A few weeks ago I realized that an Egyptian Youtube tribute to the international media mentioned Ahmed Abdallah, who I met in a strange and therefore memorable way when I was eighteen. I've had the idea of becoming a journalist on and off over the years – that was an on year. He gave the usual offers of help, left his card. For various reasons I won't mention here, I never used those contacts. It turns out he was among those who disappeared into the bowels of Egypt's state security system during the protests to emerge later, bruised and beaten. It would be a stretch to call Ahmed Abdallah a friend. Even so, it's unsettling, the first time a name in a headline corresponds with a name from your personal memories.
Later, friends and entirely unrelated people started posting a disturbing video of Abdallah Dawesteshy, an Alexandrian photographer who works with one of my friends. I interviewed him back in 2009 about music, change, history and social commentary. It is hard to reconcile my videos, filmed at his office in the Alexandrian library, with the dark and grainy one where he lies bleeding outside the city's state security center, a live bullet lodged somewhere in his chest. The injury kept him in the hospital for several days.
And then this headline appeared: "Middlebury student missing in Syria"
Last year, I was an Arabic teaching assistant at Middlebury College, which is also where I graduated in 2009. The group of students who were evacuated from Alexandria earlier this year were my students last year. The favorite topic of conversation, whether during our “conversation hours” or at other events, was study abroad. What was the program like? What was Alexandria like? What advice did I have for them?
The Middlebury program has changed a lot since I was there in its first year, so I didn't like to talk too much about my own experiences. But there was one piece of advice I was willing to repeat to anyone who would hear it: make your own connections with the city. Get out, escape the program if you have to. Follow your own interests; whatever clubs or activities or hobbies occupy your time at home should occupy you there as well.
I usually added that political activism is trickier, and they should be careful. But having watched many students go abroad, befriend the same dorm-mates who were hand-picked by our program administrators, and return complaining that they had missed having intellectual conversations (not due to limited vocabularies, but the limits of their conversational partners), I was concerned that too many students – even some of the brightest, most active and adventurous students – were allowing the parameters of the program to define their experiences in and impressions of Alexandria, or even Egypt as a whole.
I don't imagine my ranting had a large impact on anyone, but I was pleased when I saw that Tik and a few others, after being evacuated from Alexandria, only increased their connections with Alexandrians and (presumably) other Egyptians. I was actually hoping we could link this blog to the Mideastreports site Tik started with other returning students. For the moment, and for Tik's safety, friends have now made the site private and emptied the public Google documents that formed the basis of those reports.
I was never anyone's teacher, but I did watch Tik and other students grow over the course of a year, and I was especially proud of what I saw when they came back from Alexandria. Being a weepy sort, I even got a little teary when I saw Tik's photos and video footage from the demonstrations. I certainly applauded his decision to finish the year abroad, this time at a program in Damascus. I didn't expect him to become the first person-I-knew to go missing. No one did.
The latest news on Tik is that he is 'safe and well,' and that the Syrian authorities have located him. High-level authorities are working on Tik's case, and the story reached national media last Friday. But his parents have not been told where he is, or anything more specific about his condition. As his stepmother Andi Loyd said in a recent update, diplomacy is a slow-moving process.
Time moves especially slowly when you have unanswered questions: What was Tik doing when he was arrested? Why was he arrested? What did Syrian authorities make of this American student, likely speaking a a semester's worth of Egyptian colloquial Arabic, piled on a couple of years of Modern Standard Arabic? Why is the standard 'pressure from the State Department' not the magic key to an instantaneous release? Is his case at all influenced by or connected to that of Mohamed Radwan, the Egyptian-American also being detained in Syria?
Just one question is enough to slow time to a painful crawl. It's the one most likely playing over and over in his parents' minds: when will Tik come home?