weren’t planning on seeing every time you walk out the door. In sweatpants.
  • Return to your hotspotsUncle Deek Nescafé and a walk down the corniche, Jerry’s gin followed by Barbar’s shawarma, and Cantina for a midday red and shanklish. Beirut hotspots have a shelf-life of 3-4 months, making the crowd a seasonal hoard of lemmings that rotate between the same locations that have changed names.
  • Become a lemming and check out the coffeeshop in Gemmayzeh that’s the new Kalei that was the new Urbanista that was the new Cafe Younes. HA, no one is like Younes.
  • Redownload Tinder and swipe. Send too many Barry White GIFs.
  • Commit all possible traffic violations while cursing every relative you’ve never met but are probably related to.
  • Party with your people and remember what that feels like in a place like Lebanon, a country that suspects its Prime Minister is being puppeteered by Saudi Arabia, has an estimated 2 million refugees, and hasn’t had a census since the 30s. It’s not supposed to work but it’s perfect and thus, perfectly Lebanese.
  • Listen to Enta Omri on your drive home after said party and think, shit, she was baller even though you can’t understand 60% of the song. Vow to visit Oum el Dounia* before you have a family and kids.
  • Swipe on Tinder. Download Bumble.
  • Catch yourself two-stepping through the alcohol section of Wesley’s whenever Havana plays on the loudspeaker. Remember that dadboss will laugh at the security camera footage in an hour.
  • Smile when you think of all the money you’re saving because Amazon Prime doesn’t exist here.
  • Begin planning New Year’s Eve with the returning expats across the globe because, despite being gone for 6 months, you are the only one rooted in Beirut.
  • Try to write a blogpost. Sounds like all your previous pieces about returning home but with less feeling, less attachment, less love. It doesn’t feel true. Or it is and you don’t want it to be. Scrap the draft.

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Second Week Back

  • Start to see that although Beirut traffic is as bad as LA traffic, in Beirut, you’re only traveling a distance of 4km and it’s all potholes.
  • Try to fill up on black coffee, moringa tea, and water so as to avoid the ever-expanding waistband that accompanies manaeesh and turkey season. Fail miserably when spicy spinach pies from Faysal suspiciously appear on your kitchen table.
  • Celebrate Lebanon’s annual existential crisis, also known as Independence Day, by eating too much mezza and working late so people can buy pumpkin spice and cranberry sauce for their Friendsgiving dinner the next day.
  • Run out of people on Bumble. Delete Tinder.
  • Start reading the Los Angeles newsletters of events you’re missing back in California. Peruse culture-heavy events in Beirut as a reaction. You will find ways to love her again.
  • Go back to complaining about $7 parking for dinner at a 5-star hotel even though you were easily paying double that in Santa Monica on a Monday to have frozen yogurt.
  • Begin losing socks in the family laundry machine.
  • Stop using the driving playlist used on the 118 in LA. Beirut needs more Godsmack.
  • Tell yourself to focus at work. Keep your head down, pause, and look up only to see that December is all, “I need 5min, I’ll miss call you” and you’re still in a towel.
  • Write a blogpost that captures the humorous albeit depressing emotions that now accompany returning to the only place that gets you to write with raw intensity.
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Artwork by Jamal Saleh for Raseef22

In the midst of the mental noise, the only soothing voice is Fayrouz’s. Now you understand why cabbies and chauffeurs, or anyone sentenced to prolonged periods on the streets of Beirut, play her melodies all morning. It makes you wonder how many lives she’s saved, from the pedestrians on the Raouche promontory to the bus drivers of Charles Helou. It may be that exact memory of rainy drives to school that lowers your blood pressure; that illusion that you’re in the puffy anorak with loose feathers poking out, the gray clouds so thick they could hold you, and there’s a phantom smell of zaatar.

You don’t live here, you survive.
It could be that the secret to living here is staying in the passenger seat.

Oum el Dounia* = translates to “Mother of the Universe/World,” a nickname given to Egypt, home of the late singer Oum Koulthoum.

