Shayan Saalabi is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and bookseller.

Sap Sup

Recently a contributor to and lead editor of Sap Sup, a print publication produced by The Menu Radio in Los Angeles. Sap Sup – a Turkish onomatopoeia meaning “to eat” – contains writings, photographs, and illustrations dedicated to food and identity.

All proceeds from the publication sales go to No Us Without You, a non-profit organization that raises funds for undocumented workers in Los Angeles.

The following is my contribution, “Federation.”

AT THE EDGES OF ALMADEN, the rolling-green San Jose suburb grays into a spaghetti junction of highways – 17, 85, 101 – that stretch to San Francisco, Oakland, and other loud places. In the shadows of that concrete sits a neat complex of vanilla-colored condos and an adjacent expanse of parking lot, all hidden at the end of a tree-lined driveway. The condo complex, maybe in an attempt at self-sufficiency, offers odd essentials – a convenience store, a hair salon, a light-rail stop, all bearing the name Ohlone, after the Indigenous people who were there before Junípero Serra and Steve Jobs.

There is also a restaurant. It is, like everything else in this place, unassuming in its appearance, with clinical vinyl floors and cheap paneled four-tops. But unlike everything else in this place, the restaurant is not named after the Ohlone but after a river that runs across Somalia and empties into the Indian Ocean – Jubba. However innocuous among its unremarkable neighbors, Jubba is a culinary anomaly in San Jose. But the place is more than its goat platters – it is a cultural touchstone, taking up critical space in a city that is disappearing into itself.

I do not remember the first time that I ate at Jubba, the same way that I do not remember the first time that I chased my childhood friends around our school's playground – the memory isn't the message. What I do remember is how immediately Jubba became entrenched in our understanding of a hometown we believed to be so lacking. Later, when we would flock back from colleges in Chicago or Los Angeles or elsewhere for Thanksgiving, we would crowd around a table in Jubba the night before, styrofoam cups of black tea clouded with cinnamon and cardamom and ginger in our hands, and tell stories that took place in Chicago or Los Angeles or elsewhere.

For so long, Jubba was simply a suburban exception to the rule of Chipotle and other chrome-covered chains. Silicon Valley, despite its almost incomparable diversity, has long bent to whatever is quickest – I'm thinking of the Bank of America in Almaden that doubles as a Starbucks drive-thru – rather than that which is most authentic. However fortunate I was to access Jubba and enjoy it so wholeheartedly, I hardly ever considered Jubba's existence in the context of the Valley's penchant for cultural normativity – for muddling our multiculturalism and limiting it to an annual “Heritage Night” in an over-lit school cafeteria. 

It was not until quite recently, as I've only become more enamored with what I'll eat next, that I could point to Jubba as where I learned that revelatory culinary experiences are almost always revelatory cultural experiences. Though I had always understood Jubba to be Somali, I was entirely unaware of Somali cuisine's push-and-pull with Italian influence. (Italy occupied much of Somalia, as well as tracts of Eritrea and Ethiopia, from the late 1880s until the late 1940s.) Garlic cuts through Suqaar, a Somali mainstay of sautéed diced beef and bell peppers. Spaghetti, or baasto, is a common side-dish, though Somali chefs season their spaghetti sauces with cumin, cinnamon, and cloves. A platter of Suqaar served with both spaghetti and rice is called a “Federation” – an incongruous union, communicated immediately across the plate.

I'm not suggesting that brief histories be written on table napkins. I'm suggesting that regardless of how apparent these histories might be, they are easily ignored. And in Silicon Valley, where a corporate atmosphere abounds, this ignorance is often paraded as acceptance. Somali or Mexican or Vietnamese restaurants can exist peacefully in strip malls, certain Black and Brown faces still trigger NextDoor posts – “we passed 3 Hispanic guys standing beside Their BLACKED OUT CAR....NOW WHAT??” – when seen anywhere deemed out-of-place. Though eating at Jubba, or at any immigrant-owned establishment, would hardly absolve these trolls of their racism, they could do with a trip beyond the lawn.

Much of my time spent in Almaden is marked by a certain surreality – a uniform tranquility that slowed my steps, as if walking through quicksand. (I have seen many an old friend fly away for college only to now filter back to our Sleepy Hollow.) Now, as I write from Brooklyn, I still feel somewhat indebted to Jubba for cutting through my childhood of chicken tenders and chocolate cake, triggering some Bourdain-esque awakening. After all, it was Bourdain who wrote, “Perhaps wisdom, at least for me, means realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.” 

