[Story] Remembering Jamal Khashoggi

Author’s Note: Wrote this story in March. Today marks one year since the gruesome murder (and dismemberment) of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

One morning before class, on a misty pink spring morning, I went on Twitter for the first time in forever. Behold then: a trailer for CNN’s Saudi Arabia: Kingdom of Secrets.”

The video automatically played the following snippet of conversation. It blanketed me in a sudden drift of coldness — as though some invisible, icy fingers were slowly wrapping around my body. 

“Why would you bring a bone saw to an interrogation?”

“Any saw could dismember a human being.”

“Why did they bring any saw?”

In the bright daylight, I felt physically sick. Many months after his gruesome death, a morning post-daylight savings time, the story of Jamal Khashoggi made me want to draw my knees up against myself, numbly rock back and forth, and take deep breaths — a muted pressure behind my temples to pray for redemption and the assurance of goodness. I looked into the intelligence gathered on the last moments of his death, and in an attempt at catharsis, I recreated it.

***

He must have drawn a quick, sharp intake of breath when he turned around the corner. He’s here, in this quiet district in Istanbul, picking up papers. Papers that would allow him to marry Cengiz, with her wet lashes brushing against her thin-rimmed glasses. Cengiz who is waiting outside. Cengiz who is Turkish. Turkish whilst he is Saudi.

The consulate is the same as last time. At least, at first glance, it is so. But, he is turning this way and that, entering deeper into this flaxen yellow labyrinth. Towards the heart of it, towards the papers that he has come here to get.

The thought — just briefly, like the caress of whiskers — must have touched his mind. Suggestively. They wouldn’t dare. Of course not. 

When he steps into the room, glancing up at the man who comes to meet him, he knows that those whiskers — ticklish, impossibly so — should have stung him. This man should have been some nice, slow bureaucrat, who might have asked for a photo or offered coffee.

“What are you doing here?” he asks the man-who-has-come-to-meet-him.

He is old now, he cannot run, and there are another five men behind this one and more slinking in the shadows of the door frame. He is already at the heart of the labyrinth, staring into the mouth of the abyss, mid-swallow. He should not have been able to recognize this man, but oh, he does. Though how he wishes that he doesn’t. Because this man-who-has-come, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, is only the teeth. The darkness behind him is the man he has played chess with from across oceans. MbS.

Mutreb speaks, “You are coming back.”

His glasses fog up. He grows suddenly aware of the mechanisms of his body, like a fish out of water with all senses enlarged. His veins powderizing, his windpipe constricting, his skin papery, prickling, poised to be peeled any moment now. Their fragility made apparent by what could only be a revelation of mortality.

“You can’t do that,” he says, keeping his voice steady but there’s a sheen of perspiration on his head. “People are waiting outside.”

The air-conditioning is on full blast. Nobody speaks for a moment.

He watches what could almost be a smile stretch over Mutreb’s face. Blink.

The men are on him. There’s no more dialogue. They are grabbing him by his arms, and he flounders, tripping on the hem of his thawb. Someone grabs him from behind, thick hands closing around his neck. Another palm, sweaty and hot, closes over his face.

He fights for air. Loud gasping. He is buried alive in billowing folds, smothering hands, violent fists, and that steel-like grip around his neck. His world is screaming. He thinks Cengiz ought to hear this cry that is penetrating and shattering the roof of the universe, but when his mouth finally forms the shape of words, he only hears himself from far away. The weak rasp of a drowning man:

“I can’t breathe, I can’t—”

There’s a scuffle like a final tumble.

Panting.

The fans whirl overhead.

***

The story was written back according to this CNN report: ‘I can’t breathe.’ Jamal Khashoggi’s last words disclosed in transcript, source says.

More recently, a detailed transcript of the conversation between Khashoggi and Mutreb has been released by the Daily Sabah, so my rendition is actually inaccurate: Saudi hit squad’s gruesome conversations during Khashoggi’s murder revealed.

May you rest in peace, Jamal,

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Confession: “I Was Born A Writer”

I’m not sure that Morocco or France are my countries… No, my country is language. My country is a library.

Have you ever felt utterly exhilarated just listening to someone talk?

I was in a conference room somewhere in the basement of the Center for European Studies. Leila Slimani was in conversation with my Advanced Fiction Professor Claire Messud.

Every single word that tumbled out of her mouth — matter-of-factly, resolutely, spontaneously — was setting off fireworks in my head. 

I was born a writer, she said. I always knew I was going to be a writer. 

When hard things happened in her life, even before she started writing her first novel, a part of her was always thinking, Now I’m getting closer to my destiny. Every moment, life was giving her material that could be digested and transformed into literature. So you’ve survived, now you can write. Everything is literature. 

