Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Did your linguistic fluency and cross-cultural sensitivity help you in your career as a foreign correspondent? If so, how?
Knowing Arabic has been very useful in terms of having situational awareness, knowing what is going on around me, and feeling comfortable. Especially in navigating socially awkward or sensitive situations. My job as a journalist is to sometimes ask difficult questions, and knowing how to ask questions in a non-direct way, in a way that conveys the meaning without actually saying the exact word is crucial. In English, especially in the US, we are very direct in both our language and our culture. In the Middle East, however, there is a way to asking the question without asking it. For example, if you want to talk about sectarian issues, you don’t say the word “Shi'a” but rather you hint at it by referring to religious differences, etc. This can be quite frustrating because [when you ask indirectly] you don’t get a great quote out of it!
Do you have any personal experiences that you would like to share as a CASA fellow?
As CASA fellows we were all pretty serious students of course, and there was this honor code that you are supposed to only speak Arabic with each other. In the classroom that was easy enough because the professors were pretty strict about enforcing it, and outside we had to speak and interact with Egyptians. We started [the program] in June, and it was at a Thanksgiving party that one of the students hosted where the entire cohort was there, and there were a few people that I never really hung out with socially before. It was a party and holiday, so we mixed in Arabic and English, we took a break from the honor pledge that day, and then we sort of looked at each other and realized that “this is the first moment that we heard the other person speak English” having known each other for six months! So that was a really funny, quirky thing where even though CASA students are super intense, they are also really open-minded and passionate about the things they do.
What advice would you give to current CASA Fellows?
I think too often, especially Americans, find themselves hiding when they are abroad. I would encourage students to try to keep as open mind as possible, and to continue to seek out opportunities for real engagement. One of the great things about CASA was that it was so immersive. I would say search out those opportunities, those connections, those places where you can interact with the place you are living.