For Document’s tenth anniversary, Rahel Aima reflects on what New York gave to her, and why she left it
New York isn’t dead, but it was killing me. Fall 2006: CBGB was closing, and I got there just in time for its last, dying wheezes. I’d moved to the city from Dubai to attend Columbia University, but spent as much time as I could seeing my punk and hardcore heroes temporarily reform one last time. In my mind, they had been frozen since the 1980s and ’90s; I was somehow surprised to see them as they were today—middle-aged, slightly deflated dad figures. When I first got to the university dining hall, I was confused to see the iconic 2000s Choking Victim posters which illustrate the Heimlich maneuver, thinking that they referred to the ska-punk—“Crack Rock Steady,” in their own words—outfit that my own ska band used to cover sometimes. Midterms approached, and I regretfully decided to miss a Flipper show after seeing they would be playing at a church in a few months; it turned out to be a showing of the 1996 dolphin movie.
I’d grown up in Dubai and, like so many others in so many places, microdosed American culture: its music, its cinema and TV shows, its books. I was used to living in a city that felt like a 3D lenticular print, but I was unprepared for the level of screaming cultural saturation I felt, like everything around me had been hit with Photoshop’s Find Edges filter. Have you ever seen those mille-feuille-like photos of tourist monuments, compiled from thousands of tourist photos taken from the same vantage point with small differences of height or weather? Walking around a city where I recognized street corners I’d never been on from images or movies, where a street name could call up a song whose lyrics I didn’t know I had memorized, had the unsettling effect of inhabiting one of those images, suspended between several time periods and histories. Later, when I would spend large chunks of the year away from the city, meeting acquaintances I hadn’t seen in a while who had no idea I ever left, I had a whole other life in another geography which conjured up the same uneasy interstitial feeling.
“I microdosed American culture: its music, its cinema and TV shows, its books. I was used to living in a city that felt like a 3D lenticular print, but I was unprepared for the level of screaming cultural saturation I felt.”
In Morningside Heights I studied anthropology, getting deeply involved with student politics and doing my best to revive the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, the organization from which the Weather Underground emerged in 1969. My undergrad thesis focused on the student occupations that would lead up to the Occupy movement and Bluestockings, a radical bookstore on the Lower East Side. I spent a lot of time at a Hungarian pastry shop a few blocks from the university, LARPing as part of a literary New York of decades past, listening to a lot of anti-folk—to this day, I still use a Jeff Lewis song as a mnemonic device to remember the order of the avenues on Manhattan’s East Side. For the better part of 15 years, I resisted American spellings and pronunciations, until one day I found myself saying “route” in the worst possible way.
There were ghosts everywhere. One day I ended up at a party at the Chelsea Hotel, another place which loomed large in my New York imagination. I was shocked to find it a bit rundown—dingy, wholly unglamorous. I had a repeated feeling of facing the wrong way, like buildings oriented towards roads that no longer exist, leaving them slightly removed from the street, half in shadow. I wasn’t used to how fast the clouds move this far from the equator, and looking at the sky gave me a feeling of motion sickness, a kind of lurching premonition that Rimbaud once termed “a violent presentiment of setting sail.”
I don’t know how old I was when I first read André Aciman’s “Shadow Cities,” published in the New York Review of Books in 1997. He writes about a small, grimy park in the Upper West Side, one of those triangular meridians formed by Broadway, Riverside, and 106th Street crossing at angles. It’s not anywhere I ever really paused at, or had any real attachment to beyond regularly walking past it without noticing, and the piece is all the more remarkable as a result. Some work was being done to the park, prompting Aciman to remember the fast-disappearing places of a New York gone by. He writes:
“Why should anybody care? And why should I, a foreigner, of all people care? This wasn’t even my city. Yet, I had come here, an exile from Alexandria, doing what all exiles do on impulse, which is to look for their homeland abroad, to bridge the things here to things there, to rewrite the present so as not to write off the past … I was once again reminded that something was being taken away from the city and, therefore, from me—that even if I don’t disappear from a place, places disappear from me.”
This passage has stuck with me because I don’t quite understand it, this comfort derived from things remaining the same. Perhaps it’s the particular position I inhabit, of being neither refugee, exile, nor immigrant, but something else altogether—something not carved out of pain or loss but with a dulled, anesthetized texture, or a kind of nothing-liminality. He continues:
“It is precisely because you have no roots that you don’t budge, that you fear change, that you’ll build on anything, rather than look for land. An exile is not just someone who has lost his home; it is someone who can’t find another, who can’t think of another. Some no longer even know what home means. They reinvent the concept with what they’ve got, the way we reinvent love with what’s left of it each time. Some people bring exile with them the way they bring it upon themselves wherever they go.”
But there’s something faintly embarrassing about this position too, about all the work that is made in Dubai and places like it. About feelings of third-world-culture and belonging, or worse, the very cringey invocations of heritage I would see from South Asian-American Twitter. About wanting a home in the first place; for years, I delighted in being able to fold down to two suitcases, even as I left a box or tote bag with friends each time. I resented the assumption I was some kind of hyphen American, or any kind of diasporic body—despite the fact I never lived in my passport country after leaving at age two. Identity was something I had spent my life working against, particularly in the racially stratified United Arab Emirates, and it was certainly not something I wanted to engage with in this new country.
