Jaja In LaLA

Muslim, Persian, and Queer? Amir Yassai Contradicts the Contradictions by Jahan Sharif

Amir and Jahan

Amir and Jahan

You know when you meet someone new and after a short while you’re pretty sure you’ve made a new friend? That’s was Amir and me.

Our first conversation went on for three hours, and finished with us agreeing to be on each other’s budding podcasts! I went first, joining Amir and his co-host, Ryan, on their show “Let’s Tawk About It” (debuting this month!). While our conversation was mostly about building community, this idea of “emotional privilege” came up, and that’s where Amir and I started our chat.

Pretty soon though, this concept led us down the rabbit hole of identity, and Amir ended up telling me about how figuring out how to be Muslim, Persian, queer, and so much more all at the same time, might have saved his life.

Amir on Instagram: @amir_yassai
Link to the Body Positive pool party!: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/thicc-gurlz-bois-pool-party-tickets-61328573414

Los Angeles, CA, USA
June 2019

Vasilios Papapitsios on Living with HIV and Healing Through Art by Jahan Sharif

Vasilios Papapitsios

Vasilios Papapitsios

I met Vasilios Papapitsios last year at a mutual friend’s birthday dinner. We were perched on the roof of a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, and Vas was telling me the story of the pool party he went to the day before, which then turned into a nighttime jacuzzi party, and ended with him staying at the host’s (whom he didn’t know until that day) house the whole next day. He came to dinner in his swim trunks and a tank top.

I liked him immediately and we became friends.

Vas is a multidisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles who uses his experience living with HIV to inform his art and bring awareness around HIV to a conversational level. His work wrestles with the challenge of transmuting fear into love.

He seroconverted during the summer of 2010 and lived for almost five years before seeking treatment. When he arrived at the Duke University Medical Center, he had full blown AIDS and was facing death. Fortunately, he survived, and today he’s using his voice to chip away at the stigma around HIV and reminding all us to #transmitlove.

You can find Vas online at https://www.vasiliospapapitsios.com/

On Instagram:

Los Angeles, CA, USA
April 2019

“In 2014 I embroidered these jocks and underwear I’d lived in since seroconversion summer of 2010. I embroidered in the hate I had stitch by stitch, weaving my first alchemical spell to transform my physical garments, which were in many ways a symbol of my pain and my fear, into the first spell for hope I could begin to muster while knocking on deaths door. I had accepted death. But I realized I could still choose to live despite it being a harder path. So I wove these words and sent a message into the universe that I had made an intention to fight and a dream to heal. These 5 garments were the first step in healing my heart, my mind, my spirit and my physical body. I began baby stepping my self away from fear based consciousness and into love.” -Vas via Facebook

“In 2014 I embroidered these jocks and underwear I’d lived in since seroconversion summer of 2010. I embroidered in the hate I had stitch by stitch, weaving my first alchemical spell to transform my physical garments, which were in many ways a symbol of my pain and my fear, into the first spell for hope I could begin to muster while knocking on deaths door. I had accepted death. But I realized I could still choose to live despite it being a harder path. So I wove these words and sent a message into the universe that I had made an intention to fight and a dream to heal. These 5 garments were the first step in healing my heart, my mind, my spirit and my physical body. I began baby stepping my self away from fear based consciousness and into love.” -Vas via Facebook

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Painted Ladies of the Desert by Jahan Sharif

California’s 2019 Super Bloom

California’s 2019 Super Bloom

Rain falls in the desert like it did on Noah in Genesis. This winter, showers that could only be described as biblical, pounded Southern California’s Colorado and Mojave deserts-- slowly turning the sun-dried earth from dust to soil, and bringing to bear opportunities for new life.

Seeds dormant from decades of drought, sprouted from within the desert floor for the second time in as many years, spawning wild, impressionist tapestries of orange poppies, hot pink Bigelow’s Monkey Flowers, purple Sand Verbenas, delicate white and yellow Evening Primroses, and of course, desert lilies.

Taken together, they formed a super bloom.

Photo by Bahareh Ramezani

Photo by Bahareh Ramezani

Sometime in the past few weeks, between coffee runs and yoga classes, I noticed that leaves were falling from the trees. I thought this was interesting, because I’ve not known leaves to fall in Los Angeles, and especially not in February! So maybe, I thought to myself, they weren’t leaves. Maybe they were flowers-- the dried up petals of the many bougainvillea plants in the area.

