It’s been over a year, and I still can’t believe I let you leave without asking for a way to get a hold of you. I still think of our nights in the desert, the endless stars, the inky black night wherein we traded our dreams.
I’m back in China now and all of those dreams seem so far away. I made it to Istanbul, and then Serbia, and to Ukraine, but soon it was March, and I had to decide so quickly: do I stay out in the wide world, or do I go home?
I probably should have stayed. I didn’t have much to come home to save my family’s apartment and the same job I’ve always had. There’s a lot here I love and had missed, but I’m so desperate to return to the sands of the Sahara which I have such a hard time extricating from my memories of being with you. Sometimes, at night when I’m alone in my tiny bed, with the muffled traffic sounds coming in from the window, I can close my eyes and still feel your fingertips on my neck like they were when we said goodbye all those months ago.
It’s so funny, Shaoudan. It’s funny what captures you in the end. When I left home I had designs on seeing all the worlds wonders – the Colosseum in Rome and the Pyramids of Giza – but now that I’m back at home I’m still hung on the empty, wide expanse of the sand in Morocco in this way that makes me wish I could snatch it back. I wasn’t scared to leave home and venture out alone, but I was terrified to tell you everything I wanted to, your face the one wonder I wasn’t prepared for.
Remember Casablanca? Did you feel, as I did, like we were tethered to each other, like an invisible, unbreakable filament connected our eyes? I remember the bazaar when you grabbed my hand and I felt the electric pang of your skin on mine for the first time, and I wish I could tell the person I was then that I’d be writing this, that I’d be sending this out into the world hoping it would somehow snag you; I wish I could tell myself, back in that bazaar, that I would be the one to sever that tie with my silence.
I’m so sorry, Shaoudan. I’m sorry for a lot, now, but mostly because maybe everything could be different: maybe if I hadn’t kept quiet we could be back there in the shifting dunes together, mapping out a life where the world unfolds just for us. But instead I’m passing the cold night under a heap of familiar blankets, typing this into a void where I’m fairly sure that you aren’t.
I don’t think this will find you, but if it does, maybe we could find a brand new place to start, a place we both know but have never been together; maybe after I’ve passed this time when so many borders are closed with my family in Tianjin we can meet back where the east meets the west, where the Bosphorus splits my continent from yours. Maybe there in Istanbul we can save each other, and we can find a way to redraw all those lines that we broke. Or maybe we can break new lines that we invent together, our designs forged from months of distance, created without the fear of needing to mend everything we break because we will have all the time the world can give us to make new things every day.
I miss you, Shaoudan.
[I myself traded Istanbul for Skopje. I can’t go back for three months, so I hope I haven’t left too much behind.]
Look, there’s not a ton to say here that someone else hasn’t already said. And I should know because I’ve been doomscrolling for days now; I’ve been procrastinating on work by combing through The Atlantic and Vox and the Washington Post and Slate and the New York Fucking Times and all of those other American news outlets. I’ve watched hours of live broadcasts and hot takes and punditry and even a bunch of those news/comedy hybrid guys (because let’s be honest, they’re mostly guys.) And I’ve done this to stay informed, yes, but there’s something so weird about watching all this from afar that makes me feel like it’s more than a compulsion, it’s a responsibility.
I don’t know why I feel that way.
We’re getting off track, here.
Here’s the thing: I’ve watched, for YEARS, as BLM activists and Antifascists have been called terrorists, and then I watched as actual domestic terrorists stormed the US capitol building with near impunity. They recorded it all on TikTok and Facebook and Instagram live with uncovered faces because they have no fear, at all, of any kind of repudiation. And they don’t fear it because they won’t get it.
Look, this isn’t new. The US was built on and still reveres white supremacy, this isn’t a fucking secret.
But what kills me, and please hear that this is literally the thing that makes me frequently feel that this is a lost cause, is that these people believe that their completely unfounded claims based on literally zero statistical evidence bears equal weight to the cries of Black Americans about the untenable effects of systemic racism.
On one hand, you have a group of internet-radicalized conspiracy theorists who believe that the 2020 election was stolen by democrats. There is zero evidence of this despite all of the recounts, audits, and poll watchers accounts that were, according to them, supposed to prove it.
