I’m still here!

It’s been a whopping 10 months since I last posted… how time flies and life gets in the way!

Though I shouldn’t say this, as when I promise more on this site generally end up jinxing myself, but I’ll be updating soon with backdated pieces and writings that haven’t made it onto this site since last May. Apologies for the delay and thanks for reading!



Sitting on a Balcony / Refractions / You Can’t Go Home Again

I’ve been writing this for a long time.

I remember sitting and sobbing on my balcony in Southwest

So scared

Sure, I was excited

Today I’d call it heycanli

But fear of the unknown

Of non comprehension

Of safety

Clouded my eyes


“What am I going to do?” I implored to sometimes roommate, sometimes guru, always homie OT.

“You’re going to learn.”

“I don’t (expletive) know Turkish.”

“You’re going to learn. Body language.”

I got in a cab, got on that plane from Reagan alone.

Got to Ankara with a motley crew of people I’d only met on a Facebook forum.

Here I sit once again, again on a balcony and I again don’t know how I’m going to set foot on that plane.


Many times since that day I’ve gotten on planes alone, and buses and taxis and ski chair lifts, ferry boats, camels, bicycles, minibuses….


I’ve looked out over ancient amphitheaters,mountain ranges and seas that sparkle a turquoise you can’t define, over cities of red-tiled rooftops dotted with solar panels and satellite dishes, the Istanbul skyline with the glittering, churning Bosphorus cutting like a Middle Path through the hearts of the 20-some million who call it home, as well as the imaginations of the entire globe.




I’ve gazed up at ceramic domes and through glass cases of museums and across hillsides from atop too many crumbling castles. I’ve shivered in the snow, danced in the rain, felt the gusts of wind blustering through my campus, felt the scorch of the southeastern Anatolian sun.




I’ve walked through the first known site of worship in human history, hunched and gingerly stepped into the caves in which Abraham was born, and where Paul hid with his first disciples, hopped along the 2nd largest city wall system after the great wall of china, sauntered through biblical cities like Saul then Paul, traipsed through dusty roads strewn with bricks and construction debris and meadows strewn with wildflowers, and strolled through monasteries and churches whose paintings have endured the whippings of time in caves and on mountains and on islands and adjacent to the catastrophe that is today’s Syria. their patrons have dispersed.




My feet have crossed continents.


I’ve lived in three apartments.

I’ve drank (or is it drunk) ayran, Turkish coffee, cola, syriac wine and shitty wine too, and raki and tequila and bottomless cay and I remember almost everything.

photo credit Lisa Hartwig

photo credit Lisa Hartwig

My skin has been slicked by the waters of the waters of the Mediterranean, the Aegean, the Black Sea, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus.


I’ve scaled mountains and too goddamn many flights of stairs.

My nazar boyuncu (evil eye) protects me, I take my fal seriously.


I have sat for hours listening to the horrors of war and I have held those affected in my arms and in my heart.


My stomach has been filled and destroyed and filled again by every imaginable regional cuisine and I regret almost nothing.



I learned to love bread, and I will miss devouring the fresh loaves baked at the mosque around the corner.

My hands have been trained in all manner of Turkish cuisine but I continue to use the recipe that approximates my grandmother’s for grape leaves- no exceptions.

I have learned to live slowly, accept the additional glass of tea, spend a whole day in a new place simply sitting in a café enjoying the company of friends. I have laughed.

diayrbekir wallks and tigris


My voice has echoed, my songs ricocheting across dusty ancient theaters carved into mountainsides and stifling hotel conference rooms and smoky karaoke bars and sweaty classrooms and the historic facades that line Istiklal Caddessi and even carpeted concert halls.


photo credit Ahmet Emir Avici

photo credit Ahmet Emir Avici

I have learned the value of understanding and being understood.

I have felt euphoria I cannot describe and pain I cannot express. I have picked up my pen and I have taken up painting.

I have gained amazing friends. I have lost amazing friends.


