Hair wet, invigorated and stubbornly fighting strep throat, I rolled my old black suitcase into the Virgin Atlantic terminal of Logan Airport – rushed and unprepared, but never more ready. May 10 had been marked with effusive notations in my internal calendar since Christmas Break. I was not only headed to Jordan, a country precariously positioned in the center of political and social turmoil, but to even greater places on my personal journey as a reporter. After what seemed like an interminable amount of waiting and anxious chatter with my colleagues, the wheels of our plane left the ground and I was officially on my way.
I was one of the 16 journalism students hand-selected by Northeastern journalism professor and enforcer of tough love, Carlene Hempel, to accompany a group of 47 eager huskies to Amman, Jordan’s lively capital.
Conquering reporting endeavors in the Middle East is a journalism student’s dream. The region is constantly present in front-page headlines, especially the recent uprisings in Syria, and the issues in the area are both groundbreaking and intriguing. Some of the most skilled and fearless reporters ventured to this area during the Arab Spring – a series of intense uprisings calling for a more open government that spread throughout the Middle East -and we were joining them, following up on several related issues in the uprising’s aftermath. I didn’t know it when I signed up, but this trip was the big leagues.
I didn’t know the spoken language, I couldn’t decipher the written language from abstract sketches of ocean waves, and I had no geographical bearings. Three things I really took for granted while reporting in Boston. My usual reporting grounds – complete with the T and countless city landmarks – were replaced by an unfamiliar mess of baritone Arabic, unfathomable traffic chaos and cluster of brown buildings that looked identical until the day I left.
This initially made the thought of the roaming around the city by myself in search of stories and sources extremely intimidating. But realizing I was somehow able to survive Journalism 1 and 2 and Magazine Writing with Carlene, a professor famous for pushing you to your journalistic and mental limits, allowed me to eliminate my looming doubts and trust my instinct backed by my experience over the last two years.
I found that the steps I took in finding and writing stories in Jordan were the same as the ones I would take in the states – they just included more extensive context research, more phone calls, more reading, more clarifying. More time, less sleep. And translators. There was a lot to take in, so I had my all my senses constantly tuned to anything that I might want to write about.
Once I got a lead on a topic, I talked it out with someone who could explain it in context to me, usually Illham Khuri-Makdisi, professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at Northeastern. This was never a short process because I always had at least 457 questions; I really wasn’t too keen on the logistics of the region and I wanted to make sure I was getting everything right, from social norms to religious history. This would also help me narrow down my story pitch, and as soon as it was – hopefully – approved by Carlene, I was on my way to one of Amman’s universities to speak with expert sources – noted professors in my area of interest. From there, I would gather input from students and assess where else the story needed me to go, whether it be a mosque, fitness center, magazine office, or one of the other exciting locations my stories took me.
All but three of my interviews and the majority of my research took place in the hot, dusty streets of Amman. It took gritty, on-the-field, physical reporting. And there was no real safety net of an internet search or a load of phone calls, as there is at home. Another difficulty was something that my instructors referred to as “Jordanian Time,” the general communication lifestyle of people in Jordan that includes late arrivals, last-minute meeting plans and few returned phone calls and emails – making follow-up interviews difficult and the idea of grabbing someone surreptitiously in person much more appealing.
This lack of reliability on any reporting and communicating getting done by means of a cell phone and a computer helped me grow immensely as a journalist during the short five weeks. I have done field reporting, of course, but most of it has been with a starting point deciphered through a Google search or a phone call and all of it has been under direction of an assigned prompt. Oh, right, and all of it has been done in the U.S. …
At home, things seem black and white, simple, bland almost with sources. They want to answer my questions and get on with their day. But in Jordan, through my interviewees, I was constantly face-to-face with the underlying conflict of the country. While speaking to them, the roles often reversed and I suddenly found myself as the subject of fervent interrogation about the Arab-Israeli conflict, King Abdullah II and refugee issues. Carlene has always warned her students “not to become part of the story,” and I didn’t fully understand that until these situations occurred. But there was controversy brewing under the seemingly pacific nation, and citizens wanted me, as an outsider, to know, and wanted me to comment. Sometimes I had strong opinions about what they would ask me, and sometimes I was completely oblivious as to what they’re talking about, but I couldn’t reveal my ignorance or my passion on anything they questioned me about – because then I would become part of the story. Their answers and demeanor would alter and I would not receive an objective interview, yet one subjectively tailored to fit their opinion toward the type of sentiments they thought me to hold.
It was a constant battle getting people back on track to interview at hand because revealing any ignorance or passion toward their topic-in-question could change their demeanor and alter their answers. And with the language barrier, there was an accompanied fear of a misunderstanding. Each interview was vibrant, yet difficult, as I had to focus not only on my story but the story my sources were trying to get out of me.
But being blindfolded and drop-kicked out of my comfort zone and landing dizzily in a land of unprecedented personal reporting was the best means of growth for me. I adapted quickly to my new environment – I was forced to – and easing in to new situations doesn’t suit me as well; I have a bit of a rogue style of doing things. As I left Jordan, I knew I wasn’t returning home, but traveling to the next destination on my journey as a reporter.