Haniya Khalid

A little bit of everything

What Alex Garland Taught Me: Gen X, Gen Y, Thailand & More

Most teenagers have a single paperback that they swear by: their “bible”, if I may, their go-to choice to prop against their weekend morning cereal bowl, every page doggy-eared and covered in bubble bath stains. Mine was The Beach by Alex Garland. I had discovered the copy that I still own at a secondhand bookstore in Jumeirah. It was sold to me by a grumpy old man who seemed to not really believe I spoke English, much less believe that I was interested in collecting old(ish) books. He didn’t realize that in his mildly offensive exasperation at my bargaining tactics (perfectly reasonable given the condition of the book), he was handing me the very book that would define so many things for me. It was published in 1996 and I purchased it in 2003 so it made little sense that I related to it so much: it was the book that emphasized the backpacking culture of Gen X, especially for those whom were adamant to distinguish between traveler and tourist, a necessary distinctionGarland wrote the book based on his own experiences traveling through Asia and living for several months in the Philippines. Until not too long ago, before the internet quickly brought everyone to more or less the same “time” wavelength, the Middle East millennials were always a little late to the party, and it would have been more apt to categorize us as Gen XY.

I loved everything about The Beach: the painfully stylish French youngsters, the hand-drawn maps, the descriptions of banana pancake paired with Sprite (to this day, I find this to be an incredibly intriguing breakfast choice: “one banan pancake and coke, no, sprite”), the secret community, the cricket, and the descriptions of biolumenescence (plankton that glow underwater).  There was nothing literal about the story that spoke to me per se: I was about 13-14, living a sheltered life of cereal bowls and bubble baths and my adventures didn’t extend far beyond the pages. What really resonated with me, however, were the ideologies behind the book: losing yourself, finding yourself, paradise found (paradise lost), allusions to anti-capitalism, and a simpler way of living that was undefined by time or nationalistic identity. As someone who a was unconcerned about either, the motivations of the protagonist made perfect sense to me. Gen X is defined as the generation that followed the baby-boomers, the post-post world war generation. Along with that came a modernist perspective: while generations of artists had revered having an identity or at least searching for one– through war, religion, sex, law, and so on, suddenly losing your identity seemed to be a much more worthwhile venture.

The book was adapted to screen by visucentric Danny Boyle, and it was because of the movie that I developed a desire to visit Thailand during my high school years. This passion was mainly fueled by a single scene. When our hero, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, finally makes it to the beach after a grueling and life-threatening journey, he flops down on the glistening white sand and a look of utter and complete bliss takes over his tanned, toothy face. His movie-magic ecstasy is heightened by the swelling chorus of Moby’s Porcelain, thus planting the arguably unrealistic idea of Thailand in my mind. Moby was always scoring my adventures. Leo was sometimes present.  When I access this ambiguous yet pleasurable part of my imagination, a collection of random images I’ve collected over the years pop up: shampoo bottles from The Body Shop which seem to always have pictures of rain forests on them as a shallow reminder of how “natural” and “outdoorsy” they are, the video for Sand in My Shoes by Dido (GREAT song), or any wooden outdoor shower. It is a fantastical element and entirely non-specific: beachy, happy, free.

 

A not-so-fun fact about this scene is that the filmmakers bulldozed the beach in Ko Phi Phi Lee to achieve a more perfect aesthetic, something that is both environmentally and culturally offensive.

Air travel has evolved very quickly through the years. What was once strongly associated with corporate culture, “businessmen”and glamorous air hostesses (the Pan Am logo comes to mind), rapidly changed as the industry was commercialized. For the 80s and 90s travelers, adventures explored in the book were even less mainstream than the more obscure hipsters of today: the backpackers were fewer, the stories prized and cherished.

Now, traveling is much more mainstream and relatively less expensive. Flights go to a lot more remote places so the journeys are less arduous (do you lose a few degrees of wanderlust if your journey consists of eating stale Emirates meals while watching Deadpool?); yet even so, travel is increasingly synonymous with experience. You haven’t really lived until you’ve traveled to so-and-so country is tantamount to saying you haven’t really lived until you’ve owned a couple of Chanel handbags. The distinction is very clear: there is nothing wrong with liking Chanel, as long as it comes with the awareness that it is ridiculously expensive and inaccessible to most of the world. Somehow, when exhibiting travel, we rid ourselves of the guilt we would otherwise link to “expensive” life choices– this isn’t right, and can be further broken down into much more critical social issues like voluntourism and the driving motives behind showcasing Instagram-worthy lives.

