it was four years ago this summer that i left home. packed up my moleskins full of notes and reminders, said goodbye to lifelong friends, giggled awkwardly at my father’s successful attempt to lighten up our farewell by stuffing five dollars into my purse while joking that this would be an important moment to look back on for a cliched success story.
it was four years ago this summer that i landed in a new city, walked through neighborhoods i barely knew until i found a corner of the world that i would claim as mine. carefully selected the tools i would use to build my new life, and thoughtfully excluded those that might distract me. consciously curated my days around experiences that made my heart sing. paid attention to what muted the music.
i know some of the secrets now, some of the roads to my self, some of the roads that lead away.
i understand some of the detours that i needed to take. recognize some of the unconscious patterns woven tightly into my skin, how i could almost go through an entire lifetime without untangling them, and what a luxury to have the space to even identify them. acknowledged that there will always be more to uncover.
i have a treasure trove of memories, of lessons i will continue to learn, of streets i will always long to walk through.
and though i hope the city will forever feel like home, welcome me back the way it has since the moment i landed, the same instinct that guided me there also let me know when it was time to leave.
perhaps it was baba’s parting joke, or his crinkled red bill which i still carry with me, that made me constantly question, define and redefine what a success story means to me, and to realize that every story has its final page. perhaps it was the rate of change that i saw around me, and within me, that set off it’s own alarm, and like an end of term school bell ushered in both an ending and beginning of something promising just ahead. or perhaps it was my gratitude towards a city that gave me more than i knew to look for, gratitude that could only be returned through leaving, through not taking more than i need.
i thank you, and i love you, san francisco, for everything you gave me, and everything you’ve kept at bay.
staring out the window at the scattered clouds underneath the airplane’s wings, i’m brought back to reality with a quick jolt as the voice of my flight’s captain breaks the silence. we are airborne from paris and on our way back to the US. i listen to him speak and feel a sense of life return to my body after 36 hours of numbness. after 36 hours of confusion and worry. after 36 hours of the loneliest minutes of my life.
his voice is firm and strong. not a quiver of fear or emotion emits from it, though i am sure there is plenty of emotion he is holding back. i hear the hints of somberness intensify as he talks about standing in solidarity with the citizens of paris. i hear his voice and that brings me comfort.
i hear his words that are reminding us that everyone on this flight is recovering from the same experience. he apologizes to the passengers who were expecting to make their way home yesterday. “the flight from dallas to paris was cancelled,” he explains, “there was no plane for us to go back in.” the crew is just as frazzled as everyone else here.
i hear him say these words as a gentle reminder that we should all be kinder to each other today. a reminder that the relationships aboard the flight are not between customer and service provider. there are no sides. there is only empathy for a tragedy we all experienced together. there is only longing for the feeling of a home we are all flying towards.
though the flight is filled with strangers, there is an odd sense of familiarity between us all. a sense that we are all breathing the same sigh of relief as we leave behind the scene of a painful memory, the scars of which are still too fresh to understand.
“paris”, i repeat to myself. a city that has always reminded me of perfection and beauty. a city i used to dream of seeing as often as possible, even if it meant only walking the streets for five minutes, to feast on its delicacies if only for one bite, to listen to jazz in its bars if only for one song. i repeat the word to myself in disbelief as tears swell my eyes with each utterance and the taste of metal consumes my throat in a way i have become all too familiar with since friday night.
the captain’s voice fades and i turn my attention to my phone. i revisit the content i received from my amazing family and dearest of friends over the last day. video clips of their children learning to walk and dance, of their babies laughing, even their pets sleeping. i think of how kind they were to offer me a break from my anxiety. how for 10 seconds at a time they distracted me from the state of fear i was in.
i think of those who called to offer me their voice and reminded me that though i was the loneliest i ever felt, i was not alone in this world. how the timing of each call perfectly followed the ending of the call before it, as if they had coordinate the schedule to allow me to feel connected to someone at all times.
i think of those in paris who opened their homes to me, and others who opened their hearts.
i think of all of it and i’m reminded that this was not my first brush with terror, but it was my first time experiencing it in a vacuum, alone. i was in the US 14 years ago when the planes brought down the twin towers on september 11. i was flying into jordan 10 years ago, almost to the day, as suicide bombers detonated their belts in three hotels across amman. the first time i had my mother by my side. the next time, one of my closest friends. their presence made the experiences bearable. this time, their absence made it all too real.
