Nasri Atallah

A Quick Guide to 18 Popular TV Shows

Posted on September 9, 2014


Suits: Everyone is a legal genius, but no one can Google Harvard alumni and it’s always sunny in New York.
CSI: You can only analyze DNA if you’re 22 years old, female and blonde, and there’s a Lynyrd Skynyrd track in the background.
Criminal Minds: Everyone wants to kill you and wear your skin to the supermarket.
The Mentalist: Blonde Sherlock Holmes.
House: Limping Sherlock Holmes.
True Blood: Hillbilly vampires.
Breaking Bad: Why is Malcolm’s dad cooking meth?
Game of Thrones: The Bold and the Beautiful with Dragons.
NCIS: CSI for your grandma.
Homeland: Horrible Arabic accents.
24: Even worse Arabic accents.
Mad Men: Everything can be solved with a tumbler of scotch.
Grey’s Anatomy: Why is this thing still on?
The Big Bang Theory: Because Chuck Lorre needs to make money and Two and a Half Men imploded.
Modern Family: All gay men are in the theater and all Columbian women grew up around goats.
House of Cards: Kevin Spacey can act and have weird threesomes.
The Americans: Spies have a lot of sex.
Orange is the New Black: Jason Biggs should never have done anything after American Pie.

Letter From New York | GQ India

Posted on September 5, 2014

This article was published in the September issue of GQ India.

It is June in New York. The heat is heavy, and it weighs down lazily on millions of people going about their day. On the wooden bench on the platform at York Street Station I wait for the Jamaica-bound F train that has been taking me to our midtown coworking space full of overly excited ‘changemakers’ for the past two weeks. The bench looks uncomfortable, a wooden slab attached to another at a right angle, separated into 6 seats, but I can’t even feel it. I am too busy thinking of the sweat on my thighs causing my jeans to stick to my skin and my feet to my socks.

To the left, a man who’d been standing silently with a saxophone hanging from his neck starts playing. There are four minutes until the F train, full of air-conditioned promise, arrives. I stare at him while he plays, but the music in my ears comes from cheap Sony earbuds and a Spotify playlist of Eighties shoegaze. With a tug, I yank the earphones out. They hit the bench, and I listen. The acoustics of the York Street Station are perfect. I smile stupidly. For a moment, I think the New Yorker thing to do would be to ignore him. To go about my day. I think about complying to that idea. But then I think better. I even film him, so I can send it to my girlfriend 6000 miles away later when I’ve got 4G. Send her a 7.4 megabytes of New York over WhatsApp.

As I’m on the train, I fall asleep intermittently. It’s cool, and I haven’t slept much. The room I’ve found on Airbnb is right under the Manhattan Bridge. I have heard every train rattling in and out of Brooklyn for 12 days. The place is beautiful. A shared space with a sculptor and woman who has a cool bicycle. I can see Manhattan from the toilet. It’s noisy as hell. I revel in it’s New York-ness for a few days, before it gets grating.

New York is loud. So loud I haven’t really heard myself think since I’ve been here. Everything is loud. The smoke hissing out of air vents, the construction workers talking about baseball, the harbingers of the apocalypse on Union Square, the rattling suspension of every suicidally commandeered yellow Chevrolet Crown Victoria, the fire trucks that all seem to be tending to the end of the world, the cackles of foodies waiting in line for the latest artisanal food item by a hole in the wall. New York is loud.

My first time in the city was in 2008. It was an ill-advised 48-hour trip from London. I spent the first night drunk somewhere in the Meatpacking District with men I can only assume were Russian mobsters. During the day I recovered on the Gray Line Sightseeing Tour bus, taking in the landmarks passively. Checking off tourist attractions. In the evening I got drunk again, before a friendly prostitute who was marketing ‘the best head known to man’ tried to steal my wallet while I purchased a Happy Meal at McDonalds on Times Square at 4am.

Tom Wolfe wrote that “one belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” I agreed. I was infatuated. I loved every heap of uncollected trash bags (does anyone ever collect garbage in New York?). I was obsessed with the place. All my thoughts, all my plans led me there. I bored friends with stories where I’d breathlessly conclude “it was such a New York moment”.