“I had a repeated feeling of facing the wrong way, like buildings oriented towards roads that no longer exist, leaving them slightly removed from the street, half in shadow.”
After college, I moved into a three-bedroom apartment in Prospect Heights with friends, in a building that had recently been featured on This American Life for its bedbug problem. Being young and gullible, we believed the landlord’s assurances that the issue had been dealt with for good, and congratulated ourselves for finding a place dramatically cheaper than anything else in the area. (You’d never guess what happened next.)
I interned at Verso Books for a pittance of a stipend (on my very last day, they sat us down and explained that they would start paying minimum wage as they were about to publish a book about interns), and worked at the Left Forum, a place perpetually on the precipice of implosion and toxic enough to kill any last vestiges of faith in movement politics and, more broadly, the American Left.
The offices were based out of the CUNY Graduate Center on Fifth Avenue, and every day I had to fight the crowds straining to take a picture of the Empire State Building. Catching the sunset as the Q went over the Manhattan Bridge, or those zoetrope-like stop motion animations as the B train left DeKalb Avenue, made this commute worth it. I always remembered the latter as jellyfish; now, on YouTube, I see that this particular wobbly, blancmange shape was in fact a rocket, taking form and firing away. I went out a lot during these years—more than I could handle—to Brooklyn literary events where I rarely enjoyed myself, and warehouse parties where I did. The only place I found the literary community—this pervasive idea of New York I didn’t even realize I still carried with me—was a not-very-secret apartment bookstore on the Upper East Side.
I spent the next decade moving between Dubai and Brooklyn, mostly living in the ‘works in media’ enclave of Crown Heights, including in a nightmare house on Dean Street which received attention for its ‘eco-yogi slumlords’ right after I left. (Recently, I saw a map meme that divided the borough between North and Central Brooklyn, between first-time gentrifiers and those who had been at it for a decade or more.) I don’t know how many different apartments I lived in, but I remained in a small enough radius that I mostly went to the same laundromat, the same supermarkets, and the same two Yemeni bodegas where speaking bad Arabic made me feel like I was back in the Gulf. (I frequented the second bodega, a few blocks away, only when I was very drunk and didn’t want the uncles at the first bodega to see me, as if they would disapprove or even care.) New York began to feel myopic and the United States too far, too removed from the rest of the world. Increasingly, I spent time overwhelmingly with non-white friends, which made the late-onset alienation—I’d been there so long at this point, and shouldn’t it happen in the earliest days?—feel a little better.
The more success and financial stability I found as a freelance writer, the more intimidated I became to write— let alone publish fiction. Most years, I was there for just short of six months, staying away for at least that long before returning as I was always on a tourist visa—and I’ve heard horror stories of what happens if you do too many quick turnaround trips. Later, I got the O-1 or “alien of extraordinary ability” visa, which allowed me to legally live and work in the country.
In 2020, I found myself living above what turned out to be a crack den. I was slowly poisoning myself with a panoply of unregulated herbal tinctures and supplements, although I didn’t know it at the time. A punishing run of work trips in the two weeks before the pandemic began—to Jeddah and Al’Ula, to Dhaka and Seattle, returning to NYC in between—left me with a mysterious skin ailment that several urgent care clinics couldn’t diagnose. They suggested that perhaps a tropical insect had laid eggs under my skin and put me through courses of antibiotics; I worried it was an an undiagnosed symptom of the then-very-new COVID. An eventual referral to a tropical dermatologist and a biopsy revealed it was nothing more dramatic than some presumably foreign kind of ringworm.
“I realized that this contingent visa-segmented experience didn’t disallow belonging so much as the ability to ever really build a life in a place beyond the material trappings that gesture at it.”
The area itself was wonderful, a very Pakistani-Bangladeshi swath of Coney Island Avenue that made me feel the most comfortable I ever have in the US. Perhaps there was something to this diaspora thing after all. I took extended walks to Sunset Park and through Borough Park—a sense of travel without leaving the city that I hadn’t known was possible—and delighted in verdant Ditmas Park and Midwood, feeling like Anne of Green Gables as I visited my favorite tree, an extremely droopy basset hound of a weeping willow, and a flowering hedge. Yet the combined stress of the constant ambulance sirens and an increasingly volatile living situation had me reaching for elixirs. They promised wellness, fewer panic attacks, and a good night’s sleep, but they only served to make me very, very sick. I left the city at the beginning of 2021, a few days before my visa expired, after more than a decade there, with no papers or passport to show for it, and did my best to block the experience out of my mind.
I never wanted to write a ‘Why I’m Leaving New York’ essay. ‘Why I’m Leaving America,’ certainly, even if the reasons are now so self-evident as to be unremarkable or easily comprehensible to my family, who still equate the United States with success, with the fanciest of Western passports, with having made it. When I left the city for the last time, I realized that this contingent visa-segmented experience didn’t disallow belonging so much as the ability to ever really build a life in a place beyond the material trappings that gesture at it. Paradoxically, it feels like just when getting a green card—not through family or through marriage but on my own steam—became something that made building a life possible instead of an abstracted pipe dream, it was time to leave.