i had never before imagined that this intensity of fear exists, and though i am flying away from it as i type, my mind keeps flashing back to what it felt like the morning after. what it felt like to wake up in a strange room, all alone, in a city i barely know, where i don’t speak the language, and don’t know how to navigate naturally. what it felt like to realize the only food i had access to was a bag of m&ms and two quest bars. what it felt like to wonder how long i might have to sustain myself on that, not knowing if people were in the streets, or if the city was on lockdown. what it felt like to wonder which parts of the news were exaggerated and which were true when i had only a view of the courtyard from my window. what it felt like to be too paralyzed to open the door to know for sure what was happening on the other side.
and as my mind flashes back through those hours, the stewardess walks by to put a plate of rich creamy pasta in front of me. i sense my appetite return after a day and a half of being suppressed.
i take a bite and my tastebuds begin to tingle as if i’m being served a michelin meal. i’m listening to the same playlist that i hum along to whenever i paint in my apartment. the songs remind me that i’m returning to a happy place.
i feel even more life return to my body. i can function because the terror and trauma lasted only 36 hours. they were the most intense and pronounced of my life. they were the longest hours of my life. but they are finally over.
my blood can pump through my body normally now. my pulse can slow down. everything about me can go back to how it was.
except my heart, my heart is not the same. it breaks and cries for the generation of children who are growing up experiencing this fear daily. whose bodies do not get to return to a state of normalcy within hours. who will experience these physiological and psychological terrors every day for a lifetime to come.
it breaks and cries for the generation of children from iraq. from palestine. from syria. a generation of children from afghanistan. from sudan. from libya. a generation of children from ukraine. from kosovo. from nigeria. from eritrea.
it breaks and cries for the generation of children who to no fault of their own will grow up not knowing the comfort of a soft pillow because their heads will be too fraught with fear to rest easy; their ears polluted with the sounds of sirens, or bombs or wailing mothers grieving for their losses.
it breaks and cries for this world. and i pray it can mend.
the last few months have been the most exhilarating and exhausting of my life. after a year of sending out hundreds of job applications, of seeing my savings dwindle down to pennies, of desperately hoping someone would take a chance on me so i could restart my career in a new country, i finally had the attention of every company i’d ever wanted to work with.
it took a year of rejections to push me to the brink of creativity. to get me to think of the simplest yet most effective marketing experiment i’ve created to date. the campaign was designed to get the attention of many companies by targeting one. its reach spread wider than i had expected and opened doors to opportunities i had only dreamed of.
but as companies around the world were reaching out publicly, the one company that i had targeted was privately telling me that i wasn’t a fit for their needs. as emails of support were flooding my inbox, meetings with airbnb’s CMO were cancelled and my followups were met with silence. professionals i admire were calling my work impressive, but the person interviewing me was saying he couldn’t contextualize my experience because i “hadn’t worked at facebook or google or studied at stanford”.
i felt the wind knocked out of me as i heard those words. i remember gasping for breath while trying to maintain a calm exterior. i interlaced my fingers to stop them from shaking, exhaled deeply to control my cadence as i muttered words about my own company’s growth, the clients we had, the work we did, the team we built. but as the interviewer’s eyes wandered out the room in the middle of my monologue, i sensed that my attempts were hopeless. and though they were looking to hire someone to design their social media strategies, despite my 10 years of marketing and social media experience and despite the reach of my latest campaign, i was told i wouldn’t be that person. the decision had been made.
doubt crept into my mind even as other companies continued to reach out. if the one company that benefited from this experiment didn’t want to hire me, what chances would i have with anyone else? i had used all my marketing skills and passion to drive their brand into news tickers around the world – headlines were appearing in chinese, german, arabic and languages i couldn’t recognize. twitter and facebook were abuzz with positive conversations about airbnb, but that wasn’t enough. or maybe it was too much, i’ll never know.
all i do know is that in that moment, i was crushed. gutted. my confidence was shaken. i had a choice, though. i could allow myself to be consumed by doubt, to accept their rejection as a judgement on my skills. or i could push through it by focusing on the bigger picture, on the end goal, which was to get a job at a top tier company in the valley.
messages continued to pour in. from california to calcutta, rome to riyadh, people were telling me that they were inspired by what i had done. some had been facing their own career challenges and said this gave them a glimmer of hope. others asked for details of how it was done so they could try their hand in creativity. all were overwhelmingly kind.
and though the people who wrote told me i had inspired them, the inverse was also true. i drew confidence from the support of strangers. i found strength from their words and gained resilience from their stories.
i met with dozens of companies from established organizations to exciting startups. some reached out directly and others i went after myself. i was finally at the point where i wanted to be a year ago when i first moved to san francisco.
with every interview i learned more about myself and what drives me. i already knew that i wanted to be part of a stellar team, that i wanted the opportunity to grow and learn and do exciting work. and as i answered what felt like an endless stream of questions, i was able to draw in the details to those broad brush strokes.
