An Accidental Career

How I ended up working in a field that I had barely heard of

For a long time, I had no clear idea of how I wanted to earn a living. I always had many interests, but I didn’t understand how to turn them into a career, or know anyone who could have helped me with that. And even if I had, they wouldn’t have been able to suggest the kind of work I do now, because it didn’t exist yet. I ended up doing a lot of different jobs in different countries. Somehow, the skills and experiences I’ve picked up along the way have fit together in a way that I didn’t plan. It wasn’t always easy, but I seem to have found a professional niche for myself. Perhaps my story could be helpful to others who aren’t sure where they’re going in life.

I was born in New York in 1969. My parents were divorced when I was six. My mother, an orchestral clarinettist, moved with me to Miami, where she managed to have a musical career while juggling several jobs to make ends meet. I admired her for having the courage to leave a situation she didn’t like, go somewhere else, and make a new life. And I ended up doing that several times myself over the next forty years.

Starting to understand programming and music

When I was about eleven, one of my school classrooms had an Apple II computer. The teacher knew nothing about it, so we kids were left to figure it out for ourselves if we wished. I started trying to get it to do simple things like generate random graphics. It was such a simple machine that, through reading and experimentation, I was able to understand rather well how it worked. But I had no desire to become a computer programmer.

I was much more interested in music. Besides being a great emotional outlet, it had a crucial advantage over computer programming. Introverted nerds like me were unpopular at school, but when I started playing electric guitar and formed a rock band with my nerdy friends, I became a bit less unpopular.

Once I had understood how rock music worked, I looked for other musical puzzles to figure out. I began to teach myself to play jazz by studying recordings and transcriptions, reading books about jazz theory, and taking lessons when I got stuck. This style of learning has usually worked well for me, and I’ve used it again and again.

An education with no clear direction

I had always associated school with boredom, and at one point I seriously considered dropping out. But when I finally did graduate from high school, I applied to several universities without having any idea what I wanted to study.

Fortunately, they all rejected me, except one: Hampshire College, in Massachusetts.

It had no marks, exams, or required courses. Instead, students designed their own curriculum and did independent research. Here was a kind of education that really suited me.

Me, practising guitar at Hampshire College in 1987.

I got interested in how knowledge is produced and how concepts are constructed, but I didn’t yet know that what I was interested in was called sociology and cognitive semantics. At the same time, my main interest remained jazz, and I still hoped to become a professional musician.

After I graduated in 1991, I finally had to accept the obvious truth that I wouldn’t be able to make a living with jazz, especially since I lacked the total dedication that all professional musicians seemed to have. In any case, I had found another puzzle to work on.

Getting outside my first language

I was aware of academic debates about whether the languages we speak shape the way we think. I was a monolingual English speaker, and wanted to learn to think in another language to find out how different it really is. Also, I was starting to feel that American culture was a sort of bubble, and that I needed to get out of it to find out what else there was.

I had learned a bit of French in high school, and enjoyed struggling to use it during a short holiday in Europe after graduation. So I decided to build on it. I spent a year in Miami doing low-skilled jobs (stuffing envelopes, pet-sitting) and teaching myself French. I borrowed all the French self-teaching methods from the local public library, as well as all the French films.

I memorized the lines in the films and tried to imitate the actors, just as I had done with recordings of jazz solos. Thanks to the bit of linguistics I had studied, I was able to figure out the essentials of French phonetics and produce all the sounds. I managed to read a novel in French, looking up most of the words in the dictionary.

I took a year of undergraduate French literature and linguistics courses at the University of Florida, then enrolled in the Master’s program.

When I started that MA in 1994, an inspiring linguistics professor, Michel Achard, had just joined the department, and introduced us graduate students to the startling insights of cognitive semantics. My ideas about language, thought, and communication were changed for good. At the same time, I devoured French literature and began to understand literary theory. But I wasn’t drawn to an academic career, and still had no clear idea of what I would do with this degree once I finished it.

Fake it till you make it

By that time, my French was rather good, though very formal (a friend said I ‘talked like a book’). I was therefore able to earn a bit of money by teaching some of the department’s introductory French courses for undergraduates.

