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I’ve been gone a long time. When I wake up in the morning and look out my window, the deep topaz sky over Carmel Valley is so inviting. Palm fronds clack at my window, beckoning me outside. Despite the faux tropical landscape and the beach-babe cutouts, San Diego is bloated with serious natural wonders.

One sunny day I make plans to go snorkeling with my sister and her kids at the Cove. It is noon, the seagulls yelp, the kelp glows amber. Despite the fact that it is a Monday, it’s crowded and I can’t find a spot on the beach. Squished between cliff walls and surrounded by five different towels, each its own fiefdom, I manage to situate myself semi-comfortably in my area for a while, watching an ambiguously European family spray some aerosol substance all over each other. The youngest son seems more interested in the BBQ-flavor Pringles than the scenery.

I waddle into the sparkling ocean waters and maneuver my way through fins and swim trunks. Suddenly one guy turns toward me and gurgles through his snorkel-face, “There’s a sea turtle!” There it is, fins flapping away, slowly disappearing into the watery blue shadows, elusive yet adorable. It wouldn’t have been more magical if we had just seen a unicorn. Even though I was born and raised in San Diego, I had never seen or heard of sea turtles here.

And so my summer ended in San Diego. I had no job and was completely broke. It was only two weeks since I had moved back into my parents’ house after living in San Francisco.

I have a lot of pressure to realize the American dream. My father is Syrian, my mother is American. Ever since I was a kid I have been told how great it is to be an Atassi. I’m told that being an Atassi in Syria is something akin to being a Kennedy in America. Sure, we’ve had our share of Syrian presidents in the past, but these days Atassis are getting ridiculously educated abroad. We have even published books about our great legacy. In fact, someone has put them in the University of Michigan Dearborn Library.

Being an Atassi heiress is something I might mention casually to boyfriends to mix things up. It’s a convenient parlor trick. I even got complimentary baklava once.

It’s difficult to explain my obscure interests and myriad hobbies, such as solving the turtle mystery, to my family. I do some research and find that it is actually an Eastern Pacific green turtle with a distribution typically between 30 degrees north and 30 degrees south. San Diego is right outside this range. Was that turtle I saw smuggled home over the Mexican border in a suitcase packed with novelty-size sombrero hats and artisan ceramics? All it would take is one accidental spill down the storm drain for a clutch of eggs to spawn an exotic species.

San Diego is home to a thriving and established colony of approximately 60 turtles. There are several stories explaining their origins.

One story describes the sea turtles as renegades busted free from turtle-meat farms where they awaited slaughter during the earlier half of the 20th Century. Another eerily posits the turtles being attracted to the warm-water canals of the power plant in south San Diego Bay.

Sandwiched between Interstate 5 and the South Bay, the electric power plant sits on the edge of the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. This complicates things because it seems these endangered sea turtles are protected in an area where they exist artificially. To a species swimming around, foraging for eel grass and generally being turtles, it makes no difference.

I call ecologist Jeff Seminoff at the Marine Turtle Research Program for the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. According to his findings, the turtles are in the bay for the bounty of eel grass. That thing about tropical power-plant waters is a rumor, he says. He goes on to explain that sea turtles travel thousands of miles foraging for food. The Navy plants eel grass out in the Bay.

“Imagine you are a sea turtle,” he says. “Wouldn’t you stay here, too?”

He seems rushed, and we don’t get to talk much before the phone conversation ends. His obvious explanation doesn’t explain why there are so many stories about the turtles.

One day, back in San Francisco, I was having a chat with my fun-loving boss, Mustafa. He owned Cafe du Soleil, where I worked as a barista. Mustafa held a wad of receipts in one hand and used the other to pour beer from the tap. The foam spilled onto the bills, when he said to me, “You’re young, you don’t need to be so serious. Just go have fun, get yourself a boyfriend or two, get yourself a girlfriend — I’m not the kind to judge — enjoy yourself. I’m stuck here, I gotta go down to city hall, I gotta get some papers signed, the kids are driving me nuts, the customers…”

I sold everything I owned and flew to South America.

My parents reminded me I was running out of money, but I explained that the exchange rate would actually make me better off. All I needed was my backpack.

When I came home, my dad took me to Syria. It was a bummer. The idea of getting married was brought up by relatives between suggestions about grad school. Why wasn’t I pursuing a profession or an engagement, the family asked. There was a cousin in Ukraine asking about me, and another man in Alberta, they said with optimism.

This was nothing new. While I was away in San Francisco, I would call home when I desperately needed cash. If I needed to see the dentist, my dad would suggest I marry one. There was a husband for whatever professional service was needed.

“There is a man in San Francisco asking about you,” he would say. “He just bought a Lexus, new!”