i found everything that i wanted in upwork (formerly elance-odesk). from the start of our conversations, i was impressed by the way the company focuses on data driven decision making, on experimenting and testing obsessively to improve their product. i was inspired by how they’re helping millions of talented freelancers around the world build their careers online.
i’ve felt a rush of enthusiasm take over me with each person i’ve met there. as i sat through round after round of interviews, i found myself scribbling notes between conversations about what i could see myself learning from each team member. nothing excites me as much as that feeling, that instinct that i’m signing up for something that has so much potential and promise.
and it’s that potential and promise that outshines all of the anxiety and self doubt that i experienced. it’s that feeling that proves to me that the campaign was a success, that by forcing myself outside my comfort zone, by pushing past rejection and focusing on my own goals, i was able to unlock opportunities i would have never had. and for that i’m grateful.
i’m extremely excited to be joining upwork as part of their growth team. (photographed by fares nimri)
by concentrating on one company, i got the attention of many. i’m grateful for all the opportunities i’ve had as a result of linking myself to airbnb. (photographed by shaz khan)
nina4airbnb received over 455,000 visits, millions of social media impressions and resulted in over 14,000 people around the world viewing my resume. click on the image for details on how you can recreate similar campaigns.
there are many things i love about living in san francisco. i love how you can walk in between sky scrapers in one neighborhood, and within 20 minutes find yourself surrounded by 800-year-old redwood trees. i love how the walls of the narrowest of alleys are overflowing with so much art that murals are painted on the ground. i love how you can walk into a coffee shop in the evening and find yourself listening to an impromptu jazz performance.
what i love most, though, is how the city comes together to celebrate love.
i have never seen anything more beautiful than the sight of hundreds of thousands of strangers united by the force of happiness. grandmothers holding hands with their grandchildren in tow as they celebrate decades of commitment that are finally acknowledge by the law. toddlers and new borns giggling at soap bubbles flying through the air, unaware that they are part of a moment in history. colleagues standing with their managers dressed as unicorns, butterflies and ballerinas, unconscious of corporate hierarchies.
i have never felt anything more powerful than the collective force of people rallied around a positive message. activists who have faced opposition, violence and intolerance, who stand together in tears as they celebrate a victory, though they know there are still many more to fight for. athletes, musicians, and performers who have dedicated their time and work to supporting a demand for equality.
i have never been more conscious of being witness to a moment in history. of the significance of standing on streets that were once fueled with hate, which are now paved with rainbows. of celebrating pride on the footsteps of a building where the first openly gay elected public official was assassinated.
and as conscious as i am about the historical significance, it’s not the politico in me that is moved by this. it is the humanity in me which is overwhelmed by this energy that can only emanate from a place of love.
i was fortunate to be invited to ride in the parade with airbnb. (no, this is not a subtle announcement of employment)
castro street: where harvey milk and thousands of others famously fought and rallied for equality and rights in the LGBT movement.
walking on the famous rainbow pedestrian crossing in the castro.
sharing a special moment in the parade with chip conley, a man i admire for the warmth and hospitality he exudes.
i squint my eyes to readjust what i’m seeing. there’s an odd blue dash on everything i look at. i move my fingers over my lashes and realize it’s paint. how do i have paint on my eyelashes? i shake my head to concentrate. i need movement to step out of this trance that i’m in.
as my conscious mind wakes up, i see there’s paint everywhere.
my windows have speckles of white stains. my floors have gashes of red lines. and my ripped jeans and worn out tshirt look like i’ve just come out of a paintball fight with a trained marksman. my feet, my arms, even my kitchen floor.
my landlord would not be pleased. but i am.
i take a look at my reflection and find even more paint on my cheeks and i begin to laugh. not the silent internal kind. the loud genuine belly laugh that fills the room i’m standing in. a passerby might give me a quizzical look right now, seeing me laughing here all on my own. but i find nothing odd in it.
it’s not strange to feel this euphoria. in the last eight weeks, as i’ve unwrapped nearly a dozen blank canvases, sketched outlines of ideas onto them, and then experimented with different styles and techniques, i’ve been overwhelmed by a range of emotions so intense, i didn’t know i had the ability to feel them.
yesterday i cried.
i stared at the series of paintings that i finished and hung up on my wall to enjoy before i display them to others. perhaps it was the music coming through my earphones that unleashed the sadness, or maybe it was naturally provoked. but as i stared at the repetition of my signature across each painting, i realized that this would be my first time to publicly call myself an artist. to have the courage to put my name and my work in front of people i don’t know and hear them judge it and discuss it, to see them reveal a reaction. and though that’s exciting, there’s a sadness in doing it without many of the people i love by my side to experience the rush with me.
