cold mountain.

i’ve developed a morning ritual in the short time i’ve been here. eyes still semi closed, i stumble into the kitchen to sit with my grandmother and her niece where we plan out our day over coffee and sweet cha-ee.

my favorite part of this routine is when the toaster pops out a warm slice of noon sangak – a delicious whole wheat sourdough flatbread that i can’t seem to get enough of. there’s a subtle sweetness to the bread that compliments the saltiness of the pannir which i generously coat on top. today i’m feeling a bit creative so i add fresh walnuts for a more earthy taste.

and as the family debates the day’s activities, i bite into the warm bread and my eyes drift out the window where i can see the faint outlines of the mountains that surround tehran. even with the smog that interrupts my view, i can tell that’s where i want to be – far away from the intense experiences of tehran, from the nostalgia that surrounds this city.

it’s a chilly morning, but the sun is strong. we take off on dizzying roads towards shemshak, a ski resort to the north of tehran in the alborz mountains.

my grandmother insists i sit in the front, the view as we drive up will take your breath away, she tells me. but i can’t look ahead, i only stare overhead at the sharp icicles that fall from the cliffs, fearful that even parts of them might break off. they sit firm atop the narrow passageways with no intention of melting or falling.

as we drive further north, past small villages and quaint restaurants, i see a charm that doesn’t exist in tehran. tiny shacks and cliffside apartment buildings with big windows adorn the sides of the roads. i feel as if i’ve been transported to a european resort.

we arrive only an hour later into the storybook town. i quickly head towards the ski lift so i can make it to the peak before the slopes close. i don’t know how to ski or snowboard, but the man selling tickets insists that i can take the lift back down.

i stand in line and watch as children and couples excitedly ski down, ready to go up for another round. my turn on the lift approaches and i begin to hesitate. i hear the clunky metal seat approach from behind and before i can change my mind, my knees buckle, i fall into the seat and i’m whisked uphill.

my hands are bare but i ignore the cold and cling fiercely onto the poles of the chair. i reach for my phone to take a picture, worrying that if i lose my balance, i might fall. but the greed of capturing this view is too tempting to sit safely.

i inhale the clean and crisp mountain air, and as the adrenalin inside me begins to settle, my ears are caught off guard by the sound of a party blasting from inside a small cafe below me. my frozen cheeks attempt a smile as i think of how irrelevant the regime’s rules are to everyone here. i smell a hint of weed from the lift behind me and as i turn to take a look, i see a teenage girl with what appears to be her boyfriend exchange the rolled cigarette.

the lift comes to a stop, and a pleasant old man helps me disembark. he giggles as he looks down at my boots and asks me why i’m not carrying any snow gear. he’s disappointed when i tell him i don’t know how to ski and begins to explain that all the youngsters are snowboarding these days. anyway, he tells me, i can walk around and he will help me get back on when i’m done. he laughs again when my rusarri falls off from my head and i nervously readjust it. he points to the bare-headed women around me and tells me not to worry, it’s fine here, he assures me.

i take my first steps away from the lift. there’s no hint of pollution, there isn’t any interruption to my view. all i see is a chain of mountains covered in fresh snow. the blue sky behind is so clear, it looks as if it’s painted by farshchian himself.

the warmth of the sun takes over the cold wind that gave me chills on the way up. my hands and face begin to defrost and i sit for a moment on the ledge of the mountaintop. there’s a peaceful serenity here – a kind of calm that only nature can offer. a kind of calm i would have never expected to find in a country that is painted as a dark and fearful place.

and from this ledge, i can see one thing so clearly: there is so much more to iran than the stories we see from abroad. there is a world to be discovered in this country, a world that newscasters and storytellers forget to mention. a world full of people who are living in vibrant colors. full of youth and energy at all ages, experiencing the slopes of these beautiful mountains, the sands of the caspian sea, and welcoming visitors to do the same.