On the other hand, we have 400 years denoting a clear and deliberate subjugation of Black people that can be easily proven by empirical evidence. And coupled with that, there is additional resounding, overwhelming evidence, compiled over hundreds of years, that proves absolutely the privileges that white people garner in the US to which, in a moral and legal sense, they are not entitled.
And even I’m beginning to wonder if I’m being brainwashed by the far-right – their ideology has been legitimized by the inherently ecumenical internet, in particular by social media, to the point where even the Democratic party has experienced a dramatic shift to the right. The incoming Biden administration is such a far and sad cry from, say, the Carter administration, who was still barely in power when I was born, and even I find myself questioning what it is exactly that I believe because I never see anyone representing “me” condemning these forces with the same vehemence that I, myself, feel.
I’m not exactly shocked or surprised, but I feel fucking blindsided every time something like the Capitol Riots happen and, with what little optimism I have left, I let myself believe that maybe this will be the time that the government, police, FBI, Homeland Security, the Secret Service, literally anyone will approach it with the same vitriol and force that they do protesters literally fighting for their lives. But it never happens.
A militia occupied the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon for 24 fucking days in 2016 citing the “tyranny” of the US government. In addition to having no clear policy nor demands, they expected the “return” of government-owned lands for white ranchers and loggers that, in fact, belong to indigenous people.
I mean fuck, armed white supremacists operating under some vague anti-mask agenda stormed the Michigan State Capitol last May, and though they were armed (I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that firearms are somehow legal to carry inside the Capitol in Michigan, however) they were escorted inside the building and were only barred from entering the State Senate chamber.
Look, these are just a couple of examples. And I’m running out of patience for trying to explain to a group of people that their whims and a vague idea of “freedom” that they fight so vehemently for has been afforded to them precisely because of the subjugation of BIPOC people. There is no sense in wasting time telling them anymore. If they don’t know that by now, they don’t want to.
But the worst part, and know that I mean for me, specifically, is the gaslighting. It’s this para-social gaslighting that makes me question who’s in the right, here. And while I know so much of this struggle is fought in our own minds, wherein we try every day to strengthen our resolve and carefully hone our arguments, most days I am unsure how much fight I have left.
I’m torn because on one hand, I left. I’m not in the States, and so much of what occurs there cannot harm me in the same way it can when I’m out in the American streets, brandishing a bull-horn or marching, arm-banded, with comrades. But there’s already been so much damage done that here I am, scrolling through another news cycle proving that my own home country deems me illegitimate, very much harmed despite the miles I’ve put between us.
And it’s crazy because I can’t even imagine a life without this harm, and that’s what pisses me off the fucking most.
I had drinks with that dude Suphi a few nights ago, and he tried to tell me that I’d definitely go “home” one day. He told me that people feel tied to the land they were born on like it was some kind of undeniable, universal fact. I do not have this in the States, I told him. I’m Black.
Is it so insane to want a place to go home to?
Congratulations, we made it to 2021.
To celebrate, I thought I’d share this piece I wrote back in March when I was so goddamned sure that last year would kill me.
A huge part of my identity is wrapped up in traveling; it’s both who I am and what I do, and I’m literally a travel writer, so it’s also how I eat. It’s the one thing I’ve ever really wanted, and now, though I’ve spent years traipsing about the fucking world proud of myself for creating nothing of importance, now, as coronavirus sweeps through the world getting closer to my little perch in South Africa, now I’ve finally fucking realized for the very first time that it might be the thing that kills me.
Maybe it won’t be this year, but also: maybe it will.
Today is Tuesday, March 17th. My visa expires in eleven days, and at some point I will have to board a plane. I’ll have to sit in a dirty seat in coach and with a shaky hand, rub an alcohol wipe over my tray table like a prayer to a god I don’t believe in. And then I’ll land in Dubai or Istanbul or Kigali or Bangkok or any city that will take me, because the only thing that I’m sure of right now is that I’m even more likely to die if I go back to the States.
I’m in New Doornfontein, Johannesburg, and out the window is the neon-topped Ponte that I had dreamed of seeing in real life ever since I was a little kid though I was always so scared I would never make it here.
But I did, make it here. And I’ve made it to the Sydney Opera House and Ipanema Beach and the Bund, and just like the orphans in the musical I loved as a child, I made it to Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, too.
