Tale of life

Someone who only knows me online (and whom I don’t know at all) shared a personal story with me with a remark, “Unlike you, my life consists of only sad stories”

“I’m sorry for what you have been through. I wish you a wonderful life ahead,” I responded.

But if I had an opportunity to say more, I’d say this:

I’m sorry you feel that way. You don’t know me and my life’s stories, but I’m glad that I reflect what the happy life looks like. However, in reality, every single person on earth has sad and happy moments. Life, I think, is neither about sad nor happy stories. It is a single tale that stretches across the breadth of time. Happy or sad depends on how we tell it and which part of it we choose to tell. More importantly, what happens within that tale isn’t simply given, a fate, or a mere luck. We’re not the sole author of it, but we play a central role in writing our own tale of life.

As for my own, I can summarise it in one phrase, “It is such an exquisite life.

m, ottawa may 2022

Creating Amidst Sorrow & Pain

Ten year ago, in 2012, I published “Clicks, Cabs, and Coffee Houses: Social Media and Oppositional Movements in Egypt, 2004–2011”, a writing that eventually became my most cited article (cited 880 times on 21/04/22). Honestly, I don’t think it was my best. The piece was personally historical, but not because it’s highly cited. It was the first of a series of articles I published around social media and the MENA uprisings, that attempted to challenge techno-centrism that dominated academic and media discourse at that moment. A move that wasn’t new for myself as I had started criticizing techno-determinism since I published for the first time ten year earlier, in 2002. The difference is, this time it was dramatically noticed by many. This moment of recognition, to a certain degree, shaped the latter trajectory of my career in academia.

Continue reading “Creating Amidst Sorrow & Pain”

FRIENDSHIP – YOu’ve Got a Friend in Me

Friendship is one of the most precious things in life. A true friendship lasts a lifetime and real friends never grow apart.

True friends are those who are invited to look closely under the veneer of a seemingly smooth and tidy life, to feel the contour of your life’s cracks and crevasses, and accept its scruffy lines and raggedy edges. They’re part of your life. Through days and years, play and fears, laughter and tears.

Continue reading “FRIENDSHIP – YOu’ve Got a Friend in Me”


It was one of those moments where all ends didn’t really meet. Exhausted, she was too tired to do anything. She strolled slowly to nowhere. Her eyes were telling no stories, or perhaps, too many stories.

It wasn’t sadness. Nor sorrow. Nor pain. Nor anger. She just felt at lost. Just too many things happened. Too many things to handle. Too many uncertainties. She whispered some questions but no answer was heard.

Continue reading “HIS TEARS”


Several weeks ago, a beautiful 11 year old girl named Josée died in a sledding accident at the hill at the Mooney’s Bay, a park where I walk regularly. This was her first winter in Ottawa. Her entire family moved from Lebanon just 6 months ago, to build a new life in Canada. The story broke my heart. “Life is so unfair,” I told J. “Life is cruel,” he replied.

The day I heard about what happened to Josée, I planned to record my part of “A Quiet Place” from TAKE 6. For most a cappella singers, singing Take 6’s song is likely an item in our bucket list. The original music of the song itself is simply beautiful. But what makes Take 6’s take extraordinary is its marvellous arrangement. To sing each part alone does not make sense, it comes with much suffering for those who overhear it. But once all voices are put together, they culminate in richly textured and exquisitely woven harmonies. Beyond that, its altered chord progressions are not only eargasmic, they also fit the message and the lyrics so wonderfully.

Typically, it’d only take about 8-10 minutes to do such a recording. But this time I struggled to find a place to sing it from. And, yet, as I started singing, I found that place. My quiet place is neither religious nor sacred. It is a place of love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness in my heart that I always go to, especially whenever my soul is crushed, and my hope crumbled. There, my faith in humanity is renewed. Life can be cruel. Thus, there’s more reason to be kind and loving to each other. To let yourself love others and be loved in return. To add sparks of hope and beauty to life, to the world.

My Edoens soulmates 🥰 Fani, Rino, Bram, Ben, and Novel l🥰 thank you not only for helping me checking off my bucket list’s item and harmonising with me, but also for creating our quiet space together and emboldening me to embrace each day as a new day with love for all mankind.

with ❤️

m in Ottawa, January 2022

#Pandemic: Ketika Semua ini Berlalu /When it is Over

Sometime last year, I wrote a series of short pandemic narratives in English. Then they were translated into Indonesian, to be recited as part of the Virtual Concert (of Indonesian community) “Senandung Merdeka”. In this 3 minutes video, I weaved these narratives into one continuous pandemic narration titled “When It Is Over”–in Indonesian with English subtitles–and illustrated it with my own one-line-drawings.

I hope you find a spark of hope in it.

Tahun lalu, saya menulis beberapa narasi pendek seputar pandemi dalam bahasa Inggris yang lalu diterjemahkan ke dalam bahasa Indonesia dan dibacakan dalam acara Konser Virtual “Senandung Merdeka”. Dalam video 3 menit ini, saya menjalin 3 narasi menjadi satu narasi pandemik yang berjudul “Ketika Semua ini Berlalu”–dalam Bahasa Indonesia dengan subtitles Bahasa Inggris–yang diberi ilustrasi coretan-coretan satu garis.