But sitting on the F train, sweating, reading an ad for a divorce lawyer placed above the heads of an idle couple, I head numbly to the office. I am surrounded by driven but glum people doing the same. Suddenly, I realize this is just a city. This might be the most inane realization ever pronounced but until that point, New York had been an idea. It had been idealized. After all, the place is a film set, and everyone insists on carrying themselves like B-movie actors in the story of their own lives. Everyone is so engrossed by the notion of being a New Yorker, that you can easily forget it is just a place with buildings, and offices, and lives, and hopelessness, and energy, and unemployment, and hardship.

On this particular trip, my father also happened to be in town for work. We both travel a lot, so our interaction recently has centered on having a drink together in hotel lobbies, like spies or arms dealers. Our meetings are infrequent, so we discuss lofty ideas. Big decisions. Getting a loan for a first house. Getting married. Middle East politics. This time I was sitting across from him in the lobby of the Ritz on Central Park South. This wasn’t the part of town I liked, it was too similar to the New York I saw in Nineties films, with doormen in silly costumes, and women with tiny dogs, and black Town Cars. But as I sat in front of my dad, who I’ve gotten very close to in recent years, I realized something else. Somewhere a couple of years ago, during a health scare, he’d stopped being my father. An idealized notion of a person. He became human. A man I respected and loved and wanted to emulate. But a real person, with weaknesses and worries. And far from make me love him less, it made me love him more. I guess he has more in common with New York than I imagined.

Nasri Atallah | GQ India

Thoughts on Lebanese Security.

Posted on June 26, 2014

We don’t live in a country where there is any form of positive myth-making in popular culture around security forces. And with good reason a lot of the time, as anyone who has set foot in a Lebanese police station or been arbitrarily harassed at a checkpoint will understand. There is no show called ‘CSI: Ras Beirut’ to make little kids dream of growing up to be a valiant cop or a fireman. And besides the occasional bombastic propaganda campaign, there is no clearly defined role in the popular consciousness for men and women with government insignia and weapons as ‘the good guys’. The Internal Security Forces and the General Security are not normally institutions that are universally loved by the Lebanese. They are perceived as aggressive, poorly trained, not particularly interested in protecting citizens, and arbitrary and uneven in their application of the law. The Army, even though it enjoys more love from the Lebanese people for its ability to rebuild and reunify itself, remains an armed force, and for a pansy liberal such as myself, clamoring in support of anything that involves weaponry is a bit tricky. But as the last few days (and weeks and months) have shown, the men and women of the Army, the ISF and the General Security have exhibited a level of bravery and sacrifice that is beyond words. Amidst the chaos and lawlessness Lebanon and our neighboring countries are falling into, their investigations and the actions they have taken have saved countless lives. They have died in the line of duty protecting their fellow citizens. And in a very short time, I have gone from viewing their checkpoints as a sign of latent oppression to seeing them as protectors. What is going on in Lebanon is tremendously sad, but there is some solace in knowing someone is looking out for us.

Thursday Night in Beirut.

Posted on April 19, 2014

As we’re standing outside Torino last night three guys approach us. Two of them are colossal with long blonde ponytails, and the third is shorter and stocky with an emo punk haircut and a broken nose. All three are wearing metal band tees. In what sounds like a thick Scandinavian accent, they ask us what the club we’re waiting in line for is. We explain that we’re not in line, we’re just drinking on the sidewalk outside a dive bar. They say they’re very confused and that they’ve been drinking a lot. To illustrate this one of them waves a bottle of Kassatly Chtaura liqueur in my face and cracks up. I ask him why on Earth anyone would drink liqueur. He pointed at a sticker that said -20% and shouted out “cheap!” as he lifted the bottle and tilted in, gesturing I should take a swig. Knowing what Kassatly Chtaura liqueur tastes like I politely kept my mouth shut.

We start talking, and laughing and they buy us flowers, we find out they’re actually from Estonia. I ask them if they’re traveling with a band or something (they look unmistakably like roadies), but they say that they’re on a far more important mission. Intrigued, we ask what this mission is. “To drink in every country in the world!” they scream back in a cackle of laughter. They’ve been to 100 countries so far. Correction. They’ve gotten thoroughly hammered in 100 countries so far. Marty explains that he broke his nose a few days ago falling down some steps in Petra drunk. Then he takes out his phone and shouts “Want to see something cool? We got drunk in Kiev last week on Maidan.” He starts sliding through the photos of his phone, standing on the scenes of the Kiev protests. Beer in hand. After a few photos we get to the ones he’s really excited about. They raided former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich’s opulent mansion, along with all the protestors. And they sat in his jacuzzi. Naked. There is photographic evidence of this (which I can, very sadly, never unsee).

