Category Archives: Blog

The Gifts of Rumi…

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Rumi’s tomb in Konya

I am very happy to announce my book deal with St. Martins Press for my book on the Persian poetry of Rumi which restores his poetry to its proper Islamic/Sufi context. I am looking forward to sharing it with you.

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Exploring Rumi in Afghanistan

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Unpacked: Refugee Baggage at Yale Law…

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Refugee art at Yale Law School

I had the joy yesterday of viewing the exhibit UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage in the Yale Law Library with Syrian-born and New Haven based artist Mohamad Hafez who created this powerful installation with Iraqi-born writer and speaker Ahmed Badr (who attends Wesleyan University and is himself an Iraqi refugee). The installation seeks to humanize the word “refugee.” Having spent considerable time with Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Beirut (and now New Haven), I was especially moved by the exhibit and impressed with its artistry, attention to detail, and important message. It reminded me of the scars of war that never really go away, but also the possibility for healing and the miracle of resilience in the face of tremendous suffering.

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Suitcase memories of home (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Mohamad kindly walked me through the dioramas he created in suitcases that re-create the lives that refugees in New Haven left behind in Afghanistan, Congo, Syria, Iraq and Sudan before they arrived in America to begin a new life. According to the website: “These stories are told by kind, genuine and impressive people that society sometimes labels as marginal and insignificant. By giving these voices a tangible platform, Badr and Hafez invite the spectator to reexamine the word ‘refugee’ and view it through a multidimensional lens. These are not merely stories of violence and war. These are stories of triumph and resilience, featuring architects, lawyers, journalists, professors – living and breathing proof of the power of the human spirit.” The exhibit closes on April 5th, so make sure to see it before it’s gone. You can check out more of Mohamad’s unique art at this link–I would buy it all if I could!

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With artist Mohamad Hafez

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Caspian Conference at Yale…

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Caspian at Yale

I was honored to present my paper on 18th century geography, poetry, and spirituality in Turkmenistan (where I was fortunate to live twice) at the Caspian conference this week-end at Yale University. It was a joy to share my research on a panel on Caspian Studies Beyond the Russo-Iranian Paradigm, and to speak in Russian, Uzbek, and Persian with other experts on the region from around the globe.

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Panel mates

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The Caspian at Yale…

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Conference ready


I spent my week-end at a conference at Yale on the Caspian (I presented my paper on 18th century geography, poetry, and spirituality in Turkmenistan–where I was fortunate to live twice)–grateful to meet with other experts from around the world on this understudied region.

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Caspian Schedule

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Conference Coffee…

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Today at Yale

Today I started my day with strong coffee to discuss revolutionary socialism on the third day of our Caspian conference at Yale–enjoyed speaking in Russian and Persian with scholars from around the globe.

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All About Eve…

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With producer Isaac Hurwitz

A bunch of my friends and I flew from NYC to London for the West End premiere (premiere party included) of All About Eve starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James (in an avant-garde production) to support and celebrate with my friend who helped produce it (and who produced a number of my plays in New York–starring John Krasinski, of course).

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Arriving to the premiere (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Excitement was in the air when we got to the theatre (after libations at the Savoy), where the press was photographing celebrities as they arrived. We had to push through the throng, as many Londoners came just to marvel at the stars entering the theatre.

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Premiere night (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Since we arrived right before showtime, we were a bit hurried in getting to our seats, but all the rushing helped add to the excitement. A few friends tried to grab a pre-show drink in the stalls, but were turned back since the show was about to begin.

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Show time (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

As we took our seats at the star-studded premiere, we saw Dr. Who, members of the X Files cast, Sex Education actors, Downton Abby regulars, and apparently Twiggy was there too. Gillian Anderson and Lily James both performed well, and their performances were rewarded with a standing ovation. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the Yale line in the play that’s also in the movie: “I have not come to New Haven to see the play, discuss your dreams, or pull the ivy from the walls of Yale. I have come here to tell you that you will not marry Lloyd.”

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With producer Isaac Hurwitz (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Afterwards, we spilled out onto the sidewalk to make our way to the premiere party–and check our coats before a long line formed. We walked over to the Waldorf Hilton, comparing notes on our experiences of the play and the performances (all positive).

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Party time (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

When we arrived at the Waldorf, the party was just getting started. We claimed a prime table with a view so we could put down our bags, grab a seat when we needed it, and people watch while snacking on hors d’oeuvres as they passed by.

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Time to party (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The dress that I wore I bought in Mongolia from a store in Ulaanbaatar that only sells designs by up and coming Mongolian designers (I was living in Mongolia while an American Center for Mongolian Studies Fellow–intensively studying the Mongolian language and conducting my research project on religion). The coat I wore I had bought in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Esfahan while a guest speaker in the country for Harvard University. I got my moonboots in the Milford Mall in Connecticut–a shiny and fun find.

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Ready to party (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

After settling into the scene, I decided to go check out the other room, weaving through the crowd of theatre types, on the look-out for familiar faces. As I surfed through the dance floor, I picked up hors d’oeuvres along the way, since we hadn’t eaten before the show.

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Let’s go in (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The DJ was jamming, and didn’t seem to mind me taking a few photos–she was absorbed in setting the mood. I was drawn to the solitary quality of the DJ–all these bodies on one side of the dance floor, and then the lone figure curating and conducting it all, without taking any credit or drawing attention to herself.

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DJ at work (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I’m picky with my interior decorating taste, but I did like the hot pink light scheme and chandeliers. Eventually, the mob was just too much for me–and my friends–so we retreated to our table and found out how the photo call was going with the stars and producers.

