I had no master plan after I graduated from UVA seven years ago. Unlike many friends, I was not ready to commit to graduate school. Joining corporate culture did not appeal to me either. I had majored in Foreign Affairs in the Middle East and was active in Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine, so living in the Middle East was a logical idea. So, with some modest savings, I decided to pursue studying Arabic in Damascus, Syria.
In September 2008, I arrived in Damascus as Ramadan was in full swing. After the holiday was over (I spent Eid Al-Fitr attending a Kurdish wedding in the Northeast – one of the many cool things I got to do as a foreigner), I began Arabic classes at the University of Damascus.
Ultimately, the university was a mixed bag. The Modern Standard Arabic classes were slow-paced, so to keep busy, I also picked up private Syrian dialect lessons in my extra time. Thankfully, it was easy to make friends in the diverse student culture—one classmate, Fatima, was the first person I met from the Comoros Islands. Another friend was an Assyrian Swede who spoke perfect Arabic. My inability to communicate day-to-day necessities, however, caused frustration. I could conjugate verbs, but I struggled with my shopping at the local market. Therefore, after just three months at the university, I left to focus on Syrian dialect.
Finding a tutor was like speed dating—not everyone was a match. After nearly a year of false starts, I finally met Khalil, a university student looking to earn extra money. Kind, bookish, and worldly, Khalil and I shared an immediate rapport. Our lessons consisted of working in an advanced media Arabic textbook and discussing current events. The meetings were stimulating. My preparation became a ritual of reading the pan-Arabic newspaper al-Hayat over a pot of coffee, every morning, every day for weeks.
After my modest savings trickled away, I took up a subeditor job at a local English-language newspaper run by a foreign staff, which was an oddity given Syria’s tightly controlled press. The job was riddled with difficulties—foremost being a battle for my monthly salary. Reluctantly, I resigned, which was a shame because I had hoped to write articles along the lines of their daring reports on clandestine prostitution and a prolonged drought in the east of the country. But, while I quit the paper, I did not give up on the news.
That newspaper experience gave me a lot of frustrations, but great stories. In need of a break, I found myself in a Beirut-bound shared taxi on my way to a couple weeks in Germany. Auspiciously, my fellow traveler was a BBC reporter. We had an animated conversation. I recounted my experiences at the paper, which led him to share his beginnings in the media industry reporting on the Iraq war. We spoke about Syria, journalism, and the Arab world. Clearly, we shared a fascination for the region. Had the exchange not been so open and enjoyable, I would have taken the talk as a job interview. As it turned out, in a way, it was. I had gained his confidence. Thanks to this reporter’s eventual support, I landed my first meaningful job in my next destination Dubai.
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