two days ago i shook with excitement.
i saw where the exhibition would take place. walked through the set up and talked out loud about the flow of the night with the organizer. i could feel my body trembling from joy. i saw the wall that would be mine. the wall that would hold up canvases that i’ve filled with colors and shapes that i’ve created. i could never imagine that i’d be so happy and full of hope from staring at a blank white wall. the room itself mesmerized me. it’s a beautiful space with exposed concrete, industrial vents, and an out of tune piano. tacky plastic orange chairs were piled up in the center, but that was no matter. my mind ignored them as i imagined how the room would look in a few days when they’re cleared away to be replaced with strangers and champaign flutes.
i imagine this is what people experience when they talk about being in love. these extreme, sometimes irrational and often unprovoked emotions. some fleeting and others lasting. all intense. consuming. visceral. extreme elation eventually followed by feelings equal in magnitutde but opposite in direction. and the moments in between bring peace and meaning.
and so i’ll allow myself to take it all in. today i laugh, and tomorrow i’ll celebrate. thankful for the opportunity to go through this journey. grateful for the chance to feel the flow of creativity pour out of me. blessed that in between all this energy, i feel alive and life is beautiful.
photo credit: hala mufleh, circa 2008. http://www.halamufleh.com
there’s a metallic taste that’s oozing from my cheeks to overtake the caramel flavored candy i was chewing on earlier today. my jaw is clenching tighter. my heart is pumping so fast that i feel every uneven beat jumping through my throat. my fingers are numb and my skin tingles as if i’ve just fallen into a pool of ice water. fear and anxiety are overtaking my body as i begin to experience the most uncomfortable night of my life.
the sun is setting outside, but i can barely see its rays. there are no windows around, only a small slither of a break in the concrete, and it’s away from where i stand. i don’t know for sure how far into dusk it is, but i can feel it getting darker, even though i’m in a space that’s already dark.
the only thing i see in front of me are the cold hard iron bars of the prison cell. i close my eyes for a moment, trying to ignore the terror my body is feeling. trying to convince myself that i’m not in any danger. trying to collect my courage to overcome all the negative energy surrounding me.
but it’s my first night in a prison. my first time being so terribly close to a house of evil. my first time in a space that was overrun with stories of atrocious crimes. and although none of the perpetrators are here anymore, their residue is all around – remnants of their broken souls are lodged in the crevasses of the walls.
i close my eyes for another moment, still controlled by fear but allowing myself to get washed over with a will to understand. to try to fathom what it meant to be here, to live a life that was stripped of all freedom, to spend days and nights and weeks and years without human interactions. forgetting with time the warmth of seeing someone’s smile. or the emptiness of letting someone down. simple pleasures of making complex choices.
my mind is wandering as i struggle to understand, to feel emotions of a people i’ve been taught have none. i suddenly begin realizing how lonely it is to stand here. there’s a deafening silence in this space. and even though there are hundreds of other people taking this tour with me, i feel completely alone. and i imagine these spaces are meant to elicit that feeling. to serve as a constant reminder to each inmate of what brought him here. a loneliness that serves as a deterrent to doing whatever it was that sentenced him to a life void of meaning.
so i stand behind these bars, in this empty space filled with both the scariest and the saddest of stories, and i begin questioning the system, and questioning the results. questioning the people that worked here, and the ones that were condemned to be here. questioning everything.
and i stand here in more discomfort as i realize that there are no clear answers to my questions. no black and white absolutes. only a series of more questions to lives i can barely understand.
it’ll be two months tomorrow since i left home, since i packed up my moleskins full of notes and reminders, since i said goodbye to lifelong friends, since my father stuffed five dollars in my purse and joked that this would be an important moment to look back on for a cliched success story.
it’ll be one month tomorrow since i’ve moved into my apartment, since i cleaned my first batch of laundry in a decade, since i picked out my furniture and set my mug on the windowsill to enjoy my morning coffee, since i started to think of myself as living here.
i know the shortcuts now, the streets to avoid, the steep hills that don’t show up on a map when i plan my walks across the city. i understand the weather patterns, how you can almost go through four seasons in one day, and that a scorching hot and humid summer isn’t something i’ll likely experience living here, neither is a freezing snow storm.
i have a favorite park, a favorite doughnut stand, and new speed dials on my phone.
it was instinct that brought me here – an idea, a feeling, an internal force. and as i’ve spent my days walking through the streets of san francisco, i already realize this city has the potential to give me even more than i came here looking for.