The 5 things every college freshman needs to know

There always reaches a time, in any journey, when you realize that there are more days behind you than there are ahead. Whatever step it may be in your life, it no longer exists in the glowing dream of a journey before you. Instead, it’s wrapped up in memories, in the little moments that define your past. Only a lucky few can live with no regrets. For most of us, what-ifs and could-have-beens litter our pasts.

I have two months until I graduate University. I’ve been both ecstatic and destitute, sure of myself and so very, very lost here. I’ve been able to feel content studying alone in my room, and desperately alone while in a room full of people. I’ve slowly transitioned to my last year of university, where I feel like nothing has changed and yet, when I look back, everything is different. I can’t say that my time here has been lived out to the fullest, or that I can look back without regrets. I have, however, gained in university the kind of wisdom that can only be garnered through experience. And, using the only skill I’ve learned here, I have summarized it into a condensed, 5-point list.

  1. Study abroad. The biggest regret I have is not having challenged myself to study abroad. The real world doesn’t really give you an opportunity like this without any consequences or limitations, so take advantage of it while you can. Spend time in a foreign country, eat a different cuisine, learn about a new culture. This is one of the best experiences you can have in college. 
  2. Travel. I spent most of my time in university either in school and looking for a job, or sulking about school and looking for a job. I should have spent my breaks jetting off to Spain, cruising in the Caribbean, or scarfing down sushi in Japan. Even if you don’t have the resources to travel, you should consider working part-time to save money, or borrowing money from your parents. Do whatever it takes to do as much travelling as you can, while you can. 
  3. Join the archery club. Or the African society. Or magic club. Or any cool group that teaches you something new and exciting. University is all about finding yourself and experiencing new things. Don’t be afraid to stray a little from all of the other keeners, and join something other than the Pre-law Society, Finance Association, or Debate Club.
  4. Eat out at all of the dirty, cheap local restaurants while your body still lets you. This is something I definitely did not miss out on, and both the scale and my wallet certainly reflect it. But the truth is, you’re going to look back and remember laughing with friends over a plate of greasy fries, not the $2 you saved by eating at home. 
  5. Study. This is the final lesson: GPA matters. Whether it’s to impress employers or get into your choice of graduate school, remember what you’re really there for. 

Get ready for the roller coaster ahead of you, because the next four years are going to be full of ups, downs, and loop-de-loops. You’re going to make so many right choices, and even more wrong ones. But somehow, miraculously, you’re going to end up where you’re supposed to be.

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When you know you’ve finally grown up.

You are the guardian of your own happiness.

I used to be so affected by everyone’s opinions of me. I cared about what my parents thought – I thought that they knew what was best for me, that their opinions and knowledge were always absolute and sound. I cared about what my friends thought – whether I was just a sidekick to everyone else’s evolving lives. And I cared, without reason and without limits, about what strangers thought – what were their first impressions of me? Was I fat, ugly, and stupid?

I lived feeling like I was dropped into a world that was so dense, so hard, and so immalleable. I was putty, being shaped and molded by whatever everyone else around me was doing or saying. It was exhausting – I could never be happy in my own skin. I was always hopelessly chasing butterflies. I would be right on the cusp of catching my own, but let it go whenever I saw another one that some other kid was chasing. I’m always too busy looking at the other kids.

As I’m growing up and growing old, I’m finally beginning to realize that I need to live life by my own standards, my own means, and my own goals. People who love me give me their ideals of what they think is best for me. People who hate me carelessly throw words my way, hoping that I am weak enough to let them affect me. Either way, I need to learn to accept these opinions with kind graciousness.

And then I can turn around and do whatever the fuck I want to do.

Nothing is absolute. No one has a set formula for success. People have their own reasons for going down a certain path, and everyone’s circumstances are different. I need to set my goals with reason and with certainty. This way, when I’m swayed by whatever my surroundings are, I can easily recall my own purpose and continue along my own journey. I can be motivated by my own decisiveness to work harder and to learn more. I need to chase my butterfly with almost a tunnel vision, stopping only to study others’ techniques. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll catch a monarch.

When Death is Foretold

This novel will be written in a first person narrative – from the point of view of a terminally-ill teenage girl with two years to live. This is her diary of accepting her fate and, ultimately, her death. The following is her introduction: 

Death, the great unknown. It’s beyond all that is familiar to us – a verb and a tragedy for which we will always be on the other side of the looking glass. It’s the absence of a tangible body. Of eyes to cry with, and lips to smile with. And, quite possibly – seemingly probably – the absence of a consciousness.

To me, non-existence has always been far scarier than pain or suffering. “I think, therefore I am”. I suffer, therefore I think. Alas, I am. But what happens when I can no longer hurt? When nothing ever has the power to bother me because there simply is no me to be bothered? It’s terrifying, it’s confusing, and it’s maddening. It makes me angry with God – why can’t he materialize that which would validate my beliefs?

