Sonder in a Blue Country

Abundant carnations, striped, red, and pink

suffocate my memories of you, my only link.

I incinerated the deceptive, orange marigolds,

but they bloom again; on my soul, the grief holds.

Grateful, lilac bellflowers are ample as well.

The country who embraced me can tell:

the flame of hawthorns and hope has grown

into the stubborn seed of adversity life has sown.

Sure, the thistles have pierced me for years;

my veins throb with misanthropy and tears.

But I take pride in my inherent mistletoe:

my ability to surmount waves high and low.

The voyage may remain a vicissitude, but

a daffodil thrives in my heart, a dream to reunite.

A man of grass at the piano surrounded by flowers in the center of a park in Istanbul

A man of grass at the piano surrounded by flowers in the center of a park in Istanbul

In the humid summer of Istanbul, I was sitting on the tram chatting with my friend with my eyes on the scenery unfolding outside our window. The world was blue. At least it was in Istanbul. Placid, sad, blue waters everywhere. A city, where for some, shaking off the blues seemed almost impossible. When my camera lens captured the photograph below, I sincerely believe my heart had fully encountered sonder.

#BlueIstanbul #Perfection #NoFilter

#BlueIstanbul #Perfection #NoFilter

Sonder (n.): the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

While I may spend quite a large chunk of my life fretting over the GRE, my prospects of graduate school, and the morose difficulty of life, there are people out there leading equally intricate lives, if not more complex than mine. People who were forced out of their homelands. The Gender and Politics in the Middle East summer course I was taking at Boğaziçi University had cultivated within me – someone who used to get bored of politics – a desire to learn about the injustices happening around me. Picturesque Turkey was now home to over 1.6 million Syrian refugees, according to UNHCR estimates. My heart burned with sorrow and anger at the helplessness of a mother and son begging in Arabic for help outside the Sultanahmet Mosque.

A massive book welcoming visitors at Gülhane Park

A massive book welcoming visitors at Gülhane Park

For me, a person wrapped in a soft blanket, comfortably typing away in a heated home, it is indeed difficult to understand the plight of those who are struggling worldwide this winter, in countries that are foreign to their eyes. However, you and I together can surely keep them in our prayers and thoughts. My poem is a small effort to do so. I wrote in the language of flowers – a universal language – inspired from Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel and dictionary of flowers and emotions. By stepping into the worn shoes of a refugee, I tried to evoke the feelings he or she would feel: of loss, but also of hope.

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Rollercoasters across 6 countries

Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania ♥ Florida, United States of America ♥ Karachi, Pakistan ♥ Dubai, United Arab Emirates ♥ Istanbul, Turkey ♥ London, England

Round and round, we turned. The goal was to keep our eyes on the cloudy sky. My best friend and I could never stop giggling. Sitting in those teapots, I lost sight of time and space. The only feeling I experienced was that of freedom. We didn’t go often to Luna Park; when we did, we savored each bit of it. This was over 14 years ago, when everything was black and white. The only worries in the world consisted of getting our homework done and agreeing on which game to play next. I don’t have any pictures to share from then because the age of smartphones had not arrived yet. Merely having a basic Nokia cell phone was considered a luxury. Only for special occasions, we used an actual camera, the kind you had to take to the photo studio to get “negatives” and hard copies of pictures.

That was when my family and I lived in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, a country in eastern Africa.

Living there, the strongest obsession my best friend and I spent time on was Harry Potter. We had both read the series several times, but I will confess she was better at recalling the spells. And she was the one who discovered an online network of fans like us who wrote stories about the Harry Potter characters. Since we enjoyed writing, we signed up under ridiculous pennames. After writing our stories but before publishing them on the website, we would exchange them with each other. She had the software to create beautiful headers with images inspired from the stories while I had the affinity to check for spelling errors and coherency.

I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the Harry Potter World in Orlando, Florida.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the Harry Potter World in Orlando, Florida.

It was this strong relationship we had established that made me miss her even more when I was fortunate to finally visit the Harry Potter world inside Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. At that time, I was too scared of rollercoasters and although I stood in line for a few minutes, I justified my decision to quit with the fact that the line was just too long! My family and I ended up riding other rides that seemed less life-threatening, one of which I’ll never forget: Dr. Doom’s Fear Fall. I had never seen the world from such heights before. But I will say, what impressed me most was seeing and touching the places I had only read about in books. Oh, and taking a picture with Hedwig!

Dr. Doom's Fear Fall

The only other similarly heartbeat-accelerating ride I had been on by that point in my life was in Karachi, Pakistan. I was a 9-year-old, thrilled to be celebrating Eid-ul-Fitr, a day of rejoicing for Muslims worldwide to mark the end of the month of Ramadhan, the special month of seeking nearness to Allah. In Pakistan, like in many other Muslim-majority countries, Eid equals a public holiday for three consecutive days. It was on the second day of Eid that we went to Hill Park where I rode my first rollercoaster. It was called “The Train.” I had clutched my poor cousin’s hand so tightly throughout the ride that it had nail marks at the end!

I took this picture of "The Train" the second time I visited Karachi, nine years later.