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Partying hard on premiere night (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

It was a bit surreal when Lily James exited the photo call and was standing right next to us just as I was looking down at the program with her face peeking out from behind Gillian Anderson. The photo call had wrapped, so the whole cast of All About Eve began spilling out right around our table.

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Post-show celebration (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I’m not easily impressed in the acting department, but I had been impressed with Lily James’ portrayal of Cousin Rose in Downton Abbey ever since her first scene on the show. It was sweet to see her being embraced by her friends after opening night; we could feel their support and their shared joy in her success.

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Actress Lily James (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Then Prince Philip suddenly appeared–not the real prince, of course, but the actor who plays him on Downton Abbey (Matt Smith). He hung back humbly and let his sweetheart enjoy her moment, before taking her hand in his and showing his support and love.

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Cousin Rose and Prince Philip (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Then Gillian Anderson came out from the photo call and sat down at the table next to us, being embraced in many hugs and showered with congratulations. You can see Gillian behind me as I was eating butternut squash ravioli–a winning combination. Later in the evening, I had the chance to compliment Lily James on her performance–she was perfectly lovely and gracious. We also got to do a photo call which was great fun and then continued to party the night away. So much in fact that I overslept and only made it to the airport in time because the hotel concierge called to ask if I was going to check-out! I threw my things in my suitcase and bolted to Heathrow. Life as a jet set rockstar is not for the faint of heart.

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Gillian Anderson is behind me (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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Hospital Club…

H Club (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

H Club (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I booked a room at H Club–formerly called Hospital Club–for the premiere and premiere party of All About Eve in London (starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James) H Club is a private members’ club in the center of Covent Garden for people in the creative industries. As a writer and performer, H Club called out to me–a refuge to be with other like-minded creatives in a setting that is truly unique and not a typical “hotel” by any measure.

Welcome to H Club (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Welcome to H Club (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The hotel occupies a building that was once The British Lying-In Hospital. A plaque on the facade of the building says that Zepherina Veitch (1836-1894) and Dame Rosalind Paget (1855-1948) were pioneering midwives who trained at the British Lying-In Hospital, which operated from this building from 1849-1913.

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Checking-in (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The concierge desk in the front hallway is composed of old doors from the hospital–a smart touch and invocation of this building’s history. The seven storey building has a TV studio, an art gallery, restaurant and lounges, as well as a 36 seat screening room, live performance space, and 15 boutique bedrooms.

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Vintage suitcases (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

At the check-in desk, I was greeted by vintage suitcases–another nice allusion to the former hospital housed in the building. I thought of all the wounded and ailing souls who had once stayed on the property–a far cry from the hip and creative space it is today.

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What a hallway (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

When I was shown to my room, I was so elated to find that the hallway outside my door was a collage of impressions of medical equipment. I’d never seen anything like it, and as someone who has spent alot of time in hospitals, it made me feel right at home. I loved how the hospital history was creatively incorporated into the design of the common spaces–and also the bedrooms in more subtle ways.

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Nice touch (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

When I stepped into my room, I could not get over how roomy it was and how unique. Each room has individually curated artwork from their Club Art Program, in addition to custom antiques from around the world. My room had a vintage radio and phone which added to the fun.

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H-Club in London (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

My long window looked down upon the heart of Convent Garden–a lovely view. It’s rare in London to find a room that is so large and comfortable (I know, because I was in town with a dozen friends for the opening of All About Eve and everyone said I scored the best room of all).

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Comfy living (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I appreciated the fresh fruit and chocolates left out to welcome me–along with “Enjoy Your Stay” written on the plate in chocolate sauce. The door to my room, as you can see, had a cool hospital vibe to it–I almost felt like I was living in a posh asylum every time I locked that deliciously drab door.

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Asylum feels (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I also loved how the bathroom and shower style played with the old hospital theme. The perfect mix of a step back in time combined with the polish of modern artsy decor. In a way, I felt like I was in a period film–but free from all of the high stakes of a hospital drama.

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Step back in time (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Imagine my surprise the next morning when I went to eat breakfast in one of the common spaces and found zebra chairs awaiting me–my favorite! The avocado toast hit the spot and the cappuccino helped rouse my energy for a full day of adventure: visiting art museums, eating out with friends, and getting ready for the All About Eve premiere and to party with the stars. I honestly could not have dreamt up a more perfect hotel for my stay in London–a zany cultural hub which gestures towards its 19th century hospital history and is a true home away from home rooted in the pulsing arts center of London.

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Zebra chairs at breakfast (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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Skylark in Negril…

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Skylark Hotel (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

What a gwaan (What’s going on?). Mi a gwaan easy (I’m taking it easy). To settle into the easy life, I took an hour drive from Montego Bay to Negril to get acquainted with the main tourist strip in Jamaica. I had done no research before going there, but I knew enough to expect a lot of hotels and many foreigners. Along the way, my driver stopped at a coconut shack so we could hydrate with fresh coconut water.

On the road in Jamaica

On the road in Jamaica (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I had booked a room in advance at Skylark, but I had done no research on the hotel or the area–I wanted to experience it all with fresh eyes. Skylark in Jamaican slang means: “to laze about, idle, goof off, lollygag, dilly-dally, tarry, behave in an irresponsible manner, to ne’er-do-well, mischief make, engage in shenanigans, tomfooleries, loaf.” That sounded just like what the doctor had ordered–lazing about, loafing around, goofing off.

