The Petra Experience

Some chances in life don’t knock on your door every day, like having the chance to meet a renowned author and get to sit with them for an couple of hours, learning and perhaps just generally chatting. Well, how much more if you were to stay at the same place with 3 literally icons, get to see them every day, any time of day, have them read some of your work and give you honest feedback? I’d say it’s quite priceless, a fact I was fully aware of during the week I spent in Petra for the Booker Foundation and Abdul Hameed Shoman workshop for writers.

If you’re familiar with the Booker writing workshop you’ll probably know it’s usually held in Abu Dhabi. However, this time in cooperation with Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation it was brought to Jordan, and more specifically to the magical city of Petra, which I’ll get to later in this post, but first let’s talk about the workshop, the reason were isolated in a hotel in Petra for 8 days.

We were 10 writers, 5 from Jordan and 5 from other Arab countries. Our mentors were Ibrahim Nasrallah, renowned Jordanian/Palestinian author, best known for his series That chronicles  the history of Palestine, Sahar Khalifeh, reputable Palestinian and feminist author, and renowned literally critic Dr. Abdullah Ibrahim from Iraq, author of the 4000-page Arabic narrative encyclopedia.

It was hard not to feel humbled, even belittled, by the vast knowledge and experience shared by the 3 mentors. Yet, it didn’t take us much time to drop the self-consciousness and have it so effortlessly replaced by genuine affinity. Their modesty, openness and willingness to share knowledge and to teach was just admirable. I must say I was particularly intimidated by Ms. Sahar Khalifeh, as the image I had of her was that of the fighter, the rebel, but what I saw was an exceptionally warm and loving human being, which goes to break the stereotype of the staunch, rigid feminist. I just fell in love with her. Mr. Ibrahim Nasrallah, whom I’ve previously met at book fairs, was his same inviting, modest self, sharing with us all kinds of stories and literally expertise. As for Dr. Abdullah Ibrahim, I regret to say I hadn’t known him before, but I was just blown away by the amount of knowledge he possessed. You could listen to him for hours.

Above all, I think the most important was the creative atmosphere we got to indulge in, away from work and the mundane concerns of daily life, talking about writing all day, at breakfast, lunch, dinner and in between. even having those chats in the ancient city of Petra, which is another story unto itself.

Our first trip to the Nabatean city was by night. We took the “Petra at night” tour where Bedouins played the Rababa and told stories to the crowds, with candles all over the place, starting from the entrance of the Siq. Some people might tell you it’s overrrated, and I must admit it felt a bit overpriced but I think it’s what you make of it. I personally enjoyed it, brushing aside the feeling that the Bedouins were internally mocking us as the naive tourists who would pay 17 JDs to listen to some Rababa.  but for me it wasn’t about that. It was about in the presence of these magnificent ruins, this mystery that was carved in rock thousands of year ago, imaging the people who were in this same spot 3,000 years ago, with the same stars above their heads. I detached from the group as soon as the show started, sat in silence, trying to think of anything in an attempt to clear my mind of it, but I just couldn’t, and for some reason my tears flowed out. So, if you ask me, it was worth every penny. And walking through the Siq at night on candle light is not to be missed.

On Friday morning we went to see Petra by day. We set out quite early so we got to enjoy a serene walk in the Siq, taking in the marvelous colors and rock formations. As we approached the massive treasury, which is the first thing you encounter as you reach the end of the Siq, I wondered how that Swiss explorer felt when he first came here and beheld that unique view. I wonder if he realized the size of his discovery. Literally as well as figuratively. It’s mind-boggling when you think that despite the immensity of that city, only 20% of it has been discovered so far.

And then came the donkeys. I was having trouble with my shoes pressing on my little toe, and I couldn’t imagine walking another 1000 Km, mostly uphill, to reach the Monastery. So, we hire 2 donkeys, my friend and I. It was my first time riding a donkey. I’ve ridden horses, camels, but donkeys? And I must say they are not only more agile than I imagined but also surprisingly adventurous. I mean, there would be a several-meter drop to its right and it would choose to walk on the edge, which is why I refused to go downstairs on donkey-back, I could handle the sore toe for the way down.