When she said the word “destiny,” I was falling through time and space. When I was in first grade, the school project for the holidays was to fill out a 10-page activity sheet on our life ambitions. (Think: when I grow up, I want to be x.) In 2005, my dad was a computer scientist with entrepreneurial zeal and my mom was a homemaker armed with an engineering degree and childhood education diploma. I wonder how I knew even then the destiny of those letters as my seven-year-old self painstakingly penciled the word: w-r-i-t-e-r. My most primordial instinct, before socialization.

Then I lost that sense of destiny.

Sitting there, hearing Leila talk about how we reach the unreachable and the unspeakable with respect and tenderness in art, about the sheer freedom of writing (we can write about anyone from the inside with intimacy, even monsters or people we hate), about how writing is never to judge but simply to reveal how a person is like, gave me vertigo.

I don’t know if I have talent but all I know is that if I wasn’t a writer, I would have been a bitter, angry, jealous person, Leila said in response to my question. In writing, I accomplished myself.

She was the silhouette of a 37-year-old I hoped to grow into, what I had let fall in the march of years, and what I so desperately wanted to believe, believe, believe. And to remember.

I was born to be a writer. I am going to be a writer.

Even if some days I can’t write, even when I’ve never written anything close to a novel, life has an arc, a constellation of dots, a thrumming of strings ONLY IF WE CHOOSE TO SEE. This vision, undercut by my own doubts, has been postponed, danced around in conversations, swept aside and buried when it wasn’t achieved in 21 years of existence.

But these years should neither be proof of my inadequacies nor a tractor demolishing intuition. The life I’m living through and the inner life that’s ever-shifting within me are all pieces and strands that will eventually crystallize. Every moment I’m just a step closer. 

Thank you, Leila, for the sheer imprint of your burning-hot conviction. I’ve never met someone this serenely confident in the meaning of their existence. You’ve delivered my sense of destiny back to me.

Leila Slimani Harvard.jpeg

Here’s an article about Leila from The New Yorker: The Killer-Nanny Novel that Conquered France.

Here’s a short story by Leila, The Confession. Trigger warning: it’s from the perspective of a rapist.

***

Lots of love on a revelatory day,

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My Junior Fall Harvard Classes!

Vietnam Ha Long Bay Cruise

Hello folks, we’re entering week 4 of Junior Fall?! Summer feels like yesterday — banana shirt days in flip-flops, lounging in the shade reading novels, and smearing the ring of condensation on my fingers when sipping iced tea/milk green tea with golden bubbles/pineapple smoothies (happy sigh).

My life has never been this routine and packed — classes, readings, dining hall meals, exercise. I’ve picked up running again. Weaving between Georgian buildings in the darkness, feet pounding on empty pavements, a flash of headlights, the smell of wet grass, a sliver of the night chilly between my slick fingers, my figure solitary between marble sky and solid earth.

For the first time ever, I’m taking 6 courses in a semester (one of them being an Independent Study) but still, my schedule looks deceptively doable — continuing my streak of no classes on Fridays! But, quite honestly, I’ve been feeling like I’m on a knife-edge. One misstep or a brief surrender to procrastination, and the wheel throws me off. Keeping my balance precipitously on the tightrope of discipline. It’s hard to finish all the readings but I really do want to.

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IGA 211/GOV 1796: Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy, and the Press — Graham Allison, David Sanger, Derek Reveron

Piqued by a summer immersed in international news at CNN, I decided to take my first Government class at Harvard (eons ago in high school, I once took Geopolitics at NUS).  It’s held at the Harvard Kennedy School, with a small class that features a mix of Kennedy school students, National Security Fellows, cross-registered students, and undergrads.

The class is memo-style with national security cases on likely real-world scenarios ranging from North Korea’s ICBM tests to Chinese intervention in Hong Kong to Homeland Security and immigration to cybersecurity. The three professors offer different views/approaches to each of these security challenges. One fascinating dimension is the press: How does domestic press coverage inform/intrude national security decision making? How does social media (Twitter, for example) transform national security strategies? (Think: Trump.)

Fun fact: PM Lee Hsien Loong was a former student in this course (yes, it has been running for a long, long while).

HIST 14V: Walter Benjamin — Peter Gordon

My first History department course. 😳 (This is quite the semester of experimentation.) I still feel slightly out of my element due to the European focus of the class. Sorel on the myth of the general strike? Scholem on Jewish mysticism? Postlapsarian wha—?

But, I’m persisting. We are about to read Benjamin’s Origin of the German Trauerspiel this coming week and it’s apparently one of his most difficult pieces of writing. Let’s see how that goes.

Why am I taking this class? I’ve previously encountered Walter Benjamin only in snippets, sporadically in different courses across departments – for instance, “The Task of the Translator” in my freshman seminar on the creative work of translating, and his writings on the flâneur in Global Fictions. My academic interests lie in cosmopolitanism and the diasporic individual in the age of globalization/postcolonialism as well as at the intersections of phenomenology and literary subjectivity. Time to trace the roots of these ideas to one of the fathers of cosmopolitan thought.

