a taste of Berlin


There is a little mezze place tucked in the corner of a busy street in Berlin. Its glass door is lined with stickers: a rainbow flag, a call to release a German-Turkish journalist arrested in Turkey, quirky cartoons. An elderly man sits at a bar in the back, rolling silverware into paper napkins. A woman, clad in giant gold hoop earrings and a bright red hijab, maybe his wife, darts in and out of the kitchen with plates of colorful salads and steamed dumplings.

My friend and I approach the counter to order. There are at least twenty plates to choose from: grape leaves rolled like cigars, creamy hummus, vegetables laboriously transformed into pickles and slaws and mashes. The idea is that you select five dishes, and they will scoop you a small portion of each. The woman at the counter negotiates the particulars of the order with my friend, who moved to Berlin only a few months ago but has managed to pick up enough German to sustain short conversations.

The aesthetic of the restaurant seems to match my impressions of the city so far: eclectic, a bit strange, not trying so hard to impress but rather just express. Twinkling lights and a chalkboard menu hint at an attempt at cool. But these are disrupted by strings of artificial leaves bursting in the colors of fall, plastic pumpkins and gourds placed on tables. This cornucopia might make sense if it were Halloween or Thanksgiving, but it’s the middle of January. In Berlin. In a Turkish restaurant. I find the mismatch incredibly endearing. The bathroom door is covered in spray paint, and the spray paint is covered with Sharpie marker notes from one patron to another, a never-ending conversation between strangers. It only adds to the sense that this tiny place contains unexpected multitudes.

We take our seats and the woman bring our dishes. Each looks like a painter’s palette with vibrant splashes of color spread around the circumference. A basket is set between us, overflowing with strips of fluffy bread cut from a round loaf. We savor every bite.




My friend shows me her favorite places to drink coffee in her neighborhood. They quickly become my favorite places, too. One of them feels like a greenhouse, with glass walls and green plants held up by blond wood accents. I feel peaceful there. On the left side of the cafe, nobody is allowed to use their laptops. People do things like talk to each other and stare aimlessly into porcelain mugs between sips of filter coffee.

The other cafe my friend shows me was recently opened by a Palestinian man. He has painted the walls with images: a khamsa to ward off the evil eye, the cartoon of Handala to invoke resistance. Exposed light bulbs cast yellow light on surfaces. It is morning when we go, so naturally Fairouz is playing in the background as we sip Americanos.

I like this place. I like to imagine myself coming here often, taking a break from the desk in my room to write somewhere else, cozy but not quite home.

I like this city. I like to imagine myself making homes wherever I go.




My friend volunteers at an agency that conducts integration activities between Germans and recently arrived immigrants and refugees. These agencies receive funding from the German government. I am pleasantly surprised that bringing people together is a public priority.

On this day, the activity is cooking potatoes. Four stations are set up corresponding to different countries: Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, and Italy. Each station is led by someone from that country. The room quickly fills with strangers becoming friends. They peel and slice potatoes while chatting about the mundane details of their lives. Some people have brought their children, and they are passed along unfamiliar yet caring hands.

I find myself with the Syrians mostly. I speak no German so we communicate in Arabic instead. We make small talk and inevitably reach heavier topics of conversation. As to be expected, many of them are grateful to be in Berlin but still facing hardship. It is never easy to leave home. It is infinitely harder when your home is burning and loved ones have been left in the blaze.

We work the potatoes into different shapes: Roasted cubes tossed in yogurt and tahini. Shredded bits mixed with egg and formed into patties to be fried in oil. Smoothed into a paste that is rolled into gnocchi, boiled in water, and covered in a green sauce. Chunks floating in a tomato stew, pungent with sardines and lemon. They are all delicious. Everyone is eager to eat after hours of labor in the kitchen.

