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Cigarettes and Sage

May 17, 2012

After spending a fair amount of time conducting phone and one-on-one interviews in the United States, I have gotten used to the often formulaic process of hooking up with a new source: find the contact online or through another source, get their information from the computer and set up a time to talk, either on the phone or through email. But as I begin interviewing people here in Amman, Jordan, I’m starting to realize how radically different international reporting is.

First – people don’t respond to email. It’s difficult to find contact information online and it’s easier to find someone by just showing up to their office rather than trying to set something up through other channels. In my search for an expert, I got lucky and caught the professor I needed on my first phone call.

We set up the interview for the next day. My cab ride to his office began by me handing my phone to the driver with the professor on the phone to give his address. It was my first solo cab ride, which didn’t really rattle me, but I was a little nervous about my first interview with a local. The ride was long, hot and loud. The driver listened to a radio program at a deafening volume, while young guys with slick black hair ripped past blasting Arabic rap.

The trip began to get strange when the driver, who hadn’t responded to me in English when I had initially spoken with him in the taxi, asked me in perfect English to please call the professor because we were close. We pulled up to the university where there were guards blocking the entrance. After arguing with the guards, the driver drove to the steps of the entrance to the building. Everyone was staring and I had a middle school moment where I felt like slinking down in my seat below the passenger side window until they all walked away. Then the driver refused any payment for the ride.

I felt students’ eyes boring in my back as I was escorted from the taxi to the professor’s office. Once the professor had invited me in, that’s when the interview got different. We sat down and as is custom in this culture, drank tea. He spoke to me about Jordan’s history and I struggled to pull him back on topic while trying to discreetly keep spitting the chunks of sage back into my tea. During the interview students came in and out, his phone rang non-stop and a colleague just sat down at one point to listen to the interview and share his views with me, unsolicited.

When interviewing, come prepared.

Nearly an hour and a half later, the interview was over, as were a couple of years of my life after breathing such an incredible amount of secondhand smoke in such a short period of time. He gave me a parting gift of Jordan’s constitution in Arabic, the “best constitution in the world.”

Hospitality. Constitutions. Cigarettes. Sage. History lessons. Escorts. A far cry from my internship at the Dorchester Reporter.

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