It was one of those encounters that had half the street in stitches. A happy piece of Beirut randomness, that was broken up half an hour later when the police came along and started confiscating rolled-up cigarettes from people outside the bar and opening them up to check for drugs. The cops were sitting in their car and sniffing away ridiculously at the destroyed roll-ups. There was a sense of indignation at the unnecessary rudeness with which they broke up a friendly gathering of people gearing up for a long Easter weekend. One guy approached the car and defiantly started rolling a cigarette in the cops face, saying he just wanted him to see it happening to avoid having to roll another one later. He was asked for his ID, he refused and muttered something about the dysfunctional state of affairs in the country and was promptly dragged away to the crumbling and decrepit station across the street. No two encounters could more perfectly illustrate a typical day in Beirut. From laughter and worldliness to violence and hopelessness in an hour. And all of that on the pavement outside a bar on a Thursday night.

New Crosscultural Publishing Platform Gate37 is now online

Posted on April 19, 2014

I am really happy to announce that a project that’s been on my mind for a couple of years is finally online.

In simple terms, Gate37 is the first imprint of Keeward Publishing, and it is ostensibly a publishing house aimed at spreading creative projects, mainly writing, by those who have grown up in cross cultural backgrounds, those commonly known as Third Culture Kids.

This idea didn’t emerge in a vacuum. So here’s a bit of a back-story. I grew up in London, to Lebanese parents. Now, that in itself is deeply uninteresting. What is slightly more interesting is that my whole life I never quite figured out where the hell I was from. I mean, I spent hours obsessing over this notion of home, belonging and identity. I wrote academic theses on the subject. Granted the essays were rushed and poorly researched, much like most of my graduate education, but I was obsessed. Then one day someone told me about this concept of Third Culture Kids, TCKs. The idea that there was a sizable chunk of society that felt as rudderless as I did, and for the same reasons, gave me a peace of mind I’d never really experienced before. At the time I was working as an advertising copywriter, and fiddling about with a blog, so I didn’t know what to do with this newfound information, beyond talk about it around me.

A couple of years later I had published my first book, very much informed by the TCK experience, and started work at Keeward, a media company genuinely interested in changing the approach to a bunch of traditional media industries. I was also surrounded by people who understood what it meant to be disillusioned and deeply thankful at the same time. For the first time, I was surrounded by TCKs. So one day, during a chat with Cyril, my CEO, we were discussing ways to start an English-language publishing house.

I was blunt. I said I was obsessed with making it happen, but I didn’t want it to happen in Beirut, because the readership would be too small. I wanted New York. I said this half-jokingly, completely conscious that the mere suggestion of it was slightly ludicrous. But Cyril didn’t flinch. He’s one of those dreamer types, you see. He agreed. I told him we needed to stand for something though. Something big. I told him about my obsession with TCKs, with their inability to belong, and I wanted to start something where that was exactly what they could do: Belong.

Gate37 has been a labour of love. It’s been slightly delayed, but then again, any project worth doing suffers a set-back or two. So, here’s the plan for Gate37, and how I hope you’ll be involved. It’s starting as this rough draft of a website, just so we can get the word out, and the proper website will roll out in a couple of months. In the meantime, we’ll be producing e-books, videos and digital writing. Does that make us a publishing company? Well, today, yes. Publishing has always been about the production and dissemination of information and culture, and there’s no reason why in 2014, our message can’t be relayed through a series of different mediums. The story is same, whether its coming through your eyes, or your ears, or your gut. The story is the same.

If you feel you fit into this category of people who can’t answer a question as simple as “Where is Home?” Get in touch. If you’re a photographer, a filmmaker, a musician. Get in touch. If you’re none of those, get in touch.

It’s been very exciting to get such great responses in the few days we’ve been officially online, and we’re looking forward to the big launch in June. You can read some of my writing on the site by clicking here.

