We are dodging icebergs at twenty-five miles per hour. From the bow of our eighteen-foot Zodiac, I try to make sense of the ecosystem I’ve come here to investigate: northern Alaska’s Beaufort Sea coastline. But my customary visual bearings don’t seem to be serving me here in Alice’s Arctic Wonderland, where even the most fundamental rules of spatial arrangement have been upended. I see liquid lying over land, tundra hovering in midair, and chunks of ice floating several feet above the sea. I strain to delineate boundaries between water and sky, solid and gas, near and far. Where I expect borders, I find continuity—gradations of color, shifting shapes, and fluid forms. Reflections are sharper than the objects that make them, forcing me to question which way is up.
Once upon a time I lived at the beach, and not just any beach, but one of the good ones: Newport Beach in Orange County. A hashtag search delivers 2.3 million Instagram hits; if you stand at the end of Newport’s wood-planked pier on winter mornings, Catalina Island looks close enough to touch. I was not there the day a masked booby showed up, but I have seen a sea turtle, a bloom of moon jellies, and a stout man paddling a paddleboard completely naked. Coffee in hand, sitting on the front steps of my rental cottage, I would admire the early surfers jogging past in neon-trimmed neoprene, shortboards clamped under blond arms. I envied their urgency and zeal. According to their wet suits, their names were O’Neill and Rip Curl. Their girlfriends were even prettier and more fit than they were. I had a surfboard too, but it didn’t do me much good. Any wave obvious enough and slow enough for me to catch just petered out in the kelpy slop thirty seconds later. Mostly, I used it to prop open the door when I brought in the groceries.
The morning was clear and the colors vivid: yellow brush, white ocean froth against cobalt sky. In front of me, dense gray volcanic stone appeared to consume the light. I stood in salty mist before an altar on the north coast of Rapa Nui, Easter Island. A single toppled moai lay in violent chunks on the ground. At 9:00 a.m. the sun still hovered tight at the horizon. Rapa Nui, which is part of Chile 2,300 miles away, is kept closer to mainland time than by geographical rights it should be. The sun rises gray and sticky at 8:30 in the morning, and sets late, too. This is not the only disorienting thing about Rapa Nui, but rather the most objective example.
I have dreamt of this Arabian Gulf Portfolio ever since I was a teenager, writing about snow and squirrels and picket fences—despite living in Dubai where I had more experience with temperatures of 40+ degrees, karak chai, compounds… Because English was my first language, the fiction that was available and accessible to me at the time was perpetually happening elsewhere. My high school education focused on the British and American canons, meaning that we had no exposure to global Anglophone literature, let alone any works set in the United Arab Emirates. The bookshops sold mainly self-help and cookbooks in the 2000s. The public libraries were few, poorly stocked, and dominated by Arabic literature that was also generally quite dated. Consequently, for most of my teenage years, my imagination was furnished by foreign clutter and peopled by strangers I had no knowledge of first-hand. There was the book-world and there was the real-world, and I didn’t even appreciate how separate they were in my mind until I began to write about rivers and forests and realized there were none around me. The mimetic dimension of literature had been severed entirely.
“We want to simulate Mars on Earth and so we need a place that looks as much like Mars as possible. And we found it here in Oman.” —Alexander Soucek, lead flight director of the AMADEE-18 mission, in Phys Org, October 30, 2017
The first time my husband visited me in Oman years ago, he peered down from the plane window and received his first glimpse of the landscape: an undulating palette of browns, beige, mauve, and grays. This is Mars, he thought to himself. Mars on Earth.
This was Arabia as a romantic imagination might have created it; nights so mellow that they lay out under the scatter of dry bright stars, and heard the silence beyond their fire as if the whole desert hung listening.
—Wallace Stegner, Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil
“When we arrived there [Aramco], it was no Arabian Nights at all. It was just a kind of shack, it seemed to me.… Air-conditioned shacks with a great big swimming pool in the middle with a canvas over the top.”
—Mary Stegner to her husband’s biographer, Jackson J. Benson
“It was No Arabian Nights at All”: Coming of Age in America’s Kingdom
Sitting on a green couch in what is now a bedbug-infested Brooklyn apartment, I suddenly realized that my flight to meet my family for the first time in five years was actually tonight, not tomorrow; 12:30 a.m., not 12:30 p.m. I had planned to wake up early in the morning, make two cups of coffee, and pack a small bag with the few gifts I managed to buy last minute for my siblings. I thought I had more hours to sit with my heavy feeling, which I assumed to be a mix of excitement and longing, but which was rather a combination of wariness and fear, of things going wrong, of encounters no one can prepare for.
In front of the couch, there was a round coffee table, which I circled around in panic, not sure if I could make it to JFK on time, to Kiev on time, to Tbilisi on time. For months, my sister and I had saved and borrowed so we could have this one-week reunion trip in a country we knew nothing about. A few months after my arrival in the United States, the Kuwaitis had denied my application for passport renewal, subsequently making me an asylee. My family’s attempts to get U.S. visas were repeatedly denied, so we began to make different plans. We called embassies every morning, in the United States and in Kuwait. I asked, “Do you accept a U.S. refugee travel document? How long to issue a visa?” while they asked, “Do you accept a stateless travel document? How long to issue a visa?” The mutually closest country was Georgia, a place Arabs have come to discover in the past few years, this time not as conquerors, but as refugees in transit, hoping to infiltrate Europe from her eastern side.
Mapping Exile: A Writer’s Story of Growing Up Stateless in Post-Gulf War Kuwait
My mother cuts the outboard motor. Over the slap of waves on the boat’s black pontoon, I hear the fur seals barking. The cliffs are dotted with white albatross. Seals sprawl along the rocky shoreline: gray fur seals with black, rowdy pups, and brown elephant seals beached like massive timbers. Their smell carries across the water, a familiar, testosterone-laden stink, like a mix of musk and onion rings.
Last year, I wandered through Greece, knocking on all the gates of Hades. I walked along the Acheron River, whose icy blue waters seemed colored by the spirits of the dead. Stalactites dripped onto the back of my neck as a silent boatman ferried me through the caves of Diros. I searched for the entrance to the sea cave at Cape Tainaron, scrambling over sharp rocks below the lighthouse as darkness fell. Sometimes I wondered if my search for the underworld tempted the Fates. I remembered Orpheus, the father of music, who charmed beasts with his lyre and descended into Tainaron to find his lost bride, Eurydice. With song, he implored Hades and Persephone to bring her back to life, and his words moved the deathless gods to tears. They granted his wish, allowing him to lead her out of the underworld on one condition: he must walk ahead of her, not looking back until they left the dark halls of death. Approaching the surface, the farthest reach of light, Orpheus feared his love’s silence behind him. He turned to look and saw her sink back into the depths, reaching out to him and bidding him farewell for the last time.