Monday, June 1, 2009

Tunisian Prologue in DC

Today we had a full day of program orientation that was chock full of goodies. They spent about an hour and a half explaining what to expect in Tunisia, and I'm glad they did. The most exciting part was meeting some very, very interesting people.

To back up a day: Last night I met an Iraqi-American with an incredible background. Fluent in Arabic, specializing in five complex Iraq dialects, he's heading down to San Diego in a few days to teach Arabic with the State Department. This guy was totally unrelated to the CLS program (the program I going with to Tunisia, aka the Critical Languages Scholarship). For a good half-hour we chatted about his experience working in the State Department, which included a five-year stint working as a translator for the Iraqi army. He shared his stories of translating during the Battle of Fallujah and his perception of how Iraq is becoming a more secure state.

In exchange I answered his questions about California; he was particularly interested and very surprised to find out our state's dismal economic condition. He was excited about learning about the program I'm on, saying that the State Department needed a lot more translators. He encouraged me that the more I became an expert on Middle Eastern policy, the more invaluable I could be as a potential Department employee.

Back to today: This morning they had a diverse panel of Arabic/Middle-Eastern experts that, through three perspectives - one worked in the private sector as a consultant, one was a State Department bureau chief, and one headed a prominent NGO that helped international refugees - shed some light on employment opportunities. I asked both the NGO and State Department chief about how the two sectors interacted with each other, considering that in a lot of literature and media the evidence suggests they butt heads. They both had positive responses, however. When the NGO industry took off in the 1980s / 1990s, the government began to use them as a way of on-the-ground information gathering. During the Balkan crises in the mid-1990s, their coordination led to the biggest refugee resettlement in history.

During lunch I also got to talk with the director of the CLS program, who herself had been with the State Department before returning and deciding to spearhead the program. She reminded me of your friend's grandma that you'd love to have, yet you knew she gave your friend the hardest time. She told some entertaining stories of her experiences abroad and shed some insight on living in the Middle East.

The rest of the day we learned about Tunisian culture, what to do and not to, and learned some incredible news: we would be staying with a host family for the entirety of the program. I'm stoked: what better way could you learn a language?

It's midnight DC-time and I'm going to stock up on sleep tonight for tomorrow's seven-hour flight to Tunisia (with a layover in Paris). I'm not sure when I'll have internet access yet but I'll post as soon as possible.

Here are some photos I took today of some sightseeing we managed to squeeze in.

Photos of the day: The Capitol and the Washington Monument

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