I opened the photographs that my friend living in Vladivostok, writer Vassily Avchenko sent me: the settlement of Dunay in the Russian Far East, where I was born. I opened the pictures and was immediately flooded with phantoms. The shore of pebbles, traced by abandonment, touched by rust, with five-storey buildings on the horizon which are sometimes called Khrushchevki. And, ruins of a building on the forefront. Somehow this shore, one of so very many shores, was different. I spent some time of my childhood there.

My mom would bring me and my brother to the shore, and shield us somehow from the wind. In windless nooks it was warm. I had a pink stuffed puppy. I wove a cozy nest for it, a burrow, and admired how warm my pink puppy must be there. I remember this feeling of affectionate tenderness towards the puppy. The puppy must have been very, very comfortable in the lair that I built for it.

Perhaps, what was pictured in the photos, was not at all the shore where I grew up. Maybe mom brought us to another place. There is no way for me to recognize. Maybe exact this place it was.

But if I stayed there. I’d spend on this very shore so many more hours. Perhaps would have had been kissed there. How would I look now, if I was to stay? Would I have put up some excessive weight, bleach my hair, wear amorphous t-shirts? Did not smoke? Had a tattoo? Where would I work? In the library? In a local newspaper?

From a little further away–Vassily went to the Island Putyatin–the settlement spread across the hills, looked like a light city, full of futurity. It is the futurity which has a sting of nostalgia. I miss the future: not the past. I miss the future which was never to arrive. In brown-gold hills, the settlement of Dunay, against the steel-blue water, with a newly built golden cupola of an Orthodox church, was a hybrid place, a place of the future of my young parents as I envision it, uncritically, as an adult.

I have been there, oh I have been there, I repeated without much of an awareness that I am almost talking.

In another photo, there was a macabre cloud falling over everything, perhaps the camera’s settings did not exactly adjust to a change of the photographer’s position, but suddenly, after one picture, the second photo, taken in the very next moment, was showing the world much darker; desolate, destitute. In a diminishing contrast traces, edges, and signs of decrepitude emerged in a more pronounced way: disorderly agglomeration of rusty garages, wild and withering greenery, logs and rubble scattered across, boats leaning on different sides; a spontaneous anarchy of materiality, flourishing, overwhelming any effort to keep it at bay.

I noticed a balcony in one of the buildings painted white and mint green–a desperate attempt of beautifying the outer world, unruly environment, an attempt bound to fail.

Is it possible to envision a landscape more empty than that? It is a paragon of emptiness. And with what unavailingly foreign eyes I look at it; it pains even me, how foreign. 


Things to keep in mind when learning a foreign language.

  • Always read out loud! Focus on pronounciation and accuracy. You may sound better in your head than in real life, and without practice you won’t improve.
  •  Study vocab with flashcards. Take your time to make them.
  • Apply new grammar rules in practice problems.  Without application and practice, there won’t be much use to it.
  • Practice, practice, practice! 

Dalia Mogahed is the first hijabi in the White House. She became President Barack Obama’s advisor on Muslim affairs. Born in Egypt, she is the president and CEO of Mogahed Consulting, a consulting firm specializing in Muslim societies and the Middle East. (Read more on Dalia Mogahed right here.)