“Kaleidoscope: In Pursuit of the Real in a Virtual World”—fiction from Dina Abou Salem

1 October, 2023
Caught between Beirut and a town in the Californian desert, Buthayna searches for meaning amid life’s absurdities.


Dina Abou Salem


It’s 6 a.m.

Finally, she hits the pavement.

Now it’s time to set her rhythm. Spotify will do it for her. She knows it’s a leap of faith to trust a music app with her run, but her only alternative is to run in deafening silence, the absurdity of which she finds aggravating.

She runs.

Sunrise is the only time she can. 

Any delay means insufferable heat.

She keeps running.

She feels the sweat trickle down her spine.

Oh, how much she loves it when it tickles her back.

She runs and squints as the sun bounces off the calm Mediterranean straight into her wide eyes. She feels the sea breeze as it cools off her sweat.

But it’s still getting hot. It’s hard to breathe. She pants and stops running. She needs a break. She looks up.

The Mediterranean is gone. 

She remembers. She’s in Palm Desert now.

Ever since Buthayna made that move from Beirut, running would bring about those chronic daydreams of her port city.

It’s 6 p.m.

Visiting the local coffee bar is a habit Buthayna picked up in Beirut and one of very few she was able to maintain in the desert. Buthayna now frequents Le Café des Lettres.

It is a quaint, art deco inspired bistro off the I-10 East Freeway near Rancho Mirage — the town she chose to make as her new home.

Buthayna would go to meet a young French man, Jean-Paul Sartre, every afternoon. Their conversations were profound, their connection bordering on the romantic. But her relationship with him was a delicate dance, filled with intellectual sparks and emotional tension.

Buthayna was insecure, afraid to give in to love, and yearned for solitude. She always questioned whether she could truly be with someone who never understood her own existential struggles.

That late afternoon, Buthayna and Sartre found themselves engaged in a dialogue about her condition.

Buthayna, my dear, you now live in the free world, and that freedom comes with the burden of creating our own meaning amidst the absurd,” Jean-Paul says as he gently sips his steaming espresso and looks far into the vanilla sky.

Stirring her tea, Buthayna nods. “I’ve thought about it often, Jean-Paul. In Beirut, I had one world, one identity. Here, I’m adrift between two worlds, struggling to find meaning.”

Beirut had run its course for Buthayna. It always bet on her to leave. Growing up in Beirut is like a gestation period. Once complete, Beirut delivers you to the world, just like a destitute mother giving up her newborn for adoption. Buthayna was no different. Beirut gave her away.

Your immigrant experience is a microcosm of the human condition. We all grapple with the absurdity of existence. The key, my dear, is to embrace your freedom, to create your own purpose,” he says. Jean-Paul, too, has struggled with finding meaning. Unlike Buthayna, he believes that human beings determine their own values and live in a state of constant choice and freedom.

 “But what if my purpose is to find a sense of belonging? To reconcile two worlds? I feel I have multiple personalities. One time I am speaking English to the people around me. And one minute later, on FaceTime, I am speaking Arabic with my family back home. It’s like I live in a fourth dimension of binaries of zeros and ones. I am confused. I don’t know who I am anymore. How can I be all of those at the same time?”

Ah,” he says, “that’s the beauty of it. Your search for belonging is your purpose. It’s the journey that defines us.” Jean-Paul reckons that human consciousness actively shapes the external world, giving it meaning.

Buthayna was not convinced. Jean-Paul obviously does not understand her plight: her existence is both virtual and real. Her virtual world speaks Arabic, and her real world speaks English. Her virtual world has its protagonists living in an ecosystem of customs and traditions which she has adapted to, only to suppress when she is living her American life.

“Now you’ll have to excuse me, my gazelle-eyed beauty. I will see you tomorrow. Same time, same place? We can pick up where we left off. Maybe we’ll find some answers!” says Jean-Paul as he pulls his chair out to leave.

Alone in her thoughts, Buthayna looks across the coffee bar where she recognizes Albert Camus, a writer who had always intrigued her.

Buthayna is very shy and a hopeless introvert. But her survival instincts after her immigration to the US helped her learn to control it.

Albert’s piercing gaze and charming demeanor were impossible to resist. Buthayna always had a weakness for philosophers, and just like Jean-Paul, Albert Camus is no exception.

She makes her way up the bar.

“Hello, my name is Buthayna. S-Sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to ask, are you Albert Camus?”

He looks up and their eyes lock. Her wide black eyes always had their way with men. They’re simply dark and mysterious, and inevitably render anyone looking into them captive.

“Yes, yes … uh, no bother at all. Have a seat, please,” says Albert as he folds away a 1945 issue of En Avant! Newspapers are a great platform for resistance, for Albert. They have such a grounding effect on him. It is no coincidence that he served as editor-in-chief of Combat as soon as he joined the French Resistance in World War II.

Buthayna tells him about her plight which Jean-Paul never seemed to fully understand.

Buthayna, in this age of digital media, artificial intelligence, misinformation, social media, reality and fiction have become intertwined. The absurdity of our times is like a never-ending Kafkaesque nightmare. One’s flawed reality is morphed into a perfect world in the virtual realm, created by the user. It is a theatre of the self, and the spectators are conveniently handpicked by the user herself,” says Albert.

Buthayna agrees, It’s as if we’re living in a world where the lines between truth and falsehood are blurred beyond recognition. How do we find meaning in such chaos?”

We embrace the absurd,” Albert reiterates. “Just as I wrote in L’Etranger, life’s meaning is elusive, but that doesn’t mean we stop seeking it. We must confront the absurdity head-on.”

Buthayna pauses to think. “But what if the absurdity itself becomes a new reality? How do we navigate a world where even our own perceptions are manipulated by algorithms?”

Albert’s face lit up. “Ah, the absurd takes on new forms, doesn’t it?! We must resist conformity and cling to our authenticity, even in the face of a digital age that seeks to erase it.”

Just like Mersault and Marie in L’Etranger, Buthayna and Albert find themselves headed for a swim. Alas it was not in the Mediterranean. It was at a local nearby pool to escape the relentless desert heat.

Floating on the water’s surface, Buthayna awakens to a state of straddling two worlds once again — the world of Sartre and the world of Camus.

She makes her way toward Albert and gives him a small kiss on the lips. “Thank you,” she says as she gazes into his hazel-colored eyes.

Albert, breathless and confused, watches her swim away and get out of the pool.

As the sun dips below the horizon, casting long shadows on the poolside, Buthayna’s thoughts are a whirlwind of uncertainty.

Will she have to choose between Sartre or Camus, or will she continue to straddle two worlds searching for answers in the East and the West, the real and the virtual, amidst the throes of a contentious polyamorous relationship?

 It’s 6 a.m.

Finally, she hits the pavement …



Dina Abou Salem is an award-winning journalist who has worked in communications, multimedia production and digital journalism, with, among others, Aljazeera in Doha, the Middle East Broadcasting Network’s Washington D.C. office, and ABC Networks News, Los Angeles Bureau. She is now chief creative officer and founder of Los Angeles-based Prequel Enterprise — a multimedia production company, which specializes in branding, marketing, communications, and video production. Dina is of Levantine descent and grew up in Abu Dhabi, Montreal, and Beirut.

AI (Artificial Intelligence)Albert CamusBeirutExistentialismidentityimmigrationJean-Paul SartreLebanonphilosophy

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