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    Entries in - Personal essay (85)

    Friday
    Nov232012

    Bend, don't break

    AEON - 23 NOVEMBER 2012

    Last winter, I moved to Lebanon from Turkey. Before that I was in Saudi Arabia. The Middle East, with all its chaos and calamity, was a fascinating place to be, but it also required a lot of effort to make something like a normal life. Moving to Beirut, a city that some still compared to Paris, I thought things might quieten down at last.

    The city proved me wrong. There was a shoot-out on my street. My journalist friends were losing their minds trying to cover Syria. Colleagues were getting killed. Hoping to find something other than liquor and worry to take my mind off things, I found myself entering a room with mirrored walls. The space was hushed, with soft light from recessed bulbs. Hesitating, I tiptoed to a spot by the wall, unsure — unsure of what? Of everything, really. Then I took off my shoes, laid out my watch, and took a deep breath.

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    Tuesday
    Nov202012

    A Life-Saving Bond Between In-Laws

    THE NEW YORK TIMES - 20 NOVEMBER 2012

    For her 60th birthday, my mom cooked steak, but my dad had trouble chewing and five weeks later, at 59, he was dead, and she was facing a lonely house in Miami.

    “Oh, Alfie,” she said. “How am I supposed to do this without you?” She had life insurance, considerable savings and the resources to live most anywhere in the world, which was both a blessing and curse.

    Where?

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    Wednesday
    Nov142012

    Thanksgiving Abroad: A Bittersweet Holiday in Beirut

    BON APPETIT - 14 NOVEMBER 2012

    In the year 2000, my then-girlfriend Kelly and I took a monthlong trek through Mexico, with the aim of covering that country's historic presidential election but mostly eating tacos and falling in love. She was 30, and I, nine years younger, was basically a boy. Kelly hailed from the Midwest, where family and celebrations were important. My family, on the other hand, tended to forget non-Christmas holidays; remembering them at the last minute, we'd dispatch someone to order Chinese from a mini-mall. In Mexico City that year, we compromised on Thanksgiving Day: we went to a house party.

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    Tuesday
    Nov062012

    Election 2012. Location: In Hamra, Beirut…

    ROADS & KINGDOMS - 6 NOVEMBER 2012

    It’s election day and there’s a tarantula in the bathroom. Ominous signs are piling up. After lunch, my daughter has trouble getting to sleep. She says the prayer wakes her up. In a darkened bedroom, my wife is hoping to nap, too tired to take off her shoes. She just returned from Aleppo, where at least one commander says he would vote for Romney, assuming a President Mitt would give the guys with guns some better guns, maybe some surface-to-air missiles, and perhaps even a no-fly zone.

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    Thursday
    Oct252012

    Swimming Upstream: A Memoir in Pools

    THE PARIS REVIEW - 25 OCTOBER 2012

    Because I loved the water and because I moved all the time—in search of what, I wasn’t yet sure—I found that swimming laps was a good way to get somewhere without booking another ticket. Wherever we were, I’d search out an open lane, and sometimes I’d surprise myself, encountering the person who emerged on the other side. You could learn a lot with your eyes closed.

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    Thursday
    Oct252012

    'Homeland' in My Home Land 

    GQ - 25 OCTOBER 2012

    Because I call Beirut home, and because an American TV show called Homeland won a bunch of awards and is apparently depicting my town, and moreover, because this depiction focuses on Hamra street, which I cross a dozen times a day en route to my butcher, baker, gym, my child's school, and the cafe where I write, and because this depiction is apparently ham-handed enough to have enraged the minister of tourism here, who is spending millions attempting to lure tourists back to a beautiful and tragic city—and added to all that, because the show was originally an Israeli TV pilot, an agony and irony for a people still technically at war with that neighboring country and, further, because the Beirut scenery was reportedly shot on location in the Israeli towns of Tel Aviv and Haifa—I want to tell you about a day on Hamra street, last Friday, when a bomb exploded just a few blocks from where I had lunch.