I do realize that people don’t have to think about these things. They could just live life for life, and accept the necessary conditions of death in a detached way. Ignorance and bliss work well together anyways. And if life has been kind, they will someday stand in front of a mirror, looking at the grey wisps of hair scattered across their scalps, and reminiscing beautiful, faded memories. Their lives would no longer be sprinkled across the hope that tomorrows bring, but collected in the hangars of their minds. Death, in its eerie, omniscient way, would lie just ahead, being ready to snatch them up in a second. And they, whose young selves were once invincible and whose time was once seemingly eternal, would be ready.

But not everyone can be so blessed. I have to think about these things. Evil exists in this world – it gave me the luxury of knowing dreams and dreaming futures, only to turn around and say, “Too bad. This is not for you.” My life is on a timer. It’s telling me that I have enough time to wrap myself up in nightmares, and not enough time to ever find love, to know happiness, or to uncover self-worth. I’m losing myself before I can ever find myself.

Dreams and Degradation: An Arabic Man’s Untold Story

I wrote this short story a couple of years ago, after reading a post in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times that I found to be particularly moving. While I will never be able to imagine the degree of pain and emotion that is inevitably associated with being a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, trying to do so was a deeply humbling experience. Any feedback on this post will be greatly appreciated! Enjoy. 

Yasser Ahmed Hamdan’s strong jaw softened as he smiled to himself. He was handsome only in the way that most young men were – strong, determined. His dark brown eyes and demeanor told everyone that he was an honest man, and he was. He did not possess any ambitions that would make him otherwise; he kept to himself, working hard to support his family.

He turned to look at his wife. She was humming quietly as she poured her bowl of eggs into a pan of flatbread pieces. In public, she was always covered in a long, shapeless tunic and veil. But at home, when it was just the two of them, she let her long black hair cascade over her shoulders like waves underneath a roaring waterfall. She looked back at him, catching him staring at her, clearly deep in thought. She giggled and returned to making her fatoot. She knew what he was thinking about: in seven short months, their lives would be changed forever.

Yasser continued to study his wife. He didn’t know what he had done to be this fortunate. Theirs had been an arranged marriage, but they had quickly fallen in love with each other. She was irresistible to him. He loved the way her cheeks flushed with color when she was embarrassed. The way her eyes twinkled whenever she looked at him. The way her entire being lit up whenever she laughed. He loved her soft curves, accentuated by the faded t-shirt she was wearing now. She was his wife. He had always longed for his own family, and he had finally found it.

Yasser was not a complicated man. He was not the type to dream of great power and vast riches, as some unfortunate men do. He had grown up in a poverty-stricken family, and even now he was only able to earn $45 a month working in a factory. This was indicated by his torn and discolored turban, and was the primary reason why a majority of his meals consisted of fatoot. But Yasser had taught himself to enjoy the dish day after day, meal after meal. Just as he had taught himself that happiness could not be found in material possessions. Instead, he contented himself with simpler things. He felt blessed when he knew that his parents were in good health. He was delighted when his sister had given birth to a beautiful daughter. He was ecstatic when he and his wife had gotten married, and over the past three months, his happiness had only multiplied.

He looked at his wife’s belly. She was finally beginning to show, the small bump pulling at the fabric of her t-shirt. She was carrying his child, a beautiful baby that he would protect just as he protected his wife now. He would walk across Yemen barefooted to give them what they needed. He would teach his child to read the Qu’ran, to love and to serve God, and to abide by Islamic law. Most importantly, he would teach his child to find happiness in unmaterialistic things, so that his child could learn to be content with life, just as he had.

The seven months passed quickly and Yasser soon found himself in a hospital room, waiting for his wife to give birth.

“Push,” the doctor instructed his wife. She screamed in pain as she did, squeezing Yasser’s hands tightly.

“You’re almost there, three more!” The doctor continued to put his hands out where he knew the baby’s head would soon appear. His wife screamed again and again, each time gripping Yasser’s hands more tightly. And even as he felt that every bone in his hand was about to break, he imagined seeing his baby for the first time. He thought about the rosy cheeks, the wisps of hair, and the small, chubby hands that would eventually grip his finger.

His wife screamed once more, pushing with all of her strength. The doctor leaned in, smiling. He then slowly started to stand up. Yasser felt the adrenaline rush to his heart – it must have been beating a thousand times a minute. He was finally about to meet his beautiful –

“Wake up, filthy pig!” The soldier kicked Yasser in the stomach. “Don’t make me ask twice!”

For a fraction of a second, Yasser was confused. He didn’t know where he was, or why he was in chains. He looked around his dim room, and reality hit harder than the soldier’s kick. He was in jail, where he had been imprisoned for the past 31 years.

