Tik Root ’12 is back in Middlebury but not yet settled.
After being evacuated from Midd’s Alexandria program in February, Root returned with others to finish the semester in Damascus, Syria. He arrived March 8th and started classes March 14th. He was arrested four days later and held for two weeks in a secret police facility on Baghdad Street before being released April 1st and deported the following day.
The timeline is relatively straightforward, and most of the campus has heard a version of it already. This post, based on an interview with Root on Monday, will emphasize new information that changes what we have heard so far, along with messages relevant to the larger Midd community. The Campus will also be basing an article on the interview; we have chosen to rely on longer direct quotes, trusting The Campus to contextualize and interpret further than we do.
We want to thank Root for opening a small window in his barrage of questions and interviews to talk with The Campus and MiddBlog. Welcome back.
Thanks and Clarifications
We can begin near the end of the interview, with Root’s discussion of why he chose to make his story public—or more public than it has already been.
His first reason is gratitude. While in prison, he was kept completely out of contact with the world—no phone calls, no news. He only learned of the efforts to release him after he was freed. “[Today] is the first opportunity I’ve gotten to thank the College,” he said.
“Ron Liebowitz was just amazing. The Study Abroad Office was great. The Communications Office—everyone. I probably don’t even know half of it and I’m completely speechless. I can’t figure out how to thank them enough.”
His second reason for accepting interview requests was to clarify a few important points.
Root reiterated a message from his recent open letter: the prison on Baghdad Street in Damascus really does exist and holds political prisoners. “The US government never knew where I was being held until I got out,” he commented. “I was moved to an immigration hall for the last couple of hours of my detention, where they pretended to be really nice while this Embassy official showed up.” Root wants to make sure the prison’s location is known as widely as possible, so that people with a friends or family there might feel less doubt and uncertainty.
His second point of clarification was more specifically for Americans.
Originally, Root had not planned on talking publicly about his imprisonment at all. However, an experience on his way home changed his mind. Upon his return, Root was stopped for an hour and a half by the US border patrol, who searched him and his possessions. After telling the patrolmen his story, “one of the border guys just muttered under his breath, ‘these guys [the Syrians] just live in the 7th century.’” Root did not want his negative experience at the hands of the Syrian state to reflect on the Syrian or Arab people. “It would be irresponsible of me to let people take that [simplistic] story away. It wouldn’t do anyone any good.”
Inspired by examples like the recently-released Iran hiker, who is working to free her friends while also calling for more open Iran-US relations, Root chose to speak. In fact, some of his thanks went out to Syrian ambassador to the US, Iman Moustafa, of whom he noted, “It’s good to know there are still some good people inside the Syrian government.” For Root, those people deserve the credit that comes with telling a more detailed story.
Now, we can turn to the story itself.
“They had no idea”
Contrary to some initial reports that Root was arrested for taking pictures of a protest, Root himself describes the reasons for his arrest as “completely arbitrary.” Although he was picked up by the Syrian secret police near a protest, it was never clear to him that he had been arrested for any discernable reason.
“[I was] not even taking pictures,” he said. “I had maybe one picture.”
Tik said many of his fellow inmates were there for similarly spurious reasons: “One of my cellmates was pictured in the general area of a small gathering in the suburbs. [The secret police] tracked him down overnight and dragged him out of his bed Saturday morning, without shoes. He went to prison without shoes.” Root repeated his conclusion about his own arrest: “It’s just completely arbitrary.”
Syria “the more stable option”
Some reactions to Root’s capture (including a MiddBlog commenter or two) argued that, as difficult and unfair as the situation was, Root had, to some extent, knowingly placed himself at risk. However, Root chose Syria precisely because he and his family wanted to minimize risk.
A number of students evacuated from Middlebury’s Alexandria program along with Root had decided to finish their semesters abroad in other Arabic-speaking countries. Before returning, they formed individual plans in communication with each other and with experts on both sides of the Atlantic.
After returning from Egypt, Root says,
“my two options were Morocco and Syria. Protests were planned in Morocco for the day I was supposed to start classes, and [the danger in] Syria at that point was literally nothing. We checked every day. I talked to a bunch of professors. I was told that Syria, because it was a police state, would be the more stable option.”
