Aging in Napa Valley

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It happened. I’m not a twenty-something anymore.

I did not predict that my grocery store gig would be the point of intersection for my two fields that are polar opposites: design and general bio. Learning about viticulture has allowed for my biology degree to be dusted off and come of some use, almost a decade post-graduation. If only someone would’ve told me then that I could use it to understand and appreciate fine wine & food. I would’ve still gone off to become my group’s token artsy hipster but it would’ve alleviated some of the guilt of having a science degree in a drawer all those years.

February means it’s my blog’s birthday too. Six years, making me five times older than this little labor of love that started as anonymous and aimless ramblings.

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Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley – 2018

Being in Napa Valley has solidified one pure truth: I love everything barrel-aged. Cabernet, balsamic vinegar, maple syrup. Anything that’s a little oaky makes me grin like a baker sniffing a fresh focaccia. Well, that makes me grin too. How appropriate to be turning 30 in wine country, where aging makes something more valuable, more complex, and more layered.

 

Despite establishments being legally required to card customers purchasing alcohol, I have been mistaken for being underaged at liquor stores, bars, and the DMV. I will humbly blame this on my love of Harry Potter clothing but it’s surely been uplifting to have winery staff point to me specifically and ask if I’m over 21 as I simultaneously exit the twenties. Never have I heard “babyface” so many times in my thirty years like I have this week. Maybe it’s all a ruse, they can secretly tell, and are all graciously easing me into the next age bracket.

With that said, I’m aware that my body is not as confused as the sweet staff of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. I’ve noticed that my slow metabolism is even slower, that more smile lines aren’t fading when I frown, and that some grays insist on stubbornly sticking out of my dark, curly mane. With time, as every year passes, you learn maturation does not happen overnight. With time, you learn to appreciate fragility and you witness deterioration. But ultimately, with time, you learn that time itself is also finite yet fast.

But it is not all regression. Aging is cedar, vanilla, and spice. It’s toast, honey, and almonds. Aging is life’s flavor and to drink a wine is to reflect on that lifetime. Aging can only give you depth that will never satiate an audience, leaving them eager for another taste, for another way to experience that life again.

Who wouldn’t want to be that for someone?

 

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When Will You Be Back?

Update: Georges Nasser features will be playing until next week. It’s been extended! Details at the end of the post.

In a special showing earlier this week at Metropolis Sofil, I caught a double-feature in honor of Georges Nasser, the Lebanese director of Ila Ayn, the first Lebanese film to go to Cannes. Ila Ayn (To Where) addresses the desire to emigrate, a desire that overcomes all Lebanese, even then in 1957. In A Certain Nasser, the documentary about the director, Nasser says that he used this storyline because it was one that was so inherently Lebanese: the illusion that leaving to the US would be the greener grass in comparison to our red earth and concrete monoliths. We imagine that life will be more prosperous, more fruitful, more our own, if only we could have it away from here. Again, even then in 1957.

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Still from Ila Ayn (1957)

But “wherever you go, there you are,” right? Through his characters, Nasser wanted to show that it’s not a guarantee, that leaving won’t give you what you’re looking for. That leaving may mean you’re walking away from the happiness you don’t know you have.

Seeking another horizon is not uniquely Lebanese but we all know that we have gotten good at leaving. So good that we don’t come back. It’s not that we don’t have forces pushing and keeping us out: poor salaries, skyrocketing prices when it comes to property and goods/services, and the taxing toll of stimulation on your entire nervous system. A fresh, warm manoushe can only do so much before you are left wondering why you have to struggle to maintain your inexplicable short fused irritability.

I have found that the question, “when will you be back?” has become attached to many cities but mostly, to my Beirut and California’s Los Angeles. Where do you stay if you’re forever meant to return to somewhere else? Where do you imagine your adult roots to be planted? Do they need to be planted at all?

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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

 

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.

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”

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?

Maybe You Don’t Want Me Back

 

IMG_6399For being a coastal state that believes so strongly in flip flops, not enough Californians believe in pedicures. I’ve yet to figure out the 405’s mood swings or how to properly hydrate for an expedition across the traffic of the freeways without needing to find a Starbucks restroom. I’m getting excited over finding a $12 tub of laundry detergent that can do 205 loads, checking the physical mailbox every morning, receiving the orange-wrapped LA Times Sunday paper (with coupons!), and making trips to the grocery stores. That last one could be an occupational hazard; what can I say, I was born to discover food.

As a kid, I could not grasp why we had to spend all day in the kitchen sections of department stores. My parents would peruse the shelves of pans and pressure cookers with awe (another clue to our future in retail). After spending 35 minutes in Target looking for a food processor because I got tired of washing garbanzo beans out of the Vitamix blender whenever I make hummus, I understand the obsession. Maybe it’s genetic but apparently, I have an affinity for small cast-iron skillets.