I took this picture of “The Train” the second time I visited Karachi, nine years later.

I was overcome with waves of nostalgia when I returned to Hill Park nine years later. This time, I went on the same ride with my uncle because my cousin (his daughter) had married and moved to another continent. I often wonder: when is the next time I will visit again? Will the park still be open because it seemed pretty rundown this time? If yes, who will ride the ride with me?

Do you think these rides are different from water rides? I do, or at least I did. I didn’t mind going on rides where we would sit on tubes because there was a sense of security. I don’t know how to swim (yes, quite embarrassing!), but I knew that at the end of the enclosed tunnel, I would reach the water safe and afloat on my tube. The best water park I’ve been to is Wild Wadi in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Since I was a child, I had heard it was the best in the world AND they had a ladies’ night. This meant I could take off my hijab (headscarf and loose-fitted clothing that some Muslim women wear). I was in Dubai for an exchange program through my university and I took advantage of the ladies’ night during my birthday week. I went with three of my friends: a Lebanese, a Nigerian-American, and a Pakistani-American. We went in the evening, my first time at a water park under a dark, velvety sky. Our favorites were surfing and the ride where the four of us sat together in one gigantic tube and almost fell into the busy highway outside the park, a skillfully created illusion.

My courage peaked during my next exchange program in Istanbul, Turkey. My aunt had asked me, “Have you visited the Disney World of Turkey?” I was confused until I realized that there was a massive theme park in Istanbul called Vialand. Getting there was an adventure in its own respect. Our cab driver took us to a rundown park with a similar name on the other side of the city. It took us forever to reach our actual destination because of the distance, Istanbul’s chaotic traffic, and the lack of our language skills. (To be honest, I was quite pleased with my Turkish language course because it helped me communicate with a local vendor who gave us the new address.) When we finally arrived, we were awestruck. An illustration from a fairytale had come to life. One of the proudest moments of my life was getting on the biggest rollercoaster of the park, one you could see from miles afar. I will confess that it would have been impossible without the support of my three friends who were study abroad students like me: a Bangladeshi, a Moroccan, and a Pakistani-American. They guaranteed that I would survive. And I did. Sure, my skin felt like it was being ripped off and I screamed like a madwoman, but the adrenaline rush was insurmountable.

Vialand, Istanbul, Turkey

Vialand, Istanbul, Turkey

All of these experiences prepared me for Thorpe Park and the Chessington World of Adventures in London, England. I went to both over the span of three days and wow! Watching my cousins who were younger, but bolder than me encouraged me further. Each ride carried its own thrill, but I will point out three. The Saw was where we were flung at a perpendicular angle both into the sky and then into the ground. The second one looked like a snake while we slithered on its body. And on the last one, which turned 360 degrees, I think I almost died.

We slithered on a massive snake. I guess, there's a first for everything, right?

We slithered on a massive snake. I guess, there’s a first for everything, right?

This was the only ride where I have turned 360 degrees and water was splashed onto our faces!

This was the only ride where I turned 360 degrees and water was splashed onto our faces!

Reflecting on my experiences across these 6 countries, I notice that each of these memories holds a special place for me because of the adventure infused with the company of my friends and family. What unites all these times is the sense of a temporary utopian world: freedom from a mundane life, with people close to my heart.

Kairos over two months

Kairos (n.): The perfect, delicate, crucial moment; the fleeting rightness of time and place that creates the opportune atmosphere for action, words, or movement

Origin: Ancient Greek

This past summer, I was lucky to visit London. I realized on the infamous London Eye that as we moved, the scenery changed, albeit to a small degree. Each moment was perfect in its own form. Over half an hour, I had seen different angles of the city. The sun was setting and our ride soon ended. Similarly, life is like a circular machine, during which we have the chance to experience the world for a period of time. It is up to us to keep our ears and hearts open to what the world has to give us at every breath we take.

I took this photograph when I was standing on the London Bridge.

I took this photograph when I was standing on the London Bridge.

For a little over two months, when I heard or witnessed details that lulled or accelerated my heartbeat for a few seconds, I jotted them down. Here, I have composed a choppy compilation of a few of those moments. Snippets from the lives of others weave together with ours to create a shared history. Through these connections, we give and gain support, a communal relationship which makes us human.

For years Angela worked hard at

a department store without fail.

One day we visited and heard that

she’d died. I couldn’t wail.

For her weapon was to always smile.

She’d once fixedly peered at my face:

“You’re lucky to travel for such a while;

new sights transform life’s pace.”

Her words echoed weeks later

as I hurried to my next class, Today’s Russia

pulling closer my purple sweater.

A swirl of leaves shot me into inertia.

132 children forever fell asleep

as Pakistan drowned in bloodshed.

My uncle and his wife in London weep

in joy at their newborn’s bed.

J, a teenaged participant as a start

shared with me her life’s content side:

love for lacrosse, her boyfriend, and art.

Then: a desperate attempt of suicide.

It’s hard to comprehend people’s lives,

their reasoning and reactions.

I must keep trying as the train strives

to prevent my photographing the swans.