After six long, unexpected months in the U.S., I have finally reached my final destination: Chicago. 
As I wind down my trip here and get ready to head overseas once more, I thought it only appropriate to write about this city that occupies such a strange place in my heart.

Chicago (Then): 2013-2015

“Chicago seems a big city instead of merely a large place.” 

A. J. Liebling 
Chicago, September 2013 (my first weekend in the city)

Year 1: 2013-2014

I moved here for my Master’s back in 2013, coming off of a year-long high living in Prague and a summer backpacking around Eastern Europe/Morocco. 

My first year at University of Chicago was so much better than anything I could have imagined. I was in love with my life: the frenzy of study sessions, the daily drinks at the student pub, the late-night milkshakes. I loved all the new people I was meeting and I was indulging in the charm of living in a big American city for the first time, buzzing on the anticipation of what my life could be and everything I was learning that was so far outside my radar of anything I knew before. 

Doing an area studies degree in the Middle East was a bold move on my part, considering I knew nothing about the Middle East prior to arriving.

But I quickly fell in love. I no longer wanted to go into academia or pursue a Ph.D. in history; I wanted to be out in the real world. I loved my Arabic classes and loved that there was a potential for a brave new world that suddenly felt palpable. 

The University of Chicago, Hyde Park

But after that first year, after I went to Lebanon for a summer and got a hands-on experience with Arabic, after some personal life disruptions tested my mental stability, after the novelty wore off, Chicago started to feel heavy. 

Year 2: 2014-2015

“I think that’s how Chicago got started. A bunch of people in New York said, ‘Gee, I’m enjoying the crime and the poverty, but it just isn’t cold enough. Let’s go west.’” 

Richard Jeni
Christmas 2014

My second year of the Master’s, I just wanted to escape. I felt like I couldn’t relate to anyone (looking back, I was absolutely not trying to relate to anyone), the winter felt so much colder, and I couldn’t help feel like the world “out there” was passing me by. 

Not knowing what I was doing with my life didn’t feel exciting anymore, it felt scary. 

To escape the anxiety of it, I spent so much of my final year going out around the city, exploring it, partying, flying off for weekends. Have you ever tried to read a book after drinking way too much coffee? That jittery, anticipatory feeling where you absolutely cannot sit still? That was my entire year. 

CMES 2015 Cohort, Chicago June 2015

Chicago (Now): 2021

She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.”

-Mark Twain

I’ve had such a wonderful visit here. For one, I am reminded of Chicago’s charm. Walking around downtown, it feels so alive. The art deco buildings, the skyscrapers, the lakefront, there is a bustle that makes it vivacious without being overwhelming. 

Shout out to the Instagram influencers I met at Cloudgate who taught me how to pose for a photo

Plus, it’s a great place for good cocktails and good food.

I’d say, more than anything, there is something cohesive about Chicago. I love Kuala Lumpur, but it doesn’t feel like one solid entity the way Chicago does. When you’re in Chicago, you really aren’t anywhere else. You really aren’t anything else. You’re just part of Chicago; it gets in your bones. 

“It’s the winter,” my friend Tommy said. “When there is a polar vortex, everyone is just in it together.”

Be it trauma bonding or something else, I appreciate that engulfing quality of it now. At the time, it terrified me. I didn’t want to be part of Chicago, but I was. Now, I find it exhilarating. It’s not something I’ve felt in many other cities. I’ve loved them, but I rarely feel part of them.

My Old Stomping Grounds

“If you’ve never met a student from the University of Chicago, I’ll describe him to you. If you give him a glass of water, he says, “This is a glass of water. But is it a glass of water? And if it is a glass of water, why is it a glass of water?” And eventually he dies of thirst.”

Shelley Berman
My old apartment building keeping it classy by not having a door….

I also took a morning and traveled down to Hyde Park to see the university. The first thing I realized was just how isolated it was. While beautiful, Hyde Park feels like something quite different than Chicago. It’s a little town—confused by the blend of rich cultural heritage (and poverty) of the South Side and the gentrification and old world academic feel of the University of Chicago. 

Hyde Park Fall 2021

Even though Hyde Park is “coming along”—there is a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s now, as well as a Nandos, Target, and fancy donut shop—after a few hours I remembered just how small it felt back in 2015. I forgave myself a little for wanting to leave so badly. 

It was definitely surreal to be back. I walked around the campus and my old department building and kept thinking, “Did I really go here?”

It felt a bit like my brain was remembering someone else’s memories.

Catching Up

Not many of my old friends are still in Chicago, but a few are. For the first few days, I stayed with a friend I met back in 2015 who had been filming a documentary about the South Side. I had a great time hanging out in his loft and catching up with him on his life and getting chased by his cats. 

We also had a little dinner party and invited Michael, one of my best friends from the Masters who is doing his Ph.D. at UChicago now. By “we had a dinner party” I mean my friend cooked a beautiful meal while I had the important job of cutting up carrots. 

Michael recently got married so I got to finally meet his wife (also a Ph.D. candidate) and hear about their lives as academics. 

Dinner Party, Oct 2021

After a few days at the loft, a friend from high school picked me up and drove me to Ukrainian village for lunch and pastries. 

I stayed my final night and day with my friend Tommy who I met back in Prague in 2012. He’s originally from Chicago and helped out a lot when I first moved here for my Master’s.

It was fun to see the lives of so many different people from my past all in Chicago and all doing different things in the city. 

Of course, there are a few people I missed. This was mostly because I don’t have a working American telephone and no data/spotty access to wifi.

Thes cats were too funny

—A friend I keep running into randomly across the world (Italy-2012, Chicago, India-2016, Doha Airport-2021)who invited me to his restaurant in Chicago. 
Jerry: I literally walked all the way there and then couldn’t find it! Perhaps I had the wrong address but I didn’t have any way to contact you. Next time! I’m sure I’ll catch you in transit somewhere in the world again!

—My Arabic teacher still works at UChicago. I messaged her but my timing and coordination/communication were bad. This was, once again, because of a lack of access to data.
Hala: So sorry I missed you! I am so happy you are still teaching and I’ll catch you on my next visit to the city Inshallah! 

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1 Comment

  1. Glad it was fun again to be in Chicago. A great town.

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