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house of sand and fog.

everything in tehran used to be something else. vali asr street was pahlavi street, named after the monarch before he was dethroned. esteghlal was the hilton before sanctions meant US businesses could no longer operate here. and the land upon which i’m standing was the dream house that my grandfather worked night and day for years to build but never got to enjoy.

my grandmother is by my side and she tries with fervor to make sure i visualize it. she points to the side of the land that the main entrance was, and to where the garden would have been. i’ve seen only one picture in the past, and my memory is blending in with images of houses from movie sets. i feel a sort of awkward guilt for not seeing what she does.

the guilt is more pronounced because i know what my grandfather felt when he stood here nearly four decades ago. he wanted to build the perfect home, even if it meant only spending one night in it, he used to say. but by the time it was almost done, they had to leave it all behind.

what i find harder to imagine than the stone structure that stood here, is the pain of having to abandon his home. years later, that pain was magnified when the house was demolished, and today the piece of land is nothing but a construction site for an apartment complex – an empty hole of destroyed dreams and unrealized ambition.

my grandmother mumbles something and then vows to continue working to regain the title of their land. she reveals very little emotion as she makes this promise. she’s much stronger than i am – she who had so many ties to this place. perhaps because she has lived the feelings for so long already, she knows how to manage them. but i feel myself overwhelmed yet again. i bite the inside of my cheek to distract myself from the energy that is stirring inside. i turn away from her and quickly put on my sunglasses hoping that i can hide my own emotions.

this is something i’ve done many times since i’ve arrived. i still can’t identify what the emotion has been, all i know is that every family member that i have met for the first time, every home of theirs that i have entered, has stirred something inside me that leaves me feeling happy and heartbroken at the same time.

but as i turn back to face her, i see a sort of contentment reflected back. she’s happy that i’m here, that i’m beginning to understand. and i know that this is only an introduction to so much about my family’s past and their country’s history that i have yet to learn. and suddenly i feel the confusion subside as it is replaced by a childish excitement, a thirst to take in more.Imagephoto 1photo 2

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coming home.

my mother showered me with stories of growing up in iran when i was a child. she created a magical space in my mind of a country i was born connected to, but felt i would never see. i wanted to visit to desperately when i was younger, but i knew that i would not be able to experience the iran she knew, the one she described to me like a fairytale.

and though her iran doesn’t exist anymore, 35 years after she and her family left for good, i find myself on a journey to her homeland. i’m arriving tonight. landing in a foreign airport in a land i somehow also call home, though i don’t even know what that means in this dimension.

as i exit the airport and take off on the highway, i find myself looking for signs of something new yet familiar, something uniquely persian. so far, i could be anywhere in the world that i’ve been to a dozen times.

it’s dark and as i squint past street signs and lamp posts, my imagination fills up with ideas of what could be there. i search for hints of what life is like, looking for billboards that reveal what would appeal to people living in tehran. i still see nothing.

the darkness feeds my curiosity. will the steaming rice and chelo kabob satisfy my expectations? will the museums full of jewels and relics of a rich history be as abundant as other visitors have described? will the beauty of the people reveal any hints of heartache from decades of oppression?

all i know for now, as our car speeds through the highway, is that i am so deeply overwhelmed with an emotion that i can’t identify. an emotion that i know will intensify as i stroll through the streets where my family once lived, as i stumble onto spaces that they knew so well, as i experience a parallel iran that lives atop the one they once knew. and maybe at some point during my stay here, that emotion will give me the chance to love this land as home. Image

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once upon a time in the east

since the day i started driving, i’ve dreaded exploring new areas – maps make no sense to me; sudden turns catch me off-guard; and my sense of direction never guides me to the right road. venturing into a new part of town usually requires a companion, a full tank of gas, and air-conditioning turned up to arctic temperatures. all this makes sense when you factor in how often i manage to get lost during a short trip.

driving through abdali was once considered an adventure equal to scaling kilimanjaro for me. but like the mountain climber that made it to uhuru peak after a few failed attempts, i eventually realized that there were higher levels for me to reach.

with that realization came a renewed feeling of anxiety. i had managed abdali because getting lost meant only going around in circles – the big mosque was to my left, then it was to my right, eventually it was to my left again – and exiting that circle meant safely landing back in the confound of familiarity. so when i decided to muster up the courage and venture beyond the safety of west amman on sunday, i knew to expect discomfort, but i didn’t know i’d find relief.

it was on the way back from madaba, when i, in extremely typical fashion, got distracted by the hook of superficial lyrics and realized i had missed my exit twenty seconds too late. and so the adventure began. rather than u turning and risk missing the exit again (don’t ridicule the thought, i’d managed to do that quite a few times just hours before), i went straight.