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    Friday
    Oct192012

    I'm afraid of Virginia Woolf: On war movies, adolescence, and the 50th anniversary of Albee's masterpiece

    ELECTRIC LITERATURE - 19 OCTOBER 2012

    Last year, my oldest friend, Dave, was serving in the US military at a base in southern Iraq, where rockets rained down near his trailer, driving his roommate to hand-build a wall made from paving stones and water bottles around their bunk. My wife, meanwhile, had accepted a job in Baghdad, where projectiles took paths close to where she slept. In the meantime I made a home for us in Istanbul, the closest reasonable city, where I could raise our young daughter. The situation wasn’t ideal, but it’s the one we had. Alone for weeks at a time, I’d think about growing up in Florida with Dave, meeting my wife in Asia, moving to New York, then lighting out for more difficult terrain. I’d pour myself a stiff drink, wondering how we’d all gotten here: Was life at all what we may have imagined, or hoped for?

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    Tuesday
    Oct022012

    A Hardee's in Beirut

    ROADS & KINGDOMS - 2 OCTOBER 2012

    Walking through Beirut now, it’s hard to detect any rage. That fragile guy I always see around town—the one who wears all white and is often in a cafe weeping—is walking the streets again after what was perhaps a summer in the mountains. The flavor of the day at the gelato place is coconut. In the fake American diner, where a ceramic man in blackface has open arms, teenagers back from vacation are eating chicken wings with plastic gloves. At the private school, the toddlers wear uniforms and bang tambourines.

    My plan is to walk down the hill and eat a burger at Hardee’s during prayer time, because the men at the nearby mosque literally pray on mats that spill out of the mosque, into the street, and sometimes down the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Two weeks ago, a few hours north of my home in Beirut, mobs sacked both a KFC and a Hardee’s. If anywhere was to be a site of some friction in Beirut, this is probably it.

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    Monday
    Oct012012

    When I finally saw my blood

    SALON - 1 OCTOBER 2012

    I’d lived in Beirut for nearly a year — next to the mess in Syria, where more than 20,000 people had so far been killed; an hour or two from borders my wife crossed to find out why; and where, for a variety of reasons, I still had trouble explaining my own stake in all this — when, in the kitchen the other night, I finally saw my own blood.

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    Wednesday
    Sep192012

    A Week in Beirut

    THE PARIS REVIEW - 19 SEPTEMBER 2012

    WEDNESDAY

    I wake up early to make ice cream for an old friend who is visiting from Riyadh. I blow a fuse in the power converter getting the machine to turn fast enough, but I have a spare fuse and all is well. The visiting friend, Matt, flies in on Saudi Arabian Airlines, which is now a member of SkyTeam, so you can use your miles on Delta or Air France. That night, Matt, my wife, and I stay up late drinking beer and wine and telling stories about the life we shared in Riyadh, where my daughter was born and where Matt still spends weekends DJing parties.

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    Wednesday
    Sep192012

    The Boulevard of Broken Bones

    THE MORNING NEWS - 19 SEPTEMBER 2012

    I live in Beirut but don’t want to forever. I’ve gotten older, less patient, more judgmental about people I think are being judgmental. I was once a big drinker and I thought I was a big editor, but now I guess I’m slowing down. I once walked for five months, all the way from New York to Florida and points beyond, but now I’m a little more rooted, a father, and I dream of bringing my girls home someday. But where on earth—or in America—could that be?

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    Friday
    Sep072012

    Train of Thought: Meditations on NYC and the End of Summer

    THE MILLIONS - 7 SEPTEMBER 2012

    If you ever find yourself boarding a train to New York City, with all its promise and premonition, I advise that you first fortify with a sandwich from that snug little kiosk at the Amtrak station in Saratoga Springs.

    The proprietor’s name is Rich, and she shows me a picture of herself, before the colon cancer, when she had this headful of black, kinked curls. Quite a pretty lady, running the kind of store you’d never find in the security state of an airport or the dungeon of a bus station, Rich toasts for me a whole wheat bun, then announces she’s been to nearly all of the countries in Africa, that she’s heading to Guyana on the 15th of August. In her little store, she shows me homemade things for sale that line various wooden hutches. She says her late husband was the prime minister of Dominica, before he was killed, that she’s giving it all she’s got.

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    Friday
    Aug172012

    The writing life: From Beirut and Cambodia to New York, Florida, and parts unknown

    THE MILLIONS - 17 AUGUST 2012

    Because summer in Beirut was so brutally hot and because the grandparents missed their granddaughter and because the dream was still alive and I had signed up this winter for a low-residency creative writing MFA program in Tampa, which required me to travel from Lebanon to the Florida campus for 10 days in June, I began to sketch out an entire summer in America, anchored by that MFA residency and then two weeks at a writing conference four hours north of New York City.