Once you successfully reach the Monastery it hits you that it’s basically another Treasury. Which is funny, but it also goes to show that it’s all about the journey, not the destination. The views on the way up are just breath-taking.

However, the people of Petra remain the best thing about it. All the way there will be women chatting you up, some even insisting you stop for some tea, and let me tell you this, it’s the best tea you will ever have anywhere. If you’re scrupulous, however, you might have a little problem with the hygiene standards, as the tea is offered in glass cups which are only rinsed with water, so I guess to fully enjoy the experience you just need to suck it up and not think about how many people drank from that same cup. Actually I was a bit baffled, reading a book about Petra not too long ago, that despite the searing temperatures, Bedouins drank a lot of hot tea. When I asked them they said that tea quenched thirst better than water, and I could attest to that from experience now as I didn’t mind having the hot, sweet tea at all despite the hot July weather.

Another thing has baffled me in that book, Married to a Bedouin, as throughout the book I couldn’t wrap my mind about the fact that a Western woman, so used to all the comforts of urban life, chose to give it all up and come live under such primitive conditions. I couldn’t even believe that it was all for love. But I’ll tell you what, everything is Petra sets you up to fall in love. I didn’t, which was a bit disappointing, but given the circumstances and the lack of eligible candidates it was understandable. Even my Bedouin guide turned out to be married. A very nice family  by the way. His wife’s nephew, a small 10-year old boy, rode with me on the donkey and he told us a story with his Bedouin dialect which we couldn’t quite understand, but we did understand the key part of it where he said that some girl rode a donkey, it capsized, and she broke her back. That wasn’t a very reassuring story to hear with the donkeys on the edge of the stairs.

On the way back, the guides offered to take us back through an alternative route. I was intrigued as I didn’t know there was another way to access Petra other than the Siq. So, we said yes, and despite the complete absence of shade in the noon sun, we both agreed it was the best decision we took throughout the trip. The rocky mountains looked mesmerizingly beautiful, and it was all ours, there was nobody else to disturb the tranquility of the scene. Well, that was exactly why I also thought “What are we thinking, being out here with two strangers, on a road where hardly anyone passes, and then being taken to the hotel by a pick-up car that also winded through long, empty streets?” But I didn’t take these thoughts seriously after all, for there was something reassuring about these people, something that made you trust them. They might have told us it was a shortcut, which it clearly wasn’t, not even remotely, but I’ll tell you, I’d trust these guys with my life.

Back to the workshop, like Petra, what made it all the better were the people themselves. All the participants were friendly and there was a general harmony in the group. There wasn’t someone you wanted to avoid or didn’t talk to the entire week, which would be expected in workshops, but that wasn’t the case here.

I came back from Petra with mixed emotions which took some time to sink in, but once they did the most amazing thing happened. I felt like I was recharged with the old creative energy I had when I wrote my first book. Once again, everything else took a back seat and I was thinking about writing all the time. I might have been daunted at first, for knowledge is a burden. I realized there was so much to learn that I started to think I didn’t know how to write, and that’s a scary idea; scary because writing it the one thing I think I can’t live without and that gives my  life its distinctive taste. But again, when I had time to catch my breath and reflect on everything, I realized I had the ability. All I need is the knowledge, and you never stop learning, so all there was to do was to keep writing and learning at the same time, and employ the things I learned to be a better writer.

I also came back with a sense of responsibility. You see, I know there were other writers who deserved to be there more than I did, I was just exceptionally lucky. Now, to make sure I was worthy of that opportunity, I have to produce the kind of work that befits it, which is all the more motivation to keep writing and learning.




Monkeys See, Monkeys Do

It was a few days ago, in a small dusty stationary shop, when I stumbled upon what I considered to be a treasure, a blast from the past: the children stories I grew up with and were some of my first reading experiences and a gateway into the world of books and literature.