I have heard Andrew’s laugh and watched from afar as our friends have honored his life and I’ve tried to do that too.


I have protested, sometimes sobbing alone in my apartment for a world I cannot fix, sometimes in a city square, wordlessly mourning the effects of police brutality and government ineptitude, sometimes shouting slogans in foreign tongues whose words I struggle to form but whose message rises from my heart on a crowded boulevard.

I told my sister I wasn’t ready to leave. “Graduation goggles,” she said.


There is truth in that, of course, but leaving Turkey is different than leaving Maumee or Kenyon, and not just because of the price of return. Thomas Wolfe once wrote that, “you can’t go home again,” and I’ve known that to be true of Maumee for a long time; I’ve been accepting that reality about Gambier slowly over the last two years.


As in every place from which we depart, a part of us stays there. Parts of it come with us too, and not just spices and ceramics and hard disks full of photographs.


Lately I’ve been frustrated with friends who bring my nationality to the attention of shopkeepers and waiters, partially because I don’t like that sort of attention (though I almost never tire of the “ne guzel Turkce konusuyorsun!(Your turkish is so good!)” I used to insist “I’m not a tourist, I’m a guest (misafir),” but now I don’t even say that.


In its own way, Turkey has become home through a crazy two year adventure to which I can never return, not exactly.

There are still days I wonder what I’m doing here. There are still days when I don’t sleep, crisscrossing this country in a mad dash to experience all of it. There are days when hardly a word of English crosses my lips—how crazy is that?


Maybe, in leaving, I’ve finally come to understand one of those elusive Turkish words: huzun.


I now know exactly the route to take through the winding halls of Ataturk IST Aiport to connect my flight from Ankara to ones that will take me Detroit; how I’ll manage to carry all my baggage along that route remains a mystery. I’m not sure when again I’ll carry bags laden with groceries and 5 liter bottles of water across cobbled sidewalks that are cleaned by wicker broom and hose on the daily, but the memories I will carry on my flight home certainly won’t make Delta’s overseas baggage limit.

photo credit Sophia Yapalater

photo credit Sophia Yapalater


Turkiye, biz nasil ayrilicaz? Gitmek istemiyorum.

Bobby Jindal and How American’s Understand Their Identities

Click over to AMERICABlog.com to read my first piece for them, titled “Bobby Jindal’s denial of our hypen-nation:”

…if Bobby Jindal wants American children to grow up feeling a sense of pride in their nation, how is denying the very thing that makes the United States exceptional productive?”

Like Bobby Jindal, my name and my identity are as intracultural as my nation; my name is Tess Waggoner, and I identify as an Arab American. But unlike Bobby Jindal, I refuse to deny or downplay any given aspect of my identity, because I know that my story and my family’s story are an intricately woven part of the larger story of the nation which all of my immediate family so gratefully calls home. Unlike Bobby Jindal, I don’t see my choice to identify as an American with an addendum as something divisive; quite to the contrary, I see it as evidence of my pride in my identity as an American.

Hyphens aren’t shredding the fabric of our society, they’re the stuff of that fabric.  Using a hyphen or a capital letter does not negate ones American identity, it celebrates it.

Things to Come

… Haven’t posted in a while.


Life update, casual WordPress peruse-rs and loyal followers:

I have returned to the States and my hometown in Ohio, and will be here until late August, reconnecting with my family, relaxing, taking up the scoop at Jacky’s Depot once again, and… catching up on blogging about seven months worth of travels and adventures in Turkey that I neglected to write while there. (If I put my commitment to complete them on here then I have to do it, right?) Be on the lookout for explanations of the ‘whirling dervish’ community, stories from ancient sites across the southeast (with a focus on historic Christian communities), hot air balloons floating across a lunar landscape, the Tigris River, and images of many, many beautiful vistas.

My latest post on Turkish breakfasts is (inshallah) an appetizer for more food-and-culture-writing and recipe sharing to come (a rapidly growing fascination of mine). Also keep on the lookout for a new section of the blog (indicated in the tabs section on the homepage) devoted to all things gastronomic.