 

We Can Get Better

Posted on November 22, 2013

Here’s a sentence for you. Today Lebanon celebrates 70 years of Independence.
It’s a tricky sentence, isn’t it?
Every single word of it feels wrong. None of those letters feel like they should be aligned to form this particular idea.
Lebanon? Celebrate? Independence?
What is Lebanon?
How can we celebrate days after 23 people were killed in yet another explosion. Explosions we’ve given up on counting.
What is Independence? A word we’ve never really believed applied to us, and have resolved to even misspell on our commemorative currency.
Such is the nature of Lebanon today, muddled, tired, scarred and ambivalent.
No one cares about anything anymore. Not in any cogent manner at least. There’s the odd ebullition, as we let out our frustrations on one another, engaging in rush hour inter-vehicle shouting matches, or some other vain pursuit.
But we don’t care in the real sense of the word. We react. Occasionally. Not even as much as we used to. Our justified indignation seems to have been dulled by time and failure and immobility.
But for some reason, I feel there’s hope. Don’t ask me why, I’m not normally the hopeful sort. Hope is a purely subjective concept. Mine is surely tinted with the fact that I just spent a productive, creatively stimulating and happy two months in Beirut. I also spent a sheltered two months there, filtering out the daily mundanities of who called whom a son of a thousand whores. I guess I’ve installed the Lebanese politics equivalent of Ad Block in my head.
Lebanon, like any good loved one, is a source of happiness and almost insurmountable frustration.
All young countries start out life broken.
We are more broken than others, granted.
But I don’t believe in points of no return. Not anymore at least.
We’ve made every mistake we could have made after the civil war ended. Blanket amnesty. Forgiveness for tens of thousands of criminals. Ignoring the psychological traumas of hundreds of thousands.
We don’t really get to be surprised Lebanon is where it is today. A gaping wound, left unattended, infected and festering.
But everything is fixable. If Rwanda can get better, so can we. If Bosnia can get better, so can we. If South Africa can get better, so can we. We’ve just been doing it wrong for the past 20 years, or maybe even 70. So here’s looking forward to the next 70.
Happy Independence Day Lebanon, however you choose to spell it.

Lebanon's First Flag. 1943.
Lebanon’s First Flag. 1943.

The Selfie: The End of Humility and Error.

Posted on October 12, 2013

I was sitting on a hotel terrace in Istanbul yesterday, lingering in the empty cafe after a wine-laden meeting, just looking out across the city as the cold sun flowed across its sprawl, completely taken by the confusing nautical traffic jam of the Bosphorus. Satisfied with the outcome of my work encounter, and enjoying a quiet afternoon, I felt lucky to be there. Then someone walked in, she spoke to the waiter with an American accent, ordered a cocktail, walked over to the table with the best view, set down her Wallpaper City Guide, and took a seat, with her back turned to the city of 14 million below. Then she took out her phone, tilted her head, and spent the next 25 minutes taking pictures of herself.

Jaunty angles. Extended limbs. Batting eyelids. Lips pursed somewhere between petulant annoyance and desired sexual allure. The selfie is the vilest symptom of our time. It embodies both vanity and infinite loneliness. Whereas a photo used to be a communal moment, meant to be cherished privately, now it is an object created in solitude meant to be turned into a communal moment.

According to a recent poll by Samsung, selfies now account for a full 30% of the photos taken by people between the ages of 18 and 24. Forty million photos are uploaded to Instagram every day, a quick search shows that twenty million photos are accompanied by the hashtag #selfie, and a soul-crushing fifty million by the hashtag #me.

Self-portraiture isn’t new, by any means. Painters, such as Goya, sometimes spent up to a decade trying to capture an image of themselves. And there’s Frida, of course. The first photographic self-portraits probably came about as early as the late 1880s, when the first shutters with self-timers were available, allowing five or ten seconds for the subject to get into shot. Edvard Munch shot himself with his paintings. The thirteen-year-old Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna was one of the first teenagers to take her own picture using a mirror to send to a friend in 1914.

But the selfie isn’t a self-portrait. It isn’t meditative or archival. It is the product of the MySpace aesthetic, the preserve of spray tanned women in poorly lit bathrooms, or gym-going bros making sure you can see their triceps. It is a result of our ongoing experimentation with the new technologies at our disposal. Technologies we are still decades away from understanding the implications of.