As it turned out, many people were just as excited about them as I was, or even more so, although I must say for those unfamiliar with the said illustrated stories, the reaction may seem a bit over the top. In our defense, though, they would look much more appealing if you were a kid in 1992.

So I decided to get some of those stories and experiment with them on my 8 and 5 year-old nieces – whenever I could get them off their tablets that is-. To my mild surprise and despite the not-very-flattering illustrations, they seemed quite interested. However, there was a little problem.

You see, it’s different when you read a story from the 1990’s after you’ve developed some critical thinking skills. You start reading the story to the kids and then your mind goes into panic mode and you’re completely horrified at the crap you’re pouring into their minds right now.

Let me give you an example.

We read a story called “In the circus”. That particular story seemed to catch the eye of both my nieces, how not so when it has a monkey balancing on a rope and bouncing a colorful ball over his head? It’s a daydream materializing into a 2-D drawing.Yet, the title of the story was a bit misleading, so to speak. If they called it “How to be a good monkey who suffers silently” well, that would be more like it.

The story revolves around a little monkey who works at the circus, and who one day decided he’s had too much and decided to run away from the circus because the trainer works him and his brother too hard. He suggests the idea to this brothers who refuse to join him so he carries on with his plan alone. Long story short, the little monkey escapes, gets into trouble, and finally goes back to the circus with his trainer, ashamed of what he’s done and promising not to do it again. And it gets better, and by better I mean worse of course, for guess what was the monkey’s name? “Nimrod”, which is a famous name in Islamic and Biblical literature, the name of the tyrant who threw Abraham – Peace be upon him- into the fire. In popular culture, the name became synonymous with mischievous, rogue and unruly behavior. In other words, that monkey was a no-good maverick who didn’t know any better.

As soon as I finished reading it I turned to my 8 year-old niece and asked her what she would do if she was in the monkey’s place, would she run away or stay in the circus, to which she immediately replied that she would stay. Naturally, I told her that I would leave, because that trainer had no right to torture that little monkey and because monkeys should live freely in the open wilderness where they could feed on bananas and swing on trees. To be fair, I told her the monkey’s only mistake was that he broke into someone’s house and ransacked it.

But that’s just one story and one kid. What about all the kids who have read this story and others? Don’t underestimate the power of the subconscious mind and all the ideas instilled in it. Don’t you dare resist. Don’t you dare revolt against oppression, and don’t you dare find a better life for yourself.

I’m not questioning the intentions of the people who wrote and illustrated those stories. I’m almost sure they did it with the best intentions at heart, but after all there are many ideas that are deep-rooted in the collective mindset of society and those are bound to display themselves in our literature. Take another example:


Here, the raven is being described as “ugly with its hideous black feathers”. It’s not strange at all given this is coming from people who live in a society obsessed with whiteness and who associate fair complexion with beauty. And it’s not only this story, I’ve read other stories from our folklore with some less than subtle comparisons between the pretty white princess and the sinister, ugly, black slave. I guess this is a universal problem, white supremacy is global plague, but it becomes alarming when you see that in the 21st century, it is still being nurtured and instilled in our children.

All in all, there is no way to protect your children from all the poisoned ideas that will be pitched at them whether on the street, at school or through the media. The best thing you can do is to try and help them develop the power of critical thinking to be able to think for themselves from an early age and bust any rotten idea before it seeps into their minds and take part in shaping the way they see the world.

إنت احكيلي القصة

من أكتر الأشياء اللي بندم عليها بحياتي إني ما قعدت مع جدي وستي أكتر قبل ما يتوفوا وما سمعت منهم قصص أكتر. جدي الله يرحمه كانت هوايته يقعد يحكي قصص، بس احنا كأطفال ومن ثم مراهقين ومن ثم شباب في بداية العشرينيات ما كان الموضوع كتير يستهوينا، للأسف

لما صحيت على حالي بعد عدة سنوات ولما صار عندي مخزون قصص من هون وهون حسيت بأهمية توثيقها، وضمنت بعضها في روايتي “قبل السفر”، كنوع من العرفان لأصحاب هاي القصص