After dinner there is music. Two of the Syrian men have volunteered to perform a set of songs. We gather in a broad semicircle around them as one tunes his oud and the other checks the timbre of his tambourine drum. They close their eyes and begin to play their instruments. I recognize a few of the harmonies and sing along. For the blink of an eye, we are transported far from this frozen street corner in Berlin.


writer’s block & experience as sojourn

Sitting down to write has been a fraught experience these days. There are always so many words on the tip of my tongue, at the tips of my fingers, on the tips of my neurons firing signals at lightning speed. But the words feel garbled and indeterminate. They refuse to settle into sentences, neatly stacked upon each other, building the foundation for paragraphs that accumulate and multiply. They long to tell stories and share ideas. Instead they collapse into tangled piles on the margins of my notebook.

Last month, the words came so freely. I wonder what made the difference between then and now. Maybe it is because then, I had intentionally created space for audacity. I let myself believe that my trivial thoughts were coherent, legible, and potentially interesting to others. That belief gave me the fortitude to push through doubts and trust in my ability to create. Now, I’ve pulled off that armor and find myself trembling before the void of an empty page.

But let’s consider another possibility: This current moment of writer’s block has little to do with loss of creative confidence. Perhaps writing has been difficult for me these past few weeks because I have been so wrapped up in experience.

I came back from Berlin with the energy of a new city pulsing through my veins, images of recently discovered alleys and transit lines etched in my mind. I was exhausted from all the travel so I temporarily excused myself the obligation of waking up early to write. Meanwhile, projects at work have picked up momentum and I am excited to pour my energy into seeing them through. My roommate returned from a long visit home; we have settled back into the rhythm of impromptu conversations over cups of hastily prepared tea.

I have been saying ‘yes’ more frequently to outings with friends and late nights. I am allowing myself to lose track of time while strolling through the park, then around the neighborhood, then further still. I am preparing for another trip abroad in a couple weeks, and have spent much time learning phrases in a new language and imagining potential itineraries. I will be leaving soon and can already anticipate the overwhelm of experience that comes with being a tourist.

In between all of this, I have found little space for writing that is disciplined and focused.

Writing pulls us away from experience. It feels deceptively like an act of the present moment, requiring the writer to tame the barrage of thoughts that constantly bombard the human brain. In truth, writing is inherently detached from the here and now. While writing, we must get far enough from experience so that we can attempt processing it. Synthesizing it. Wrapping it in beautiful paper and sending it back into the world as narrative.

Perhaps the best we can do during bouts of experience is take it in. Let it change us and trust that we will soon return to a place of quiet. Treat experience as sojourn, so that the return to routine and written reflection is a sweet homecoming.

FullSizeRender 14

31. final reflections on writing daily for a month

Today marks the final day of the month, and in turn, the end of a resolution to post daily on this blog through the month of January. I write this post in Bonn, Germany, a few hours before heading to a work meeting. This is one of the few occasions in the past thirty days during which I did not write from the desk in my bedroom, my little silver french press beside me, the Latin church beaming at me from across the street, and my fingers racing across the keyboard to beat the rising sun. It feels strange to end this endeavor nearly an ocean away from where I started it. Perhaps there is something metaphorical about this, with the crossing of physical space representing the crossing of new thresholds.

Some days, these posts took me three hours to write. I was so intent on telling the whole story that I would wake up at 5 a.m., determined to finish before going to work. Other days, posts came together in an hour with no need to extend beyond 800 words. On a couple exceptional days like yesterday, time was not on my side, and I put together whatever I could in twenty minutes. Every day, regardless of word count and time taken to complete the post, was instructive. I shared mid-month reflections on my process a couple weeks ago. Today, I would like to share a couple more lessons I learned along the way.   