There was a brief moment of hope, in the years that saw personal storytelling and profile construction migrate from MySpace to the less garish Facebook, when the selfie fell out of favour. But then came the front-facing smartphone camera. And Instagram. And now we have legions of women convinced that the world is eagerly awaiting their look of the day. Oh emm gee, totes love those pumps. Heart. Heart. The same phone that reminds you how lonely you are, now providing you with instant validation. A cursory ego boost, until the next batch of hashtags.

This isn’t some luddite argument against technology, or some neo-hipster harkening for ye olde Polaroid, or shopping mall photobooths. Technology doesn’t create human behaviour, it merely exacerbates it. We aren’t vain because of Facebook, but it sure as fuck makes it easier for us to be vain.

Selfies, and constant self-branding on a such a widespread level, mean that we create a culture where we expect to be able to mould our images, a culture where we get to erase all traces of failed attempts and perceived imperfection. Carefully curating a perfect, lonely image, staring at ourselves through a set of mirrors and luminescent phone screens, through layer upon layer of alienation and vanity. So much of what makes us interesting are our mistakes and our humility. Heidegger used to believe in striking through a word, rather than rubbing it out. An exercise in the glorification of error. In a world where vanity is the default setting, the real danger is that we’ll miss out on many beautiful mistakes.

The Week of Talking Dangerously

Posted on August 31, 2013

What an absurd set of miscalculations this week has seen. Ostensibly, the US threatens the Assad regime with imminent strikes to weaken it, giving much-needed – if we presuppose a successful mission- much-belated respite to the millions of innocent civilians stuck between a rock and an Al Nusra fighter. They forget to factor in the possibility of the UK’s democratic process kicking in, and saying “Umm, if it’s not too much bother, we think we’re done bombing the Middle East”. Then they suddenly become BFFs with France, you know, because they’ve got fighter jets and all, like the big boys. Now the administration has suddenly remembered it has a Congress that it answers to occasionally, which incidentally happens to be on holiday until September 9th. Way to go guys. I’m sure the bad guys are quaking in their boots. “We’re here to restore International Law, just as soon as the representative from the 7th District of Minnesota is back from his fortnight away with his mistress”.

 

Miley Cyrus and Chemical Warfare.

Posted on August 27, 2013

I don’t get why there is this form of self-righteous anger over people are discussing Miley Cyrus rather than important world events. Surely discussions of Miley Cyrus and Syria aren’t mutually exclusive. No two discussions are mutually exclusive. We should discuss everything.

Also, I think it is essential to discuss Miley Cyrus. Because beyond the jokes about her tongue, and twerking up against giant cuddly toys straight out of a Stephen King short story, what she represents is worthy of discussion. Pop culture is an essential part of human daily interaction, of our communication with each other. We bond over music, and film, and writing, as well as current affairs. That also means that representations of the female body in popular culture are essential in order to gauge how far (or in this instance how little) we’ve progressed in terms of respect and equality. So yeah, indignation is not mutually exclusive.

There are many things to be alarmed about, and many things to hate in the world today (and yesterday. and tomorrow). And depending on where you live, what you do, how old you are, that could range from Miley Cyrus prancing around in a skin-coloured two-piece to crimes against humanity in Syria.

For most people, it’s somewhere in between the two.

Matthew McConaughey Only Exists On Airplanes.

Posted on April 12, 2013

2311315375_a689954623Most short-haul travel these days consists of sitting in what is essentially a glorified office chair for 2 hours while you get flown from Gatwick to Verona by the Celtic bus-in-the-sky Ryanair. Which is about as glamorous as imagining the short-lived tv show Pan Am being filmed in Scunthorpe.

But most medium and long-haul flights do retain something from the golden era of air travel. You get a lunch that doesn’t look like it’s come from Tesco’s Bargain Bucket, where  sandwiches go to fester while they wait for their expiry date. And you get in-flight entertainment.

On a flight from Beirut to Paris the other day, as I was pawing away ineffectually at the screen in front of me, and explaining to a geriatric gentleman sitting in the window seat next to me how to plug in his earphones, it struck me that an airplane is a really weird place to consume pop culture.