I am still stirred by a sense of smallness that I first found in Jubba. Not in some far-away place, entirely unknown, but right behind the mall. That is where the world revealed itself to me – what else could be so sweet?

Common Use Books

Currently co-run Common Use Books, an online-only art, architecture, and design bookstore, with Jordi Ng. I founded Common Use to celebrate everyday things. We are quickly moving toward a non-physical world, where form and function are forgotten.

Still, we exist physically. The mug you sip coffee from, the chair you ease into, the books on your shelves – these exist physically too. Common Use embraces permanence and rejects obsolescene. If something is to be used everyday, then that thing must be beautiful. 

Our hope is to send things of beauty to welcoming homes. Whether you flip through books every day or let them sit quietly on the coffee table, they will take up space. Positive space. 

Featured by Pink Essay and 90s Anxiety.


Life Is Sweet

“Life Is Sweet” is a children’s zine written by me and designed by Jordi Ng. Jordi loves sweets – sometimes too much – and this is about loving sweets a little too much. We riso-printed fifty copies to share with our friends and family. Limited copies can also be found for sale at Family Bookstore and Skylight Books in Los Angeles.

Under the Beach, Concrete

Balanced, barefoot. Heaven is just a jump away. Somewhere. Anywhere there's concrete. In Rucker. In Foster. In Venice. Always in Venice. On a stretch of cracked concrete packed between Charly Temmel Ice Cream and the Pacific Ocean sit four basketball courts. Almost every morning people show so long as the sun is out. And the sun is always out in Venice. When the street-ballers in Park Slope wonder where the sun goes in November and December, it's shining on some moppy-headed kid in Southern California. At first it's only a few. Usually the old-heads who have nowhere to be but here. They lace-up their sneakers slow, they stretch slow. I ain't tearing shit today, they holler. 

It's not long before the kids come too. Their basketball shoes tied to their handlebars, they leap off their bicycles before they crash into the chain-link. There's a recklessness to them already. There's a recklessness to any eighteen-year-old on concrete – a little fuck-you on their faces when they pull up for a shot from thirty feet. They kick off their flip-flops for Kobes and KDs. There's a lot of self-worth tied to these sneakers. Who's got the new shit, who's got the old shit? Their shoulders begin to bob as rap blares from a bluetooth speaker tucked in a backpack. There's a rhythm to the playground and it's starting to pick up.

Somebody rolls a ball out onto the first court and everyone clings to it. A thirty-something in a black tank-top picks it up, bounces it twice, and throws it up toward the basket. The ball clangs off the front of the rim – it's somebody else's shot now. There's eight or nine players milling about the basket, waiting for a tenth. Without a tenth, there's no five-on-five, only some trash talk and endless rounds of H-O-R-S-E. When the tenth comes, one of the kids claps his hands. Let's go, yo.

Without saying much, the ten sort themselves – better split up the giants – to make two teams. Here, the rules are quite simple. Each bucket is worth a point, the first team to twenty-one wins. Let's go. The bluetooth bumps. Let's go, yo. For the first few minutes, there's only unfamiliarity – off-balanced shots that sail wide and bounce passes to ghosts. No one has a sense of where they are, or who they're with.

Then, one of the kids gathers the ball and slashes across the court to the basket, rolling the ball off his fingers and softly into the net. Down the other way, an old-head slings the ball overhead to an open man under the basket. Point. All at once, it comes together. Shots splash in from twenty, twenty-five feet. The ball skips across the concrete – like a smooth stone on a still lake. Everyone here knows the language. Of I-got-yours and you-got-mine huffed at full speed. Of random sacrifice so sweet, so sweet.

The score climbs. Three to four. Eleven to thirteen. Then, it's nineteen to twenty – game point – with one of the kids cradling the ball at the top of the court, looking to kill. He leans forward and crosses the ball from his left hand to his right. His defender shifts back to meet him. But the kid freezes, pulls the ball back and bounds into the air. His defender leaps but he's already too late. The ball is suspended above everyone – hanging, forever overhead--before it rips through the net. That’s it. That’s twenty-one.

Dirty hands rest on sore knees and t-shirts wipe away sweat. Breath is barely caught before talk of another game starts. Let's run it back. Feels good? One more. A couple more. Let's run it back.

A seagull circles the court – under the beach, concrete.

