Where are you from, where did you go to college & what did you major in at college?
Where is anyone really from? (lol) I like to think I’m from everywhere. I’m a Kuwait-born Palestinian from the south side of Chicago, or Chicagoan from the West Bank of Palestine. I spent childhood summers in Jordan and much of my adulthood between Dubai and New York City, but now finally back “home” in Chicago!
I graduated from the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) with a BA in English Literature, and from The New School for Public Engagement with an MFA in Creative Writing (with a concentration in poetry).
What countries have you visited?
Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico (that counts, right?), Costa Rica, Italy, France, England, Greece, Turkey, Netherlands, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, UAE, Oman, Indonesia.
Top 3 on your list?
Italy, Mexico, and Indonesia
Describe your first experience traveling abroad
When I was younger we would either travel to Jordan to visit relatives or Canada to visit my older sister. But my first real, memorable travel experience was in 2009, on a humanitarian aid mission to the Gaza Strip. Before joining the aid convoy in Turkey, I had a few days alone in Istanbul: sampling Turkish coffee and kebabs, wandering alleyways around Taksim Square, photographing intricate details inside ancient mosques, and absorbing my first taste of Europe. Our convoy then drove through all of Turkey south into Syria, all of Syria south into Jordan, and all of Jordan to its southernmost tip before flying to Egypt to meet our shipment of medical supplies. Along the way we slept in sports stadiums, rundown hostels, and on the road in our chartered buses. Finally we crossed into the Gaza Strip––one of my most spiritual and surreal life experiences. It was the first (and only) time I set foot on what I consider my actual homeland. The trip lasted two weeks and ignited in me a desire to explore the rest of the world.
Long term travel experience
When I was younger I would spend entire summers with my mom in Amman, Jordan. It was mostly to visit relatives, and I was usually annoyed that I’d been taken (far) away from my friends, TV channels, and fast food. BTW I’m happy to report as an adult that I have newfound appreciation for Amman, and Jordan as a whole. Thriving art and culinary scenes, young spirit, beautiful landscape. Totally misjudged it!
After graduation I sort of “fell into” teaching high school English at a private school in Dubai. My older brother had moved to Dubai with his wife and kids. While registering my nieces at a newly opened school, a casual conversation with the principal led to me applying for a vacancy in the English department, which led to me flying out to interview. A few days later I received the offer with a week to decide, and another week before I would begin––total rollercoaster! I ended up spending four consecutive years at this school. Then after a few years in New York City, my wife (also a teacher) and I returned to the same school for another year before deciding it was time to come back home to Chicago and settle.
What is your favorite international cuisine?
Too many to pick from, but among my top are Indonesian nasi rendang, Korean Chuncheon dak-galbi, and Northern Chinese la-mian (hand-pulled) noodles.
Best Travel Story?
It was me and my wife’s third day in Bali, Indonesia. We’d spent time lounging on black sand beaches, eating fried tofu and coconut rice at warungs, and exploring the rice paddies and cafes of Ubud. I had never done yoga before (my wife did), but we were recommended a yoga studio at the top of a cliff. Seemed cool. When we arrived there was still daylight. The studio was an entirely exposed wooden structure; no office, no locker rooms. To our left was the rainforest and to our right, the Indian Ocean. The session was intense (for me, at least). We shifted from one position to the next as the sun slowly set. At the end of the session, with the last bit of sun leaving the horizon, we laid down with our eyes closed for the relaxation pose. What was probably ten minutes felt like hours. I was in tune with the sound of animals in the rainforest in one ear, and the sound of waves crashing in the other. When we ‘woke up,’ it was completely dark, candles were lit, and soft traditional gong music was playing. I felt completely transcendent, like I’d left my body and was floating. It was the closest I’ve ever been to experiencing pure bliss.
BOOKS: Poetry and poetic prose all the way! Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickenson, Walt Whitman, Mahmoud Darwish, Khalil Gibran…and on and on.
WEBSITES: Mostly architecture, design, and fashion sites. Dezeen, Wallpaper, ArchDaily, Vogue, HypeBeast, i-D
FILMS: Pulp Fiction, The Godfather, Mystic River, Django Unchained, The Arrival, Guardians of the Galaxy, Incindies, Cléo de 5 à 7, Jules et Jim
MUSIC: Mostly rap (from mid-to-late 90s/early 00s boombap to new age trap), jazz (Mingus, Coltrane, Davis, Monk), punk (the fast, loud, hardcore 80s/90s type), and a little electronic (synth pop, chill house, UK garage, freestyle)
TV: I love local news; it’s a strange obsession, but I find it so comforting. Series: GoT, Portlandia, The Deuce, Mr. Robot, Black-ish, Mozart in the Jungle, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; food-travel shows like Parts Unknown (RIP Bourdain), F*ck That’s Delicious, Chef’s Table; and all the true crime docu-series. Lots of CNN, ESPN, and HGTV. OK, I get it…I really like TV.
Why do you like working at ITA?
I love working with a group of young, likeminded, well-cultured and -traveled people. Our office culture is warm, communal, and lighthearted, and the work is genuine. I also love using my own unique life experiences to help others make big decisions, so that they too can create their own unique journey.