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CUNY Baccalaureate Commencement Speech-June 3, 2009
Thank you very much for that kind introduction President Kelly, and for having me here today. I’m honored to be speaking at my alma mater.
I’d like to share a story with you that took place in October 2003 when I was the Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. I was travelling from Amman, the Jordanian capital, to Baghdad.
Back then, the airport in Baghdad had not yet reopened to civilians. The best way to get to Baghdad was to drive for 12 hours from Amman. I had made this trip a half dozen times since the US invasion in April 2003, and I knew how essential it was to have a good driver. On this particular trip, I was quite happy with the driver I had hired.
About halfway through the drive, we were approaching Ramadi and then Fallujah. Both cities later became centers of the Iraqi insurgency. We were on a comfortable six-lane highway that was built by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.
The biggest problem on this road was bandits. They figured out that many foreigners were coming in and out of Iraq after the invasion. Foreigners were carrying computers, cameras, satellite phones, and most important of all-a lot of cash. At this point, the banks in Iraq were not functioning. No travelers’ checks. No wire transfers.
Journalists and aid workers had to bring in thousands of dollars at a time. On this trip, I was carrying about $12,000 in cash. I was going to be in Iraq for two months and I had to keep the small Newsday bureau there running.
The bandits-the Iraqis called them Ali Babas-had lookouts on the highway overpasses and the rest stops. They would try to pinpoint cars that had foreigners in them and could be lucrative targets.
You would be in an old GMC Suburban that can do 90 or 100 miles an hour. But the bandits would be in BMWs that could do 120 miles an hour. They would chase you and cut you off with two or three cars.
My driver, Khalid, told me that a week earlier he was driving a group of German aid workers who were chased and robbed by bandits.
As we neared Ramadi-we both got tense-Khalid reached over, and opened the glove compartment. He took out a grenade. He put it next to him on the seat.
He saw that I looked concerned. So he said, “This is only in case the Ali Babas chase us.”
He thought that would make me feel better.
I asked, “What exactly are you planning to do with this?”
“Well,” he said, “if we see one of these cars creeping up behind us, I’m going to pull the window down, stick the grenade out and show them that I mean business.”
I didn’t think that was a good idea at all. I pointed out that the Ali Babas have AK-47s and there will be a lot more of them than the two of us.
“Once I show them the grenade, you’ll see they’ll leave us alone.”
“What if they don’t?” I asked.
“Well, then I’ll take the pin out of the grenade, stick it out of the window again, and that will show them that I really mean business.”
So we went back and forth for 10 or 15 minutes. For the most part, I kept calm trying to convince him that this was a really bad idea. At that point, the Ali Babas were not killing people, only robbing them. I tried to convince Khalid that the grenade was much more likely to instigate them than it was to scare them off.
Finally, when I pointed out that if he threw the grenade the wrong way, it could destroy his beloved car-with us inside it-he relented and put the grenade back in the glove compartment. Fortunately, we made it the rest of the way to Baghdad without incident.
I tell this story because-as cliche as it might sound-sometimes you have to be prepared for completely unexpected things. There I was, on the road to Baghdad having to talk a driver twice my age into putting away a live grenade. No one really teaches you these things.
I also share this story today because I believe that all of you CUNY Baccalaureate graduates have known-and will know-how to react when you encounter your own version of this story, whatever form it might take. You know how to think on your feet, to handle enormous pressure, and to deal with the unexpected.
I’m not going to present you with a cliche list that you should take with you as newly minted graduates, or to share pearls of wisdom about how you can survive in the “real world.” You’ve all been living in that real world.
CUNY as a whole-and the CUNY BA program in particular-is unique in the way that its graduates are often driven by their life experiences to pursue their education. All of you had a major share of the responsibility for the content of your CUNY Baccalaureate degree. It takes guts to design some of those areas of concentration, and to get them past the CUNY BA staff!
I also don’t want to present an entirely rosy picture of our world today. This is a difficult time. The US economy is in terrible shape: housing values have plummeted, foreclosures are rising, unemployment is nearing double digits.
But let me remind you that many of you have overcome incredible obstacles in order to graduate today. Keep in mind that your personal experience and struggles are a tremendous source of strength. They will make you more creative-and give you an edge over those who might not have had to struggle in the same way.
I graduated from the CUNY Baccalaureate program 12 years ago. When I entered the program, I was already working in journalism, freelancing for community papers in Queens and later for Newsday, but I decided that I wanted a different area of concentration: urban studies. I was a Thomas Smith Academic Fellow. I took courses at four different campuses, and at every one I found dedicated faculty members who were eager to work with me. I co-authored a study with one of my mentors, Professor Philip Kasinitz, which was later published in a national journal. Professor Kasinitz would tease me that I was the first undergraduate with whom he had ever agreed to share an author credit.
I had an undergraduate experience that was unique to CUNY-being able to tap into the resources of this great university, in this great city. I could not have done this anywhere else.
Attending CUNY instilled in me a sense of social responsibility-as I know it has for many of you here today.
How do I know that? You only need to leaf through today’s graduation program to see the range of CUNY Baccalaureate students who managed to fit some form of social justice or awareness into an area of concentration. Some of you are already working-or soon will be-in social service careers: as counselors, social workers, and teachers.
Whatever you do, you’ll need to have a keen sense of empathy and compassion for others, especially in these difficult times. During the six years I spent covering conflict in the Middle East, I always tried to portray in my articles what it was like to be a civilian trapped by war.
I was attuned to that because I had grown up during the Lebanese civil war, and I often felt trapped in Beirut. As a civilian, without a foreign passport, you’re stranded. This is the one feeling that’s the most difficult for foreign correspondents to understand. Your passport is your ticket out if things get very bad. But the civilians have to stay behind.
It’s always sobering to run into the limitations of your profession. Be prepared for that. And be ready to re-invent yourself over the course of your career.
I love journalism. I’ve been doing it since I was in middle school. But over the past few years, I’ve had to move away from newspaper reporting-people say it’s a dying industry. I’ve had to reinvent myself as a teacher of journalism, a political analyst, and a researcher. I miss the rush of daily newspaper reporting; sometimes I even miss talking a stranger into putting away his gun or a grenade.
Jimmy Breslin, my friend at Newsday and one of the greatest columnists in the history of American journalism, once explained the importance of doing what you love far better than I could. He wrote after finding his perfect job: “I busted out of the place in a hurry and went to a saloon and drank beer and said that for the rest of my life I’d never take a job in a place where you couldn’t throw cigarette butts on the floor. I was hooked on this writing for newspapers and magazines.”
That’s the message I’d like to leave you with today: there’s going to be setbacks and unexpected twists. You may never find a job where you can throw your cigarette butts on the floor like Jimmy Breslin. But try to have a high tolerance for the pain. Be willing to adapt, and use everything that you’ve learned at CUNY and from your rich life experience to do the things that you love.
Thank you again for having me. And congratulations to all of you in the class of 2009.
Listen to the podcast of Mohamad’s speech here