اليوم أنا جزء من مشروع أكبر وأوسع، بهدف لجمع القصص التراثية والشعبية، المعروفة أو غير المعروفة، وتركيزنا فعلياً على غير المعروفة، بهدف توثيقها وحفظها.  ولاحقاً إن شاء الله القصص رح تتحرر وتنجمع في كتاب إلكتروني  مع ذكر أسماء الناس اللي ساهموا فيها. وهناك احتمال لنشرها ككتاب ورقي كمان

إذا عندكم قصص سمعتوها من جداتكم أو أهاليكم أو إذا بتعرفوا ناس عندهم قصص من هاد النوع وحابين يحكوها وتتوثق بإمكانكم تبعتوها مكتوبة أو مسجلة صوتياً على الإيميل أدناه، أو إذا بتحبوا ممكن تتواصلوا معنا على نفس الإيميل واحنا بنيجي لتسجيل القصص مباشرة


أو راجعوا صفحة الإيفينت على الفيسبوك:

ولمزيد من المعلومات تابعوا صفحة مشروع قلم على الفيسبوك أو تويتر


On Tolerating Ignorance

The other day my cousin who lives in Chicago sent me a message telling me about her recent visit to Florida. She’s been living in the States for 6 years and there were only few occasions where she mentioned having racially charged encounters. But in her recent messages she said there were too many racists in Florida and that people in Chicago were much more friendly and educated.

My cousin wears a head scarf (commonly known as Hijab, a word I don’t really like for linguistic reasons), other than that nobody would know she’s an Arab or a Muslim. And that got me thinking that, if I were her, would I stop wearing a headscarf, which is part of the dress code in Islam as far as I believe – and I’m not here to discuss this issue- so would I take it off just so I wouldn’t look different and so that people will leave me alone and mind their own business?

Theoretically at least, my answer would be No. Simply because you can’t stop doing what you believe to be right in order to tolerate other people’s ignorance. The bigotry and resentment they harbor is their problem, not mine. Why do I accept having people from all around the world in my country wearing whatever they want, and I deal with them with friendliness? It’s the same thing.

Another important point is that to change the way you dress just for the sake of not having to be different would be hypocrisy on my part, as a person who constantly defies social standards and criticizes norms and traditions. If you dare to be different inside your society, you shouldn’t shy away from it when you’re outside of your comfort zone.

And this goes for anything really. Anytime you feel like you’re giving something up for the sake of being accepted by people who are just too narrow minded to accept you as the person you are as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, then think again.

Anyway, my advice to her was that whenever she faces one of these bigots, just smile at them, it’s a like a message that says: “I feel sorry for you, and I hope that one day you will be able to see the human beings behind those clothes or that skin color  that obstructs your vision”

What Happens in Marrakech…

So I’ve finally been to Marrakech, one city I’ve always wanted to visit, a very lively city with so many contradictions, a bit chaotic but it seems to be working out for them just fine. A unique city in its own way, and I thoroughly enjoyed being in a totally different Arab culture than my own, actually I suspect that is one reason I felt I was way out of my comfort zone, for I’ve never missed home like I did this time, in addition to the fact that I was very conscious of the physical distance and how much time and jet-lag it could take to get there. Actually the trip from Jordan to Morocco was something, especially the connection flight from Rome to Casablanca, here’s the picture: imagine a plane full of Arabs and Israeli Jews, I mean, if you were allowed to carry a knife on board you could’ve cut the tension with it. Boy do we Semites make each other uncomfortable! Well, at least nobody tried to kick me out of my seat and settle on it. And the cherry on the top of it all: An Italian crew. I mean, have you ever seen a plane that starts landing with people standing and moving around? Have I gotten into a public transportation bus to Napoli by mistake?

