That Time I Won a House

Greetings from Detroit, the city in which I live since my writing won me a house. I know, it's still hard for me to wrap my head around it too. The short story is that a cool non-profit in Detroit called Write A House awards permanent residencies to writers based on their quality and depth of their writing. At the end of last year, I won. In February, I moved to Detroit, to my very own house, to more space than I know what to do with.

The Detroit Free Press ran a piece about it. And last month, I wrote a bit about my experience, too. 

Since then I've been attempting to be an adult (and often horribly failing), trying to get to know a complex, rich city that's often known for all the wrong things, and doing the only thing that keeps me going: writing. 

The future, both for me and this city, remains uncertain but hopeful. This has been a strange and wonderful journey so far, the weird manifestation of some kind of American Dream for a child of Middle Eastern refugees whose life could have been completely different if it wasn't for a couple split second decisions almost 30 years ago.  I'm capturing some of it on the Write A House blog, trying to share a part of what all of this means for me, for Detroit and for me in Detroit. Please follow along there, if you're so inclined. 

The Armenian Genocide: Witnessing the Weight of Living History

This is Ramela Carman, Michigan's only living Armenian Genocide survivor, and she turned 102 years old today. I went to visit her on her birthday, flowers in hand, so that she could tell me not just the story of her survival, but everything that came after. "I am antique" she said. "I've seen everything, the good and the bad." We talked about the past and the present and ate chocolate together. She's hard of hearing, but her memory is impeccable. She spoke in a perfect mixture of English, Armenian and Turkish.Ramela is the second Armenian Genocide survivor I've met. With the 100th anniversary of the tragic events that transpired in 1915 taking place last year, there are fewer and fewer survivors left. Many of them don't even remember what exactly happened, since they were infants when the massacres occurred.

It is a strange and anxiety-inducing feeling to meet with someone who was there at such a critical moment in history, and who survived to share their story with you. The Genocide, its legacy and its continuing denial are things that have real life implications for not just Armenians but for regions and countries and how policy, human rights and other social issues are governed. But I've always tried to approach the topic with a heightened sense of self-awareness, with a way forward that does not rely on victimhood, with realizing that it is a somewhat abstract concept that often does not factor into our daily far away lives.

But meeting with someone who was there, who lived it, whose entire family was lost and who went on to live a different, yet ordinary life afterwards despite being born during a dark time in history puts things into another perspective. It makes things real, it brings the past into the present, it bridges that feeling of abstractness. Before I left Ramela, she insisted I take the box of chocolates we were eating from with me. I protested, but she would not relent until I promised I'd be walking out of her room with it. She showed me a recording she had of her mother's voice from the 60s, the last remnant from her past.  I asked her if I could come visit her again, to hear more of her stories. "The door is always open," she said.

She's part of a larger project I'm working on that explores a different, untouched aspect of the Armenian Genocide and its legacy, an attempt to show things through a different narrative path, to bridge the past and the present the same way Ramela bridged it for a few brief moments for me.

The Mongolian Masters of the Memory Game

I have been fascinated with Mongolians for a long time. In many ways, they are living history, the modern reincarnations of ancestors who reigned over the largest empire in the world and gave way to perhaps the most infamous conqueror, Gengis Khan. 

Since the days of the great Mongol Empire, the country and its people have gone through a  lot of changes, from Chinese rule to a Soviet takeover and now fledgling democracy with a mining boom that's causing a whole host of other complications. 

But one off-kilter, fun international sector that the Mongolians are exceeding in is memory sports. 

Yes, that's right. Competitions that test your recall, focus and memorization skills where the prize money and the binary digits, are abundant. They might seem like a new phenomenon, especially in the age of the rapid progression of Alzheimer's disease, dementia and the impact of the internet and social media on our attention spans and memory. But in fact, memory competitions and the 'mind' athletes who battle each other have been around for at least two decades. 

The German and Swede memory athletes are some of the world's best. Then there are the Chinese, the Filipinos, British and a spattering of other European countries that represent quite well at these competitions. Though there are promising American memory athletes, overall, they aren't really represented at these tournaments across the world. 

None of the countries who participate in these eclectic, slightly odd yet fascinating tournaments come to them as a team. 

That is unless you're Mongolian. 

The Mongolians are an organized, well-oiled memory machine, complete with team t-shirts emblazoned with the logos of various sponsors, a memory coach and homemade visors that block out everyone from their periphery as they're competing against other players.  

I drove to San Diego to document their triumphs and tribulations at the Extreme Memory Tournament, as they become up and coming contenders in the world of memory championships. Read more at The Guardian: 

Extreme Memory Tournament: meet the Mongolian Masters of the Mnemonic


Visiting The King of Rare Plants in Arizona

Maybe it's because I grew up in Los Angeles with an itch to always explore its outer most fringes which often included the desert, or maybe it's because my ancestral homelands are reminiscent of these barren landscapes that know so much.  Either way, I immediately fell in love with Tucson and its landscapes, from the Barrio Historico District to its street art and eclectic shops ( prickly pear cactus jelly!)

But I didn't come to Tucson to explore.  The real reason I came to Tucson was to meet the man who is responsible for the worldwide popularity of these beautiful plants below:


Enter Mark Dimmitt.

photo by keegam shamlian

photo by keegam shamlian

Mark Dimmitt is the king of rare plants, the champion of all their oddities. He is best known for creating never before seen hybrids of the adenium, a plant native to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

His hybrids began an adenium crazy across Asia that still hasn't stopped. He's also responsible for singlehandedly raising a rare corpse flower or Amorphophallus titanum, which he donated to the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. The bloom at the Huntington became the first of its kind in the Western U.S. and brought in more visitors to the gardens than at any other point in their history.

It was the corpse flower that first tipped me off to Mark's existence - a small mention in a blog post at the Huntington meant I instantly had to meet the man who was obsessive and creative enough to raise a plant that smells like rotting meat and then donate it to a major botanical organization. 

Over the course of a month, I got to know Mark, who graciously allowed me to shadow him at an international orchid show and ask him and his equally-obsessed plant friends many questions about botany and biology.  I drove to Tucson to visit him at his home that he shares with two shy black cats and over 10,000 plants. 

The result, with brilliant photos is published at The Guardian: Meet the obsessive botanist who became king of rare specimens