If you’d like to give Benjamin a shot, here’s a short essay, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.”

ENGLISH CAFR: Advanced Fiction Workshop: Writing this Present Life — Claire Messud

My 4th creative writing workshop at Harvard. So excited! The first workshop I’ve ever been to in my life was Intro to Fiction with Claire, in the fall of 2017. I still remember when I was first rejected for the class and then miraculously got off the waitlist (Embracing Rejection At Harvard (also unexpected surprises)) — life works in mercurial, magical ways. Somehow, I’m just glad that I’m still writing, frantically, confessionally, unabatingly. 

That Freshman Fall workshop ended up completely altering my college trajectory (and aspirations). While before I had jotted down snippets in notebooks or started too many novel drafts left unfinished, I wrote my first full-fledged short story (posted as a Valentine’s Day short story on the blog: April, I Arrive on The Shores of Your Love) in that course. It only sank in then that ‘writer’ had contours that I could touch and maybe eventually fill.

This semester, I’m working a projected longer work. It’s a speculative fiction piece about celebrity worship, mass culture, and the future of media in 2035. If you have thoughts on this or some wild ideas, or if you just want to orate about a futuristic world, GRAB A MEAL WITH ME AND TALK TO YOUR HEART’S CONTENT.

HIST-LIT 98: History & Literature Junior Tutorial — Catherine Nguyen

There’s just three of us and our tutor. We create our own syllabus collectively — each of us decides the readings/topics for around 3 weeks. I like the autonomy but the fluidity of structure is quite unprecedented. For my weeks, I’m thinking of these topics:

  • Language and Exile (Nabokov? Pnin? Imaginary Homelands?)
  • Migration and Intimacies (Wong Kar-wai? Eileen Chang?)
  • Refugees, Displacement, and Transnational Futures (Exit West? Viet Thanh Nguyen?)

What would you study, if given the opportunity to craft your own syllabus?

PHIL 97: Philosophy Sophomore Tutorial — Rachael Goodyer

We are studying the concept of dignity through its historical foundations (four influential traditions include: the Stoic, the Catholic, the Kantian and the 19th century German), dignity’s relationship to human rights, and dignity’s discussion in medical ethics. Dignity is embedded in political and legal discourse, so the readings cover many genres (legal cases, philosophical texts, literature, political declarations/treatises).

Is dignity a ‘squishy, subjective notion’ as Steve Pinker calls it? Or is it essential to the conception of human rights? Ah, how hard it is to define dignity; how omnipresent it is in our lives.

Independent Study — David Wang

I’m tentatively working on a love story set in future Hong Kong in a time of crisis and collapse, in the vein of ‘Love in A Fallen City’ (倾城之恋).

After a long, wonderful conversation with Professor Wang about speculative realism, the Hong Kong protests (the city is a crucible of capitalist & socialist forces), post-humanism, and the biopolitics of the state, I’m brimming over with possibilities and the daunting thought that every story — no matter how outrageous — needs to be grounded in the conservative/ordinary/minute human concerns. The political cannot be brushed aside.

***

Read about my classes in previous semesters:

My Sophomore Spring Harvard Classes + Some Little Things

My Sophomore Fall Harvard Classes! (ft. Life)

My Freshman Spring Harvard Classes

Lots of love,

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Interning at CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS

Selina Xu Fareed Zakaria

Working at CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS has been one of the most interesting internship experiences I’ve had. It has exposed me to the specifics of producing a show for air, what it’s like to work at a place like CNN, and the excitement of dealing with ideas, international news, and incisive analysis on a day-to-day basis. Never in my life have I been this in tune with what’s happening around the world — it’s like keeping one’s finger on the pulse of geopolitics. As an intern, I have had the chance to pitch ideas, meet guests, and contribute to the technical side of the show — finding images and footage, time-coding, fact-checking, etc. The job has pushed me into unfamiliar and exciting terrains: I’ve written a book report on cybersecurity, worked on a live show featuring a guest on the streets from the Hong Kong protests, watched Fareed interview Nancy Pelosi at the Council on Foreign Relations, and pulled visual elements for topics ranging from the recent U.S. gun violence to G20 summit to the 1960s civil rights sit-in movement to the LGBTQ Pride Month.

It’s refreshing to examine news in a weekly format instead of the daily news cycle. More than highlighting headlines, GPS has been about analyzing news in an intelligent manner with multiple perspectives. The close-knit team provides a collaborative and open setting, where ideas from interns do matter. Fareed has also taken the time to have conversations with us. In short, this internship has utterly transformed the way I engage with international news.

