Los Angeles

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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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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Vol. 5 -- Jaja in LALA by Jahan Sharif

This essay was originally published March 12, 2018.

We document to preserve; and yet, I am astonished at how quickly the memories fade. Sights that once brimmed with details so precise that I could paint a hologram in my mind, have morphed into a hazy field of pixels-- an image enlarged to the point of distortion.

Occasionally though, I’ll swipe past a photo that prompts a flashback. I’m thinking of my visit to Wat Pho, the reclining buddha in Bangkok. It’s around the corner from the Grand Palace, the historic home of the Thai royal family. Unfortunately, it has become a tourist attraction so overrun with people that I felt like I was in some tragic ancient Disney World.

The reclining buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand.

The reclining buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand.

I see the image and remember the struggle I went through to capture the size of the beast-- my little head poking out of the bottom edge of the frame while the lounging buddha, clad in gold, loomed enormously overhead. And then, how could I forget the man who, while I was taking my photo, leaned the weight of his whole body into me like I was a wall so he could take the same picture! I had to laugh at the whole situation, especially after I tapped him on the top of his head and offended him. (Oh? You’re mad?!)

I wonder, especially now that I’m home and talking about my trip with my friends, if that guy will choose to include this tidbit in his telling of the story? I doubt it. But I do think about the stories he, and the thousands of others, will tell.

I reread the essays I wrote to you to see how they resonate with me now that I’ve been back for a few weeks. As I read them, I remembered a quote I came across a while ago by the composer John Cage. He said, “It is essential that we be convinced of the goodness of human nature, and we must act as though people are good.”

A trust in the goodness of humans allowed everything you read about, and more, to happen. From the exciting adventures to find sex shows, to the lady who grabbed us by the hand and helped us cross the street. None of it would have happened had I not trusted strangers.

Andy, me, and the lady who told us about the Sansab ferry and helped us to cross the street in Bangkok, Thailand.

Andy, me, and the lady who told us about the Sansab ferry and helped us to cross the street in Bangkok, Thailand.

It is hard to remember now, but there was a time when both Andy and Vicool (and you) were strangers to me. However, when life brought us into vibrant and unexpected connection, we chose to explore the possibility of more. And why? Because despite the knowledge that everyone has the capacity to do wrong, we trusted that the other person would do right. We gave each other the benefit of the doubt, and became friends.

Vicool and me sharing a laugh over coffee in Bangkok.

Vicool and me sharing a laugh over coffee in Bangkok.

When Vicool moved to Bangkok last year, it ceased to be just another name on a map or just a place for expats to escape to. When Vicool moved to Bangkok last year, it stopped being a city where 9 million people lived, and became a city where just one person lives. The same is true for Andy in Hong Kong, Ilija in Kigali, and for you wherever you might find yourself reading this right now. Life is about people, connection, and relationships. So when life threw an ocean between Vicool and me, we simply learned to swim.

Seventy years ago, in the thick of WWII, the poet, thinker, and writer Henry Beston wrote, “There are moments in which melodrama becomes life, and this is one of them.” The line vibrates again with eerie relevance. Like then, the world today seems intent on finding ways for us to cleave instead of to converge. But our saving grace against this wave of cultural destruction comes from the power of community, which says, “I may not know you, but I see you— and I’ve got your back.” It is recognizing ourselves in each other, and then allowing life to thrust confidently outward into the world.

On the tram in Hong Kong moments before I met Jenny.

On the tram in Hong Kong moments before I met Jenny.

We document to preserve; and yet, I am astonished at how quickly the memories fade-- but the feelings do not. When someone makes you feel, they become part of you. I think that’s why this trip for me has been so incredible. It’s not just the things I did or the sights I saw, it’s the people-- the ones I shared with you, and the dozens I didn’t. I wanted to document, but how? Feelings can’t be documented in words nor in images. Feelings are documented through actions. The people I met on this trip made me feel so rich with life that I was driven to share them with you. And their stories, through my words, inspired so many of you to write back. Through that interaction, we established connection and fostered community. Having you all-- my community-- along with me on this journey amplified this experience in ways that I could never have anticipated. And so, for this final installment of #JajaInAsia, I have nothing left to say, but thank you.

Until the next one! <3

Jahan

Los Angeles, California, USA
March 12, 2018

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