He thought about his wife and his unborn child – they had never existed. He had left Yemen when he was a young man, hoping for better job prospects. He should have learned to be satisfied with his $45 a month, but he wanted to provide for his family, to be able to take care of the woman he would eventually marry and provide for the child they would eventually have. Unfortunately, after he left, war broke out and he was wrongly captured as a war criminal.

He was no longer the young man he saw in his dreams. His cheeks had hollowed out, his skin hanging to the peaks and valleys of his skull. His hair had turned white and his arms and legs had recently started to resemble dry, dusty twigs. His shoulders slumped forward, as if he was too feeble and defeated to straighten them. His clothes had always looked washed-out, even in Yemen, but they were, at the very least, clean. They now clung to his body, drenched in liquefied food and his own excrement.

The moments it took for reality to weigh down on Yasser were too long for the soldier. Without warning, he dragged Yasser to another room, where he strapped his arms and legs to a board. The soldier grabbed a towel and threw it on Yasser’s face. He already knew what was coming, but he could never help his reaction – the simulation was too real.

The soldier took a jug of water and, in intervals, poured it onto the towel covering Yasser’s face. In the beginning, they had questioned him in order to gain intelligence, but even as it became clear that he did not know anything about the war, they continued to torment him. It was as if some enjoyment could be found in another man’s suffering.

As he felt the towel become damp, he held his breath. When he finally had to inhale, the towel had soaked up enough water to make him feel as if he was drowning. He tried to breath in more air, but as he did so, the towel clamped even more tightly around his nostrils and mouth. Even though the rest of his body was dry, he thought he was being suffocated by a wave of water. He could feel the particles entering his lungs, and he had to breath in order to cough. Of course, as he did so, the towel clamped still more tightly. He didn’t even know it was there anymore. He was trapped underwater, unable to breath, unable to move.

He struggled against his bindings, trying to free himself so that he could swim to the surface. Even as the ropes cut into his wrists and ankles, he continued to writhe. He thrashed his head against the board and willed his arm to reach up. He heard a snap, but he ignored it. All he could think about was the water that was threatening to drown him.

The soldier must have gotten bored, because he decided to lift the towel off of Yasser’s head and unbind him. As Yasser hastily inhaled large gulps of air, he felt an intense pain rush to his left wrist. He had sprained it, or worse. He yelled out in agony, hoping that someone, somewhere would come to save him. But no one ever did.

“Stop screaming!” The soldier’s fist came flying towards his stomach. When it hit, Yasser fell backwards. His hands clutched his stomach; he wanted to vomit, but his stomach was empty. He had not eaten for days. The soldier dragged him back to his cell and threw him onto the ground. Yasser fell on his left hand, collapsing into a pile of bones. This time he knew his wrist was broken, and as the pain intensified, he slowly closed his eyes and passed out.

When he came to, he was once again chained to the wall, his entire arm throbbing with pain. He raised it to examine his wrist, but as he did so, he looked at his gnarled hand closely for the first time in a long while. It was aged with a maze of wrinkles, maps to vast and bottomless canyons. Wasn’t he a young man just yesterday? Was he not arguing with his mother about marital matters moments ago? His heart ached for her embrace.

But then he had to remind himself that his parents were already dead by now. There was no one to care about him, to love him, or even to remember his existence. He was like an ancient ghost walking along the icy shore of a deserted beach – everyone’s footprints fade with time, but his had never left a mark. He could feel the burning cold of the waves splashing against his feet and legs over and over again, but he left nothing behind to show that he was ever there. As humiliating and painful each day was, this jail was his life. The four walls of his cell were the only horizons he would ever see again. The soldier who dehumanized him was also the only individual in the world to know who Yasser Ahmed Hamdan was.

And so, Yasser wrapped himself in his dreams. He closed his eyes and lay still as he waited to be brought back to that life. He was going to see his wife, to meet his child. He was going to call his parents to tell them the good news. He was going to be the young man that he was 31 years ago -healthy, happy, free. As he lay in the darkness and thought about these things, Yasser did something he never thought he would do again: he smiled.

Lindt Chocolate Cookie Bites

Cooped up for a few days at home this reading week, I came up with this recipe for delicious Lindt chocolate cookies! All you need are a few simple ingredients, a couple of Lindt chocolates, and a half an hour of your time to be able to enjoy these yummy bites of heaven :). 

Cookie step 1
What you’ll need (makes 20 cookies):
– 1/2 cup oil
– 1 cup brown sugar
– 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
– 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
– 1/2 teaspoon salt
– 1 egg
– 1 tablespoon cornstarch
– 1.5 cups flour
– 10 Lindt chocolates

Cookie 2

Step 1: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Celsius. Mix the oil and sugar in a bowl until smooth. Add the vanilla extract, baking soda, cornstarch, salt, and egg and continue to mix until you get a nice, even texture. Add in the flour and knead until you achieve a dough-like substance as in the above.