So, the reason I was in Marrakech was to participate in the women bloggers network meeting. I’ve participated in 3 previous meetings with this network and each time I come out from it having made new friends, met inspiring beautiful people and learned a whole lot. This time was no exception as I’ve had the chance to meet amazing women, some of whom I’ve met before and was delighted to catch up with again and others who I was meeting for the first time, and no matter how much you might disagree with them on certain subjects you cannot but admire and respect their courage and dedication, whether they were developing and running their own projects, fighting for women’s rights and freedom of expression, building their careers, etc. The most beautiful thing is that you get to connect with people on a human level, regardless of everything else, which puts to rest the myth that any woman hates every other woman unless it’s Oprah. The fact is, I was inspired and encouraged to start working on something I have never ever considered doing, but being among such a diverse and amazing group of people can give you a huge push and make you explore new possibilities. So it turns out that what happens in Merrakech actually goes way beyond Marrakech…

Back to Marrakech, as I said it’s a beautiful city, I recommend that you add it to your bucket list, and if you’re from the Estern part of the Arab world you might want to take it easy on the Moroccan food, trust me, it might be nice to have it every once in a while and it’s absolutely delicious but to live on it for more than 3 days in a row would probably make you don’t want to have it again for the rest of your life, our stomachs are not conditioned not to have rice on regular basis or to sprinkle sugar on our lunch, but of course if you’re in Marrakech you have to try all that because it’s all part of experiencing the city and the culture, so suck it up and deal with the upset stomach.

A Beautiful city and an interesting culture mean lots of pictures too, enjoy

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Noon نون

“It’s scary, in a beautiful way” those were Shaden’s word, the co-founder of Inkitab one of the organizers of Noon Book Fair, or as I like to call them: the little-known soldiers. I thought I understood what she meant when she said it over the phone, but when I got to the site an hour later and saw the culture street finally living up to its name and thronging with thirsty book lovers, instead of just hungry employees during a typical lunch break on any given day in Shmeisani, only then I could say I knew what she meant.

                                             picture via @Mujahed_S

I had the great pleasure and honor to be part of Noon Book Fair, Inkitab’s second book fair for used books, as I was there to sign my novel قبل السفر, which I had talked about here an awful lot. I’ve had a book signing before but this  one was something else. It was the whole spirit prevailing over the place, the eagerness and excitement in the air, the happiness you can see in the faces of those who worked so hard to make it happen, and the familiarity you feel even with those you don’t know, but just because you know you share the same love and the same passion, and that idea everyone probably have on the back of their head: We’re a nation that actually reads. It’s like you want to yell at all these new faces: Where have you been? We should be best friends!

And then there were those asking about the book, what it’s about, and those who told me they read it and loved it, and then it started to rain and I wore that scarf over my head which made me look like a street beggar, but as you know being a writer in the Arab world is often compared to that so I would say that I looked the part. And then to the cherry on the top was this gift by a friend of mine, a handmade personalized bookmark  and I’m a sucker for handmade things, personalized gifts and bookmarks, so you can imagine how happy I was to have all the 3 in 1. Thank you, Ali!

I don’t think I have the right words to thank everyone who had worked on this, you guys are amazing and I love you, and I thank God that my I’ve crossed paths with such wonderful souls, full of passion and creativity. Keep it up!

Welcome to the Duke’s Diwan

“It’s like entering a time machine” That’s the best thing I could say to describe how it feels tobe in the Duke’s Diwan, much more for the first time. It makes me regret passing by that place all those times without checking it out, or sometimes not even noticing it was there.

Being the oldest building in Amman, turned now into a cultural attraction, the Dukes Diwan takes you on a journey to a time you’ve never live, but have always longed to, or at least that’s what you may discover as you move from one room to another, touching the old walls and wooden windows that reek with a certain aroma that is s antique yet so familiar, so alive.

It helps to that the curator is the nicest man ever, probably almost as old as the building  itself and has a contagious passion towards it and towards the old days

Oh and there’s also an open book fair there those days, you might want to check that out.

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Cultured People

It has always bothered me how some intellectual, creative or cultured people seem to assume an attitude of self-proclaimed superiority over other people. Breaking away fr the mainstream may make you different, but it doesn’t give you the right to think that you’re better than other people.

