Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know - Samira Ahmed


I live in between spaces.

The borders between nations, the invisible hyphen between words, the wide chasm between “one of us” and me alone.

French American.

Indian American.

Muslim American.

Biracial. Interfaith. Child of immigrants.

A Parisienne for one month a year: the month when all the other Parisians flee the city.

A girl staring at her phone screen, looking for love but knowing it’s not going to show up.

I didn’t choose any of this. Which is not to say I wouldn’t have, given the opportunity. But it’s not like I ever had the option.

I don’t even get a say in my diminutives. It’s always “Frenchie” or “la petite Américaine.”

The people who can’t guess what I am think I’m “exotic.” Some people say I’m lucky to be an ethnomorph—a person whose brown skin, brown hair, and brown eyes make it seem like I could be from half the countries in the world. But I’m not a passport that everyone gets to stamp with a label of their choosing. Others look at me and try to shove me into their own narrative to define who and what I am. But I’m not a blank page that everyone else gets to write on.

I have my own voice.

I have my own story.

I have my own name. It’s Khayyam.


I just stepped in dog shit. Bienvenue à Paris.

Welcome to my life of constant code-switching. Witness my attempts to blend an occasional impulse for Bollywood melodramatics with my flair for complaining like a local. I shouldn’t be cranky, summering in Paris. I should be an expert at dodging excrement on sidewalks and accustomed to tepid service from waiters and sardonic smiles at my fluent but slightly accented French. And I should absolutely be prepared for les grèves—the strikes that bring the Métro to a standstill every single time we’re here.

I should be French about it and nonchalant.

Instead, I’m American and have no chill.

Because it is hot. The air-conditioning is mostly aspirational. And I’m a captive here, since my parents value family vacation tradition more than my desire to stay in Chicago, stewing in self-doubt and woe-is-me pity and the truth universally acknowledged that the forces of entropy attack you on all fronts.

This is what metaphorical multiple organ failure feels like:

My head: I have likely, most probably, almost definitely royally screwed up my chances of getting into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—my dream college that I’ve been shooting for since ninth grade. It is the school if you want to go into art history. Which I do. Obsessively.

My heart: Belongs to Zaid. Still. Zaid, my not-exactly boyfriend, but only because he never actually called himself my boyfriend, who is thousands of miles away in Chicago.

My lungs: On top of the dog crap, there’s a railway strike today, somehow precisely coinciding with this heat wave and my arrival in Paris. The air is humid and so thick I’m panting.

But those are merely symptoms.

The underlying cause? An essay. Yeah, really.

The School of the Art Institute is super competitive, so I wanted to find a way to stand out from the pack. I had this brilliant idea to submit an absolutely mind-blowing essay for its Young Scholar Prize. Technically, I was ineligible because you have to be a high school grad to enter. I was only a junior, and I petitioned the judges to make an exception. I didn’t want a technicality standing in the way of my dreams. Besides, my college counselor told me it would show I have “moxie” and would look great on my college applications. I was certain I had solved a centuries-old art world mystery, proving that Eugène Delacroix had secretly given a painting—one of several—from his Giaour series to the writer Alexandre Dumas, the all for one, one for all dude. Not just any painting in the series—the exact one on display at the Art Institute. I was going to astound the old fogey museum curators with my genius. I would unveil a secret that was hiding in plain sight. I would be the youngest prizewinner ever, an art world darling. I based my entire theory on