Writing what you know is as liberating as it is limiting. Publishing a post everyday helps build a habit but prevents you from exploring unfamiliar themes and new writing formats. I chose to focus this month on life stories that I know like the back of my hand, and books that I have read so recently that their plots and lessons remained on the tip of my tongue. This choice was strategic: We are the experts of our own lives. It does not require much research to write what you know, especially when you write about knowledge that comes from your experiences. I wanted to focus on the act of writing this month, and doing so daily. I therefore stuck to topics that were readily accessible to me. It was liberating to take away the pressure (and additional step) of imagining an alternate reality, and then bringing it to life on a page. My sole responsibility was to render reality as I knew it into poignant stories and aesthetically pleasing images painted from words.

Yet, I started feeling confined toward the end of the month by the task of producing yet another episode of my life. Sometimes, it felt as though I was mining the depths of my memory to find a stone that was beautiful enough to justify the effort of polishing dust from its surface. The strategy of posting daily worked for thirty-one days, enough to get me into the habit of writing every morning. I am looking forward to both continuing my habit of writing everyday, and not having the pressure of posting what I wrote that day on the blog. The latter will allow me the space I need to take time researching topics outside of my experience and to experiment with long-form writing and perhaps even fiction.

– When developing a habit and trying something new, kindly ask your inner critic to please take a vacation. There were certainly moments in the past four weeks when I wondered if my writing was good enough to bother sharing with the world. It was new for me to produce words with so much frequency. I also experimented with poetry for the first time, and I somehow mustered enough courage to perform at a spoken word slam. My posts this month has been far from perfect. The piece of poetry I recited a couple nights ago resonated deeply with me, but was perhaps opaque to the crowd of strangers in the audience. None of this matters. My goal for the month was to try, in earnest, to develop a writing practice. I could not have done that if I let my inner critic silence me.

The days came when I compared my work to that of more established writers and felt wholly inadequate in their shadows. But I reminded myself that nobody begins as an expert in their craft. Innate talent can only take one so far, and after a short while, practice begins to make the difference between good and not-as-good writing. So I sent my inner critic packing. She would have never allowed me the audacity of confidence and faith required to keep practicing. I will let the inner critic back into my life now that I feel more comfortable with myself and my writing. This time, though, I will limit the self-critique to healthy doses that refine my voice, not stifle it.

* * *

For those of you who made it this far, thank you for joining me! You kept me going and held me accountable whenever I felt tired or uninspired. These posts have been selfishly for me, to satisfy my hunger and to feed my development. I can only hope that you got something out of your efforts as a reader.

30. departures

This post will have to be a bit rushed, as I am sitting at the Zain lounge in Queen Alia International Airport with one of my colleagues. Perhaps it’s a good thing to practice writing very quickly once in a while. Here we are, sipping cappuccinos and clicking away at our laptops, mindlessly taking our hands away from the keyboard every few minutes to snack on dates and cookies.

We have twenty minutes till boarding for our flight to Germany, where we have a strategy workshop for work this week. I am very excited to see a new country! I have been a bad traveler this time and failed to plan for anything during my time in Bonn and Berlin. I am hoping that my strategy of going with the flow will serve me well rather than backfire.

Luckily, our arrangements have been mostly taken care of for our meeting in Bonn. I will be taking a few days afterward to visit a dear friend that I met in Morocco, crossed paths with in Jordan, and now lives in Berlin. I know that I will be in good hands, so I am not too worried about my lack of preparation, or the fact that I haphazardly packed my bag half an hour before catching a taxi to the airport.

It strikes me that this has been a year of so many departures. I remember before coming to Jordan, I took travel quite seriously, especially international travel. Long lists were drawn up, extensive Google searches were made, maps were scrawled onto notebooks in case I found myself in a situation without internet or data. There was the anxiety that I would not know how to get around an unfamiliar airport, or to communicate my specific needs in the case of a baggage mixup or other minor emergency. No longer do these extensive preparations feel necessary. I have grown accustomed to the rhythm of arrival and departure.

I have been privileged enough to get used to this coming and going so frequently. I remind myself this as I zip my carry-on bag and head for my gate: Mobility is not something to take for granted.