A few days later, I noticed them again; and it seemed to be getting worse-- much worse! I tried to get a better look, but it’s been so windy in LA that the leaves never really got low enough for me to grab. Not that it would have mattered anyway, because this time there were so many of these little bronze beasts of botany that I knew they couldn't be dead bougainvillea flowers. So what were they, and why were there so many of them?

The answer came a few days later when, while walking through my neighborhood with a friend, he, with a sudden burst of enthusiasm, said, “Jahan! Look!” He was pointing in front of us to a swarm of the mysterious tumbling non-leaves. “Have you noticed the butterfly migration?! It’s amazing!”

As winter gives way to spring, an estimated 1 billion Painted Lady butterflies will make the 2,000+ mile trek from the deserts of Southern California all the way to Washington and Oregon in America’s Pacific Northwest. Of course, this is not by accident. While the migration happens yearly, the super bloom created the perfect conditions for a super population of butterflies: An abundance of food for which competition was unnecessary.

The Painted Lady butterfly

The Painted Lady butterfly

The Painted Lady is the most common butterfly species on Earth. From the Sahara Desert to medieval cathedrals in Europe to the vast plains of Central Asia, they are present on every continent except for South America and Antarctica. And just like in LA, when the population booms, people take note.

My intention for starting Jaja in was to encourage us-- you and me-- to be more present and to deepen our connection with the people, things, and events that happen in our lives. And last week, as I stood in the shadow cast by thousands of butterflies, I couldn’t help but feel connected; thinking to myself how cool it was that there was a chance that someone else, somewhere on Earth, might also be marveling at their very own super bloom of Painted Ladies.

Los Angeles, CA, USA
March 2019

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Sifa Zote Kwa Mtu Mweusi: All Praises to the Black Man by Jahan Sharif

Gary Bartz

Gary Bartz

I.

The DJ is playing music that sounds like it was made by aliens for aliens, and it’s making me crazy. I’m here to listen to a famous Jazz musician, but if this DJ set is any indication of what to expect, then I had better brace for a total mental breakdown.

Listening to Jazz can sometimes feel like reading a science fiction book with loose grammar and no punctuation inside of a wind tunnel. Jazz draws from everywhere, and yet doesn’t meet you anywhere. It asks nothing of you, and yet requires your full faith to go to where it needs; and, if you get there, it still doesn’t promise you anything, it just presents you with an opportunity.

Gary Bartz crica 1976

Gary Bartz crica 1976

Tonight, I’m with a friend at a performance venue in Highland Park, and we’re here to see the saxophonist, Gary Bartz. I’d never heard of him before, but he has the endorsement of many respected musicians. In fact, Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest and Verdine White, the legendary bassist from Earth, Wind, and Fire, are both here.

It’s a diverse crowd with ages ranging from high schoolers as young as 15, to veterans well into their 70s, and us in between. The gentle hum of idle conversation hangs overhead as we wait. I have the impression that most people here tonight are like me-- we have some inkling of what is possible, and so we came in case something did.

II.

With the pacing of a person who moves exclusively at the speed of his own choosing, Gary Bartz-- dressed in a white collared shirt under a black corduroy blazer, and donning a wide-brimmed bowler hat-- smiled as he sauntered his way to the mic. He adjusted his saxophone and bantered playfully with us, saying that he had to take the stage this early (11pm), because we were so young we probably still had curfews. As we laughed, he said that since he’s started to look old (though he doesn’t feel old) he feels the need to remind us “young people” that even now, after more than 60 years of performing, he “don’t know what we gon’ do, or how we gon’ do it. But I hope you enjoy it.”

With that, he put his lips to the mouthpiece and produced a noise that sounded like a screaming elephant with bronchitis. And then, he just matter-of-factly carried on from there; making his horn screech and scratch, then squeal and wail: Forcefully, confidently, and without apology. This was not easy listening.

The band joined in and soon the sounds flowed together like a field of multicolored wildflowers swaying in the desert breeze: individually remarkable, spiritual in unison, and organized in a such way that seemed like it could have only been envisioned by Mother Nature herself. While I’d never heard anything like it before, even an unsophisticated ear like mine could tell it was something special.

Aside from his brief cover of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Fantasy”, there’s one song I remember clearly.

