a grammar of connection

I never cared much about grammar. In elementary school, we received just enough English grammar education to meet minimum curriculum requirements. My understanding of concepts such as “subject” and “predicate” were limited and fleeting. I remember the couple of days we spent underlining verbs like “run” and “eat,” circling nouns and starring adjectives on lined worksheets. It felt tedious to me, picking apart this language I was born into speaking. I was too young to understand the immensity of my privilege, to have native fluency in a language that imposes itself as a near pre-requisite for upward mobility in most corners of the world.

I was forced to care about grammar, to exert effort in learning to speak, in Arabic class. It was completely lost to me, this language that could have been my mother tongue, if I had just been born into an earlier generation. Or if I had not been so privileged. The demands of life, of “making it” abroad and achieving enough integration to survive, left my grandparents with little time and energy to pass Arabic onto their children. In turn the language was not passed onto me.

I approached Arabic as one may approach a distant relative that one has heard much about, but never had the chance to meet. I was tentative, a stranger. The few words I had acquired from my family’s broken chain of linguistic transmission included “habibi,” beloved, and “wallah,” I swear to God!  I had no ability to string any of these miscellaneous vocabulary into a meaningful Arabic sentence.

My first-year Arabic professor took language instruction very seriously. He was intent to give his students the grammar education that they had not received in the American public school system. We learned strange terms like subjunctive and present perfect and pluperfect and conditionality. We were to use these concepts as building blocks of sentences that we constructed like lopsided houses upon our clumsy English tongues.

His lessons were often dense, full of practical knowledge that had to be acquired rather than appreciated. But one day, he taught us a grammar rule that shimmered like a pearl: “Every word in Arabic is composed of a three-letter root. All words that come from a given root are related. ”

This may not sound like much of a revelation. But to me it was transformative. It unlocked a dimension of the world where seemingly distal concepts became connected by a hidden center of gravity.

Perhaps this is too difficult to understand as an abstraction, so I will do my best to explain in concrete terms. In Arabic, words with the same three-letter root will take on a different but related meaning according to the shape that they are arranged in. Take the three-letter root: ج م ع  (jim, meem, ‘ayn). This root conveys a sense of the word “together.” The placement of these letters into different shapes yields words that are related to the concept of together:

to gather – يَجْمَع – the act of bringing together

community – مُجْتَمَع togetherness on a societal level

 one of the central places in which we gather, to learn – جامِعَة – university

mosque – جامَع – another foundational gathering place, where we pray together 

group – مَجْموعَة – a unit of people who are together

meeting – اجْتِماع – a time and place in which we are together

Perhaps I am strange, or overly sentimental, but I find this profound. It makes my heart flutter a little. To think that all things in the world for which we have a word, there is an essence to which they are connected. That words can be stripped down to their essence if we just remove the glittering crown of vowels with which they are adorned, if we just extract them from the shapes in which we find them.

Seven years since I began studying Arabic, I still experience moments of serendipity when I realize two words are related long after I learned each one of them. Like yesterday, when it suddenly dawned on me that the verb to become (يصبح) has the same root as the word for morning (صباح). Or last week, when I noticed the shared root between hope (أمل) and contemplation (يتأمل).

My mind races to draw out the relationships. Maybe it’s because in the morning, we become a new person. Morning is a time to become. Alive again after a night of sleep.

And hope is related to contemplation, because really contemplation is just hope drawn inward. Giving hope a home inside of ourselves, space to stretch and expand and multiply. Perhaps one day manifesting into plans that become action that lead to dreams realized. Contemplation as a sanctuary within which hope grows.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Maybe there is some other essence that connects morning with becoming that I just can’t see yet. Maybe hope and contemplation relate to each other in another way than I am currently incapable of imagining. I trust that one day the understanding will come to me. Perhaps when I earn a bit more wisdom. I accept that my understanding of how things are connected might change as I change, as I move through this world and acquire new meanings.

transitions, or a heart in transit

A few months have passed since I’ve been able to gather enough stillness to sit and write. Today, I am trying to hold that stillness, to honor it with reflection and words on paper.

Sixty days ago, I left Jordan. One-way ticket to Detroit in hand, I dragged two suitcases and a carry-on bag through Queen Alia International Airport. They contained everything that accompanied my life in Amman for the past two years. I had made the decision to leave the country only a few weeks prior. Every day leading up to my departure had been a race to close out commitments at work, say goodbye to loved ones, and set up infrastructure from afar for my new life in Chicago.

I spent my first week back in Michigan with family before packing up my life again, this time in a car, and driving five hours west. Back to the windy city where I had spent half a decade during college and graduate school. The roads were familiar; hundreds of miles of cement stretched flat against the plains of the midwest. Dense thickets of trees lining the way. I had forgotten how very green it is here, how easy it is to surround oneself in green. In Jordan, green was a color in limited supply, dwindling rapidly as one traveled from the north to the south of the country.

While driving on the highway I allowed my mind to wander. How do you feel? I asked myself. I tried to listen. I heard faint whispers from within:

Excited for the next chapter.

Shocked that one day of air travel is enough to transform the texture and topography of my life.

Mourning the end of an era, a time bound by people and places that will remain on the other side of this strange planet.



Alone in my car, I poked further at that last emotion. Hearts are not meant to be in so many places. My heart was still in Jordan. My heart was still in Michigan. My heart had remained in Chicago since the day I left it. Each hug goodbye, to friends in Amman, to family in Detroit, felt like a fracture. I am always leaving someone or something behind. There is a cost to all this leaving. We leave behind a piece of our hearts anywhere we dare to give and receive love.

It is a price I am willing to pay.

I steady my hands on the wheel, maintaining the pressure of my foot against the gas pedal.

But what is the reward?

I remember a few ideas that have moved me in the past. My friend Emily Robbins writing that we must grow our hearts. Susan Sontag’s conviction that life is not necessarily about happiness, but about becoming the largest, most inclusive, most responsive person possible.

Transitions hurt. They involve heartbreak. But maybe that pain signals growth, the growth of our hearts: Integrating pieces of others we met along the way, filling in holes from what we have left behind of our selves, expanding ever further into all we hope to be.

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.

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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.