Selamat menyimak and semoga menambah asa.


I walk following a particular route in my neighbourhood three times a week. Passing small streets and rows of houses. Making the same turn on the corner of a small neighbourhood park. Crossing the road at the same intersection. Walking over the same bridge and climbing the same hill. Over and over again. I have done the walk, Merlyna’s solitary walk, over a thousand times. But the walk never gets old.

I walk the same walk in all four seasons. In the spring, when little birds begin to sing, and the buds are bursting out. In the summer, with the warm sun casting on my bare shoulders and grass needles crunching under my feet. In the autumn, when the leaves are in their last line of life, and my heart leaps into a sombre mood as they wither and drop away. In the winter, when every breath I take is turned into a tiny drop of misty cloud, embraced by frigid-fingered air as cold as death.

I walk the same walk in many seasons of the heart. When love is in the air. My heart bursts with joy. A smile on my face. Butterflies in my stomach. When sorrow reigns. My heart is bleeding. My soul is crushed. Drowning in tears. My feet follow a near-identical circuitous route. But each walk is distinct. Each is always worthy. It never fails me.

But there’s nothing more solemn than a solitary walk in the snow on gentle winter days.* I simply walk on the field, looking at the vast space of emptiness. There is no one soul on sight. Treading on the snow that is as white as powdered chalk. My footprints follow me like a shadow as I walk. Trees that once had leaves are bare, stand like skeletons against the sky. The plants and shrubberies are in deep slumber, hidden under a soft snowy blanket.

At that moment, my whole universe seems composed of one thing and one thing only, the snow. I become one with its solitude and quietude.

It’s pristine, it cleanses.

It’s serene, it nourishes.

It’s tranquil. It heals.

m, Ottawa, 02.01.2022

Photos from my walks over the Mooney’s Bay Park, viewing the same bridge. Top: on the last day of 2021; Bottom: on the first day of 2022.

* *This writing is largely about a walk, my own solitary walk. It isn’t about a comfortable walk on a magnificently beautiful weather. In fact, Ottawa winter isn’t comfortable. It’s harsh, severe, and miserably long. But one finds a way to survive it. I consider the winter is gentle when it is warmer than -5 Celsius degree. My favourite is when it is just about zero.


(terjemahan dalam bahasa Indonesia di bawah)

I was truly in doubt whether to post this or not, but eventually I promised my students that I’d do it. This was originally written in response to Inspiring Girls International’s invitation to participate in #ThisLittleGirlIsMe campaign. Also to mark the International Day of the Girl Child on October 11th. The day to remind us on the need to address the challenges girls face and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights.

The little girl on the left loved book, excelled in school, and exceptional at math and science. And yet was labelled “naughty” because she asked curious questions, made funny comments, and occasionally skipped school out of boredom (then went to public library instead).

This little girl wrote poems, composed songs, and drew endlessly to escape her daily reality in Dayeuhkolot, Bandung – Indonesia. In this industrial flood-prone slum located near one of the world’s most polluted waterways, children faced poverty, chronic illnesses, early deaths, and violence. At a young age, she was subjected to multiple forms of abuse that led her to believe that she was unworthy of love and happiness.

This little girl was a dreamer. She often wondered whether she was good enough and which path to take because the road wasn’t always clear, but she never gave up dreaming. Of a happy place. Of a voyage around the world. Of being loved. Of a better life. Of being useful. Of making others happy.

The little girl on the left eventually grew into the woman on the right. A professor and Canada Research Chair, an award-winning researcher and writer, a prized and exhibited visual artist, a singer who does music, a lone walker, a globetrotter, a cancer survivor, and a tempeh-tofu lover. And, yes, she remains “naughty”.

Knowing she is worthy, she is overjoyed to discover that life will only get better as she ages. Above all, she is most grateful for the privilege of being able to contribute to the well-being of others.

This little girl learned a few things growing up, here are 10 to share with other #littlegirls:

1. Be kind and do good, always. Even when it is hard.

2. Cliché but true: Be yourself, always. You’re worthy.

3. Love and relationships come before material possessions. Treasure your loved ones, always.

4. Sh*t happens, even when you do the right thing. Stop blaming yourself for everything.

5. Never give 100%. Save some for tomorrow. Also, sleep and fun are important, too.

6. Dream big (or small). But don’t forget to wake up and act on it.

7. Don’t take yourself seriously. Have a sense of humour, always. It keeps you sane during trying times.

8. It’s okay to dress up and get dolled up. Doing it doesn’t make you look less smart.

9. Find your space of tranquility–music, art, or else–and be really good in it. It’ll help finding your light during the darkest times.

10. Takes time to enjoy small things in life. And be grateful, always.

This little girl is me.

Why am I telling you this? I have never considered myself inspirational, but in recent years, I have felt increasingly compelled to encourage girls and young women to pursue a bright future of their own. The research found that 70% of girls feeling more confident about their futures after hearing stories from women role models.

Thank you for the invitation InspiringGirls. I am humble to add my story to #ThisLittleGirlIsMe campaign.