29. dance

I have never been much of a dancer. This is despite my efforts. When I was very little, before I can remember, my mother signed me up for tap dancing classes. There are some cute home videos of me with clicking shoes, prancing around a mirrored room with hardwood floors. This did not last more than a year or two.

I returned from my dancing hiatus in third grade and took up hip hop. I had fun at my classes, though I remember feeling anxious about memorizing the choreography for our recital. We were going to perform Bow Wow’s “Basketball.” I loved the snappy bass and the staccato rhythm, the women like a choir chiming in between verses. A few weeks before showtime, they took our measurements for the sequined belly shirts we would wear on stage.

The news of our costumes, and how much they would reveal, finished me. My fears were not driven by a wish to protect my modesty. Rather, they came from a place of self consciousness. At nine years old, I had already come to understand that my body was not the type to display. It was not like the ones celebrated in magazines or television shows. I was somewhat of a chubby kid and painfully aware of it. I did not tell anyone the truth about my sudden aversion to dance; I simply dropped out of the class.

If I could go back in time I would tell myself to stick it out, to dance my heart out, to wear that belly shirt in pride. I would tell myself that I am beautiful, yes, but more importantly, that I worked too damn hard to let toxic societal norms stop me from getting on that stage. Alas.

Over a decade later, dance has returned to my life in unexpected ways. I had a strong urge to perform with one of the student groups during my junior year of college. I cannot be certain, but perhaps the urge to dance came as a wish to vindicate my third grade self. Luckily, the classical Indian dance team took me in. I had no qualifications to speak of, other than occasionally attending Zumba class. My ability to coordinate movement simultaneously between arms and legs was limited, at best.

I learned at practices in the basement of Ida Noyes Hall that I was terribly stiff and shy about the movements of my body. When I was told to accent certain postures with emotion, or to adopt a certain facial expression, I would break into laughter to hide my nerves. It is scary to move expressively in this world. The women in the group were more patient with me than I deserved, especially given all their years of training.

They gave me a real role in the performance. They trusted that through many hours of practice I would eventually embody the movements and the spirit underlying them. That trust was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I had no choice but to become the potential that they saw in me. Surely, I made a few errors on performance day and remained a novice among experts. But I took up space on that stage, and that was itself an accomplishment.

Here in Amman, I recently started taking contemporary dance classes. The instructor guides the first half of class without any choreography. She encourages us not to dance as dancers. She tells us to dance as the thing that occupies our body. In her class, dance is not so much the aggregate of moves set to music. Rather, it is a channel through which we learn to feel more at home in our bodies. I like this idea. I think my third grade self might have liked this, too.

28. resilient, not disaster-proof

There will be days when you don’t wake up feeling excited to write, or even to start the day.

Inspiration will not lift you out of bed. You will find the warmth of your pillow infinitely more alluring than the click of the keyboard. When you finally wrestle down inertia and manage to rise, you will make your coffee automatically. There will be no sense of wonder or contemplating how it looks like black silk as you pour it into a mug.

You will drink two cups and still feel tired.

You will not seek meaning in the sidewalks that lead to work, the vegetable market, the park where you recharge during lunch breaks. You will most likely be tangled in a loop of unhelpful thoughts, the storm in your mind sweeping you off the ground beneath your feet. You will feel anger and sadness, or other emotions that make you uncomfortable.

These days will come. You will eventually encounter pain, suffering, and loss. This is true whether you have made good or bad choices.

When hurt comes knocking at your door, avoid blaming yourself for not doing enough to keep it away. The best you can do is accept its presence. Maybe you can even allow it into your home for a cup of tea. It is, after all, a guest like any other. 

Hurt comes for all of us simply because we exist in this world. In Becoming Wise (p. 252), Krista Tippett reminds us: “All of our solutions will eventually outlive their usefulness. We will make messes, and disruption we do not cause or predict will land on us. This is the drama of being alive.”