Without noticing, I’ve been away in LA for a month.

I feel like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None character, Dev, who went to Modena, a small town in Italy, to learn how to make pasta except I’m in Simi, a suburb of Los Angeles, learning how to make kibbeh. And then, I read the stories coming out of little Beirut: Roy Hamouche’s death, the Nader Saab scandal, female protesters being beaten by the army, the new electoral law, talks of enforcing the death penalty, the death of the environment.

 

In all that darkness, the light that emerges comes in the form of Cannes wins for a Leo Burnett campaign that was fighting Article 522. The irony that the only positive I see is that of raising awareness of our own country’s shortcomings is not lost on me. This is the point though: the pushbacks are the only positives. Even Facebook pictures of the latest night at Decks on the Beach don’t evoke any FOMO but rather, an eye roll. The positives are not the parties, the Jounieh fireworks, or the wineries, they’re the baby steps made to pull us out of the drudgery.

I don’t want to be an expat that takes a figurative shit on Beirut just because I’ve left it. However, in the last few years, I’ve seen even the hardcore believers in a better Lebanon start to buckle under the weight of the place that doesn’t want to climb out of the sewage-ridden gutter. I’d like to think that getting older has a lot to do with that because time becomes a main concern. The time you’ve invested in trying to wade through the trash-infested waters and the time you’ve got ahead that seems more fragile than when you were a fresh AUB grad. Priorities shift to the concrete: making a stable living, creating a safe home for your parents and future family, and, at the simplest level, being happy with what that home can give you. The more time you put into Beirut as you mature into a somewhat stunted adult due to a comfortably sheltered existence, the more you are drained and left to question: can I build my life, one like the one my parents provided for me, here? More importantly, should I?

 

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 Netflix – Master of None Season 2, Episode 9

Marie-Rose Osta’s short film, Status Quo, made it into the LA Film Festival. Considering what a moment that is to a young, aspiring Lebanese filmmaker, the US embassy felt it was not necessary for her to attend and rejected her visa. Her short was a vignette focusing on the absurdity of the Lebanese and their surroundings. While the TV is reporting ISIS border incidents and actual threats, her oblivious characters focus on the trivial worries of typical Lebanese daily life like a cockroach in the bathroom that is lit by a flashlight because the power is out. Pointless arguments between the lovers are illuminated by the TV screen’s light as the audio continues to drone on as background noise becoming just a hum. If it weren’t for the subtitles, I wouldn’t have paid attention to the juxtaposition at all. How true to reality is that? When I was speaking to her about my impression of the film, she told me that foreigners picked up on the dramatic insight more than the Lebanese viewers that it was based on. Foreigners see it because the fear that is a cast member for us is a cameo in the sitcom that is their life. It’s still palpable to them while we are so numb to our status quo that we don’t even see it when watching it unravel on screen.

If you’ve left, it means you’re fortunate enough to have that option but it also means you’re fed up. For me, it means I’m a little heartbroken. There is guilt for walking away from someone you love, like you’re abandoning them when they need you but their uncertain salvation is only done by dragging you down too. Leaving is a gross, reluctant form of self-preservation. My expat friends and the last ones still standing on Lebanese soil, who are planning their subsequent moves in the next 18 months, have all said different versions of the same thing: Lebanon is home but I can’t be there anymore. The only thing that brings me back is my parents.

It’s true, the formidable pull for me is the parental unit especially when I imagine dadboss as Atlas, cradling the Wesley’s world on his shoulders. Everything else does not seem worthy or permanent.

I attended a friend’s family iftar a few weeks back and it was like being inside a Lebanese enclave in the heart of SoCal. It started to feel like you could have that dose of home while still being in a society that was made up of humans of all shades, without the accompanying condescension that comes from growing up in a homogenous village by the Mediterranean. America has its fair share of racism but at least here, there is a spectrum of people.

It could be the current sociopolitical climate but there is something about being in the US that makes you want to either assert your ethnicity or completely ignore it. Beirut, I may be making my own labneh, hanging a map of you above my bed, and playing Arabic songs for my American relatives but those are signs of gratitude for how you’ve shaped me. Like every love that comes into my life, you’ve left your imprint on who I am but I’m on the other side of the earth and I don’t miss you the way I thought I would.

As much as I love you, maybe you don’t care.
Maybe convincing myself of that is my way of coping with this sense of betrayal for wanting to stay away.

Maybe you don’t want me back,
maybe I don’t either,
maybe that’s okay.