And if there was such a way to assign a metric to ‘experience’, it wouldn’t work. It would be like reducing four dimensions to two: everybody’s story is unique and interesting for different reasons. Where on the one hand Julius Verne told amazing stories about exploring everything from Africa to the Amazon river, William Faulkner found inspiration in his roots in Mississippi, a single place which influenced some of his most important work. Contemporary writers like Zadie Smith similarly write stories that are influenced by locality (NW, a novel that is literally about a postcode area being a great example of this). The greatest example of an explorer of these inside-outside questions was Tolkien, who called himself a hobbit: devoted to his routine, house and simplistic habits. The sharp contrast between his preferences to lead such a life and the grand and epic adventures he wrote about illustrated his own quest to understanding what fulfillment and imagination really meant to ordinary people, and whether physical expedition had anything to do with it at all.

The Beach, which became a cult favorite of the actual Gen X travelers that came way before I even read the book, received criticism for undermining Thai natives by treating them as literary props. Garland argued this in an interview and emphasized the satire by saying that the book was “a criticism of backpacking culture and not a celebration of it”. After years of self-discovery that did not, unfortunately, come from backpacking through Southeast Asia, my perceptions began to shift. I became less dreamy and started to see the depths of Garland’s message. Enough to fully admit that I accept capitalism about as much as I love Sephora, I do not chase experience just to gain experience or to tell a story, and what lacks in a lifestyle I once romanticized is possibly the thing I value most in life: structure. Rigor. Suits (just kidding).

Last winter, I was forced to take time off before the year ended as after that, I would lose all my vacation days. I planned a trip to Thailand (Koh Pha Ngan & Koh Phi Phi), only to back out at the very last minute. It was the tail-end of a terribly shitty phase and my anxiety was at an all-time high. I was scared, more than anything, that I would go to Thailand and not feel anything, that I wouldn’t hear ‘Porcelain’ at all, only deafening silence. I couldn’t do that–I couldn’t ruin Thailand for myself, not after a decades-long relationship. So in a somewhat selfish move, I preserved it. “Thailand” still exists somewhere–on shampoo bottles and in well-edited music videos with random and misplaced waterfalls in the background. I still plan to visit it one day, even if it isn’t where I thought it would be. That’s the good thing about hand-drawn maps: they can always be redrawn.

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What is Gaslighting and Why Should We Care?

“By dismissing a woman’s behavior or concerns as crazy, we inadvertently take part in a behavior known as “gaslighting.” Named for the classic George Cukor movie, gaslighting is a term used by psychologists to describe abusive behavior where a person is made to feel as though their emotions and reactions are irrational, even (dare I say) crazy. By constantly minimizing and dismissing someone’s reactions, we make them feel uncomfortable with themselves and cause them to start to doubt their own feelings. If they’re being told over and over again that what they’re feeling is irrational or unreal, that what they’re feeling is somehow out of whack, then they start to accept that maybe it is.

Even when it’s not. Especially when it’s not.“

This was taken from a Huffington Post article that is unfortunately, no longer accessible. To be repeatedly told you are crazy or irrational for how you feel, thereby inflicting doubt unto yourself, is a determinant that you can never be vulnerable around that person. Therein lies the a layer of deceit–you cannot be yourself because you are afraid of how you will be perceived by the one you love, and they in turn will continuously question or berate you for it. Emotions need not be labeled as frivolous, being emotional does not mean you are weak. It is important to remind yourself of this: you, of course, being a woman. Being around someone who makes you feel safe is not a literal sentiment; we should be around people who let our emotional trajectories take whichever path feels most organic. In turn, we should be more accepting of the anomalies, the crazies, the breakdowns, the upsanddowns, etc. all those fairly normal things that make us, if nothing else– human.

What I Talk About When I Talk About The People Who Talk About Running

“Walking unlocked me”

These were the words that resonated with me after I read Get Fit With Haruki Murakami: Why Mohsin Hamid Exercises, Then Writes, a culture piece in The Atlantic that voiced Mohsin Hamid’s adoption of Murakami’s extremely simple philosophy. As I read it again, I felt as though I was slipping into the back of the lecture hall of a class I hadn’t really registered for;  I was not prepared and I don’t have any of the materials — arguably not even the capacity to attempt a passing grade — but I will stay and listen anyway.

Running unlocks me, too. It does everything it promises to: clears the fog and oils the rusty ridges and grooves of the inner thought-piled conveyor belts of my mind. It tires me, it makes me quit the day in a happy, childlike resignation.

Having spent a large part of this weekend reading (admittedly too much time on Into The Gloss, no regrets) about different primers and moisturizers, I have to also say that the best makeup is running makeup, the best primer is the thin sheen of sweat, the pink rush in the runners’ cheeks and the bright determined eyes. Running made me respect my body and my health, appreciate my own well being from tip to toe; running became as much a part of my routine as walking or talking and therefore opened up a tiny, finite universe of sorts: a universe of activities, observations and if I was lucky, then ideas.