the first twenty minutes of the road were filled with non-events, save for the pangs of angst, moment of intense doubt that i would arrive home, curses at myself muttered under my breath between mainstream songs that were barely audible (i turn the music down when i’m nervous), and freezing temperatures rushing at me from the air conditioning vents that would put a DC snowstorm to shame.

it was when the straight road began to twist like a hissing cobra secretly maneuvering towards its prey that my panic peaked. the random side streets that seemed to move in cyclical ways; nothing had a hint of mathematical reason to it – where were the parallel roads, the perpendicular cross streets? where were the signs that directed me back? where was i?

then, in a moment of clarity, another realization dawned on me: this perceived chaos had the most beautiful rhyme and reason. lanes merged into each other. pedestrians took over the streets as they casually flirted with oncoming traffic. cars moved slowly as if drivers and passengers who were unsure about their destination were taking in their options. yet there was no obnoxious honking, no tires screeching to a halt, no hand gestures worthy of HBO shows. so, i turned off the AC, rolled down my window, and took in the sights and sounds of being lost.

to my left and right, on this narrow road, was history forgotten. old stone buildings stood erect with quiet dignity that could marvel any modern day structure. uneven sidewalks pushed children to trot as if balancing on a trampoline. and smiles wider than the basin of the dead sea were everywhere. but the most magical sight was right in front of me. as my car idled on a steep and twisted decline, the incline ahead took my breath away. thousands of lights shone from hundreds of houses, clumsily yet neatly stacked atop each other on a hill that held the weight of a generation once in the limelight. they glittered like a million little pieces of crystal under the brightest crescent i ever cared to notice. they captivated me, and, unexpectedly, i was no longer afraid of being lost.

i’ve seen this sight before – amman, after all, was built on seven hills – but like the baker’s daughter who takes the flour for granted, i never saw the beauty of this city in its simplest form. the narrow alleyways, the fabled architecture, the enchanting character, confined areas that feel spacious not claustrophobic.

the crescent that lit the city was only two days old, but the light it emitted was brighter than any full moon to rise overhead. what a joy to be lost in a city struggling to be found.

(this post was originally written october 15, 2007 as a note to myself. i stumbled onto it while searching for my notes for things to do in amman during the eid and thought it would be an appropriate time to share it here. happy to eid to everyone that celebrates!)

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new york, i love you.

i’ve spent my last few days secluded in my sanctuary. futile attempts at completing a long abandoned chapter of my manuscript have left me a little frustrated. my wishes that the creative styles trapped away in the books on my shelves would influence me by proximity have gone unanswered.

it’s no wonder that i can’t concentrate on the harsh glare of the blank screen in front of me. with any spare moment that i have, i distract myself by flipping through old pictures of my time away. i analyze every pixel in an effort to relive the moments that i captured. and with any friend that mentions an upcoming trip there, i’ve found myself planning their schedule as if the act of recommending where they should go would be enough to quench my desires to be back there.

i once thought it would be too cliched to credit a city for inspiring me, but i now understand that it can do just that. my mind was more playful when i started my days by sauntering through the streets of the west village. my senses were sharper when i devoured meals that were prepared with pristine ingredients.

and because i would love for anyone passing through new york, be it for a weekend or a lifetime, to leave with the same appreciation, i’ve decided to publish my input of all that i tried on this trip.

click here to download your weekend guide through new york.

or here for a comprehensive list of my new york 2013 experience.

and if while you’re there, you see something that i’ve missed, please come back and leave a note in the comments below so i’ll be sure to sample it when i go back.

p.s. a big thank you to the guys at immaculate infatuation. the app was the most valuable resource that i had in discovering the culinary side of the city. and thank you to rakan ammouri, from lazy looz, who pointed me towards it.

mouthwatering oysters from 'the spotted pig'.

delicious cheeseburger from 'the spotted pig. the blue cheese is quite sharp but leaves a memorable taste.

l'asso's delicious pizza.

the world's most delicious burger: the 'black label burger' from minetta tavern.

the world's best pastrami sandwich from katz' deli.

korzo burger where they deep fry the bun and stuff the burger with cheese and bacon. unbelievably delicious.

the incredible pumpkin flavor whopping pie from brooklyn's "one girl cookies".

the creative and delicious crème brule doughnuts from 'the doughnut plant'.