In the late winter I envisioned and began crafting a YouTube page devoted to videos from my travels to complement the blog, giving my readers a direct audiovisual experience of the region, and to circumvent the hefty fees WordPress wants users to pay to directly upload their own videos. This project was interrupted by the temporary ban on YouTube in Turkey this spring… it is another endeavor I hope to continue to chug away at while home. Once the page has significant content, I will debut it in a devoted post here.

Given the many varieties of horrific news that have come across all of our newsfeeds this summer, I regret not being able to do more to share links to important perspectives and voices about the conflicts raging from the U.S. southern border to the open-air prison of Gaza to the Iraqi fields to the shantys of Brazil’s mega-cities to the devastation in Syria. Time and space do not permit a full analysis, but in my opinion, we can face these enormous tragedies only with a steadfast commitment to the value of every human life, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, language, religion or sect, age, occupation, socio-economic advantage, gender, orientation, or any other construct that has been used to divide.

My recent lack of comment on these issues is in no way a reflection of my lack of passion, anger, grief, moral outrage…. all are carried in my heart. I’m grateful to those who have taken an interest in my travels, and as I continue the process of sharing my experiences, I do so supremely cognizant of the many privileges with which I am blessed. I am so, so lucky. My prayers for the peace, safety, nourishment, and love of all people join the chorus….

Looking Up in Rome

I’m writing from my hotel in Rome where my great aunt and I are spending the Easter holiday taking in the sites, cuisine, and each others stories of travel and culture.

Rome is of course hectic at this time, with tourists flooding the city for Holy Week. There are so many aspects of the architecture and art here that one could describe, but this post is reserved for ceilings…. Most especially the ceilings in various parts of the Vatican Museums, which we toured through today. Looking above oneself on Maundy Thursday seems quite apt, though maybe a series of feet from sculptures would’ve been more comical. Not sure I took any photos of the feet of statues, in any event.











Do Ebru

In Eskisehir

In Eskisehir

While visiting the caravanserai of Silahatar Mustafa Paşa Hanı in Battalgazi, Malatya, I was privy to an intimate and impromptu demonstration of the classical Turkish art form known as ebru (sometimes known as water painting or marbling). The oldest determinable ebru works date from the early to mid-1500s; traditionally ebru was used as the media for calligraphy, though many styles and forms now exist. 

The tools used in ebru are highly specific to the craft, including

  • Specially-designed horse hair or rose stalk brushes, whose stiff bristles are ideal for the flicking method at the heart of the craft;
  •  a viscous substance, traditionally made from gum tragacanth, though many other contemporary options, like Irish moss, are used (henceforth referred to as “the sticky stuff;”
  • “paint” comprised of aqueous natural pigments, which are mixed with;
  • ox-gall (used as something of a paint thinner);
  • Special paper;
  • Various metal tools used in the post-paint application phase

The artist begins with a clean rectangular tray of the sticky stuff:
IMG_1339 A variety of colors can be used. Paint is applied through a highly controlled flicking motion, in which a small amount of thin paint is put on the horse-bristle brushes, which are then rapidly tapped along the hand of the painter, as shown. IMG_1342 IMG_1343 They were way ahead of Jackson Pollack on this, by the way. Various colors are applied in succession. As the paint hits the “goo” it dissipates within it, creating concentric clouds of color which interact but retain the general shape and location to where they were applied (flicked, spattered). IMG_1345 IMG_1346 Once all of the colors have been applied to the goo in this way, the artist uses a fine metal tool, almost like something you’d see at the dentist’s office, to alter the paint’s dissipation. Cutting through the goo in a relatively slow, careful manner, they create a series of parallel lines, first horizontally, and then vertically. Doing so alters the form of what were previously clouds or bubbles of color into a more geometric [read: psychedelic] pattern.IMG_1347 IMG_1350 After this step, a fine metal comb which fits the pan is quickly and smoothly (to prevent air bubbles or other distortions of the pattern) run through the goo, further altering the swirling painted pattern.