Running reminded me, for example, that even in the most liberal, familial neighbourhoods there will always be a couple of men staring you down every time you turn the corner on the cyclical soft path, their eyes boring into your skull, then lower and lower. And while I spent, weeks, even months, lowering my gaze, lowering my entire head as I ran past this generic variety of the masculine form, I only very recently realized that I could continue running with my chin up. That I could run with my head high and still ignore them, that I did not have to choose between my steady gait and their intrusiveness, that I could lock them out just as easily as they had entered.

Running became my favorite time to listen to music, and I sampled music I can barely listen to if I am not: David Guetta, Macklemore, the repetitive beats of Daft Punk, the 90s nostalgia of Semisonic, music from live Broadway performances, from old Shahrukh Khan films, it didn’t matter, as long as I kept going.

So tonight, as I took my water break after running exactly half of my planned distance, I pulled out my phone for the always (un)necessary social media peep session. And as I ran through the myriad of painful possibilities, the problems that both existed and the ones I had created for myself, I slumped onto a nearby park bench and hung my head low, between my knees. Drops of sweat mixed with tears, maybe, I’m not sure, and burned my sensitive eyes and I started to wipe my face, forehead and neck with the back of my hand. I had nothing to do.

So I stood up and started running, and I ran and I ran and I ran until the air seared my lungs, my legs wobbled and I was done. I took another drink of cool water and rested my head against the metal water cooler, the same kind we always drank out of in school by cupping our hands beneath the inconsistent trickle. I drove home, and let the hot shower beat down on my cold, tired muscles, and got ready for bed.

Walking, or running, had unlocked me.

So if I were to take anybody’s word on life, or walking, or writing, whose word better than Murakami and Hamid themselves? If it worked for them, surely it will work for me.

The Swimmer

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Last night I went swimming after a very long time– a decade maybe (not counting trips to Wild Wadi with tourist cousins). It was night time, and I swam alone.

First of all, I should start this post by stating that there are two types of people in this world: those who wear underwear underneath their swimsuits, and those who view this to be a great redundancy. For the sake of maintaining a very necessary aura of mystery for any amateur writer, I will refrain from expressing which category I fall under.

As I sat at the edge of the pool, dipping my feet in the unheated water, I was amazed by just how long it has been since I have been underwater. I felt nervous and uncomfortable, and the water was cold, so I was hesitant to dive right in. Instead I sat there, slowly inching my way under, toe to ankle, calf to knee, watching my skin grow alien-like and pale under the brightly lit, chlorinated water. I sat there for a long time, half in and half out, unsure of why I was there to begin with.

And then I thought of all of the times I had been uncertain of outcomes but jumped right in anyway. I remembered three little girls playing on a tire swing, as my mom led me by my hand to “be their friend”. I remembered approaching a young hijab-clad student clutching a heavy Organic Chemistry textbook, alone and in desperate need of company and familiarity. I remember walking through the woods in the American suburbs, the moonlight illuminating a confused, narrow, and dark path. I remembered opening an old mailbox to find a battered copy of Leaves of Grass, and the opening words:

Stranger! if you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?

and how closely I kept these words with me, for so many years, even when the air and land changed, even when new faces replaced old.

I thought of all of those times I jumped in, thinking but not thinking, anxious but somewhat prepared. It was then I realized that I could either sit there forever (as Joe Newman would say, staring at my youth pressed into one glass/body of water), or I could just go. So I did.

It was cold, but it was not unbearable. I am starting to see that few things ever are.

So I swam, and it was very, very quiet. No music to distract me or drown out my thoughts, no people to strike up random conversations with, no long roads or complicated highways to carefully map my journey across. Just a blue rectangle, and me, and repeated turns around it. I thought of The Swimmer by John Cheever and how much I enjoyed reading it, how fascinatingly important Cheever made swimming pools for me. I thought of Trouble Will Find Me by The National, an album inspired by Cheever’s work, and my favorite album this year. I specifically thought of “Tunnel Vision” , a song to me that strikes up images of still blue water and southern Californian house parties (whatever those are?!) and starry skies. I thought of Piscine Patel and his Uncle and the Parisian art deco pools, the filthy water viscous with body excretions.

I thought about everything I was worried about, and how they could be simultaneously terrifying and meaningless. I thought of all the years of my childhood I spent swimming, never technically proficient but small and brave and agile. Throwing coins into the deep end and looking for them. Pretending to be a mermaid and laughing at the irony that Ariel wanted to have legs so if we wanted to be Ariel, we would want to become human again so the whole fantasy made no sense. I thought of swimming until my lungs burned and I was too tired to lift myself onto the concrete sides of the pool and had to be dragged out. And then for a few minutes– I thought of nothing at all. And it was great.