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passion in the desert.

i’ve been back in the middle east for almost a month. tucking away my appetite for adventure, i’ve replaced my comfortable sneakers with six inch stilettos and my cut off shorts with evening gowns as i’ve pranced from one night of celebrations to the next. a series of weddings, engagements and breezy afternoons spent laughing and cavorting with friends has kept me distracted from my wanderlust ways.

so after three weeks of falling prey to the comfort of a festive summer routine, i’ve dusted off my sleeping bag, charged my flashlight and headed to the south of jordan into the open spaces of the magical desert known as wadi rum.

it only takes a minute for any first timer to understand why this barren desert is such an international attraction. the red sand and sloppy mountains have not been touched by technology. ruins of ancient temples and indecipherable inscriptions are scattered between sandstone formations. the sharp and unpolluted skies stretch further than its history. in the chaos and craziness of every city in the middle east, this reserve is a place for peace.

and while the daytime exposes your senses to the beauty of the landscape, we’re arriving at night which brings with it a different experience.

even with the car windows rolled up, i can taste the dry dust as we near the edge of the desert. our caravan of SUVs follows a tinkering truck as we pass through a tiny dilapidated village, which looks like an abandoned movie set, in our last encounter with electricity.

the bars of cell phone reception quickly disappear as we drive deeper into the night. there’s a sense of panic that freezes my veins, but only temporarily. as we continue our drive behind our bedouin chief into uncharted lands, the anxiety gives way to calm. for a brief moment as the headlights and engines of the five cars simultaneously switch off, there is nothing to see or hear.

peppered only with a handful of tea-light candles placed in eroded vacuums of the mountains, my eyes need a minute to adjust to the darkness and my mind needs a little longer to adjust to the quiet surroundings. there are no distractions in this tranquil space. no humming of electric grids or honking of cars, no sirens to break the night’s silence or music from party-hungry neighbors. only the unfamiliar whispers of the desert winds dancing through cold and cracked sand.

a piercing light bursts across the sky and as i look up to follow its trail i see dozens of shooting stars racing in different directions. i throw my self onto the cushions that have been laid out for us on the ground and toss my head to take in as much of the sky as my eyes can feast on. the fierce black sky is glittering like the brightest of tiaras above the mountains. the stars look like sharp icicles that have been frozen into the sky.

the breeze carries over the smell of our evening feast. our hosts have un-buried the meal from a large underground pit. the lamb and chicken have been barbecuing for hours and are infused with onions, squash, potatoes and intensely aromatic spices. the old man in charge explains the art of dusting off the sand covered pit that traps in the heat before lifting the three tiered tray out of the searing hot coals. his face betrays him momentarily as he flinches from grabbing the coals with only his bare callous ridden hands. his hospitality is too stern to confess that he felt pain so instead he smiles and shakes his head as he fills each visitor’s plate.

the space falls into silence once more. i turn my attention to the meat and instinctively begin tearing it apart with my fingers. the succulent juices of the lamb rain onto the plate while i ignore the mess and devour the food.

the silence is broken by heavy and satisfied sighs. i sink into the cushions a little more comfortably and sweet tea is passed around. our nightcap is served.

as we each come out of our collective culinary trance, the conversations start to roll. with friends that i’ve known for nearly a decade and others that i’m just getting to know, our voices echo through the still of the night and our laughter is reverberating off the granite hills.

i battle with my body to stay awake long enough to see the sunrise, but as the weight of my eyelids become heavier, i know it’s a losing fight. i allow myself to give in to the night knowing that when i awake, be it at dawn or shortly after, there will always be something beautiful to see here.

looking out at the beauty of wadi rum's desert in the morning.
the beauty of wadi rum's desert in the morning.
bedouins unearthing the zarb in wadi rum.
sunrise in wadi rum.
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no reservations.

i’m waking up this morning to the soft pounding of rain drops against my window. it’s a welcomed change from the sand paper noise that usually screeches against the walls. of course no one mentioned to me there’d be renovations here this week. the gloom from outside is confusing me. is dawn just breaking or am i halfway through my day already?