Bambi Recommends: Los Angeles 2017

Disclaimer: This list does not mean to discredit any of the locations mentioned. On the contrary, if you have the time, do both. However, if you’re looking for the lesser known option, this line-up offers alternatives to the landmarks that get a lot of attention. I also focused more on activities since there are plenty of food recommendation lists online (links at the bottom).

Instead of the LACMA,
Museum of Broken Relationships
Started in Croatia, this museum collects tangible mementos that are attached to ephemeral memories of a relationship gone sour. Each item has a short blurb next to it explaining the story and the museum rotates new items in every few months. Not all relationships featured are the romantic kind but they’ve got their fair share of heartbreak.

They usually have an interactive part that visitors can add to as well, be it fill-in-the-blanks or an alter for moving on. I spent the most time at these.

Instead of the MoCA,
The Broad
One of the best museums I’ve been to as far as contemporary art goes. It’s much less WTF, more FTW. With Koons, Kruger, and Murakami pieces, it’s vibrant while still having a witty intellectual critique on society’s vices. Plus some of the stuff is just weird AF so you can have a lot of fun with your camera.

Entrance is FREE but you have to wait in line for a while especially now that Yayoi Kusama’s got a whole setup there. Tickets are sold out for that but you can go early and hope to snag a few same-day standby tickets if you’re lucky.

Instead of The Last Bookstore,
$5 or Less Bookstore
Don’t get me wrong, if you make a trip to DTLA, definitely head to The Last Bookstore and peruse the shelves of affordable books, get lost in the labyrinth, and stop by Liz Huston’s shop upstairs. But if you don’t feel like heading to the city, there is a chain of $5 or $10 or Less shops that also have substantial collections of second hand stuff for pennies.

The Last Bookstore is still worth a visit but it’s poorly ventilated and parking in downtown is a nightmare.

Instead of Netflixing your Saturday away,
UCLA’s The Hammer
Currently hosting an exhibit on Radical Women: Latin American Art as part of Pacific Standard Time until the end of December, The Hammer holds 20 exhibitions and 300 events every year. It’s also located in Westwood which has lots of shops, restaurants, and public parking that isn’t a total ripoff.

Entrance is also FREE and they’re open until 8pm during the week, closed on Mondays. Another option is the California African American Museum in Exposition Park. Entrance is also FREE but they’re only open until 5pm and closed on Mondays too.

 

Instead of walking the halls of the Getty Villa,
See the Venus Shrine outside the Getty Villa
It’s hidden at the end of the gardens beyond the pool to the left if your back is to the Villa. Here, visitors have tied love prayers to Venus in the traditional Roman fashion: addressing her, complementing her, and then scribbling down wishes for her to grant. You can spend hours flipping through them only to find that everyone wants the same thing in the end: a little love and a little happiness.

Getty Villa has FREE entrance, you just have to pay for parking which is $15 or $10 after 3pm.

Instead of the local Starbucks,
Stumptown Coffee Roasters
Starbucks is definitely the king of convenience since they’re everywhere but if you find yourself near the Arts District in DTLA, head to Stumptown for a real cup of coffee. And it’s right around the corner from Bestia. 

Instead of going straight to the bar,
Live Rude Girls at Second City
A lot of comedy legends emerged from this place but the 5-girl troupe that does Live Rude Girls every Friday have a knack for keeping it current, poking fun at today’s misogyny and political woes.

You can get tickets for $6 (50% off) on Goldstar. It’s not a very long show so head to Mama Shelter or Farida for drinks or food after.

Instead of Blue Star,
Primo’s Donuts
I read about how one foodie judges ice cream brands based on their vanilla flavor because it’s a fundamental flavor that will show you what a brand is really made of. I use the same logic when I judge a doughnut joint based on their glazed buttermilk. If you can’t get this basic staple right, you’re not on my radar. It also happens to be my favorite. I’m not a fan of the maple bacon cereal covered crap, just make me a classic old fashioned.

Primo’s is a family-run spot. I popped in with my little sister and met the owner who told us the whole spiel about how he took over from his dad. He then loaded a box of freebies so we could try all their greats. They also serve Stumptown coffee.