But if I have done nothing else I’ve lived a huge, unbelievable life, and I’ve searched my brain trying to find a thing that I would change: if I could remove one airplane, one country, one lover, one friend. And I’m drawing a blank. I just can’t imagine having done it another way.
So if you’re reading this months after I’ve expired in Tbilisi or Kuala Lumpur, please don’t be sad for me. It was by chance, yes, but it was a product of exactly how I purposely, though often rashly, designed my life.
I love y’all. I really, really do.
At the time, well pre-covid and pre-American revolution, the sheer fucking prophecy it was to watch an Angela Davis lecture my first afternoon back in Johannesburg was easily lost on me. That was a year ago in two days time, but a year ago today was the day I left Chicago.
And I haven’t been back to the States since.
This is the longest amount of time I’ve ever spent away, and necessity has pressed me to leave all of my other careers behind. In South Africa, and in Turkey and Egypt, it’s not like I can just take my foreign passport to a bar and get a job, so when I let my plane take off without me last February I was making a commitment I didn’t know yet if I could uphold.
But here we are. It’s been a year. And I’ve written thousands and thousands of words and some of those words I’m even proud of, but I think the part most jarring is this thing that happens when people ask me what I do, and I say that I’m a writer.
But it’s sad because I’ve already been a writer for, let’s say, fifteen years, but it’s only now somehow legitimized in my mind because I don’t do another thing.
Two years ago, in December, I did my first show at Second City. I read a piece called The Privilege of Faith that accomplished a few things:
One, it marked my debut as a humor writer. I never thought I was one before because I let a man tell me I wasn’t, which leads me to…
Two, it was a piece that included that man. And reading it made me feel like I had finally shelved my relationship to him wherein – well beyond any other relationship we ever had – I hung all of my hopes of my work on his validation because I had told myself so long ago that his opinion was worth so much. Spoiler: I know now that his opinion is worth nothing. Literally.
And finally three, I remember the venerable Patrick Gill introducing me that night, saying something like, “Miranda Moure is a writer and my friend,” and it shocked me to hear, especially said so declaratively by someone who’s work I admire and I deem so legitimate.
It’s just crazy that it took this long, all of these years, but maybe especially that one – that one year in between hearing myself described on the microphone as a writer and when I let that plane take off without me thus making that decision for me – for me to believe it.
I’m not usually one for New Years resolutions. I generally make resolutions at Basel, when, awash in both the sun and sand of my former home, Miami Beach, and the veritable sea of creatives that Art Week attracts, I tend to get reinvigorated, re-inspired, and ready to make new plans.
Two years ago I left for Basel the morning after that show.
And I arrived triumphantly, because for the first year in so many years I had something recent to relate to folks I met that I was proud of: my debut at Second City.
Before that show I hadn’t been on the mic in over ten years, since San Francisco when I had a small circuit of events that I read at regularly. But as we remember, I fucked that all up by dating and surreptitiously dumping a colleague, and his skill left everyone’s allegiances with him instead of myself.
Seriously, he was damn good. That’s why I liked him.
We’re getting off track, here.
The mic. I loved it once, and when I stepped back in front of it it felt like something that had betrayed me before, and also like something I already knew so intimately, and also brand fucking new.
So back then, back when I was performing at least twice a week and every bartender already knew I wanted a Maker’s rocks, I had it so securely in my head that I wanted to wrote a book. As if there was no other option, like it was just a thing I would do because that’s what people like me do.
But then, I let a man convince me that I couldn’t. And goddamnit it was the same goddamned man that I read about on the mic at Second City.
Let me be clear: he never once told me, “Miranda, you cannot write a book,” but it seemed like I couldn’t when he slammed the first draft of his manuscript down on the bar table in front of me, and inside of that dull thud was all of the things that divided me from him and all of the insecurities I had, and all of the ways that I so naively assumed he was more qualified than I am.
So. This year.
In this horrendous fucking year that some of us were lucky enough to survive I have become, definitively, the thing that I always wanted. But the best part, beyond what I feel I can now call myself, is that I have now become absolutely, positively sure of one undeniable fact.
I am a better writer than he is.