He started it off by singing in a low speaking voice, seeee-faaaaah zooooeee-tehy, the sounds dripping out of his mouth like warm sap from a maple tree. Seeee-faaaaah zoooo-tehy...seeee-faaaaah zooooeee-tehy. His eyes closed as he rolled each syllable around his tongue like he was savoring the flavors of the perfect bite of his favorite meal. Seeee-faaaaah zooooeee-tehy...seeee-faaaaah zooooeee-tehy...seeee-faaaaah zooooeee-tehy...

“You like how that sounds?” He asked, gazing out over us.

We cooed with approval.

“Me too...so much so that I made a song out of it. Sifa Zote: It means ‘All Praises’ in Swahili. Sifa Zote Kwa Mtu Mweusi-- All Praises to the Black Man. That’s music, all praise. And that’s me, a black man. You get the music with the man, and you get the man with the music.”

He took a breath, closed his eyes, put his lips to the sax, and made it sing. And with its song, he preached.

III.

Listen to Sifa Zote on the album I’ve Known Rivers And Other Bodies, by Gary Bartz (1973)

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We, Like the Sea Turtle by Jahan Sharif

Have you ever watched a sea turtle swim?

It’s magnificent heft muted
By a single flap
Of its undulating wings.

Tilting. Gliding.
Moving in sync with
The invisible currents of the sea.

A world of all-pervading water
Filtering sunlight into the twinkling hues
Of blues and teals and purples
That feed ancient corals,
And illuminate tide pools where dwell
The miniature creatures
Of that proximate world.

So,
Too,
Are we
Creatures of a proximate world.

And like the sea turtle,
So,
Too,
Are we
Creatures who can occupy both:

Land, and Sea.
Here, and There.
The other world
On our one earth.

And so,
Heeding the call of a beckoning moon,
The sea turtle
Heaves herself across the water’s edge
To lay her eggs.

Doing today
What we, humans,
Save for tomorrow.

That is,

The work
Of preserving a world
Worthy of life.


Los Angeles, CA, USA
March 2019

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Jaja Goes Protesting by Jahan Sharif

The group of supporters, activists, and organizers who came to protest the demolition of Myriam’s wheelchair accessible bathroom.

The group of supporters, activists, and organizers who came to protest the demolition of Myriam’s wheelchair accessible bathroom.

On a quiet street a few blocks east of Sunset Boulevard, a young woman fights to keep her home. It’s Monday morning, and I’ve joined an eclectic group of neighbors, activists, and organizers in a last-ditch effort to help her.

For the last 20 years, Myriam* and her mother have lived in this rent-stabilized apartment in Echo Park-- a historically working class neighborhood about 10 minutes east of Downtown Los Angeles. Last August, the multi-unit complex was sold for $1.3 million, and the new landlord is trying to force them out by demolishing their only accessible bathroom. Myriam, who uses a wheelchair and is undergoing chemotherapy, has no other viable immediate living alternatives.

We’d been mulling around for about half-an-hour waiting for something to happen, when one energetic lady, and a self-described “soldier for Bernie,” wondered aloud if “we would have to lie down in front of bulldozers?” The group murmured as it considered the possibility. I said that, if it came to that, I’d squat. A Latin man to my left who looked to be in his late-30s, doubted that would happen, and encouraged us to be patient-- Tracy was on her way, and would soon be here to direct us.

The exterior of the bathroom. It is falling into disrepair as termites and water damage eat away at the wood.

The exterior of the bathroom. It is falling into disrepair as termites and water damage eat away at the wood.

In fact, not much later, a decades-old gray clunker ripped around the corner; and with remarkable speed and confidence, lined itself up with the curb and came to a hard and fast stop just inches from a parked car. Out popped a young white woman with stringy dirty blonde hair, cut off painted jeans, and work boots. Before the car door had even closed, she had already fired off a series of updates about Myriam's case. She told us that she had spent the early morning on the phone with the city’s chief inspector, Daniel Gomez, and he told her that there was nothing he could do to stop the demolition. But now that she saw us and the news trucks here, she was excited to call him back to let him know that if he picked the wrong side, he’d have a PR situation on his hands. This was Tracy— and much like her car, she was unrelenting, and seemingly forged of solid steel.