i stretch out my arms, partly to release the muscle aches that cover my body from endless walks around the city, but mostly to reach out to the clock. as soon as my eyes settle on the time, i’m filled with enough excitement and energy to jump out of bed, throw on my sneakers, and rush out the door.

it’s 6:45.

a.m.

even by my standards, this is early. too early to be rushing out of the house on a day where my to do list has three completely unimportant line items scribbled down. but it’s the only way i can sample the one dessert i haven’t been brave enough to wake up for yet: the cronut.

i beam with optimism as i step into the rainy streets thinking i’m going to be alone in my endeavor. after all, how likely would it be for people to wait for hours in this rain? surely i’ll be one of only a few hyperactive eaters crazy enough to do this.

i lose myself in thought long enough to step into a deep puddle of water that collected in a small nook between the sidewalk and the street. my socks are soaked and my usually clean bright pink trainers transform into an unappealing purple shade. i make a quick pit-stop at starbucks, thinking that my usual double-tall-non-fat-no-foam-latte will be enough to sustain me in my upcoming wait.

my optimism is quickly challenged as i turn the corner from sixth avenue onto spring street. still more than an hour away from opening, and the line of other early risers, crazier than me, is turning around the block. i feel completely unprepared as i notice anxious patrons camped out with tarps, umbrellas and beach chairs on the curb. two police officers are standing in the closed glass doorway. i’m not sure if they’re there to protect the bakers from the hungry crowd, or if their presence is just another cop-and-doghnut joke waiting to happen.

i do a quick scan of the crowd to measure my chances. i count 140-sh. the ‘ish’ is important. if i missed a dozen people, i’ll have no chance of tasting one of the 300 freshly baked marvels. so i scan again, and resign myself to the back of the line.

i turn to the friendly face in front of me as she offers to split the shelter under her umbrella. we watch patiently as people give up waiting and walk away, and we begin forming an alliance. if there are only two cronuts left, she promises not to buy them both and let me have one instead.

the line behind me grows and i feel less overwhelmed now that i’m no longer the last person standing there. friendships begin forming as would-be-patrons discuss how far they’ve come from. they all mock themselves for falling prey to hype, and every conversation ends with a sigh as they tiredly mutter “i want to see what all the fuss is about.”

discussions turn to more serious topics, too intense for this time of day. i still feel myself waking up as i overhear strangers discuss babies and commitment, family members suffering from grave diseases, addictions and heartache. i start to feel the city wake up, too, with sounds of trucks rushing around corners, steel slightly scraping against asphalt , honking horns and buses passing by.

hours have passed since i got here. and finally, i begin to inch closer to the door. they’re taking in groups of 10 at a time, and the closer i get, the longer the wait seems to last between waves. with no indication of how close they are to running out, someone from the bakery begins passing around warm and scrumptious mini madeleines. i wish i had more coffee left in my cup, they’d go so well together.

nervous whispers begin making their way through the crowd that the stock of the day is dwindling down. i begin to admire the people that showed up at 5:30. in the end, their wait time will be just as long as mine, but they’re sure to secure their bounty. my fate of uniting with a cronut is questionable.

finally, my three hour wait comes to an end. i make it through the doors of the bakery to hear that i’ll be having one of the last batches for today. my clothes feel a little drier and my feet are a little warmer. i pile a few more creative concoctions onto my order and walk out the door.

i bite into it expecting to be completely overwhelmed with flavor. but i quickly realize that the experience of the cronut is more in the wait, the game that you’ll play in your mind to justify the time amongst strangers. it’s in the whimsical and random conversations of a soho morning. the challenge of waking up early enough when you have nothing else to do that day. the serenity of seeing new york while it’s still sleeping.

the coconut cream filling oozes out, and as i lick the overspill from my clumsy fingers, not wanting to waste a bite of this treasure, the sugar rush kicks in. the flavors are getting more intense, the texture of the buttery layered flakes is settling comfortably on my tongue. the crispness of the glaze is tingling the edges of my mouth and i instinctively half-smile to myself.

tomorrow i’ll sleep in. comfortable that a second serving awaits me in the fridge.

dominique ansel's world famous cronut.dominique ansel's world famous cronut.dominique ansel's world famous cronut.

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