Fun fact: After first opening in 1956, they’re opening another branch in Venice soon.

Instead of Perch Rooftop,
Bacari PDR
This wine bar is out in Playa Del Rey across from Cantalini’s Salerno Beach Resto (which is a family-run Italian joint that’s on my food list). If it were closer, I’d be a regular here. It’s low-key, casual, and GOOD like a wine bar should be. Sit on the patio and enjoy the breeze around sunset. They have great wine, $14 sangria pitchers on Sundays, and yummy nibbles to share.

Instead of Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 
Rooftop Cinema Club
I never made it to the Hollywood Forever screenings but a woman I gave my extra drink token to told me that she preferred Rooftop because it’s “bougie in the best way possible”  because you get seats, blankets, and decent sound quality. It’s operational in LA, NYC, and London. Only downside is the headphones can get uncomfortable after a few hours – stick to shorter films.

Honorable mentions in this category are Street Food Cinema and Eat|See|Hear. I also watched two of my favorites (Edward Scissorhands and Goodfellas, respectively) at those so my opinion is a little swayed. Whatever you choose, make sure to bring a blanket because LA gets cold when the sunshine is gone.

Instead of Abbott Kinney Blvd,
Camarillo Premium Outlets
These are not near each other whatsoever but Camarillo will offer you much more for your money as far as luxury shopping goes. Abbott Kinney is hipster heaven but I get the gross feeling that I’m being ripped off by businesses that pushed out the real artists of Venice so if paying to dress like a hobo isn’t your thing, drive out to Camarillo and pop into the outlets there – they’ve got all the big names too.

Instead of Seeing LA from the 405 for 3 hours,
LA Conservancy Walking Tours
I can’t recommend this enough. I’m a huge fan of walking tours so these were my mission for the summer. I went on all three offered: Art Deco, Historic Downtown, and Broadway. The docents are extremely passionate about what they do and, after attending each one, you will look at DTLA as more than just the seedy place it can seem to be at times. The buildings have stories and details that you overlook when you’re walking through the atrium to get to Guisados. You learn things like the fact that Broadway was once home to 32 theaters or that Biddy Mason, who was born a slave and was one of the first African Americans to purchase land in the city, had a huge impact on the development of Los Angeles.

Instead of Chick-Fil-A,
Howlin’ Ray’s
ORDER THE FRIED PICKLES. The trick to experiencing this is showing up extremely early, waiting in line for 1.15hr, and eating at 11am. Or having your cousin wait early while you’re stuck on the freeway getting there only to arrive and have your anger dissipated with fried pickles and spicy Nashville fried chicken. No but really, get the fried pickles.

They’re open 11am-4pm and you will wait in line forever if you don’t get there at around 9am. It’s worth it. Make it a Bumble date and get to know each other in line. Worst case, you’re bored to death but, in the end, you still get fried chicken.

Instead of a Broadway show that’ll break the bank,
Rockwell Table & Stage
I saw an unofficial parody of Hocus Pocus at this spot in Los Feliz (pronounced “Fee-liz” because LA) and it was phenomenal. The talent is strong – you’ll recognize some Tony winners and supporting actors – and the jokes are stronger. It was a 90s throwback for a solid hour and a half and they’ll be doing one of Home Alone during the upcoming Christmas season. 

Check out the upcoming shows here. Book ahead because they sell out. You can also go down the street to Jon’s International and stock up on Almaza, labneh, and markouk bread because that’s how you perfect an evening.

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If you’re outdoorsy, hiking is big in LA and there are so many trails worthy of exploring. Instead of sticking to Runyon Canyon and hoping to see a celeb in Ivy Park, download the All Trails app and find something suited for you based on your level and location.