So back to Angela. After like a day and a half of travel I finally arrived back in Johannesburg late-late the night before the festival started. And though I only slept a few hours, I was up like a light at 8, and by one I was sitting in a conference room at Constitution Hill listening to Angela Davis speak on the struggle, Blackness, the intersections of these things with our collective femaleness.
And it’s crazy because in a year so tumultuous you would think that all of the things that describe privileges I don’t have wouldn’t be the thing to offer so much comfort.
But I think, as I begin to pen these essays, those are precisely the things that will propel me.
So in an attempt to regain some sanity – and some pounds – I’ve gone back and tried to remember some of the greatest romantic gestures of my life.
And please know that I mean ‘gone back’ literally. I scanned my archives for some mentions of a particular spring I flew to Seattle with a mission. I was 27 years old, living in San Francisco, and right before I left to return home I wrote this:
“And I miss that Miranda. That Miranda—that one that says things she shouldn’t, that loves too too fucking hard and can’t rationalize why, that fears regret so much that she does extraordinary things—that barely glances at a calendar or considers the health of her cat before purchasing air travel.”
God. Remember when I had a cat?
What’s funny is that the person I wrote this about, because there was “a person” at the time, was Ben, who is still in my inbox frequently these days. It’s not every day, but I don’t think a month has gone by this year that I haven’t heard from him at least a time or two. And of that whole group of people, for me, he’s pretty much the only one left.
And it’s weird to think of all of those old allegiances because I used to hang all of my experiences within my hometown upon them.
Like, I don’t even talk to Ben’s brother anymore. But I mean, how many rapists do I really speak to?
We’re getting off track, here.
My point is that a lot of my friends here, not that there are as many as say, ten years ago in my fair hometown, keep telling me that I’ve done absolutely nothing wrong, that mine wasn’t such a grave misstep. But the thing is that I hold myself to a higher bar than many because of so many of the things that I saw and did way back then.
It’s all a little messy in my head now, like, I’m not sure of the exact timeline of everything, but I remember deciding from the repose of my apartment in San Francisco that I was going to fly to Seattle to tell Ben…something. And the years have made what happened on that trip – or even exactly which trip it was – kind of shaky and nebulous, but regardless I know that I never, ever did. Up until late in the summer the following year when I climbed out of his bed for the last time.
In New York, maybe the summer of 2012, I heard from him for the first time in a while, maybe a year or more. Someone had given him my new NY number, the one I still have, and he had texted me asking to spend the winter with him in Argentina. I agreed. Obviously, we didn’t go, but in all of the years after that I think that whole exchange just got recharacterized as one between mere friends, and we’ve behaved that way ever since.
So okay, there are two stories here:
One is, why did I never say anything? I have made several full-on admissions of love over the years, twice in 2012 alone. Many of them were unrequited or maybe even unwarranted; outcome has never played much of a factor in my decision to reveal this. So what made this one different?
And the other story here is, are we still friends precisely because I never said anything? And yeah, I’m asking you this because as fond as I was and am of Ben, none of this has anything to do with him, because aside from his frequent messages in my inbox this year it is not his that I wait so impatiently for, and not his that sent my head careening down memory lane yesterday.
They started coming in all at once.
I don’t really know why you kept this all this time
You could have let this out and we could have talked
The thing is, that I don’t really know what to say
But the thing is like yeah, now neither do I, because while I thought I did this whole thing to try and save something I thought I wanted, now it feels like a chapter is closed instead.
So I’m not really sure what my next message should say now.
You know that thing where you’re sad, and maybe you’re lonely, and for whatever reason you would do anything to feel something, anything, different?
I’m so jealous of people that have other things to put on top of it, like a vice or an obsession, but besides caffeine and cigarettes I don’t really have any.
The last time this happened this ferociously I tried drugs. Nothing insane: a few pills, I did some molly a couple of times, smoked some weed every other day or so. Honestly my coming out of retirement with drugs was underwhelming at best and only lasted a few weeks. And that was years ago.
This time I really fucked up.
I fucked up in Egypt, yes. But maybe more importantly, I was still fucked up enough in the head to not have braced myself against the fallout of leaving, and it happened in my head so differently than I did when I got here that I don’t know how I could have prepared anyway.