Cookie 3

Step 2: Cut your Lindt chocolates in half.

Cookie 4

Step 3: Make 20 flat circles and place them side-by-side, on a tray or cutting board. This will make the base of your cookie bite! Next, place each of your 20 Lindt chocolate halves on these dough circles, flat side facing down. Finally, knead the remainder of your cookie dough into 20 larger circles and cover each of these pieces, so that no chocolate is visible.

Cookie 5

Step 4: Oil up a baking tray, place your cookie bites on it (approximately 1.5 inches apart), and bake for 8-10 minutes!

Cookie 7

These delicious Lindt chocolate cookie bites are the perfect treat for any potluck, bake sale, or if you just want to splurge on some goodies. Enjoy! ❤

 

 

CT in Depth: The War in Syria

As it currently stands, the Syrian civil war is a complicated conflict divided amongst four different groups, each backed by different foreign powers. Neither side can be caricaturized as a moustache wielding, Hitler heil-ing antagonist, nor can it be painted with halo and wings. The groups are more like rival gangs, wherein there exists no regard for innocent lives and each gang is as equally brutal and bloodied as the next.

Unhappiness and rebellion have been stirring amongst Syrians since Bashar al-Assad’s father took to power in 1971. Hafez al-Assad had served in office for 30 years, during which he revolutionized the country and oversaw the completion of the Tabqa Dam. However, this modernization came at a great cost: the entire country experienced a brutal repression under the elder Assad’s government. Thus, when Hafez died in June 2000, Bashar came to power promising to free the country of his father’s oppression.

Unfortunately, as Assad quickly started tightening free speech and isolating the economy, it became clear that the freedom promised to them was not in sight. In indignant response, groups of protestors started peaceful demonstrations against the Assad-regime.

Around this time, the people in several other Middle Eastern countries had fought back and ousted their leaders after enduring decades of oppressive, authoritarian regimes. In Egypt and Tunisia, the uprisings led to the exiles of President Hosni Mubarak and President Ben Ali. In Libya, a civil war broke out, ending in Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s death in October 2011, six months after the protest began. This series of uprisings throughout the Arab League came to be known as the Arab Spring.

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Fearful that a similar fate would await him, Assad fought back by violently attacking the protestors in March 2011. This resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Syrians, while thousands more were arrested.

By July 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had formed and had started fighting the Assad regime. A combination of Jihadists, some from Syria and others from around the region, joined the FSA. The freedom fighters lacked both weapons and manpower, so they were incentivized to form a union with the powerful Islamic extremists. At the same time, in order to discourage foreign powers from backing the FSA, Assad had strategically released jihadist prisoners into the rebel groups.

While this was happening, Syrian Kurdish groups took advantage of the conflict and settled in northern Syria at the beginning of 2012. The Kurds and other Non-Arabs account for ten percent of Syria’s population, and have long sought autonomy from the Syrian government.

Iran, Assad’s foremost ally, intervened at the beginning of the conflict and by 2012, had numerous soldiers fighting in Syria and was providing myriad resources to Assad’s army. To combat Iran’s influence, the Gulf States started sending weapons to the FSA through Turkey, another backer of the rebel cause.

By 2013, Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia had all acted in their capacities to support Bashar al-Assad, while the FSA was backed by the US, Jordan, Turkey and Iran. The USA, in its self-appointed role as the world’s principal, secretly authorized the CIA to train and arm the FSA and the Kurds. It hoped that this would allow the rebel groups to fight back against the atrocities Assad had performed.

 

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Then, in August 2013, Assad released chemical weapons on the town of Ghouta. Estimates of between 300 and 1,700 deaths occurred, resulting in the deadliest use of chemical weapons since the Iran-Iraq War. The USA intervened once more, urging Syria to release its chemical weapons under the threat of a targeted military strike. Russia, a supporter of Assad, recommended Syria to conform in order to avoid future attacks by the US.

In this way, Syria turned into a powers dispute between American and Russian forces. The factions in the country seemed to be acting only as pawns, under orders from their far more powerful backers.

2014 arrived and the rebel groups soon met another obstacle. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had formed at this time, having broken off from al-Qaeda over disputes regarding Syria. The extremist group started targeting the FSA and Kurds, slowly but surely building its Caliphate through guerrilla warfare techniques.

 

The result today is a division of four groups, each fighting for its own separate cause, and where there exists no sense of morality. The country exists as a chaotic mess wherein one group has access to advanced weaponry and resources and another welcomes death as martyrdom. Cruel and inhumane acts of war have become the norm and not the outlier in Syria, and there’s no end to the war in sight.  It’s difficult to imagine a world where food and shelter are scarce and bombings and public executions happen only meters away from your home. Yet, half-way across the world, a country and its citizens are begging our attention.