Temporary shows and exhibitions are aplenty in Los Angeles . Kerry Marshall’s Mastry at the MoCA is just an example of a fantastic show that came and went while I was here. There was also Barnsdall Friday Wine Nights which are only during the summer season but worth it. To stay on top of what’s currently going on while visiting, check out these references for LA activities:

Discover LA
Studio DIY
PF Candles
We Like LA
LA Conservancy
Infatuation LA
Thrillist LA
TimeOut’s Summer in LA list
LA Mag’s Best of LA or their lists
SoCal Pulse Weekend Lists

California Made Me An Artist

For me, getting a Costco membership card was more exciting than getting a driver’s license. This could be because of #thatWesleyslife but it also feels very adult to buy family-sized goods. However, I’m not a family which is only an issue when it comes to perishables. I’ve had the same tub of Tide all summer and I don’t need anyone to encourage me to finish off a gallon of salsa but my cat & I can only eat so much rotisserie chicken salad.



I’ve grown to like long freeway drives. It’s where I do a lot of introspection on my own stream of consciousness – the same kind I used to do while literally running around Beirut. What they say about LA is true: you spend a lot of your time in the car. Beirut traffic is intense because you have to dodge so many incoming threats but cruising on law-heavy Interstates can be therapeutic in their repetitive continuity. Sure, I space out and I miss my exits but then I get more time to wonder if I’ll age like Gabrielle Union or if I’ll ever find my Mark Ruffalo so we can Thriller our way into the carpool lane of life.

At events here, some parking lots only offer stacked parking for a little less than $20. Stacked means every car parks bumper to bumper and you leave when you can, no one makes way for you to get out early. In Beirut, every lot is stacked except the attendant will let you out la 3ayounik* because you pay him $5. In these moments, I miss our twisted valet/parking attendant mafia but those moments are brief because I’ve come to appreciate order and automation.

Even Home Depot has self-checkout machines, the runner-up to the perk of home delivery which some say is convenience but is actually avoiding human interaction. I thoroughly enjoy going to HD even if it’s just for industrial rolls of bubble wrap. The warehouse is a giant toolbox of possibility. The pungent smell of lumber. The closets I’ll never build. It makes me feel so physically small and insignificant yet capable of anything because I own a hammer. In truth, I have the spirit of a maker but the grace of Scuttle.


Still, the instrument you need is readily available should you want to explore your innate talent of garden shed construction. It’s so tempting to be constantly crafty and, as a result, I’m always wielding a box cutter with a pen stuffed somewhere in my bun.

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Laguna Beach Festival of Arts, 1994

As a child in Laguna Beach, I spent my prepubescent years at art shows or holed up in the office of my parents’ Western art gallery on the town’s main drag. When I wasn’t researching El Chupacabra or walking to Subway with dadboss, I was learning about oil paintings, female nudes, and sculptures that were tree trunks carved with a chainsaw. The smell of wood shavings thanks to the winter Sawdust festival still triggers thoughts of candycanes and the color red. Laguna makes art look like a viable career choice, not just a hobby. You’d think that I should’ve known being a creative was clearly my destiny as of age 7 but alas, I took a few scientific detours before returning to the righteous path.

Only now do I see that those years in SoCal cultivated the first creative seeds in me. Last year, a friend called me an artist and I laughed because the word seems associated with bougie philosophical frauds or drop-out scrubs who need to justify their unemployment. “Farrah, you took time off from your job so you could go to Rome to study typography. You’re an artist.” Oh, that kind, the real kind. Me?

“I can’t hate where I’m from because where I’m from made me.”
Roots, Flo Rida

I shamelessly quote Flo Rida on the regular to myself whenever I’m upset with each of my homelands’ faults because, like it or not, they gave me my layers. And while California may have made me an artist, Beirut, dare I say it, made me a writer.

*An Arabic phrase that means “for you, of course” but in literal terms means “for your eyes”

Mistakes Made in LA

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Just like my NYC list from a few years ago, here’s a West Coast version:

  • Park in DTLA Convention Center at 4:34 pm only to read the fine print that says the $11 flat rate kicks in “AFTER 5PM.” Pay $39.19 and convince yourself that it’s a parking lesson and at least this happened on a Thursday so you didn’t pay the MoCA Grand entrance fee (which is $15) on top of that punch. Cry on the 405.
  • Take the Express Lane because you have quarters for the toll. Get slapped with a $26 fee instead for not having a transponder installed because you were expecting a tollbooth to appear like back in 1999 when you still lived here. You also get charged $10 by the rental company for committing a dumb violation thanks to a phantom tollbooth that didn’t take you to Rhyme or Reason. Cry on the 405.
  • Leave the house without water bottles. Dehydrate on the trek into civilization. Cry on the 405.
  • Leave your house at anytime between 7-9am or 3-6pm. CRY ON THE 405.
  • Experiment with being on a plant-based diet (don’t say the V word) because everything has kale in it anyway and, after 3 years of living with your born-again vegan sister, the over-sensationalized What The Health had you thinking WTF. Start reading Campbell’s The China Study while dreaming (literally dreaming while unconscious) of multicolored balls of sharp cheddar and In-n-Out Double Doubles.
  • Start asking “Do you have any dietary restrictions?” as a standard question when inviting someone out or over. Spend lots of money and time cooking 3 different entrees because you’re feeding a carnivore, a no-carb, and someone who can’t eat tomatoes. You never host again.
  • Go to a SoulCycle class. Realize that it’s a SoulCult that uses endorphins to hook you into paying $30/class which is the same amount as ONE MONTH at the gym. Their empowering mantras convince you that this is good pain for the wallet…and the crotch. It’s the same expense as a few drinks at a bar that looks exactly like the dark-lit steamy Soul studio except you’re a cascading waterfall in a sports bra. Go all-in and attend a Beyonce-themed SURVIVOR class on her Monday morning birthday in Calabasas.
  • Once again, use your “I’m from Beirut” face whenever you feel remotely uneasy about your surroundings. Unlike in NY, this doesn’t fit in well with the overtly pseudo-friendly SoCal residents and you just seem like an asshole.
  • Discover bottomless mimosa brunches everywhere. Start living by the great words of Drake: Champagne with breakfast while I’m yawning but also don’t drink all day by starting in the morning because like Ali from Soul says, the energy you put out into the world today will come back to you and you gotta Take Care of yourself. Treat yoself, whispers Aziz.
  • Contemplate how many tacos is too many when you see that all events revolve around taco trucks (bless you, California). A friend suggests, “anything below double your age,” you trust his formula, and remind yourself that you’re practically 30.
  • Learn where you are on the snob-scale after shopping in DTLA Fashion District. Sure, you didn’t know what a Patek Philippe was before Leo Burnett and Ye taught you who Margiela is, but True Cost taught you about fast fashion. All of these lessons in luxury go out the window when you see sunnies for $5 a piece.
  • Bond with +40 year olds at Barnsdall Wine Night at 7pm on a Friday. “You know you’re old when you’re like THAT’S MY JAM when they play Phil Collins and Toto while drinking wine in the park this early,” they say with a chuckle. Grasp that you completely relate to this statement and thus find out that you are old.
  • Get caught in traffic near the coastline. Pack a beach bag to keep in the trunk for impromptu detours when you decide to wait out the gridlock on the sand.
  • Spot fellow Arabs within 6 seconds of crossing paths based on choice of footwear, level of arm hair, traces of Lacoste, or the I know you glance. When in grocery stores, the jar of Bulgarian yogurt is the dead giveaway.
  • Foster a cat so you have a companion in your office/home. Fall in love, consider adoption, and solidify cat-lady status. Watch Godfather again and notice Vito Corleone’s black tabby. If the Godfather can be a cat lady, so can you.
  • Reminisce about a time when walking to your destination was doable and uber was just an adjective that only dorks like you used. Wonder how you ended up in another city with shitty public transportation.
  • Watch HBO’s Insecure as another form of research since Issa Rae presents the backdrop of South LA as a character who is more interesting than the actual cast or storylines. Live vicariously through the ladies of Inglewood until you spend hours googling the wine bar in season 1, episode 2. Someone please help me find it so I leave the house this week.
  • Develop a playlist with tracks that correspond to household chores. TLC’s Creep for sweeping, MJ’s Thriller for mopping, Black Keys/JCole for dishes & folding clothes, and the Black Album for writing the afikra newsletter. Please subscribe here, thanks.