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Beach living at Skylark (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I had been told in Montego Bay that in Negril you can live all day in your swimsuit–i.e. hotel culture is catered to life on the beach. When I pulled into Skylark I realized what that meant–the whole design of the hotel broadcast bohemian beach club. It was retro without being gimmicky, and relaxed but classy. The minimalist design made for few distractions from the beach and seemed well-suited to sand being trekked inside and out.

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Skylark Hotel (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

When I went to my room to drop off my bag, a retro radio was playing music from the ’70s–a groovy, welcoming touch. I don’t usually listen to the radio in my daily life, so I was grateful to be lulled into a relaxed mood. Fortunately, the room didn’t have a television, so that wasn’t a temptation–and I could direct all of my attention to the beach.

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Miss Lily’s at Skylark (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Since it was drizzling when I arrived and I was hungry after our drive, I decided to go to Miss Lily’s, the hotel restaurant, for lunch while the storm clouds cleared. I was immediately impressed with the hip vibe in the music-themed restaurant–not to mention the menu. I settled on coconut shrimp and callaloo, and made myself right at home.

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Coconut shrimp (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Home. That’s how the hotel feels–like you’re in your own personal, giant beach house, with the best food of all the nearby hotels. I also appreciated the feel from the other guests–from tattooed artist-types to middle aged couples with class–everyone was chill and respectful, quiet and pleasant.

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Sunset sea stroll

I set out after lunch for a beach stroll along the seven mile stretch to commune with the sunset, check out the other hotel properties, and get my bearings. I strolled past stands selling Bob Marley merchandise, got offered marijuana (no thanks) by a number of men, and perused the menu of nearby hotels. None of the other hotels caught my fancy, which made me grateful that I had randomly picked the best place.

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Surf’s up at sunset (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

It was awe-inspiring to see the beach stretch on for miles–and the scenes playing out in all directions made for an entertaining beach walk. Children played atop giant crabs made of sand, while young Jamaican men sang reggae on their guitars, and a bride and groom took wedding photos with the sunset. Eventually, it was time to turn back to Skylark, especially as I was getting harassed by a number of Jamaican men on the beach (a shame–the only downer).

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Skylark at twilight (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The hotel was all lit up when I made it back and looked so charming. There is a lightness to the design–the airiness makes it feel like you’re in a giant beach bungalow. The hanging lights add a festive, yet delicate, touch. I retreated to my room to relax, shower, and catch up on emails before heading back down for dinner at dusk.

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Time to dine (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The menu was all Jamaican-inspired: Cod Fish Fritters, Jerk Corn, Jerk Chicken Wings, Ackee Dip, Jerk Pork, Jerk Chicken, Jerk BBQ Pork Spare Ribs, Oxtail Stew, Curry Goat, Whole Escoveitch Snapper, Jerk Steam Roast Fish, and Miss Lily’s Fried Chicken Platter. It was the fried chicken that was calling out to me–loud and clear–and I dutifully complied. I savored every bite, and went to bed fantastically full and so totally relaxed.

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Dinner time (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I kicked off the next morning with coffee, fresh OJ, and a callaloo-cheese omelette. I was going to spend the entire day doing absolutely nothing but lounging on the beach. Since this was the last leg of my trip, I wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity to spend a few days of intentionally practicing deep relaxation before it was time to return to “real life” back home.

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Coffee at Skylark (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

After breakfast I put my toes in the water to check out the temperature (ideal, obviously), and then took a brief beach walk to help wake myself up. When I lived in the Sultanate of Oman for three years, I tried to get to the beach every day and made beach walks part of my daily routine. I got the idea a few years back when I spoke at the Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Conference in India (the first of its kind in Asia), where a physical therapist had told me that walking in the sand would be a great way to strengthen and stabilize my torn hips. The added benefit, of course, was that it was like a meditation on nature–with so much beauty to take in while I walked.

Cheers (Emily O'Dell)

Cheers (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

What a joy to not rush breakfast–to take in the view and sip my coffee in total peace. There was nowhere to be, nothing to do. My only order of business was the beach, which was waiting for me just a few steps away.

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Post-breakfast sea stroll (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Eventually I parked myself in one of the hotel’s canopied chairs (so perfect), and got to reading my book. It’s rare that I have time to do pleasure reading, so I was grateful to have time to dive into my new book, which was given to me by an American expat friend in Oman.

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Beach time at Skylark (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The Power is a 2016 science fiction novel by the British writer Naomi Alderman. The premise of the book is that women develop the ability to send out electrical jolts from their fingers, a disabling and deadly power that renders them the dominant gender. I highly recommend it–it was so engrossing that I managed to finish the whole book on my trip.

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Beach read (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The water, as you can see, just begs you to wander in. I spent the day going in and out of the water, doing laps, water tai chi, physical therapy exercises, and the usual floating. I retreated to the restaurant when I needed food and shade (and to charge my phone). Everything felt so incredibly easy–no effort required. I’m not prone to relaxation (more like addicted to overachieving and constantly working), but the super chill atmosphere at Skylark plunged me into such a deep state of relaxation that I almost didn’t recognize myself–it had been years since I had felt so relaxed.

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Step right in (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

While I had a blast on every leg of my Jamaica trip, it was really at Skylark in Negril that I finally tapped into what it means to “just be.” No mask, no frills, no expectations. Just days of relaxing on the beach without a care in the world. A reminder of what it means to be truly alive–to be in touch with that most essential joy in being full present and witnessing natural beauty.

Peace from Jamaica (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Peace from Jamaica (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I had forgotten what inner peace felt like–and tapping into it made my last days in Jamaica feel not only joyful, but truly, blessed.