Next, the special absorbent paper is carefully and, again, quickly, placed on top of the goo, and another metal dentist-like utensil is lightly run over it to remove any air bubbles and ensure even application. Next, the edges of the paper are delicately lifted, and dragged across the lid of the pan. In this process, all of the paint, which in procedure appeared to be clouded deep within the goo, is directly applied to the paper, with little to no residue in the pan of goo. IMG_1351 IMG_1352 Amazing.

Many other, more detailed manipulations of the paint can result in images of objects, such as the popular floral ebru, which today is perhaps the most common style/form.

contemporary commercialized iterations of ebru: on leaves which are laminated and sold to tourists (in Eskisehir)

contemporary commercialized iterations of ebru: on leaves and magnets which are laminated and sold to tourists (in Eskisehir)


One of my fellow Fulbrighters seized the opportunity to give it a try for himself, and they even whipped out a beautiful blue paint for him to use. The results are gorgeous!

IMG_1356 IMG_1358 IMG_1360 IMG_1359 IMG_1361 IMG_1364

Interview With Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad

I had the honor and pleasure of tag-teaming an interview of Jad Abumrad with Matt Haugen for AAI. The published interview appears below, and was originally posted on July 26, 2013 on AAI’s newsblog. 

Jad Abumrad is a musician, producer, and host and creator of WNYC’s wildly popular radio show and podcast, Radiolab.The show won the George Foster Peabody Award for broadcast excellence in 2010 and Jad was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “Genius Grant”—in 2011. After listening to some of Radiolab’s programs on race and identity, and reading a superb interview with him by Discord Music Magazine, we reached out to chat with him about Radiolab, how he understands his identity, the interplay of music and storytelling, and Arabic food.

We began with a simple question: Do you identify as Arab American?

Jad: Yeah, I feel very strongly Lebanese and it’s sort of impossible for me not to. It informs every decision I make and yet informs none of the decisions I make, in some way. It’s just kind of the background of my life. It’s sort of like a fish in the ocean, you know? You don’t even notice the water if you’re a fish, I imagine, it just sort of is your world. My parents are both first generation immigrants…or would that be me? Well they both immigrated to the US shortly before I was born and they’re both from Lebanon, sorta kinda neighboring villages, both Christian Arab. There has always been a sense within my family that religious identity and sectarian identity are dangerous and my parents fully assimilated as scientists. And so for me, more than anything, growing up Lebanese, it was never explicitly a part of my upbringing. I remember more than anything, 1980, watching them watch the TV. And never being fully commented on, but seeing some kind of sadness and drama in the way that they were watching it, and when I got to be in college, I became very interested in Middle Eastern politics. I think like a lot of children of immigrants, I tried to reclaim my identity and I got really interest in Palestinian rights and doing that whole thing in the way that a lot of college kids do. Following that interest out of school I did a lot of radio at WBAI which was centered squarely on Middle Eastern politics, but the thing is that if you’re smart and not interested in simple answers, then you discover quite quickly with Lebanon and with the Middle East in general is that it’s so complicated and there are no longer any easy answers. I think Lebanon is the shining example of that. If I could sort of pick the high-altitude view of it now, I think that my Arab American background—particularly my Lebanese American background—gave me a heightened sensitivity for nuance and for the ways in which seemingly simple truths are never simple and the way in which binary realities are never binary. So that’s something that I hold very deeply and that I carry into every story that we do. To that degree, I think my upbringing is the vehicle for every one of the decisions that I make, you know, programmatically.

AAI: Has your perspective ever influenced a piece you’ve worked on? I know you’ve talked a little bit about it in the Race episode, but does your Lebanese heritage especially connect you to any of these stories?