*** This piece can be found in-print in The Paper Mixtape Issue 009.

Feature: Eva B. Ross

If you go to Eva B. Ross’s artist page on Spotify and start shuffling, you’ll discover something remarkable--the faltering of an otherwise-foolproof algorithm. Fleetwood Mac gives way to Phoebe Bridgers. Kacey Musgraves to The Velvet Underground. From 2019 to 1969 and all the way back. Spotify can’t figure her out and, well, neither can I. She’s almost traceless, beyond eras, and she loves it. “I think there’s so much push and pull between the old and the new in my music because my own listening is all over the map,” Ross says as she lists what she’s been singing along to lately on the road trips to and from her home in Los Angeles.

Ross’s parents are from Chicago, where they met while performing in theater companies in the city before settling in Los Angeles to start producing reality television in the late-90s. “It was a little Midwest-meets-Hollywood,” Ross says of her childhood, “growing up in a family of performers, everyone always has something to say, and they’re always going to say it… With a lot of hand gestures, too.”

Besides its bizarrity, having parents involved in an industry as tumultuous as reality television has served as a form of comfort to Ross during these formative years as a singer-songwriter. When they say that they “get it,” they’re speaking to her not only as loving parents but as battle-tested creatives who’ve heard more nos than yeses. “They understand the hustle that’s required of a freelance artist. It’s nice to call up my mom and have her tell me, you know, you’ve got this gift and you’re just going to have to hit the pavement for the next ten years.”

More than instilling this by-any-means attitude, Ross’s parents pushed her to get an education: “They both went to college and that really helped them not only become educated people but form a community with other artists that they’ve been collaborating with throughout their lives. They constantly remind me of how long life is. They’re in their sixties, but they still create art and they still perform. So, I think it's important to understand that, as an artist, I can have longevity and that I continue to collaborate with the community of creatives that I met while at UCLA.”

It was at UCLA that Ross balanced performing in Spring Sings (she won in 2017) and tightly-packed apartments on Thursday nights with studying history. “What compelled me to study history is the same thing that compels me to write songs – storytelling,” she says, “Maybe that’s corny, but that’s alright. I love a good story, a narrative that I can escape into, and the more I know, the more vivid that escape becomes.” Her favorite historical escapes? The development of nations, how something structured could suddenly spring from nothing, almost overnight, like that last dreamy lyric you didn’t know you needed.

Almost two years removed from UCLA, Ross still finds herself adjusting from just being an over-eager college kid with hopes of becoming a professional musician to, well, actually becoming one. “When I was in school, I played music for the pure fun of it. I wasn’t too concerned with the scope or reception of anything I did,” she says, “when I left, I had to become more critical with myself about pushing myself to be better. I realized that there's a lot more that needs to go into really finessing a live show and making an audience feel comfortable and knowing how to command a band and writing songs that are really, really good, not just fun to play.”

This self-criticism can be more harmful than helpful, though. Too much of it and you can find yourself staring at blank pages and blinking cursors, too afraid to do anything. Ross, like any artist, has struggled with shutting out these doubts. “I’d go out in L.A. and see these songwriters my age doing exactly what I wanted to do. And there were so many times where I would go home and be like, okay, I either have to get a lot better or I have to quit.”

She didn’t quit. She scrapped for shows, playing her way through L.A. staples like Lot 1, Hotel Cafe, and the Moroccan Lounge, while also releasing her first string of singles in the process. The singles, much like Ross herself, are thoughtful and tender but always stirring with an unshakable optimism. They’re equal-parts Nashville and Los Angeles, what’s already past and what’s up around the bend – they’re the start of her own history.

Heading into the summer, Ross isn’t resting on the reputation she’s built around Los Angeles. She’s laced up her cream-colored Converse and raced up the coast for shows in San Francisco and out across the Midwest for shows in Chicago. For this latest stretch on the road, Ross couldn’t bring along her band, pushing her out on her own. “I really didn’t anticipate how difficult traveling alone is,” she says, “like, if I’m playing three shows and then I have a free day in between them, I’ve had to figure out how to exist on my own, how to be okay with downtime. With being still.”

As she returns home to L.A., Ross is readying to release a five-track EP, Playlist for the Apocalypse. The project plays up on that optimism of her earlier releases – it’s perfect for those six o’clock drives down to the ocean to catch the sunset, to maybe dip your toes in the water. “I set out to make something warm, fun, and young with my friends that wasn’t trying to please anybody,” Ross says, “and I think, in the end, it sounds just like me… Thank God.”

*** This piece can be found online for The Luna Collective here.