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Sunset in Negril (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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Johnny Cash in Jamaica…

Cinnamon Hill

Cinnamon Hill (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Welcome to Cinnamon Hill–the home of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash in Jamaica for 40 years. Fortunately, right before I left Jamaica, my friend emailed me to tell me that Johnny Cash and June Cash had a home in Jamaica that she had visited 20 years before. So after some asking around, I found my way to Cinnamon Hill–their peaceful Jamaican abode.

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What a porch (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

My driver had asked for directions to Cinnamon Hill at Rose Hall (the haunted house nearby), where the staff said I had to buy a ticket to see the Cash house. But when we got to the ticket booth, there were no signs about Johnny Cash; regardless, they took my money and disappeared. Turns out they were getting the house ready for me! Visitors to the Cash house are rare (about 15 a week), so they had to get it ready and fetch me a tour guide. If you’re not in the “know,” you wouldn’t know it existed–or where it’s located or how it’s accessed. After about 15 minutes of waiting, a guide jumped in our van and directed us 5 minutes down the bumpy road to Johnny and June Cash’s lovely home away from home. Johnny Cash, the tour guide explained, chose to keep the road bumpy because it reminded him of being back home. After we pulled into the property, the first building we passed by (below) is where June Carter Cash liked to sew.

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Sewing time (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The first chapter of Johnny Cash’s autobiography is entitled Cinnamon Hill, after their 1747 Jamaican home (the film was based on the book but leaves out Jamaica, even though Jamaica was such a big part of Johnny and June Carter Cash’s lives). They bought it from their friend John Rollins, who owned Rose Hall and renovated them both.

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Right this way (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

When we stepped up onto the porch, Johnny Cash started to sing–his voice was coming from deep inside the house, inviting us in (a poignant touch). That porch with a view of the tall palms–well I could have stayed on it forever. I wanted to live on that porch–it is perfect in every way.

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Living room (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

We had the house all to ourselves. It’s preserved just like it was when they were living–with all of their furniture, the piano, the photographs, the tchotchkes. All of the dark wood in the house is from Jamaica–so much Jamaican mahogany.

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Photos on the piano

This house ain’t no grave–it’s alive with so many ghosts! In the book, Johnny discusses the presence of actual ghosts in their home, and he learned how to peacefully live with them. The Cash’s time on Cinnamon Hill was idyllic, save for one terrifying break-in (to read about the Cash’s traumatic home invasion by addicts in 1982, click here).

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Portrait of June (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

After sneaking into the tiny hurricane room that they transformed into a shower and bathroom, we proceeded to the the breakfast room, which has a view of the pool that June Carter was building but never finished. After her death, her friends who own Rose Hall finished it for her. Soon, the tour guide said, cruise ship passengers will be allowed to swim in it as part of their itinerary.

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Breakfast room (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Johnny used to play cards in the breakfast room after breakfast, and I had fun surveying his books in that room and others–an anthropology of sorts of their time in Jamaica with the help of my camera.

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Napkin holders (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Cinnamon Hill was once a sugarcane plantation–owned by the ancestors of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It was not burned down in the slave rebellion of 1831 like so many other properties. Her ancestors, as you can see in this newspaper article posted in the breakfast room, actually fought against the abolition of slavery–and journeyed back to England to fight hard against it. Johnny was well aware of his home’s slavery past (and on the tour they pointed out the door to the basement where the slaves would have been punished).

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Barrett in the papers (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Cash wrote about Cinnamon Hill: “The past is palpably present in and around Cinnamon Hill, the reminders of other times and other generations everywhere, some obvious, some not. For more than a century this was a sugar plantation worked by thousands of slaves who lived in clusters of shacks all over the property. All that remains of those people now, the metal hinges from their doors and nails from their walls, lies hidden in the undergrowth on the hillsides or in the soil just below the manicured sod of the golf course that loops around my house. I doubt that the vacationers playing those beautiful links have any idea, any concept, of the kind of life that once teemed where they walk—though perhaps some do, you never know.”

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Dining room (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

In the dining room, we perused June’s china and old, decaying clock (the passage of time rendered real), and took in the long dining room table from all angles–imagining all of the famous guests who had once dined there.

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June’s china (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Scattered throughout the house are old photographs, some framed, some propped up against a mirror on the dresser–others set up in chairs. The photographs are a window into their family life–and their fading faces add to the ghost-like feeling permeating the house.

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Memories (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

There are a number of guest rooms, each with canopied beds and decorated in the Jamaican style. We took our time in each room, since we were the only ones there. I wanted to read the house like a text, take in every detail, make connections, and photograph it like all I do all museums that I visit–one object at a time.

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Guest bedroom (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

As we passed by the fabulous swing doors of the kitchen, we made our way upstairs past a giant dried out crocodile hanging on the wall to go see the master bedroom and other rooms upstairs.

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Upstairs (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The master bedroom had an otherworldly quality to it–like a shrine. The intimate touches were not lost on us–their respective hats hanging on the hat rack, his and hers, and the reflection of the bed in the large mirror hung on the outside wall of the bathroom directly opposite their bed. The house, in a way, felt like a shrine not just to Johnny and June Carter Cash, as celebrities, but to love itself.