Like I usually do when I leave some place – wait, let’s be honest: when I flee some place – I tend to wrap that country up in a package in my head, seal the edges, and it can exist anyway I’d like it to. It doesn’t have to be opened or evaluated or revisited at all if that’s how I need it to be, and I assumed I could do it again.
But there were, instead, things in my inbox I couldn’t ignore, and my inbox made all that stuff in my head seem even more important rather than less.
So I put the exact wrong thing on top of it.
Back in Cairo, my friend Eri asked me, while I was describing what I was inside of in Cairo and what I’d be returning to in Istanbul, what exactly the nature of my relationships were here. And I swore up and down that none of that could possibly occur, because I thought it was absolutely true.
Until I got back to Istanbul.
Because, you see, the issue was never a single man. The issue is that this year has left me love-starved in a way I can’t seem to reconcile on my own, and rather than sit with that feeling I’m ready to turn anything into it.
And maybe that’s not so bad. Maybe this year gives us all a pass to put anything on top of anything.
But maybe it actually represents a bigger responsibility to be better to each other, and maybe that’s a responsibility I failed at miserably.
Miserably save that one brief escape.
So it’s time, I guess to clean house. None of this is working. I’m down friends, dollars, pounds; the latter especially has become increasingly troubling. Not that I know how many pounds I weighed before, but I’m pretty sure I’ve lost about ten of them, and it reminds me that the thing I used to put on top of stuff like this was nothing at all.
When I was a teenager, and 20 in Portland, and when I first moved to Miami, and all those other times throughout all of these years when I’ve watched day after day pass on the calendar while my ribs begin to poke through my skin and food feels more and more weird inside my mouth.
Like that winter in New York when I finally emerged from my cavernous apartment and placed myself across the table from a couple of my SF besties at a bar off the Graham stop and felt one leg fold over the other like a puzzle piece because my legs were so thin.
And this is becoming like that winter – I’m not sure my jeans fit anymore and I’ve been avoiding looking in the mirror – and fucking my best friend isn’t the thing that’s going to solve it. Any of it.
So in lieu of a vice or an obsession, I’m putting something drastic on top of all of this by turning my inbox into an outbox.
Look, I’m not exactly sure when it was, but with some distance between us I can safely narrow it down to two specific times that where I remember feeling like I was being shaken from any stability I managed to regain over the summer.
They were both over beers, as our times seem to frequently be, and the first, though not so definitive as the latter, was so shocking and off-putting that I wasn’t sure what happened. But we were seated at the Greek Club, against the wall, and everything seemed normal until it wasn’t.
You were explaining to me a short film you had made, and I was listening in rapt attention because just like I do, you have this way of wrapping a story around a memory. And just like it was that night, when we’re very lucky, that story is punctuated by a couple of words so simple and poignant that they stick around to ache in your body.
I want to see you when I wake up in the morning, you said, I want you to see me. And it wasn’t me, that was understood: the you here is this general you: the one that’s so rare in countries like your own where unmarried women are relegated to waking up alone. Seeing no one.
But I so naively assumed that I was shaken by your story rather than your words, so I was unprepared when the other time came.
Remember that time you texted me, you were like hey, I’m going for a quick beer at Cap D’or, do you want to join? And I answered in the affirmative, with an exclamation point, even, if I remember correctly. And everything was perfectly normal save, memory serving, I was stuck on some thing I was writing and spent at least half a beer complaining about it.
It’s weird because I’ve waited my whole ass life for my job to be to write stories, yet still I find myself still writing all the important ones, like this, for free. Because in some ways now is no different from being in my 20s when I would write all these things down and expect them to perform some kind of a spell, like if I could just get a couple hundred words out of my body then all of the ideas behind them would fail to have power over me anymore.
But I could write down a hundred times about that time we left the bar and were headed in different directions. I could type out thousands of words about that time you said it was so nice to see you as we parted on the street. But none of them would matter because none of them are taking away that time immediately afterwards when I clutched my chest and thought this is it, it’s happening as I walked home alone.
I’m so fragile lately, aren’t we all? I don’t know who’s thriving in 2020 but I’m sure I’m not one of them, and I’ve been taking the easiest possible route through the tail end of this year lest I threaten the shaky progress I’ve made inside my head since I left Johannesburg. But now that I’m back in Istanbul, and all those times in Egypt don’t feel so close anymore it’s hard to know how real they all were, like the way I used to melt into you when you touched me feels as ephemeral and unreal as all the things I tried to say.
