A Language Worth Speaking: Bodetti and Politics of the Middle East

What do you do to throw off a guy who has spent the last four years traveling the world as a researcher, teacher, volunteer, and freelance journalist, using college grants and money out of his own pocket, and earned publication in over 10 media outlets? What do you do with a guy who seems to have it all figured out before he’s even graduated college? You give the guy pink eye.

Austin Bodetti, MCAS ’18, will stand among his peers this coming May and prepare to enter the proverbial ‘real world’ that looms beyond college graduation. Bodetti’s a busy guy, but he took the time to sit across from me at a table in Addies, which was packed, for a chat. There’s someone dragging a chair across the floor and someone else dropping a plate. A few fluorescent spotlights away, a girl waves excitedly in our direction. Bodetti, widely known as an amiable guy, hesitates to wave back. His newly blurred vision challenges his ability to see too far in front of him. He finally gives up and just waves back.

We’re not taking the head shot today. I’d asked a photographer to sneak up on us at some point, to capture the interview in all its candidness, but called her off when Austin admitted he wasn’t exactly camera ready. While ‘redness of the eyes’ is harmless, pinkeye plays a sort of sick joke on the well-known idea of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. Austin’s views of the world have certainly altered, if not in the last few days, over the last four years. It’s clear the path he seemed to follow is more muddled now, but the question is, did he ever see as clearly as he appeared to?

Bodetti’s parents, divorced, each have an MBA. His mother lives in Connecticut and worked in banking. His father lives in Florida, and worked in telecommunications but now runs an Italian restaurant. He has two older sons from a different marriage, both of whom work in telecommunications, neither of whom went to college. From the moment Bodetti received his first college acceptance letter, his future was already shaping up to be divergent from his family’s. In particular, politics, which had never been a hot topic at the family dinner table, slowly took hold of his life.

Bodetti studies Islamic Civilization and Societies and Arabic Studies. Each year of college seemed to mark yet another outstanding milestone in his academic career. But his interest in the Middle East took hold back in his sophomore year of high school, when news of the Syrian Civil War peppered the media. But soon, the media’s interest fizzled, and Austin felt an absence: What went on in Syria when the media inevitably shifted its gaze to natural disasters and the stock market? So he did what any high school student would do when faced with a mystery: He logged onto Facebook and started stalking.

He talked to activists from Syria as well as members of the Free Syrian Army. His first encounters with the Arabic language were largely mediated by Google Translate, ample patience, and an absurd amount of free time that only a high schooler could have. It was then that this screen fiend of the virtual world assumed the decision-making persona of a college student: He told himself he would start learning Arabic, to resolve communication issues, and formally begin studying the Middle East.

Unlike most freshmen, Bodetti knew exactly what he wanted to do the moment he stepped foot on the Heights.

“When I was in high school I had a very clear goal, which was like ‘wow, this is a human tragedy in Syria, the government is killing its own people, I wanna figure out some way to help.’ Now I’ll say, the goal is a lot less clear.”

His goals were clarified in part by his impressive start at BC as a Presidential Scholar studying Arabic and the Middle East. After crafting such concentrated studies, Bodetti thought it was time to test his skills in the aforementioned ‘real world.’ The summer after his freshman year, the guy who used to quake in his boots before high school field trips planned a solo research trip in Southeast Asia to Burma, Thailand, and Indonesia. It was meant to be a purely academic excursion, but all the “moving parts” involved motivated him to reach out for assistance in his research to a freelance journalist he knew of who ran a blog called War is Boring. By the end of his trip, the journalist, not wanting to see Bodetti’s research go to waste, offered him a position writing for his blog. Bodetti achieved his first publication in August of 2015.

“I could not have predicted that within two years of graduating high school I would have been to South Sudan and Iraq. I also wouldn’t have seen the freelance journalism coming, because even now I don’t have a huge passion for journalism, and back then I didn’t,” Bodetti said while placing himself in his younger shoes. It was research and conflict resolution that had always interested him, but what to do with his research was another question.

“I wasn’t producing anything or using that knowledge,” he said. Journalism presented itself as a logical outlet for his research—it was never his dream. It was an unexpected curve in the road, but a curve that he accelerated through. Nevertheless, it was still an unwelcome jolt to be fired from War is Boring.