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Master bedroom (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The Jamaican design, decorations, and decor throughout the house also testify to their love of Jamaica. Johnny Cash wrote about his deep appreciation of Jamaica. He wrote: “When I take my walks and golf-cart rides down to the sea, I’m often stopped by local people who greet me warmly—“Respects, Mr. Cash, respects”—and I can’t count how many times I’ve heard gratitude for my decision to stay in Jamaica. And since the robbery I’ve been more involved in Jamaican life in various ways that have been very good for me. Today I feel truly at home in this beautiful country, and I love and admire its proud and kindly people.”

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Pool time (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Touring Cinnamon Hill was a really cool experience–it’s a fascinating, not-well-known time capsule of American-Jamaican history. Don’t miss it if you journey to Jamaica–it’s just a 30 minute ride from Montego Bay airport. It’s best to go soon before they open it up to the cruise ship masses who will be out swimming in June’s pool! Well, I hope you enjoyed this unique tour through American music history in Jamaica–isn’t it great?

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Cinnamon Hill (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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I’ve Been Everywhere…

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Rock on, Rockhouse…

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Rockhouse Resort (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Wah gwaan, mon (How are you?)? While I was staying at Skylark in Negril, I took a five-minute shuttle ride over to their sister property–Rockhouse Resort.

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Rockhouse restaurant (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Rockhouse has an infinity pool on the sea cliffs and a celebrated (and thatched) restaurant–where I spent a leisurely lunch overlooking the teal waters lapping gently upon the cliffs.

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Rockhouse restaurant (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones all stayed there back in the day–the walls are decorated with all kinds of Jamaican music history and memorabilia.

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Music history (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I treated myself to a Swedish massage since I was exhausted from traveling all over the island–a massage was just what the doctor ordered.

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Rockhouse spa

What can i say? I had a kick up rumpus (a good time). De Rockhouse tun up (Rockhouse was good). I went for a gentle swim after my massage, since the pool was too beautiful to pass up.

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Pool time (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

If you stay at Skylark, I definitely recommend coming to Rockhouse for the day–you can’t beat the view for lunch. So wha yuh deh pon (what are you up to?). Why not consider booking a trip to Jamaica?

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Paradise (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

As you can see, everyting criss (everything is good) in Jamaica. Likkle more, walk good. Mi see yuh likkle more den (I’ll see you later then).

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Look at that water (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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Jakes in Jamaica…

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Jakes in Jamaica (Photo: Emily O’Dell

While staying at Lashings (my favorite hotel in Treasure Beach) in Jamaica, my travel buddy and I wandered over to Jakes to check out their beach scene, bungalows, and restaurant.

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Pick one (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Liking what we found (especially the hot pink color scheme), we returned later that night for dinner, and got a kick out of this festive tree all lit up. We enjoyed a lovely candelight dinner poolside (sorrel cheesecake included), and were grateful to have gotten the last table since it’s a very popular spot.

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Holiday cheer (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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The Ghost of Rose Hall…

Rose Hall in Jamaica (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Rose Hall in Jamaica (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

On my last night in Jamaica, I drove one hour from Round Hill to Rose Hall, a former plantation said to be haunted by the ghost of Annie Palmer, a woman who is believed to have murdered her husbands and tortured/murdered many slaves. It’s set up as a haunted house, and it was very well done with the ghosts of Annie Palmer and the slaves giving everyone (but me) a real fright.

Fugitive history at Rose Hall (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Fugitive history at Rose Hall (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The group I went with (Americans and Jamaicans) kept screaming and jumping in fright since we couldn’t see the spooks coming–there was no way to anticipate them (it was brilliant, really). One American woman got so spooked she hid in the back, and the person who freaked out the most was a beefy, macho southern white boy with a USA flag t-shirt who was in full meltdown mode because he couldn’t hide his vulnerability. After one big spook, he screamed “This is bullshit!” because he was so embarrassed by how he had jumped and screamed. He kept grabbing his girlfriend when jumping in fright, to which she kept responding: “Stop grabbing me!” It was hilarious–I’ve never seen someone so scared. Turns out Johnny Cash lived in the same neighborhood when he lived in Jamaica, and he even wrote a song about the White Witch–which you can listen to below. In my next blog post, I’ll take you to Johnny Cash’s house in Jamaica.

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Trans Performance in Iran…

Speaking at Yale

Speaking at Yale


This week, I had the opportunity to give a talk at Yale on the complex intersections of transsexual performance and Islamic law in Iranian theatre and film which was followed by a film screening of Facing Mirrors. Afterwards, we enjoyed a lovely dinner for the Q & A session–wonderful to see so many undergraduates there, and I appreciated all of their thoughtful questions.

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Lecture and film screening

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Vassar College…

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Today at Vassar

It was an honor and a joy to speak today with undergraduates at Vassar about Syrian and Palestinian refugees in refugee camps in Beirut–grateful for the opportunity to share that complex history and my own personal experiences in the camps while I was the Whittlesey Chair of History and Archaeology at the American University of Beirut.

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Refugee camp in Beirut

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Round Hill in Jamaica…

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Round Hill in Jamaica (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

After beginning our Jamaican adventure in Treasure Beach, my friend and I took the three hour ride to Montego Bay to relax at Round Hill Hotel and Villas. While we had enjoyed exploring beaches in the south far away from the tourist circuit, we were feeling ready for resort life–resting on the beach and doing absolutely nothing for a few days. Where better to unwind than at the renowed Round Hill, which has been the hotel of choice for royalty and celebrities ever since it opened in 1953.