If you’re someone at all interested in what lies at the intersection of international relations, media, journalism, or even storytelling at large, I highly recommend applying for this dynamic, interdisciplinary experience!!! 🌟💪💪

***

Q: So… why did you want to apply for this internship?

CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS is one of the leading foreign affairs shows in the world — what better place to learn about global affairs and how to write news/tell stories? The nature of the show — a weekly format that provides deep dives — brings together experts, cultural observers, world leaders, and other titans of their fields to think, analyze, and debate perspectives across the spectrum. It’s the antithesis to all that is disappointing in media today, and all the more inspiring because of its scope, ambition, depth, commitment to intellectual rigor, and adherence to facts (in a day and age when those don’t seem to matter as much to some audiences).

Click the image below to listen to the weekly podcast. 🌎💡🎥 

Fareed Zakaria GPS Podcast

Q: What have you focused on in your internship?

International relations – the shifting tides of global geopolitics, the unlikely stories in different parts of the globe, how to tell news and explore ideas visually with an eye on the facts (often the numbers tell the true story), U.S.-China relations which are close to my heart and which will dominate the changing world order for the decades ahead.

Q: What has been the most exciting part of the job?

Hearing from the guests & having my pitches picked!

Guests include political figures — for instance, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the first female President of Ireland Mary Robinson — as well as political experts/commentators like Ian Bremmer, Niall Ferguson, Thomas Friedman, and Zanny Minton Beddoes.

But nothing beats having your pitches picked and seeing them transformed for air, uttered by Fareed on screen, and produced to be shown on TV in millions of households around the world. My pitches for QOTW (Question of the Week) on robots, the WTO, and Brexit were chosen — I now know a bunch of random IR trivia, come hit me up! 😉 Check out the podcasts to catch these brief segments! 🥰🍀✨

Q: What have you learned/got out of your internship experience this summer?

I got a better sense of the global landscape beyond major headlines and the relentless chug of the news cycle. This internship has been eye-opening in the way it compellingly delved into key recurring international stories (e.g. the U.S.-China trade war, Brexit, Iran) but also investigated a transnational perspective on issues (white extremism as a global phenomenon, how U.S. gun legislation compares to other countries, conceptualizing climate justice across developed/developing but also gender lines etc.).

Q: Would you recommend the Director’s Internship program to another Harvard student?

Of course! The opportunities available are amazing — without the IOP (Institute of Politics), it would have likely been a lot harder to secure an offer in public service amid a huge pool of applicants. Many public service internships are also either unpaid or minimum wage, so the generous stipend that the Director’s Internship offers really makes a huge difference. With a fully-funded summer, and an incredibly helpful staff assisting your queries, providing guidance, and building community, the program is a fantastic way to delve into public service whole-heartedly.

Fareed Zakaria GPS CNN Intern

Ode to My Youth • 母校,生日快乐

Saw a couple of tiny girls in Hongzi at Bugis today and suddenly remembered. Happy 102nd birthday, Nanyang! ❤

Selina Xu NYGH Graduation

一九一七八月十五,是宝贵的良辰。 在火药气味浓厚中,可爱的母校出现。

I remember those golden, burnt-edged secondary school days of folding notes and passing them with furtive glances in ordered classrooms when the teacher isn’t looking; of six heads huddling over one glowing phone screen playing Boys Over Flowers on blurry, drowsy mornings before the bell rings; of splaying over beds in late-night talks at the boarding school about boys from across the bridge; of group therapy sob sessions over fictional characters and novel endings; of shared Facebook stalking sessions of the latest eye-candy; of traipsing to Starbucks in the humid heat during 1-for-1 promotions paid for by pooling our allowances together; of weird shenanigans in class such as playing “I love you” on Google Translate when we had to discuss Romeo & Juliet and collapsing into laughing fits; of curiously acquainting oneself with the awkwardness of one’s adolescent body in the mirrored walls of the dance studio during Chinese dance classes; of the collective panic before NAPFA 2.4km tests around the red tartan track; of proudly making hilarious iMovies such as “The Hungry Games” (featuring four of us eating gummy worms at midnight), a talk show featuring us acting as To Kill A Mockingbird characters (I was Mayella Ewell), and a student council election video with young, shining, grinning faces; of the girlish excitement at looking older in our yellow blazers, blue flaps and white pencil skirts; of the simple pleasure of fried fish soup, hot milo, Soghurt stamps, school bookstore snacks, an early recess, bright jackets by each club to don over our pure white Hongzi; the novelty of (and subsequent disillusionment with) a sandwich vending machine; and hollering Jay Chou songs onstage.

I remember graduating in a blur of tears, photos, hugs, and that deep tidal wave of immediate nostalgia in the final moments (A Simpler Era furiously waving goodbye on the platform, receding into a speck).

我的青春,谢谢你温柔地来过。

Selina Xu NYGH Council

Lots of love,

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