Even if you’re a frequent flyer, a plane is still a foreign setting. When you settle in for a couple of hours of entertainment, you usually do so in a relatively familiar place. Your living room, with the accommodating groove of your worn sofa. Or you head down to the local multiplex, to take in the smell of buttery popped maize. Sitting in a tube in the sky hurtling through space isn’t the first place that pops to mind when I think of watching Kick-Ass 2.

When you decide to watch something on a plane, you’re taking in the film, plus everything going on around it, and you. Gut-wrenching bouts of turbulence that make an episode of Modern Family feel like watching Saw 7, as your stomach turns with the same frequency as the kid kicking the back of your seat.  The rarified cabin air, the crying babies, the sexual tension as the stewardesses’ thighs rub against your arm on the aisle seat. Just me? Ok, just me. But still.

Then there are the films you choose to watch on a plane. I doubt anyone has ever thought “Ha. Tree of Life, that seems like a great way to spend this 4 hour flight to Cyprus!”. You tend to watch the things you wouldn’t watch anywhere else, or at the very least things you wouldn’t be comfortable paying to watch anywhere else. For a very long time, this meant I thought Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson only existed on 4:3 screens encrusted into headrests.

Sometimes your viewing pattern is a direct response to your environment. I remember a very bumpy flight from Houston to Newark during hurricane season. The whole flight was packed with college students, who were on their way to a football game, wearing the traditional American teenager-on-a-trip uniform of school sweatshirt, short shorts and flip flops. Half-way through the flight, we hit a very rough patch of turbulence. I did what I always do, and clung desperately to my armrest and repeatedly muttered ‘fuck’ to myself, as a kind of obscene personal lullaby. The kids around me on the plane decided the right course of action was to shriek “Oh my god!” both nasally and at the top of their lungs, the way only American girls from the Midwest can. Obviously, this didn’t help calm me down, so I frantically went through my entertainment options, selected an episode of Friends, and tried to go to a happy place with Chandler. Turns out Chandler isn’t much help when you’re convinced you’re going to die.

But even on a normal flight, there something odd about the fact that  hundreds of people are each watching something different. In a confined space. At the same time.  Once you hear someone  guffaw to your right, you can’t resist glancing at their screen. Watching films on airplanes encourages voyeurism.

And then there’s the crying. I cry at everything I watch in an aircraft. The same way tomato juice only exists on planes, people only cry at crappy movies at 30,000 feet. It’s something to do with cabin pressure, and definitely has nothing to do with me being a little girl.

Oh, and the best part of all is when you’re in the middle of a scene and you’re all excited because Liam Neeson is about to kill 28 Albanians with his new Nokia smartphone, and you get a big sign across your screen saying PA, followed by a nasal voice shouting “cabin crew prepare for landing.” And you just know that those words mean you’re going to miss the end of your film as they switch off the entertainment system. And there’s no way I’m paying to finish Taken 2 in a movie theater.

Hard to Love, Hard to Hate: Some Thoughts on Thatcher.

Posted on April 8, 2013

margaret-thatcherI grew up in London in the 80s, too young to understand what miners’ strikes and privatisation meant, too young to understand anti-Poll Tax graffiti scrolled against the walls of the then-grimy capital, too young to even imagine where the Falklands were. But I was old enough to understand that it was important that we had a woman in power. She manufactured wars, she led social unrest, she supported vile regimes. She divided the British Isles. She also strengthened them. She created a disgustingly aspirational society, full of yuppies shuffling through their Filofaxes, looking for their next big deal. She created greed. Inadvertently, she also created punk and counter-culture. She created a culture that both ruined the UK, and made it what it is today. A country obsessed with class. Although she’s hard to like, she’s also hard to hate, although plenty of people seem to do so very easily. I’ve seen a YouTube video of The Wizard of Oz’s “Ding Dong The Witch is Dead” circulate widely on Facebook in the last couple of hours. I’m not particularly inclined towards any political party, be it in the UK or elsewhere, but I can’t help but think that revelling in the death of an 87 year old woman is slightly perverse, and doesn’t show much more humanity that she showed the strikers from the 80s when she called them the ‘enemy within’. I still think I’m too young to fully understand her legacy, although I do find it easier to blame her for the inefficiency of the First Great Western service from Paddington. I think I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt because she’s the first Prime Minister I lived under, much like Roger Moore is my favourite Bond because I saw Octopussy on iTV when I was 7. Anyway, I guess I’ll be doing a lot of reading over the coming days, and trying to come to some semblance of an informed opinion.