Tracy is a volunteer organizer, and a singular force within the LA Tenants Union (LATU). According to its website, the LATU “is a diverse, tenant-led movement fighting for the human right to housing for all.” They “demand safe, affordable housing and universal rent control. [They] organize against landlord harassment, mass evictions, and displacement.”

For the last week, the LATU and Myriam’s landlord have been waging an escalating tit-for-tat war against each other. First, with the support of tenants rights advocates and organizers, the LATU temporarily stopped the demolition. Then the landlord called Department of Building and Safety, which deemed the bathroom an illegal addition that could be removed without a permit. So Tracy informed the Department of Disability of LA, which said that removing the bathroom without making “reasonable accommodations” would violate the American Disabilities Act, allowing Myriam to sue.

Eventually, the case reached the chief inspector of Los Angeles, who sided with the landlord— authorizing the demolition to proceed on Monday. Undeterred, Tracy put out a call for direct action on social media. A friend of mine who is involved with LATU saw the post on Facebook, and sent it to me.

The exterior of Myriam’s house was recently renovated, as the new landlord hopes to force her to leave so that higher paying tenants can move in.

The exterior of Myriam’s house was recently renovated, as the new landlord hopes to force her to leave so that higher paying tenants can move in.

Tracy took some pictures of the group, and fired off a quick text. She then went inside to talk to Myriam and her mother. When they came out a while later, Myriam thanked us all for coming to support her. She told us she had good news-- that while inside, the same chief inspector had sent her a text informing her that he’d spoken with the landlord and that he’d convinced her to postpone the demolition.

Nobody could say for how long this would last, but there was a palpable sense of relief among the group. Myriam, however, did not relax; because for her and her mother, barring a miracle, I suspect she knows that eventually, the landlord will win.

That was also the sense I had about this whole neighborhood. Gentrification is happening. And interrupting an eviction here and there won’t stop the forces of capitalism from taking course. I, of course, contribute to this. I’m attracted to neighborhoods with certain types of amenities, and I can afford to pay a bit more in rent to live here.

Back in 2013, I moved to Crown Heights, in Brooklyn. It was still a somewhat diverse neighborhood, with a healthy mix of longtime residents, transplants, black-owned businesses, and new restaurants, all with the added benefit of a major reduction in crime. It was a great place to live, because of the delightful mix of people and experiences. I moved a year later to Williamsburg, which was uniform in its offerings. All of the coffee shops were similar, the people were similar, the restaurants were similar, the vibes were similar. I went back to Crown Heights every few months, and each time it felt more like Williamsburg— which itself felt so much like the East Village that I unironically called it Far East Manhattan.

A low-cost neighborhood coffeeshop in Thai Town was sold without warning, and is becoming a vegan restaurant.

A low-cost neighborhood coffeeshop in Thai Town was sold without warning, and is becoming a vegan restaurant.

LA has its own Williamsburg, it’s called Silver Lake; and, there’s a nickname that’s starting to gain popularity: The sixth borough of New York.

As a culture, we love “progress”, many times thinking that whatever is new is automatically better. But as I watch my own neighborhoods homogenizing in the service of “development”, and I meet residents whose lives are being overturned as a consequence, I find myself trying to slow down so I can look more intentionally at what’s in front of me—seeking to better understand the unintended consequences of my own decisions. And in doing so, I’m learning about how concretely my life is impacted by the loss of things I never truly knew.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Los Angeles, CA, USA
February 2019

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The Magical Realism of Karl Lagerfeld by Jahan Sharif

Karl Lagerfeld, self portrait.

Karl Lagerfeld, self portrait.

In 1967, after locking himself in a house for 18 months and accruing thousands of dollars of debt, the Colombian author, Gabriel García Márquez published what is, perhaps, the greatest opening line of a novel ever written:

“Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo”.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”.

So starts his magnum opus, 100 Years of Solitude; a novel so overwhelming in its complexity, completeness, and ambition that it blasted the entire genre of magical realism out of Latin America, and directly into the popular discussion of literature around the world. The genre was cultivated mostly among Spanish-language authors in South America during the middle of the 20th century, as they struggled to capture in narrative form a level of human atrocity so extreme that it escaped the realm of conventional logic and reason. Márquez, a former journalist who came of age in a period of Colombian history known simply as La Violencia— during which almost 300,000 people were killed— himself described the terrors of his continent’s history as “outsized reality.”

La Violencia (1962), by Colombian artist Alejandro Obregón.