You might fail at something. You may have a way of coping with loss or organizing your daily routine that has carried you through many years, and suddenly it doesn’t anymore. You might have a lapse in judgement that carries consequences. A relative or loved one may pass away. Several of them will, actually, through the passage of years. You could find yourself in the midst of a natural disaster or political violence. You might go to the doctor one day and walk out with a diagnosis that alters the course of your life. These are all terribly painful things, and it is terribly likely that at least one of them will happen to you.

There are no ways of living wholeheartedly that will allow you to avoid hurt. Brene Brown has discussed this brilliantly in The Gifts of Imperfection. She warns us that the only way to avoid hurt is by numbing ourselves. There are many distractions and painkillers at our disposable. But once we numb ourselves to hurt, we become numb to everything else: joy, curiosity, eager anticipation.

I think the best we can do on days when pain seeks a place in our homes is to remember our resilience. Returning to Tippett, I like how she has described this concept:

“Resilience honors the unromantic reality of who we are and how we are… [It is] a way of being that can meet the range of emotions and experiences, light and dark, that add up to a life. Resilience is at once proactive, pragmatic, and humble. It knows it needs others. It doesn’t overcome failure so much as transmute it, integrating it into the reality that evolves” (p. 252).

How do we cultivate resilience? To begin, we need to get comfortable with adversity and vulnerability. We need to find balance between loving and caring for oneself, and seeking love and help from others. We cannot do resilience alone, and resilience cannot be done for us. It takes practice, just like waking up every day to write. It is a form of muscle memory we develop, just like riding a bike. Whenever the going gets rough, it’s an opportunity for us to refine our resilience. These are the things I try to tell myself on days like these.

27. who will be next?

Chicago in the midst of October: Winter stretches her frigid arms, waving them to rid the prickles of so much rest. She wraps them slowly around each corner of the city. The corner upon which I walk is a few miles south of downtown, on the western border that runs up against the suburbs. I am accompanied by two middle school girls as we stroll around their neighborhood, a day out shared between mentor and mentees.

A mango vendor on 26th Street persists even as the weather changes. He sells slices of the bright orange fruit sprinkled with chili pepper and lime in clear plastic cups. I consider buying one, but the girls grab each of my hands and propel me toward La Baguette. We maneuver the narrow aisles of the bakery, using tongs to stack an aluminum tray high with dense, icing-laden pastries that cost only dimes each. Altogether the bill comes to one dollar and twenty cents. The woman at the cash register wishes us a good day: que tengan un buen dia. We carry our white paper bags that have already gathered translucent patches from the buttery treats, and walk in the direction of their homes.

We pass by mothers pushing strollers and gripping the mitten paws of toddlers bundled in so many layers. We pass by the Dunkin Donuts where blue-collar workers invigorate their tired bodies with caffeine, sugar, and a few minutes of conversation. We pass by murals that depict the Virgin de Guadalupe and protagonists of Mexican folklore. We pass by graffiti, some of it making an explicit political statement, much of it unintelligible. We reach the street upon which the two girls live.

Further down the street, I notice a home with front steps bursting in color and light. Bouquets of white roses and pink carnations rest against the cardboard image of a boy. He has the signs of a mustache, and looks no more than a few years shy of twenty. Glass votives adorned with saints contain candles of bright red wax, and are arranged in a semicircle around the vigil. The girls see my confusion and explain, “He died last week. Someone shot him.” Their faces furrow at the brow as they tell me this, but they betray no further signs of distress. This is not an uncommon enough occurrence to them, one that would warrant outward signs of shock. I try to offer a few words of condolences that they brush off like crumbs as they gather their pastries.

We promise to see each other soon and from there we part ways. As I walk to the bus station, I pass a brick wall wall covered with the names of men scrawled in paint. In the center, the anguished artist has posed a question in bubble letters: Who will be next?