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    Tuesday
    Jul172012

    In praise of nightmares

    LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS - 16 JULY 2012

    GROWING UP, MY SISTER and I spent Tuesday nights at an art studio across town. The air conditioner sputtered, and we learned how to draw a wine bottle, flowers, our hands. Was it my mother’s idea, or had we wanted to go? She can't remember, and neither can we. Soon my sister lost interest, preferring to volunteer at a veterinary clinic, but I stayed with it, graduating to pen and ink, watercolor, and then oil paint. Hard as I tried, however, what I did on the page never seemed to match up to the things I saw at night, when I'd stare at my curtains, and see, in the darkened folds, the outline of a face or a bird or a ship. I still remember that ache, the mounting feeling that tomorrow would be the day I'd put pen to paper and recreate those lines and curves, and the dread that again I wouldn’t.

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    Wednesday
    May092012

    Jonestown, Naipaul, and me

    THE MORNING NEWS - 9 MAY 2012

    The other day in Beirut, I took a meeting with a woman of Lebanese origin who was recruiting writers for a new journal. In an email, she said she liked the stuff I’d sent—at least enough to have coffee. 

    We sat in silence for a moment, sipping drinks at the outdoor cafe, when a street urchin approached our table. The boy, who appeared to be about 10, looked into my eyes and implored me in a murmuring voice for “money, money, money.” I glanced quickly at the boy, then at the woman, seeking her lead, not wanting to make the wrong move. She pursed her lips, shook her head, and made no eye contact with the boy or me. Confused and already regretful—it seemed like no good would come from any of this—I stared again into his eyes. Just then, he raised an arm and began to stroke my face with a dirty hand. I felt his skin on mine, and my heart beat fast. Here I was, in Beirut, seated at a table, a warm hand on my face. Then the lady began to yell, and the boy scrambled off. We sat again in silence. Where could we go from here?

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    Monday
    Apr022012

    Inertia

    THE MORNING NEWS - 2 APRIL 2012

    This spring, I visited Faraya, the Lebanese mountain a few hours from what was starting to look like a war in Syria. We tried parking beside a BMW, which was disgorging taut specimens in wintry pleasure gear, but another car beat us to the spot. After three wars in as many decades, there were still bullet holes all over Beirut but also a ton of money. When people could, they liked to party.

    I squirmed in my seat, an American in the Middle East, needing very badly to pee. I was already shaking from cold, and—reaching for my gloves—I realized how badly I’d prepared. Can you get hurt trying to sled without gloves?  

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    Tuesday
    Mar272012

    I didn’t see you there

    THE MORNING NEWS - 27 MARCH 2012

    The other night in Beirut, notebook in hand, I slowed to watch an old man part his curtains. Inside a building scarred by bullet holes, he worried his hands, standing beside yellow walls and a water-stained desk. I fumbled in my bag, trying to find a pen. A dog barked. The afternoon light was dying, and I couldn’t find the damn pen.

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    Monday
    Mar122012

    Tensions run through it

    THE MORNING NEWS - 12 MARCH 2012

    The other day, a Beirut river ran red. Stunned officials said it might be blood. Or a deadly chemical. People could be hurt. The color certainly wasn’t part of some celebration. Everyone was stumped—even scientists at the university—and then, suddenly, the river ran clear.

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    Monday
    Mar052012

    Citizen of somewhere

    THE MORNING NEWS - 5 MARCH 2012

    Before the memorial for the fallen journalist, I stumbled down the hill toward the church, hungover and hungry.

    Consider the falafel sandwich. At under $2, it was my obvious move. But I was sick and sad, and the kids behind the stove looked like 12-year-olds who should have been in school. An alarming percentage of children here work instead. The last time I bought a falafel sandwich, the guy ahead of me had a growth on his face. It was so big I worried he might tip over, face-first, into the grease. 

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    Monday
    Feb272012

    Good knives

    THE MORNING NEWS - 27 FEBRUARY 2012

    I leave the house with a bag of knives.

    My daughter, Loretta, holds my wife’s hand, and the three of us wait to cross a busy street. There’s something unpleasant ahead.

    “That's poop!” Loretta squeals. “On the sidewalk!” I tell her someone will clean it up. But I’m not sure, really—not sure of much these days.   

    It’s a sunny day in Beirut, Lebanon.

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