La Violencia (1962), by Colombian artist Alejandro Obregón.

Around the same time, five thousand miles and an ocean away, Karl Lagerfeld, another would-be emperor of culture, was busy inventing his version of the future as the creative director of Fendi. He had come to the Italian house from Paris after escaping the German countryside, which is where he was raised in order to avoid witnessing first-hand the savagery of the Holocaust. At that time, Fendi was known for its furs, but the family brought Lagerfeld in to transform it into a relevant fashion house. Vanessa Friedman said in The Times that “He refused to treat such luxury pelts as mink and sable too preciously. Instead he shaved them, dyed them, tufted them and otherwise created the concept of “Fun Fur,” which gave the brand its enduring double F logo.”

In 1983, his reinvention of Fendi landed him at Chanel-- of which he once said, “Chanel is an institution, and you have to treat an institution like a whore — and then you get something out of her.” With a lifetime contract, an unlimited budget, and a mandate to do whatever he thought was best, Chanel is where Lagerfeld would make his most enduring mark— unleashing the full ambition of his creativity onto the world, and inventing his own type of outsized reality.

I first learned of Chanel as a fashion house, and not merely as a scent, in 2007 while doing research for a school project. YouTube had been founded two years earlier, and internet video was just beginning to be widely adopted by major organizations. Chanel was one of the few brands that had a version of their fashion show available to stream on its website. I’d seen clips of fashion shows in the past-- Naomi strutting down Versace’s long runways in the 90s, or the annually televised Victoria Secret Fashion Show on CBS— this, however, was something different. Chanel’s show was theater, not simply theatrical. There was a set, sound design, and choreography. It was a production deliberately conceived and executed to advance the extended metaphor that was the collection itself. In many respects, Chanel’s show was almost performance art.

And then there were the clothes; somehow simultaneously classic, expensive, current, and yet a nod to what the future could look like-- casual and chic. Vogue’s Sarah Mower said it like this,

“Instead of the multitudinous flocks of options he has sent out in the last few seasons, this single-file presentational march condensed everything that can be thoroughly Chanel, yet completely du jour. While he was at it, Lagerfeld also dashed off sporty striped T-shirt dresses, tulle-covered denim, Edie Sedgwick, metallic-scuba, and puffy Empire organza moments...”

Lagerfeld’s ability to capture the essence of fantasy and aspiration, and then reflect them back as reality was at the core of his ability to define the intersection of the competing planes of the past, present, and future. Márquez did it too.

When the author passed, the editor of the New York Times’ Book Review, Michiko Kakutani, wrote an appraisal of the man she called the “Magus of magical realism.” In her piece, she wrote of Márquez words that could as easily have been for Lagerfeld:

“Garcia Márquez used his fecund imagination and exuberant sleight of hand to conjure the miraculous in his fiction...Such images were not simply tokens of his endlessly inventive mind, but testaments to his all-embracing artistic vision, which recognized the extraordinary in the mundane, the familiar in the fantastic.”

The Magus of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez.

The Magus of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez.

Like the city of Macondo, Márquez’s fantasy land of mirrors in “Solitude,” Chanel’s shows became more and more over the top. He launched a kind-of spaceship, built a full-sized replica of the base of the Eiffel tower, created a beach with sand and tides, installed a cruise ship, and imported a 265-ton melting iceberg from Sweden, to name a few examples.

While there was apparently no limit to the scope of Lagerfeld’s ambition, persistence, and knowledge (he once referred to his mind as Google), the one subject Lagerfeld refused to engage with was death. He said he would never stop working because to stop working for him was to die and “it’ll be all finished.” Contrastingly, Márquez did not think about death, because “...I was sure I was going to die very young, and in the street.”

This mutual refusal to reckon with their mortality, and their early experiences with human-perpetuated terror and the lies used to cover it up, seemed to engender in them an ability to separate fact from truth, and truth from reality. Sometimes, as Márquez said, it “was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proofs other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice.”

Such is how these two men approached their crafts; using their talent and authority to create worlds of their own, where they ignored quotidian nuisances and made magic real. Occasionally, they invited us in. And for those brief, privileged moments, maybe we too would see the world as they did, and believe in the possibility of the otherwise unimaginable.

Karl Lagerfeld passed away last Tuesday, February 19th, in Paris.

Los Angeles, CA, USA
February 2019

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