Root felt he could not have anticipated something like what happened to him. “I did my homework,” he said. “I prepared. I took pretty much any precaution I possibly could have, I think.”
“This [arbitrariness] is something the Syrians live with every day,” Root added. “I just happened to get caught up in it. But they’ve been living with it for almost 50 years [State of Emergency since 1963]. I can’t imagine what that does to someone’s psyche.”
Root has recorded stories about his fellow inmates, but he must wait to release them, lest he put others in further danger inside or outside of prison. He could, however, give some general impressions of the many people with whom he shared
Most prisoners Root met were Syrian. Very few were from countries outside the region, and none seemed to be well-off or highly educated. The regime’s indiscriminate tactics had even imprisoned “a mentally handicapped individual, who, from all we can tell didn’t [commit any crime]. They just had no idea what to do with him.”
Root was interrogated twice soon after his arrest, and again a week later. During the third interrogation, he was given a “pretty bad” English translator for about 10 minutes, but other than that, he had to rely entirely on his own knowledge of Arabic. “My language skills went significantly downhill during the interrogations,” he added.
Cultural differences added to linguistic ones. When questioned about his family history, Root had to explain that he was adopted. In Syria’s conservative legal culture, “[adoption] is a concept that’s hard to explain even if you have an hour. … Even if you speak fluent Arabic it might be hard to explain.”
Root had his passport, which he hoped would keep him safe. Being an American citizen did protect him from physical abuse, but it also aroused suspicion from interrogators, who accused him of being a CIA agent or a journalist.
Root conjectures that the main reason why he was held so long was his passport, stamped with the names of countries across the Middle East. “They tried to weave a story around the stamps,” he said. “They kept … telling me, ‘I don’t believe the tale that you’re telling me,’ and then they kept making ‘suggestions’ as to what my story might be, and telling me that they’d deal with me with violence and I’d tell them the real story in 10 minutes.”
Simple arbitrariness and confusion also played a part in extending his confinement: “They actually took me out of the cell that Thursday night [3/31], and I thought I was going to be released, but it never really ended up happening [until Friday].”
Once Root returned, the media onslaught began—much more than long, calm interviews in the Grille. “It’s been ridiculous,” Root said with some fatigue.
He found 250 emails in his inbox. A news crew approached his house until his family felt compelled to turn them out and close the blinds.
Root has been able to find humor in his growing inventory of news-industry quirks, such as when one reporter “just got up and left” an interview to do a live broadcast in another location or when, during an interview on Fox, Root was never sure when the station would cut to a speech by House Speaker John Boehner and end the segment. During this very interview, a photographer and writer from CNN hovered around the table at the Grille, planning to interview him further after our time was up. [EDIT: The linked article on the front page of CNN.com seems to be the result of their reporting on the subject.]
The density of plans and interview dates is decreasing. However, Root was excited to make time for one appointment in particular: a talk with his 8th-grade Social Studies teacher and her students. Although he has “no idea” what he’ll talk about, Root wants to show his thanks to a great teacher from his past.
As for his Midd-related plans, Root is a bit less certain. Once he becomes less “overwhelmed,” he will return to the campus full time.
Clarifying his story and heading off further issues in interviews is a step on the way home. “I don’t mind answering any questions,” Root assured us. “I just want to avoid the ‘what happened’ question because it’s a little broad.”
Effects on study abroad
The arbitrariness of regimes like Syria’s is a double-edged sword for Middlebury. On the one hand, tough regimes can decrease instability and keep foreign students safer. On the other, those same regimes’ actions can be difficult to predict if instability breaks out suddenly.
Jeff Cason, Dean of International Programs, comments that, although “we have always made the health and safety of our students a top priority at the Schools Abroad,” it can sometimes be difficult to predict risks.
“[E]vents these last 3 months have given us more experience in managing crises,” Cason continued, “which has in turn led us to ask new questions when it comes to insuring student safety.” Although Root’s capture might affect perceptions of study abroad, the Office of International Programs has not yet seen a drop in applications.
Root was steadfast on the importance of studying abroad. He spoke of the many travel plans and partial connections he had hoped to fulfill in Syria had he had more time. With regards to reactions his story might provoke, he advised, “don’t let it stop you from studying abroad.”