Quote While You’re Ahead.

Posted on February 26, 2013

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“The thing about quotes on the Internet is that you can never confirm their validity.” – Abraham Lincoln

Quotes are notoriously tricky in the digital age, as the one above illustrates. They end up on websites that make little to no effort to ensure correct attribution, and then they spread quicker than an STD in a co-ed dorm in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

Quotes also appear to have a new enemy: the tastefully designed inspirational visual. Part of my daily routine involves going through tumblrs to see what the world’s (read: the hipster blogosphere) mood is that day. Although the allegedly meaningful quote set against a Brannan-filtered backdrop has been a staple for years, it now seems to be working its way away from ‘art blogs’ and into the Facebook habits of my bored aunt.

I see people in my Facebook feed bandying about quotes by Bukowski and Ayn Rand, and I can guarantee they’ve got no clue who either of these people are. That’s not an immense problem on its own. Quotes are often decontextualized, and appropriated in wholly unexpected ways. But the fact that the quote in its current state has basically been reduced to the sharing of a visual, means that the assemblages of carefully crafted words are no longer words at all. Well, not in the lexical sense at least. The letters become visual elements, mined and slapped onto a supporting structure to form a new unitary whole.

It’s important to remember why we quote. Normally it’s to pay tribute to someone’s work, and their ability to express an opinion better than we ever could. It’s also a convenient and semi-socially acceptable way to tell your friends that you read more than they do. Since the advent of the useable web, it has become the defacto repository for all forms of quotations that would have previously had to fight their way into carefully edited dictionaries. So quotes, even centuries old ones, are as much a part of internet culture as goats that laugh like humans, Nyan cat and the humble LOL. Many people even use them to sign off emails or discussion forum posts.

As someone who cares about language, this ubiquity kind of worries me. Because once they become pervasive beyond reason, words find their way into the murky shitfest of the cliche, overused to the point of triteness.

And anyway, to quote Voltaire, “a witty saying proves nothing”.

The Quest For The Perfect City: You’re Doing It Wrong.

Posted on February 7, 2013

parisI was very happy last weekend. You may or may not care about this. Actually, I’d much rather you not care about this. There, that’s better. However, the reason I was happy was that I was in London. My hometown. The city where I learned to ride a bicycle. Quite badly, which also makes it the first place I crashed one into a stationary brick wall. It’s the city I first loved a girl in, while she did her best to ignore me. Hi Annie, by the way. It’s the place I first worked in, but more importantly, the first place I resigned. The place I lost 4 phones while drunk on night buses from Tottenham Court Road during one of the shittier periods of my life. But the mere fact of being in London makes me happy. Not a silly, giddy, American-out-of-work-actor-slash-waiter-on-Prozac happy. A melancholy happy. The proper kind.

On the first night, I went out with a close friend to some new bar. As we walked in, the hostess looked at me with a puzzled look. After some quizzical mutual staring and eyebrow raising, we figured out we’d exchanged phone numbers in a bar in Chelsea six years ago. Then, suddenly, as it often does, a city of 7 million people suddenly became two people standing awkwardly in a loud bar in Soho. We engaged in the obligatory catching up. She asked what I was up to, and I mentioned I now lived in Paris. And she said Paris was boring.

Now, I may agree with that theoretically. Paris is famously known as a “ville musee”, a city staunchly proud of its past, and its present immobility. A recent blogpost that made the rounds on Facebook shows Paris at the turn of the twentieth century, and far from being a throwback to a simpler time, every photo basically looked like the city in 2013. All you’d need to add would be a branch of sub-par fast food outlet Quick and a Velib’ stand. But who’s to say what makes a city boring or not. If you want to find fun in Paris you can. I have it on good authority that lots of sordid stuff goes on.