According to my dad, marriage would solve any of the self-inflicted headaches I was experiencing. Turning down marriage was as ludicrous as turning down free health insurance, which I still don’t have, free or otherwise.

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Comments

SallyOBarr May 8, 2009 @ 9:20 a.m.

I enjoyed your story, Nasreen. I hope you keep writing and continue to get published. All the best to you!

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SDaniels May 5, 2009 @ 12:37 p.m.

Ok, then, so maybe the title should be:

"Made a Couple of Hasty Inquiries about Sea Turtles so I Could Attempt to Cast Mystery Over my Lackluster Dating and Working Lives."

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magicsfive May 5, 2009 @ 2:34 p.m.

LOL SD you never cease to make me smile....

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David Dodd May 5, 2009 @ 3:10 p.m.

Hey, guys, get off of Nasreen. All serious writers make hasty inquiries about sea turtles, it's right here in my Community College Creative Writing textbook, Chapter Seven: Weaving Together Ambiguous Life Experiences Using Marine Biology As A Vehicle.

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JeffreySeminoff May 4, 2009 @ 9:58 a.m.

Hi All,

This is Jeffrey Seminoff, the ecologist that was quoted in the sea turtle article. Unfortunately, the author of this story botched the information that I provided. Yes the sea turtles key in on the eelgrass in San Diego Bay, but they also ABSOLUTELY key in on the warm water effluent of the South Bay Power Plant. This is particularly true during winter months, when the surrounding waters are much colder than the effluent.

JS

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SDaniels May 6, 2009 @ 12:16 a.m.

I guess I thought this story would serve as Cliff's Notes. Now I am FORCED to read Chapter 7.

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David Dodd May 6, 2009 @ 12:30 a.m.

It will serve you well, SD. You should see the short story I'm working on right now involving squid. Sure, it's a bit slimy, but man is it fluid...

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SDaniels May 6, 2009 @ 12:54 a.m.

It certainly sounds inky. I'm working on a story about clams, but I can't talk about it.

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David Dodd May 6, 2009 @ 1:08 a.m.

Sounds challenging, SD. However will you get your characters to open up? At the very least, they'll be happy.

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SDaniels May 6, 2009 @ 1:13 a.m.

Well, they say love cuts like a knife. I promise, it'll be a juicy one!

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thestoryteller May 14, 2009 @ 8:24 p.m.

Hey Nasreen! Isn't it amazing how the people like jmc (on my blog)among others haven't done squat in the Reader and yet they are authorities on what makes a good story? How embarrassing for them! They really should have enough class not to let their jealousy show. They are making themselves look small.

I can't wait to read your next one!

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David Dodd May 28, 2009 @ 10:53 a.m.

To Nasreen (and to "Name Withheld" in La Jolla):

Presuming that mine were the "nasty comments" referred to in the "Letters" section of the Reader concerning your story, I invite you to scan the entire thread of comments starting with ecologist Jeffery Seminoff. There were no derogatory comments made other than to use Mr. Seminoff's comment to have a little fun at your expense. The story was fine.

If I were to criticize a story in the Reader, and I have done so on several occasions, it would be direct and specific. As a writer, you are accountable for your content, and as a reader who responds to what you write, I am also accountable for my response; and therefore, I do not withhold my name. While you continue to write, I will presume that you recognize the difference between "nasty comments" and a couple of people who were inspired to have a little fun commenting on your story; and I will hope that "name withheld" in La Jolla learns the difference between the two.

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zodzelig May 28, 2009 @ 11:26 p.m.

refriedgringo: Nameless in La Jolla in this week's hard copy and NotQuiteADiva above are both referring to my May 6 letter (http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2009/may/06/letters/)on Nasreen's article, which I did not like at all. Not because of her writing, but over the snide attitude toward working that displayed itself with the guy who took her resume, in her repeated quitting, and in her random comments about people who stay at a job they don't like. I just found it all a bit much coming from a post-grad who was living at home.

Re Name Withheld in La Jolla: I agree that a writer who deems herself accountable for her writing backs it up with her name, and don't understand why the Reader granted anonymity in a case where no danger even remotely exists.
-Neil Allen (Normal Heights, not Talmadge)

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David Dodd May 28, 2009 @ 11:36 p.m.

Mr. Allen:

Apologies. I don't get the opportunity to receive a hard copy of the Reader here in Baja unless I cross the border. And I commend you greatly for including your name.

Best regards,

David Alton Dodd

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NotQuiteADiva May 19, 2009 @ 6:44 p.m.

Nasreen, you are doing swimmingly! Do not fret those who can’t tell the difference between first person narrative and narcissism. I’m sure the dweebs who used the term didn’t even know what it meant other that it made them feel so-much-smarter to say it! Whatever!!! You must forge forward and we the appreciative readers of The Reader look forward to your contributions to come…

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