Jad: I thought a lot about it during those episodes. I mean, you know in the Race episode—the first one that we did—it began almost as a stunt. Like: “Oh, let’s just test my DNA and see what happens.” But, once I had swabbed my cheek and put it in the envelope and sent it off, there’s like a two week period where you wait for the results—or maybe it was a month, I forget—during that time, I remember thinking: “Jeez, this is kinda weird. What does it mean to be from where I’m from?” There’s that sort of definitional weirdness that you get into, which is: what’s a race and what’s a sect and what’s a simple arbitrary cultural divide versus something that’s more etched into your physical being because you and your ancestors lived in that land. It got very confusing, you know? I remember as I was waiting for the results, because so often Arab culture is misidentified as Muslim culture, in a way, and so I thought a lot about that, that this is a moment where I might get an interesting answer to those larger questions of race, at least as it applies to me. I’m not sure I walked away with anything concluded, but it was certainly something that made me reflect on my upbringing and my quote “race”, whatever that means. It came up again, the latest short we did, I don’t know if my Arab-ness had anything to do with that story, but it certainly resonates with my own experience. You know, the history of Lebanon: it’s this country that’s been destroyed over, and over, and over, and over, and over again and hundreds of thousands of people killed during the civil war. So, I carry with me a sensitivity for that trauma: a sensitivity to the people we speak to who carry similar traumas with them. There have been some pieces we’ve recorded where we’ve talked to people who’ve suffered and I think about that through the lens of my own upbringing.

AAI: Do you think that radio and music and how you use those change how you interface with your identity?

Jad: To the degree that I sort of see my identity as not static. The sonic landscape of the show is about flux. It’s about things fading in and out, and comingling, and one thing transforming into another. On the level of craft, I freaking hate a music bed. A bed that just sits there. I can’t stand that. It has to change. It has to move from background to foreground. It has to evolve from something thick to something thin; from something rough to something smooth. That’s just sort of the landscape of the show. It’s all about movement and flux and never being able to put your finger on what you’re listening to, and I feel that way about my identity, you know? It’s hard for me to give you a one sentence description of my family history, because it’s very complicated, and it comes from a land that’s full of complicated people. And so I think I am playing in some neighboring dimension with these ideas when I’m working the sound. I wouldn’t say they’re directly related, but they’re certainly moving in parallel.

AAI: Was there any element of storytelling in your childhood—whether related to Arabic storytelling traditions or not—which drives your inspiration for Radiolab?

Jad: Hm, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know, let me think about that for a second. I didn’t have what you’re describing in my upbringing. I didn’t actually have a lot of storytellers around. I’d love to say I did, but I didn’t. Where does it come from? I don’t know. It was sort of reverse-engineered for me. I came in as a musician and I remember some things on the radio where the story leads you step by step by step by step to this feeling of suspension and of wonder and that was the feeling I loved. I remember hearing this one particular piece—I wanna say it was about Tennessee Williams from the Lost and Found Sound series, this was maybe 20 years ago at this point—and I had been driving to Oberlin and we might have been driving through this part of Ohio which is utterly flat and it was pitch-black dark and I remember hearing this thing on the radio and it’s like the mixture of voices and the kinetic energy of all different cuts going into each other and the story was kind of receding so carefully. Suddenly, it got to this moment where you heard something or somebody said something and you could hear the emotion in their voices and there was this sort of space and silence and music where you could just kind of sit with it. I remember being amazed at the feeling and having an early sense that the story is the architecture that leads you to that moment and it’s all about the moment. And that moment is a musical moment as much as it is anything. It’s like the feeling where the heart sings and the way that the heart sings when it hears a beautiful piece of music. Initially, I was more interested in that moment, in that feeling, and I had a sense that you couldn’t achieve that unless you seduce people and the way that you seduce people is through a story. It’s the path that you create, the bridge that you build, that allows people to come to that moment of wonder. So initially, I started to tell story simply for that reason: as a necessity. Then as you begin to understand how stories work, you become amazed at the story structures themselves and how you can monkey with them and how you can make the beginning the end and the end the beginning. So I got interested in it just as an aspect of this craft that I had fallen into. It never came out of the culture of storytelling that’s very strong in the Arab community, but somehow it was not strong in my family. My family is a bunch of introspective brooders. They communicate a lot with looks and with gestures, but not a lot with words. So that’s where it came out of for me.