“I asked too many questions, I think, if I had to guess. Granted I was pretty annoying, but it was unexpected,” he said.

But if there’s one quality to be desired in any post-grad entering the workforce, it’s the ability to thrive in adversity. Although journalism was never Bodetti’s end goal, he felt a desire to reach out to other outlets that would publish him. Today, with his freelance journalism career in full swing, he’s been published on over 10 websites, including USA Today and Vice News. “The articles are very much in the weeds of American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I guess like the nuances of conflict in Burma, or that sort of thing,” Bodetti explained. While he’s never been to Afghanistan, in the spring of 2016, Bodetti began preparations for his third solo adventure abroad: a trip to Iraq.

Austin had traveled to South Sudan from Dec. 2015 to Jan. 2016, but was met with the same challenge he’d faced in Southeast Asia: the language barrier. He was determined to travel to an Arabic-speaking country. He chose Iraq, a nation in the throws of Civil War since 2014.

“Iraq I picked because it was the highest amount of risk I was comfortable taking,” he explained.

So there Bodetti was, on the verge of the riskiest experience of his life. And he knew the language.

Bodetti arrived in Iraq unbeknownst to all but his parents. Although equipped with proficient skills in written Arabic and promising skills in spoken Arabic, he knew a translator would be more than a language assistant: a translator act as a much-needed guide in an unknown and dangerous country. After two days he fired his translator for incompetence. It took Bodetti half of his trip to find and hire another one, but he succeeded in conducting all his interviews in half the time. Upon his return, he kept his trip a secret from everyone for six months, so as to prevent his experience from being colored by outside opinions.

“I was happy that I did it, and I wanted to be content with that decision,” he said.

Bodetti knew that going to Iraq, in all its danger, would not be a popular decision among his acquaintances, especially his professors who would appreciate more the significant amount of danger involved in such an expedition. So he waited until a trip he’d just returned from became a trip he’d returned and grown from. He wanted to have something to show for it, and the articles he was able to produce from this trip about Fallujah, the last major Iraqi urban center ISIS controlled other than Mosul, spoke for him.

“I wanted to put enough time between when I’d taken the trip and when I told other people so that I guess I could confirm to myself that this has been beneficial. I took the trip, I did it, these are the results, and however you may feel about it, it’s allowed me to be able to do this or that,” said Bodetti.

When he finally opened up, his friends thought his adventure was surprisingly cool, and his professors were predictably shocked. By that time, however, Bodetti was confident in his past decisions, though he doesn’t plan to return to Iraq.

Like his experience in Iraq, Bodetti tried journalism and decided it wasn’t for him. So he’s hitting the refresh button.

After working remotely from all over the world, an office job is exactly what Bodetti hopes for. While he plans to slowly phase out journalism over the next couple years, he’s still putting the ‘real world’ and its office jobs off as long as possible, describing his current strategy as “apply to everything possible, see what works out.”

Ideally he’d get chosen for a Fulbright grant to Jordan to research youth unemployment and perfect his Arabic, then go to graduate school to get other academic credentials he says he needs. The Jordan program prefers graduate students, however, jeopardizing Bodetti’s desired path.

But where his physical direction has faltered, his confidence in his personal ideals has been clarified and strengthened.

“Before, I wanted to help Syria directly,” he said. “Now, I’m recognizing that is something that Syrians shouldn’t have taken away from them. My more nuanced goal now is to figure out how to guide American policy in the Middle East in the most positive direction it can go.” He believes American foreign relations doesn’t have to mean American foreign intervention, as intervention in the past has be known to cause as many issues as it claims to solve.

For someone with an uncertain future, he’s grown to exercise a decidedly pronounced ideology.

Anyone who believes an acceptance letter or a binding contract defines a graduate’s future has not taken the time to listen to Bodetti. Unsatisfied by the media in high school, dropped by his editor, and let down by his translator in Iraq, Bodetti has thrived in adverse conditions. As a result, he produced and became more than what was expected of him in each instance.

Bodetti has had plenty of things to fear, but he was never afraid to try. Though Bodetti suffers from pink eye’s blurred vision, antibiotics will soon handle that problem, and he can move, with clearer sight, to untangling his future.

Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Editor