Saya ragu ketika diundang untuk berpartisipasi dalam kampanye #ThisLittleGirlIsMe ini, tapi berjanji pada mahasiswa2 di kelas bahwa saya akan ikut serta. Saya posting tulisan saya di sini, pada Hari Anak Perempuan International. Hari yang mengingatkan kita tentang perlunya mengatasi tantangan yang dihadapi anak perempuan & mempromosikan pemberdayaan dan pemenuhan hak asasi mereka.


Gadis kecil di sebelah kiri suka membaca, berprestasi di sekolah, dan cemerlang dalam bidang matematika & sains. Namun dicap “nakal” karena sering melontarkan pertanyaan aneh, bersoloroh penuh canda, dan kadang bolos sekolah karena bosan (lalu kabur ke perpustakaan umum untuk membaca).

Gadis kecil ini suka menulis puisi, mengarang lagu, dan menggambar tanpa henti, untuk melarikan diri dari kenyataan hidup di Dayeuhkolot, Bandung-Indonesia. Terletak dekat salah satu sungai paling tercemar di dunia, di kawasan industri tekstil ini anak-anak menghadapi kemiskinan, penyakit kronis, kematian din, dan kekerasan. Di masa kecil, dia mengalami pelbagai bentuk kekerasan yang membuatnya merasa tak layak mendapatkan cinta dan kebahagiaan.

Gadis kecil ini seorang pemimpi. Meski sering meragukan kemampuannya sendiri dan tak yakin akan jalan yang harus ditempuh, dia tak pernah berhenti bermimpi. Tentang: tempat yang penuh kebahagiaan, kehidupan yang lebih baik, mengelilingi bumi, dicintai sepenuhnya, menjadi manusia berguna & membahagiakan orang lain.

Gadis kecil di sebelah kiri tumbuh menjadi wanita di sebelah kanan. Profesor dan Canada Research Chair, peneliti dan penulis, seniman visual, penyanyi yang bermusik, pejalan kaki, penjelajah dunia, penyintas kanker, dan penggemar tahu/tempe. Ya, dia tetap “nakal”.

Dia selalu merasa cukup dan yakin bahwa kehidupannya akan senantiasa menjadi lebih baik seiring bertambahnya usia. Di atas segalanya, dia sangat bersyukur berada di posisi yang dapat berkontribusi pada kesejahteraan, pertumbuhan, dan kesuksesan orang lain.

Gadis kecil ini belajar beberapa hal tentang kehidupan & kini berbagi 10 tips untuk gadis2 kecil lain:

1. Selalu bersikap dan berbuat baik, bahkan ketika hal tersebut sulit dilakukan.

2. Selalu menjadi diri sendiri. Kamu berharga.

3. Cinta dan persahabatan lebih penting dari harta benda. Selalu utamakan orang yang kau cintai.

4. Tragedi terjadi, bahkan ketika kamu melakukan hal yang benar. Berhentilah menyalahkan diri sendiri.

5. Tak perlu memberi 100%. Sisakan untuk hari esok. Tidur dan bermain juga penting.

6. Bermimpilah. Tapi jangan lupa untuk bangun & bertindak.

7. Selalu sediakan ruang untuk humor. Ia akan membantumu di masa-masa sulit.

8. Berdandan dan bersolek tidak membuatmu terlihat kurang pintar.

9. Temukan ruang kedamaianmu—bermusik, melukis, menari, dll—dan kuasailah. Ia akan menerangimu di masa-masa kelam.

10. Luangkan waktu untuk menikmati hal-hal kecil dalam kehidupan. Bersyukurlah senantiasa.

Gadis kecil ini adalah saya.

Mengapa saya berbagi tulisan ini? Saya tidak menganggap diri saya inspirasional tetapi saya telah terinspirasi untuk mendorong anak-anak perempuan untuk mengejar masa depan cerah mereka sendiri. Riset menemukan bahwa 70% anak perempuan merasa lebih percaya diri tentang masa depan mereka setelah mendengar langsung pengalaman wanita dewasa.

Terima kasih atas undangannya @inspiringgirlsint. Semoga sumbangan cerita saya ke dalam kampanye #ThisLittleGirlIsMe ini berguna.


Ponte Vecchio, Firenze (Italy) – September 2001. I sketched this 20 years ago (and decided to colour it 19 weeks ago).

Once upon a time on the bridge of Vecchio …

I took this Italy trip after the Dutch police called me that I needed to leave the country by early October or otherwise I’d be deported. The full story is complicated, but in summary: my plan to pursue a PhD fell apart due to errors caused by the university’s administration (on a departmental level) and made worse by the Dutch’s immigration.

While walking along this bridge, I told myself that I’d be back to Europe to get that PhD.

I didn’t tell anybody this story, not even my parents and my best friends. And then lived in nomad, quite literally, all over the globe within the next 1.5 years; financially supporting myself with various freelance projects and fellowships. I came back to the Netherlands to start my PhD in 2003 with scholarship and completed it in 2005.

Thanks to the administrative and immigration screw-ups, I had not-so-easy yet interesting, colourful, and rich 1.5 years of nomad living.