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Still waters (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The property received attention recently when Prince Harry and Meghan Markel stayed there for a friend’s wedding (other royal visitors have included HRH Prince Michael of Kent and Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia). JFK and Jackie honeymooned there, and years later he wrote his “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” inaugural address poolside in Villa 25. Believe it or not–Oscar Hammerstein wrote The Sound of Music on the hotel grounds in Villa 12, after meeting the real-life Maria von Trapp on the property. Other famous guest have included Sir Paul McCartney, Emma Thompson, Paul Newman, Grace Kelly, Alfred Hitchcock, Bing Crosby, Noël Coward, Lupita Nyong’o, Emma Watson, Taye Diggs, Pierce Brosnan, Ian Fleming, Truman Capote, Michael Douglas and Taye Diggs. While we were there, the Walton family was staying there too.

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Make yourself at home (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

We stayed in Pineapple House, which has thirty-six oceanfront guestrooms. Our room, like all the rooms in Pineapple House, was designed by Ralph Lauren, who owns two of the twenty-seven villas on the property and also designed the hotel’s common areas and bar (each villa comes with a personal chef, housekeeper, and gardener). In fact, he’s even designed an entire fashion collection around his love of Jamaica. For his charity in Jamaica and promotion of the island, the Jamaican government honored him with its Order of Distinction, with the rank of commander, and put his face on a Jamaican stamp.

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Checking in (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

What attracted me from the moment we checked-in was our private walkout patio with a beach view. While it was tempting to take a nap in our four-poster mahogany beds after our three hour ride from Treasure Beach, we wanted to enjoy the water before sunset–so we put on our swimsuits and hit the beach.

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Take a seat (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

We ordered Jamaican nachos, pesto pizza, and gazpacho to our beach chairs, along with the necessary libations, so we could refuel after our journey to the hotel and get some energy before hitting the water. As you can see in the photos, the water was translucent and still–as inviting as could be. My friend got in touch with her inner child and climbed atop the floating trampoline (too fun!), while I prepared my goggles to go and greet the colorful fish.

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The beach awaits you (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

After taking in the sunset, we retired to our room to prepare for dinner. I placed a call to the head concierge Kingsley Blake, who is a legend not just at the hotel but in Caribbean hospitality in general (he will be retiring this year, so I am glad I met him before he does). We wanted to arrange a night trip to Rose Hall, said to be haunted by the ghost of Annie Palmer, and knew he would have the best advice on how and when to go (with his help, I hired a driver to go the following the night).

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Time to feast (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

On our walk across the property to dinner, we passed by a lovely library, and caught a glimpse of some Americans in the television room “watching the game.” Dinner was a white tablecloth affair, and featured an impressive menu. The evening began with piano music followed by a female singer who belted out dance songs, as guests of all ages took the dance floor and got their groove on.

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Dinner time at Round Hill (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

For dinner, I ordered New Market Roasted Pumpkin Gnocchi (I was in a vegetarian mood), but the menu and buffet featured many fish dishes: Steamed Local Snapper, Pan-seared Salmon, Whitehouse Grilled Lobster Tails, and Lemon Thyme Grilled Mahi Mahi. Some of the Jamaican fare on the menu includes: Grilled Local Spiced Jerk Pork, Traditional Rice and Peas, Sauteed Callaloo, Yellow Yam, and Honey Garlic Glazed Carrots. The service was top notch, and we enjoyed watching the other guests dance the night away.

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Breakfast in paradise (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The next morning, we were in for a real surprise–a breakfast buffet that had everything from coconut pancakes and guava parfait to ackee with salted fish and callaloo. I especially recommend the Island Blast smoothie–banana, celery, cucumber, pineapple, parsley, ginger, coconut water–all sourced from Round Hill’s organic garden (they try to use as much locally grown sustainable produce as possible). After relishing each bite of our coconut pancakes and guava parfait (truly out of this world), we sauntered back to our room to put on our swimsuits for another day of practicing the fine art of doing nothing on the beach.

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Beach time (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

On my last day at the resort, I took a short seaside stroll to the hotel spa–housed in an 18th-century plantation house with a rolling 10 acre beachfront lawn which slopes down to the water–and lunched on calamari and a refreshing pineapple and watermelon salad. Then I got a text from a friend–telling me to go see Johnny Cash’s house nearby, where she had been his guest twenty years before. It was time, I realized, to take one last unexpected adventure before I left paradise for good.

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Dive in (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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Lashings: Paradise in Jamaica…

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Penthouse balcony at Lashings (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I knew I needed to retreat to the heat, in the midst of my first winter in New England after years of living in the desert on the Arabian Peninsula. So I asked my travel buddy Kim, with whom I lived next to a volcano in Java during our Fulbright in Indonesia, if she would like to go with me to Jamaica for a Caribbean adventure. We usually overprepare when we travel, so we decided to do no research before we hopped on the plane to have a true “in the moment” vacation. We didn’t know what to expect when we met up in the airport in Montego Bay at night (where floor-to-ceiling murals of Marcus Garvey and other Jamaican freedom fighters were the first faces to greet us) to meet our driver to take us to Lashings Villas–it was a surprise to us that the hotel was about a three hour bumpy ride from the airport! We were getting, it seemed, as far as possible off the tourist track to experience beaches free the usual swarm of tourists to experience a special glimpse of Jamaica.

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Dinner menu at Lashings (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The long ride to the hotel gave us time to catch up and survey small town Jamaican night life while we cruised by local stores and drink stands. I was exhausted from a frustrating ordeal at JFK–it was my first time flying JetBlue and it was a total disaster. The first plane they put us on got to the tarmac and then had to return to the gate for mechanical repairs. The replacement plane got to the tarmac and then also returned to the gate to let off crew members so as not to violate the length of their working hours since our ordeal had gone on for so long. So I definitely do not recommend flying JetBlue to get to Jamaica. But I put that all out of mind when we finally pulled into Lashings and were greeted by these hanging menu items and could finally get to chowing and relaxing.