But if you’ll excuse me, my bestie here has just returned from the suburbs. We spent some times together over the summer that now all look like postcards in my minds eye, and now we’re going to spend some hours reliving those times like we can snatch them back, like it’s not cold outside, like it’s before Jordan and before Egypt. Like we can have summer right now, and like neither of us has to feel fragile anymore.
Maybe it’s easier in places like this, Places like Cairo, to believe that you can engage with art. Even for laypeople there are so many examples of work so familiar, work that we’ve learned references for since we were children, that it’s so easy to live among it and engage. To comment.
As kids we all learn about Hieroglyphics, we learn the names of the three biggest pyramids even if we can’t recite them later. Most of us can name a pharaoh or two, maybe all of us can at least recall Cleopatra, and probably some vague idea of her artful accoutrements.
If you’re me then you sat in more than one lecture hall at more than one art school learning about the Egyptian canon: a series of measurements and rules that delineated the ideal depiction of the human form. As precise and unchanging as a fractal, the canon was so immutable that even spanning hundreds of years there are few examples that deter from it: a hand is always in the same proportion to a face is always in the same proportion to an arm, etcetera.
One odd side affect of this is that without a historical record, it makes it really difficult to know what Egyptians actually looked like. The canon erased impurities, deformities, any physical personality that individual humans might have; the canon makes clone-gods of people, replacing them with a version of perfection that’s endlessly trapped in profile.
But most artistic records don’t follow a path quite so rigid. By definition it’s the expression of culture so it’s easy to see styles change, zeitgeists morph: there’s a fluidity to it that follows the slow march of time.
And yeah, personally? I love this. I love complex, constantly changing art, but I’ve had all of this jargon on my tongue since before I got my period. I never knew exactly how it would happen, nor in what media, but I was definitely younger than ten when I knew – and I mean knew – that I was going to be some kind of artist. So for me, who could delineate between abstract expressionism and abstract minimalism before I started high school, engaging with art has never felt challenging.
Part of this, and to this day I think the most important part, is that I never much cared how I was engaging with art. I just wanted all of it, all the time: books and museums and galleries and posters for punk bands on telephone poles and even all of those wear-worn sketchbooks that I’ve flipped through that were owned by all those patchouli-scented pot heads that hung out at Gasworks and on the Ave back in the 90’s.
A while back, back when I was in Istanbul, a friend of mine posted a photo of a piece by Reed van Brunschot on Instagram, a piece called Thank You Bags (Giant) from the Guerrilla Girls’ 2017 Miami Art Week show called FAIR (get it?). Accompanying a photo of the work, which is two giant t-shirt bags bearing classic Thank You messages in red, he wrote: “brb, doing fine art by making big garbage,” and it was so goddamned clever that I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
So much art is fucking garbage, that’s just one reason it’s been so easy for me to stay here, in Cairo, where there’s 4000 year old art and 4 day old art that laypeople and creatives alike are welcome to peruse. And if you’re as lucky as me then you’ve been privy to a cool cohort of Cairo creatives that drink cool beers on cool patios in cool jackets and talk about film and photography and writing, albeit half of it is in Arabic.
But just as I told my friend about his insight into that van Brunschot piece weeks ago, “I don’t wear my fine art hat too often these days,” and it’s true, I don’t. But here, where I’ve had the opportunity to flex all those long atrophied muscles, I shocked myself with how easily my hand came back in. Just in time for me to miss Miami Art Week 2020.
I haven’t bought a ticket yet, but I have to leave. I have to go back to Istanbul where Zai and Lovage are patiently waiting for me. But I will miss this–this weird little trap that I’ve fallen into here where we all do the same things. And because we do all the same things, so many things go without saying.
And so many things have gone unsaid.
But in my head is so permanently stamped an ideal hand, a face, an arm. And I guess those are the things I’ll take with me, because it never occurred to me to release him from the canon while I was here. But maybe that’s how it should be: that instead of reverting to an actual human being, that he stays god-like in my mind, some personification of a perfect profile that I wrote for him with all of my wishes.