AAI: We were curious if you have a favorite Arabic food?

Jad: Oh man, I have so many. My favorite Arabic food—which is only my favorite because it’s so hard to find done well, although I did find this Palestinian place in Bay Ridge called Tanoreen that is the only place outside of Lebanon where I’ve actually tasted it done well—mloukhieh. That’s my favorite because my grandmother in Jounieh, Lebanon, she used to grow the mloukhieh plant—I think it’s a specific plant—she used to have it right outside. The whole process, it’s such a freaking hard dish to make. I mean like you have to pick the plants and then you gotta mash them into this little goopy sauce and then you gotta cut the onions and bake the bread and then do the rice and there’s five other layers that I’m forgetting and you put them all in a specific order. It’s just such a heavy, heavy meal, but it’s delicious and I remember that somehow if I think about Lebanon and as the memories of being in Lebanon have faded for me—because I haven’t been back in a long time—somehow so much of it gets distilled into that dish. If I think about an afternoon where we ate mloukhieh, I can suddenly conjure everything else about Lebanon because somehow that dish draws it all in. So that would be my favorite. Well, that’s my narrative favorite. My actual favorite, just in terms of what taste the best, would probably be mana’eesh. You know, like my dad lives in Nashville now and he found this guy who does these fantastic mana’eesh and every time we go there we just eat far too many. There’s something about that taste I can’t get enough of. And kibbeh, I have a neighbor now who lives right down the street—one of whom is this Lebanese kid—and he makes incredible kibbeh. And now my wife makes it, she makes a ton of Lebanese food like way better than me. So she’s like more the Arab, at least culinarily, than me at this point.

Want to learn more about Jad and Radiolab? Visit their website here. Radiolab is also doing a live tour in cities across the US called Apocalypitcal focusing on the topic of endings. Find more info atwww.radiolab.org/live.

Mos Def YouTube Video Sheds Light on Inhumanity of Force-Feeding at Gitmo

This post was originally published on AAI’s newsblog.

Inhumane treatment continues at Guantanamo Bay, where over 100 of the 166 prisoners detained there are in the midst of a hunger strike. Some have been fasting for over 100 days. The number of those currently being force-fed has reached at least a quarter of the total population of the prison, over 40 people. A military spokesman recently claimed that there was no threat to the health of the prisoner population there, despite reports that many inmates now weigh less than 100 pounds.

Seeking to raise awareness about the plight of these prisoners, rapper and MC Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def, underwent the standard operating procedure for force-feeding used in the detention center. This experience was made into a four-minute film through a partnership of the human rights organization Reprieve, Bafta award-winning director Asif Kapadia, and the Guardian. The procedure was carried out according to instructions in a leaked military document.

While Guantanamo officials insist that the procedure is, “humane, high-quality medical care to preserve life and health,” Guantanamo detainees themselves described the procedure as “extremely painful and the conditions … are abusive.” In an open letter to military doctors, the detainees wrote: “If you truly had my best medical interests at heart, you could have talked to me like a human being about my choices…” Force-feeding has been condemned by the Special Rapporteur on Health to the United Nations, who stated,

“Health care personnel may not apply undue pressure of any sort on individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike, nor is it acceptable to use threats of forced feeding or other types of physical or psychological coercion against individuals who have voluntarily decided to go on a hunger strike.”

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez re-emphasized the extent of the abuses, beyond the specific injustice of force-feeding:  “At Guantánamo, the indefinite detention of individuals, most of whom have not been charged, goes far beyond a minimally reasonable period of time and causes a state of suffering, stress, fear and anxiety, which in itself constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”

Despite condemnation from the UN and other human rights organizations, authorities say the procedure will continue, though feedings will occur at night for the upcoming month to respect observances of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.