This got me thinking about how we judge cities. Every year lists come out, Quality of Life Indices (whatever the fuck that means). Those are always topped by some place in Switzerland, which makes them immediately invalid. Then you’ve got stuff like Monocle’s Most Livable Cities Index, which, to the best of my knowledge, ranks cities by the grammage of Elderflower in the air and the type of wood used in their airports’ first class departure lounges. These surveys use some combination of metrics (yeah, that’s how you judge a place, with math), which someone with a degree in something sticks into Excel, where your life expectancy in Zurich competes with your ability to use the metro at 4am in Berlin, and hey presto, we’ve got ourselves a ranking.

What these surveys, and most of my conversations with friends, lack is a sense of time. What time in your life do you happen to be in this city? Is Beirut when you’re 60 and in need of sunshine and easy access to a backgammon board the same as Beirut when you’re 22 and eager to work at an internet startup?

Some people are stuck where they are, for whatever reason. It could be visa restrictions like a lot of Lebanese, or it could be places that are getting increasingly unwelcoming, like my native Britain. Others are spoilt for choice, like Europeans. You can pack your worldly belongings, board a Ryanair flight at some obscure airport in the middle of a disused field, and decide to move to Gdansk. Although quite why you’d do that is anyone’s guess.

Samuel Johnson famously said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. But maybe sometimes that man is just tired of delays on the District Line.

There is no right or wrong city. There is no city that will answer all your needs. There are only bits and pieces. London was perfect when I wanted to end up in raves in the East End and not really remember my name the next day. Now that my work requires a bit of introspection (feel free to insert wanking gesture here), I’m happy in a city where you can find a seat on the metro. Paris isn’t home. But then again nowhere is. And while it lasts, it’s doing a lovely job of making me happy.

Anthropological Fieldnotes from the Mall

Posted on December 20, 2012

NOTEBOOK

13:23 I approach the edifice cautiously in my vehicle. I am directed by men in uniform towards a subterranean parking bay. I comply, wanting to remain docile and form bonds with the mall-dwellers.

13:43 I find a place to leave my vehicle. I almost lose this space to an irate man who appears to have no neck, and one eyebrow. I abandon the safety of the vehicle, adopt a non-threatening posture and enter the communal area.

13:52 The feeding area appears to be several stories above the subterranean ecosystem of screeching cars. It is accessed through an intricate system of automated travelators, otherwise known as escalators. It appears the bipedal mall-dwellers have lost motor functions in their lower-body limbs. Take note of this for later study.

13:54 It would appear most of the population of this microcosm has only a limited knowledge of how to utilize the escalators placed at their disposal. I observe many of them (36 individuals) freeze once they get off the contraption. They appear lost, paw ineffectually at so-called smart phones, survey their surroundings, and head for the food court.

14:01 It has been a long 38 minutes since I entered the edifice. I feel weak. I can’t remember the last time I ate. I’m starting to wonder if this expedition is worth it. I’ve come this far already, I must continue my research. I detect a source of nutritional sustenance on the horizon. I can make out a primitive etching. Lina’s.

14:03 The synthetic leather couches appear to smell of residual cigar smoke. Overweight men, and women in war paint recline in them, silently. It appears they are mates, but they do not communicate verbally.

14:36 My map indicates the presence of a Virgin Megastore on level 2. This ancient repository of cultural artifacts might be of interest. I venture down through an empty stairwell.

14:42 There are many mall-dwellers here. I get pushed out of the way by an obese 9-year old emitting a nasal groan. The subject appears to be lunging for a package marked X-box. I suspect it is some sort of religious deity. Maybe he will be sacrificed to it. I secretly hope so.

14:49 I acquire a book entitled 101 Things to Do Before You’re Old and Boring. I note that going to the mall is not one of them.

15:01 I head back to my vehicle to leave this godless place, and decide to write a useless blog post about the experience in the style of anthropological field notes. I am unsure why. Note this behaviour for further study.

Balkan Break: Hipsters, Tito and Crazy Bus Drivers.

Posted on November 18, 2012

I haven’t really been on an actual holiday in about a year (mainly because right around then I started a job I actually enjoy, that allows me to travel a lot and forget that holidays can useful from time to time). So in early November, in a bid to disconnect from all my routines, I headed off to a place I’d always been fascinated by, the Balkans. Over the previous couple of months I’d met a whole bunch of crazy Serbs in Beirut who were organizing a conference (where my company, Keeward, was a partner and I was lucky enough to be a speaker), and I also happened to make some Bosnian friends at the same time. So it all made a lot of sense.