Remember, Remember the 3rd of September

9/3/2008
I had walked out of AMIDEAST in Downtown Beirut. My brain had liquefied after my first stab at the MCAT, the aptitude test that decides your fate when it comes to your chances at attending medical school. I was a pre-med general-bio junior, I was head over heels for my best friend, and I was barely under the age of 21. I had never even had a beer.

9/3/2017
The 1st anniversary of the opening of the Wesley’s megabranch in Hazmieh, home of my mid-career shift after a jump from art director to creative wildcard of the family business. Now, on the other side of the world, I look forward to walking the aisles of Home Depot because the smell of lumber makes me think of possibility and I’m educating myself about different grapes used in wine production. I am nowhere near the path I was on again but I take comfort in seeing that although the chips fell haphazardly, they still seem to have come together into an assembled jigsaw puzzle. Granted, it’s more of a Monet than a Titian.

What will September 3rd bring forth 10 years after falling asleep on an AUB bench?

The Thirst for Solitude

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El Matador State Beach, Aug 2017

After dropping off the family at LAX and a quick grocery trip, Destiny’s Child Independent Women, Pt.1 popped up on the radio. Sure, I didn’t buy my house or my car but it did feel like America was telling me, OKAY, LET’S DO THIS YOU INDEPENDENT HONEY MAKING MONEY.

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Having the family in town, while comforting, served as a reminder as to what pushed me to come out to the West Coast: a desire to detach and dive into the deep end. Them being here was like being back home save for the lack of decent tabbouli. Mom sticks to tacos and 7-layer dip when in Cali-mode. Strangely, it took over 2 months to real-feel like I left Beirut because Beirut left me in the form of my family departing.

I was laying down in the dark listening to Moonlight Sonata – what a depressing image, I know – in an attempt to map out the next two months. The hypochondriac in me was saying I had caught Lyme disease but, in reality, the stagnation was due to the overdose of screen-time and self-inflicted pressure to cross out as many lines on my overambitious to-do lists of the limited window that was now all mine. Instead of staring at my screen to type this out or manage to write in the dark, I voice-noted my thoughts and I’m now transcribing my neurotic moonlight monologue into something that’s coherent.

I have been itching to write but couldn’t filter out the impurities that contaminated my clouded noggin. They coagulated into a mental block which does not result in stringing words together. Not ones you want to read at least. However, the silence is back now and it’s so marvelously deafening. My brain is hyperactive which is why it takes Beethoven to decompress. Solitude is not a roommate I avoid since I’m not skilled at being sedentary. Being in Barcelona was proof that, even if I didn’t have company for the weekend, I was perfectly fine climbing up to the Carmel Bunkers to set-up a picnic for one. It could be due to being constantly surrounded in my Beirut life (lhamdella) but, when away, I’m good on my own.

The issue with being at ease with solitude is the ability to slip into hermit mode. I’m still in my shell remembering how to breathe in the oxygen now that I’m coming up for air. In suburbia, all necessities are readily available within a 3-mile radius so working from home can equal never leaving your safety forcefield. Going outside of that solo will barely take a soft push – after all, I love to explore – but being social will take a shove. Without an office or classroom to present like-minded people on a platter, making friends in a major city where everyone lives in their car is a challenge. Granted, I will not have the cushion of love that I cultivated after 17 years in Beirut after a mere few months in LA. I am aware you cannot find a new BFF after a 10-second encounter about green smoothies in line at a vegan eatery in Santa Monica. That shouldn’t be an excuse not to try though.

The US (California, really) is my motherland as Lebanon is my fatherland but it’s like a blossoming romance. You miss the familiarity of your former flame but there’s so much to discover with this new beau – perhaps even, discovering that they’re a better fit for you after you’ve grown up a little, shed the baby fat, and figured out that you were in love with a memory, not an actuality.

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I’m not afraid of forming roots here, I’m afraid that I want to. Being a hybrid means I’ve always had a foot in both worlds while being anchored in Beirut. But does that change?

If you don’t want to be underwater anymore, it could.