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Bedtime at Lashings (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

To our delight, we got upgraded to the penthouse and had plenty of room to drop all of our baggage and relax after a long day of traveling. We were particularly impressed with the minimalist yet chic design–everything about the place was perfect, as if it was all made-to-order. The careful details–a sign here, a canister there–were not lost on us, and we appreciated the thoughtfulness behind the design and presentation of the penthouse. Little did we know what other winning style features awaited us at sunrise.

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Fabulous design (Photo: Emily O’Dell)


Since we had arrived under the opaque cover of night, we really had no sense of where we were or what our surroundings looked like when we went to sleep. We were awakened in the morning by the sounds of birds squawking and goats bleating, egging us out of bed. Imagine our surprise when we opened the balcony doors and were face-to-face with one of the most beautiful tableaus we had ever seen–the Caribbean Sea before us, vegetation in all directions, goats eating breakfast to our right, and a large pond to our left, shimmering in the light of the sunrise. No wonder they call it Treasure Beach–a treasure it was, indeed! And not a tourist in sight, from what we could tell from our balcony.

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Kitchen table at Lashings (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Not only did we have a direct view of the sea, but we also were shocked to discover that we had our own outdoor kitchen next to our room! We had gone to sleep in darkness, and woke up in paradise. The kitchen table seemed like the ideal place to enjoy some morning Jamaican coffee while we adjusted to our new surroundings (after greeting our goat neighbors, of course!).

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Penthouse kitchen at Lashings (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

We raised a glass to our luck in landing in paradise–and not having done any research in advance made every moment so fresh and alive, as we explored our hip digs and took in the view from every inch on the balcony. The comfortable chairs, the colorful hammock, the cozy bean bags. With our panoramic bird’s eye view, we could start plotting out our path to the beach for a full day of relaxation.

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Morning coffee at Lashings (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Right beneath our balcony was the inviting hotel pool. We were faced with a problem of abundance–do the pool first? Or the beach? Or vice versa? Or the pool one day, and the beach another? Every possibility delighted us. We were in no hurry to figure it out, since we were on vacation and taking it easy. So we bumbled downstairs for breakfast and to ask the best route to get to the beach.

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Pool time at Lashings (Photo: Emily O’Dell)


Downstairs in the Tree Top Bar, Jamaican workmen were speaking in Patois while putting up wooden screens to shield the lounge from the sunlight. Since Kim and I both speak Advanced Indonesian (and a host of other languages), we savored the sound of this language to which we had virtually no exposure. Bob Marley music accompanied us at dinner and breakfast–and everywhere else we seemed to wander in Jamaica.

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Sea breeze Lashings (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

We powered up on eggs and toast since we knew we would need energy for our trek to the beach, not to mention swimming all morning and taking long walks in the sand. We also didn’t know if the beaches would have restaurants, since we were far from the tourist circuit, so we needed to eat well to help last us through the day just in case.

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Breakfast at Lashings (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

When we went to get our backpacks for the beach, we tried taking some photos on the balcony, but the refreshing and commanding breeze had other plans. The owner of the hotel, David Folb, gave us instructions for reaching the beach–walk down from the hotel a bit, out the rustic fence, through the cricket field, and follow the dirt path towards the water. The dirt path was lined with bougainvillea and roses and everyone we passed along the way was friendly and helpful in answering our questions as to which nearby beaches were the best to explore.

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Wind time (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

From the locals, we learned that we should check out Frenchman’s Beach, Calabash Beach, and Great Bay. When we stopped to buy sunscreen, I found a hat that said “Jamaica” that I bought to help get me in the spirit. The cashier, however, told us, in a hushed voice, to be careful–there had apparently been a deadly shark attack the day before. Was this common, we asked. No, no, this rarely happens. Everyone we encountered appeared shook and told us to be careful. Little did we know, we were heading to the very beach where two men had been eaten by sharks the day before.

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Fly to Jamaica (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

We were surprised to find we were the only ones claiming chairs on the beach–there wasn’t a tourist in sight. Was it because we were so far from the tourist hordes on the beaches of Montego Bay and Negril, or because of the supposed shark attack? A red flag flew from the sign on the beach that warned: “Advisory: only swim at your own risk.” Despite the risk, we dared to wade into the water to our waist, while keeping an eye out for fatal fins. For the first time in months, I got to do some beach reading (“The Power”–highly recommend!), and we could kick back and relax as the powerful waves crashed and clawed at the edge of our chairs.

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Lunch time on the beach (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Thankfully, there was a restaurant with Jamaican cuisine on the beach (with a sign over the bar stating: “Strictly no ganja smoking at the bar and lounge area”), so we enjoyed a late lunch and took a break from the sun in the shade. We started to get familiar with our Jamaican standards: bammy, festival, callaloo, and sorrel cheesecake.

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Local shark experts (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

As the day went on, a few tourists here and there began to appear, and beach hut bars began to billow with their tan limbs and visors. A group of young Jamaican boys warned us to watch out for sharks, and recounted in extreme detail the shark incident from the day before, with thick Patois inflections and energetic recreations of the dramatic events. They, more than anyone else, seemed to have the most information, and we were grateful for their helpful and enthralling shark report.

