Question: What can/should I do with myself after I graduate with a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies?
Answer: For many of us, the painful but ultimately self-indulgent and pointless existential crisis triggered by this question is remarkably familiar- we experienced it shortly after graduating from undergrad. After earning a bachelor of arts degree (B.A.) in history or comparative literature with a focus on Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures from [insert liberal arts college/ research university here] we were convinced that others [read: employers] would respect our deep, unwavering commitment to attaining knowledge about this “fascinating” [read: economically stagnant and hopelessly violent] area of the world.
While the common but ultimately irksome response from our friends “Oh you study the Middle East- that’s so interesting. Everybody will want to hire you,” was comforting in the short-term, we soon realized that “everybody” really only included second-tier NGOs and the Central Intelligence Agency. The same existential crisis rears its head in a more potent, virulent form in graduate school when one cannot simply delay his entry into the real world by pursuing further studies (Except for the Phd candidates among us who will never enter the real world- unless you consider the real world to be a faculty conference room at Columbia). We have been told repeatedly that our skills and knowledge are “highly-valued”- but by whom?
Below are a few career suggestions for our master’s students, who have spent two years honing their language skills and area knowledge.
1) Study Abroad Advisor- Yemen
Your in-depth knowledge of the region and slippery command of fusa (Kef Fal Hal?) help you as you lead six groups of 20 wide-eyed twenty-year old American college students through the dangerous, almost-African-in-its -misery part of the Arabian Peninsula. Your position of authority will also afford you the opportunity to rail against American foreign policy while picking up the local habit(us)- chewing khat. Though some of your other friends/ colleagues also work in the region, you remind them that you live in the real Middle East, a place where hope gives way to despair in a titillating cycle of suffering. Besides, given America’s soon to be militarized concern for Yemen, the expat party scene in Sana’a is really unparalleled. Drinking martinis with General Petreaus one day and lambasting him as General Betray-Us the next is more than any other area studies graduate could ever ask for in a “real world” job.
2) Saving the World- Entry Level Project Assistant
Working for a New York-based NGO will give you a chance to network with other self-righteous, pro-Palestinian graduates of liberal arts colleges and perhaps more importantly, grant you the right, nay the obligation, to condescend to bankers, lawyers and other high-status New Yorkers. At private apartment parties, you can either talk about the latest press release you have written about the Israeli bombing in Gaza or mention the situation in Sudan to maximize the amount of rich world guilt you inflict upon your audience.
3) Teach for Lebanon- Founder
After you are rejected by Teach for America (you are sure that they blackballed you because of your pro-Palestinian activism) you decide to start a similar organization focused on educational crisis facing Lebanese schools. You appoint one Maronid, one Shiite, and one Druze as co-CEO’s and spend several months traveling through Saudi Arabia, France, Syria, Iran and the United States pitching your idea to Lebanon’s main patrons. You believe you can harness the productive potential of Lebanon’s human capital, young Lebanese males with gelled hair and a skewed view of their own physical attractiveness, to bring education to the less fortunate in the country. Your plan fails when the American government discovers that the seed money for your organization is going to Hezbollah co-sponsored soup kitchens near the border with Israel.
4) The Agency- Analyst
5) Mamoun’s - Falafel Maker/Maitre D
Though you have spent two years problematizing authenticity (isn’t it, ultimately, a discourse?), you still seek it. Your study abroad Arabic language program in Syria, spring break trip to the West Bank, and brief summer stopover in Istanbul were all unsatisfactory because you did not discover the real Islam(s) nor did you discover the real Middle East. You are disillusioned with the ummah, Palestine, and the godless Turks and decide that true authenciticy lies in the palate. Your elementary school level Spanish is adequate to land you a job as the front man at Mamouns where you spend hours ranting about your marginalized position vis-à-vis the Israeli owned cafes on MacDougal Street. Every once in a while, your customers discuss Middle Eastern politics and you inject yourself into the argument by quoting directly from your thesis titled "Subversion of a Metadiscourse: Ibn al-Khaldun’s poetry: A Revisionist Interpretation".
Regardless of which of these options you pick, there is a bright future waiting for you. You need only to seize the opportunity. Me? I will practicing intoning the following sentence with all due seriousness,
"One job with hot sauce, please."