What brings this to mind is something I’ve come across recently by Anton Chekhov where he addresses that issue in a letter to his brother Nicolay. He’s some of what he said:

Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:

1. They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber; if they live with anyone they do not regard it as a favour and, going away, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.

2. They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see…. They sit up at night in order to help P…., to pay for brothers at the University, and to buy clothes for their mother.

3. They respect the property of others, and therefor pay their debts.

4. They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not pose, they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.

5. They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false….

6. They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities, shaking hands with the drunken P., [Translator’s Note: Probably Palmin, a minor poet.] listening to the raptures of a stray spectator in a picture show, being renowned in the taverns…. If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having the entry where others are not admitted…. The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement…. Even Krylov has said that an empty barrel echoes more loudly than a full one.

7. If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity…. They are proud of their talent…. Besides, they are fastidious.

8. They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct…. What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow … They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood…. They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not. They drink only when they are free, on occasion…. For they want mens sana in corpore sano.

And so on. This is what cultured people are like…

A Danish Affair

You know how it goes: You arrive in a city for the first time and everything looks new and you feel completely clueless. Then, little by little, you start to get familiar with the streets, the people, the atmosphere, and you find yourself becoming a part of that city, even if for a very brief period of time, and you find yourself falling in love with it, a sweet, childish crush of sorts, that is how I would describe the relationship I had with Copenhagen.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m such an eager-beaver who can be very easily amazed, but if my first visit to Europe won’t get me excited then I don’t know what will. What’s that expression, a child in a candy store? Happy as a clown? Well I’d say a child in a candy store made of candy and full of clowns, and that would still be an understatement.

For starters, the city blew me away. The old buildings everywhere, the museums, the castles, it smelled of history. Now I know I come from a country that’s rich with history but that’s a different kind of history. Our history in Jordan in represented by ancient ruins and cities that are carved in stone, while in Copenhagen they have this tangible history that you can live and touch on daily basis just by walking on the streets. I’m not holding any comparisons here, both of them are great, it’s just nice to experience something different. The other thing that captivated me was the nature. I have never seen so much greenery in one place. And of course the ducks, I’m a sucker for ducks!

And to be quite honest one thing that really put me in the mood was that I often felt like I was in a cartoon. You know, the cartoons we used to watch as kids were all made after the things in European cities. The houses, the animals, the chimneys etc. One time I felt like I was at Gargamel’s house, another time I would get wide-eyed because a certain house reminds me so much of Sally, one of the most famous cartoons we watched as kids.

And if you think that isn’t enough to be excited about, then add to it the pleasure of meeting a wonderful group of ladies who come from different backgrounds, each with her distinctive personality, and telling you interesting stories about her country, her life and all sort of things. Yet, I know of at least one thing those girls have in common: they are opting for positive change. It was great to feel that connection to people you have never met, especially when you’ve had known them online for so long and then you got to put the face to the name. I feel like I want to talk about each girl in detail but that would be hard to express in one post.

On the first day we attended a conference on Cyber Activism where we got to hear from some of those ladies among others, all talking about the role of digital tools in changing the world and other things related to the Arab spring. Then for the next three days we had a workshop organized by Danish Pen and sponsored by Kvinfo. It was very impressive to see this great work done by that group of wonderful Danish women which teaches you a very important lesson about the universal human values that transcended all kind of differences. A lesson about understanding the other and working together for a better world. It’s time we stopped generalizing and judging people by the actions of a minority or the actions of their governments.

All in all, it was a great experience that added to me more than I could think of, and I enjoyed it even more. A shout out for all the great girls I had the honor and pleasure to meet, and a big thank you to Mille Rode and all the wonderful ladies at Kvinfo and Dansk Pen who saved no effort to make it happen.

As for Copenhagen itself, I can go on and on describing how beautiful a city is, but why do that when I have an easier, more visually appealing way to do it? Enjoy!

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