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Donkey donks indeed (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

On our walk home from the beach, we encountered this sign: DONKEY DONKS. We decided to make this cryptic phrase our trip’s mantra. As absurdists, we relished the sound of it, and trudged back to our villa abode across the polo field contemplating what this koan-like phrase might mean (we eventually looked it up, and I advise you to do the same!).

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Polo time (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

When we ventured out at night (no easy feat as the area is unlit), we discovered on our walk home that the polo field was the best place to view the stars. A joy to find we had our own organic planetarium of sorts! As we tried to identify constellations, we felt like two girls at camp–a feeling that amplified when we discovered that we were surrounded by dozens of toads. Or frogs? In the darkness it was hard to tell.

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Making friends (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

They let us get really close to them for a spirited amphibian photo shoot–we photographed them from all angles, and were careful where we stepped to avoid hurting them. The sense of adventure and discovery was palpable–a truly special feature of staying at Lashings instead of some property on the beach where the entire experience is curated in advance.

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Great Bay (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

We spent our following days in the Treasure Beach area exploring all of the beaches–taking the hidden, unmarked path to Great Bay was an especially exciting adventure. We had the entire beach to ourselves, and enjoyed the perpetually calm waters there. The only food on the beach is at Lobster Pot–a collection of about 4 huts where they serve up fresh lobster and a few other Jamaican favorites. It was the ideal spot to start planning out the next leg our trip in Montego Bay, back on the tourist path. We made sure to savor each moment on the beach and back at Lashings before we had to leave behind the slow pace of small town life and re-join the tourist scene back north.

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Lobster Pot (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

We had arrived at Lashings completely ignorant of the hotel and area, and left it with deep gratitude for such a unique, absorbing, and calming experience in paradise. I cannot recommend Lashings enough–it’s one of the greatest finds I’ve had in all of my travels through sixty countries. Stay tuned for my upcoming blog posts on other corners of Jamaica!

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Traveling on! (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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Yale Law School

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Today at Yale Law School

This afternoon, I enjoyed listening to Professor Mohammad Fadel speak here at Yale Law School on: “The Quran’s Revisionist Reading of the Aqeda: Toward a Political Theology of the Reasonable and the Rational.” I’ve enjoyed every talk we’ve hosted on Islam this year, and debating the issues raised afterwards at Mory’s Club is always a treat.

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Sunset in Jamaica…

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Sunset in Jamaica


I enjoyed taking sea strolls at sunset in Jamaica while staying at Skylark Negril Beach Resort–the perfect home away from home on the beach…

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Feel the peace

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Crazy for Coconuts

On the road in Jamaica

On the road in Jamaica

When I was on the road in Jamaica, my driver kindly stopped at this coconut stand so I could hydrate with some fresh coconut water right out of the coconut–just what the doctor ordered!

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Churchill War Rooms…

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Churchill War Rooms

While I was in London, I had the opportunity to visit the Churchill War Rooms Museum to explore the corridors and rooms where Churchill and his staff planned their WWII manuevers underground.

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Fighting WWII

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Yale Law School…

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My office

It’s easy to spend a lot of time in my office since it’s so beautiful–I never tired of admiring the architecture here at Yale Law School.

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Ancient Ritual at Yale…

Brunch at Yale

Brunching at Yale

Today I enjoyed Sunday brunch with a former student of mine from Columbia, and then took her across the street to Yale Art Gallery to see their lovely exhibit on “Sights and Sounds of Ancient Ritual. How happy we were to be greeted by the goddess Hathor!

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Yale Art Gallery

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Warhol at the Whitney…

Entering Warhol Zone

My Slovak brother

This week-end, while in New York City for a Sufism seminar at Columbia University, I had a chance to see the fabulous Warhol (my Slovak brother!) exhibit at the Whitney–highly recommend! The exhibition brings to life not only his famous pieces but his under-studied and under-appreciated earlier works. Warhol once said, “It would be very glamorous to be reincarnated as a great big ring on Liz Taylor’s finger.” He’s been, in a sense, reincarnated in this exhibit–as one artist friend of mine said, “I used to think that Warhol was too traditional, and now he seems so radical compared to today.”

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Liz and Friend

It’s striking how productive he was in different mediums, despite his insistence that just being alive took up so much work. In the words of Warhol: “I suppose I have a really loose interpretation of ‘work’, because I think that just being alive is so much work at something you don’t always want to do. The machinery is always going. Even when you sleep.”

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Warhol at the Whitney

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Law and Order…

Brunching with Jody Milano in NYC

Brunching with Jody Milano in NYC

I met up for brunch this week-end with Jody Milano, a producer of Law and Order who was my boss for years on the show. She’s been such an amazing mentor to me these past two decades, always such a blast when we get together.

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Fun in London…

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H Club

My friend swung by my H Club, the hotel where I stayed in London, to take me out for a day out on the town before it was time for me to get ready for the premiere (and premiere party) of All About Eve. First we went out for my favorite cuisine in the world–Ethiopian–which was such a treat.

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Enjoying Ethiopian in London

After our vegetarian feast, we went to Tate Modern for the Pierre Bonnard exhibit and to enjoy the collection. The day only got more perfect when it was time to go attend the premiere of All About Eve and then party afterwards with the stars.

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Pierre Bonnard exhibit

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Rebellious Lawyering…

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Yale Law School

I had the joy of attending the Rebellious Lawyering conference this week-end here at Yale Law School. I particularly enjoyed the panels on disability healthcare activism and the legal case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Best of all, though, was connecting with the students organizing and attending the conference–their revolutionary and radical politics give me hope and inspiration for better days ahead.

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Connecting with students

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