This was, at first, a terrifying experience. I was hardly any older than the students, I didn’t consider myself a real teacher, and I was sure they wouldn’t take me seriously. Much later, I learned that this is called impostor syndrome, and that it’s common among graduate students and young academics. I decided to imagine how a real teacher would behave, and imitate that behavior.

To my amazement, the students were fooled: they treated me as if I was a real teacher. So I continued pretending, and after a few weeks, I started to believe my own act.

Living abroad for the first time

Graduates of the MA could apply to spend an academic year in France working as teaching assistants. My application was accepted, and in 1995 I started work in a school in a small town in central France. I made it my first priority to spend as much time with French people as possible. To that end, I forced myself to become more extroverted, which was sometimes very uncomfortable for me. I joined an amateur jazz band, and took courses in improvisational theatre.

Playing guitar (at right) in a jazz concert, somewhere in central France, in 1996

After a few months, I started to spend every weekend in Paris with a circle of friends. The main thing they had in common was their passion for film. I spent many evenings with them in cinemas, and many late nights sitting in a tiny, smoke-filled flat, listening to their conversations and joining in here and there when I could.

I began to think in French, to dream in French, to write a diary in French.

This was not a painless process. The more French I sounded, the more people expected me to share their sense of humor, their way of having a conversation, their sense of what one should or shouldn’t say. Sometimes I struggled to meet these expectations. Gradually these difficulties faded.

By the end of the year, I felt oddly as if my old self had melted away, and in its place a new one had formed.
In Paris in 1996

Joining the ranks of Wall Street typists

With no job prospects, I couldn’t stay in France. I returned to New York in the autumn of 1996 and slept on a friend’s sofa. Although I had two degrees and was now bilingual, my principal qualification on the job market seemed to be that I could type very fast. I became part of an army of workers that went from one Wall Street bank to another, typing and formatting financial reports. I hardly ever got to talk to anyone at these temp jobs. One day I noticed a man in his forties doing the same thing, and thought:

If I’m still doing this when I’m his age, I’ll kill myself.

But I didn’t know what else to do. Meanwhile, I was suffering from culture shock. Now I felt more foreign in the US than I had in France. I spent most of my free time alone in cafés, reading Dostoevsky, Proust, and Joyce, and trying without success to write a novel. Eventually I got to know a number of French people, and strangely found myself living in a French bubble in New York.

Stumbling into software development

One day, the friend whose sofa I had slept on asked me to help him with a freelance web site development project he was doing. I learned a little bit about how web sites were made. He then suggested I apply for jobs at web development companies. It never would have occurred to me that I could do that without a degree in computer science, but to my amazement, it worked. Suddenly I had a career in software development.

I started to teach myself various programming languages. At a party, I struck up a conversation with a man about my age who had been standing awkwardly in a corner. He turned out to be the senior software developer at a large web development company. He told me about the content management system he had created, to allow customers to update the content on their own web sites.

Over the next few weeks, I reverse-engineered one of its components and presented my version to him. He then hired me, and I learned a lot from him. I eventually released my version of that component as free software, and many people who I never met contributed to it.

Unstable employment

About a year after I started working at that company, it was bought by another company, and I started sending CVs to recruiters. The head of a small London startup happened to be in New York and offered me a job. A few weeks later, in January 2000, I moved to London. I had never been to the UK, I knew no one there, I had no savings, and I would have a lower salary than in New York. But I was glad to be back in Europe.

One morning, eight months later, my manager came into the office and announced that this was our last day of work, because the company had lost its funding and was going out of business immediately. I frantically applied for other software development jobs, and took one at a large banking software company.

In my free time I participated in free software projects as a way of exploring something called functional programming, which was then considered rather obscure and avant-garde, but would turn out to be useful for me about ten years later.

Becoming an activist

One day, not long after I arrived in the UK, I bought a copy of the French leftist newspaper Le Monde diplomatique, and found an announcement for a group in London called Friends of Le Monde diplomatique, which organized talks and discussions. I started attending, then helped organize the events, and that was how I began to make friends and get involved in political activism in London, in what was then called the ‘alter-globalisation’ movement.

In February 2003, I was one of perhaps two million people who demonstrated in London against the invasion of Iraq. It struck me then that in the London activist circles I knew, hardly anyone seemed to speak Arabic or know much about the Arab world. So I started to learn Arabic by taking evening classes.

There is a standard written variety of Arabic as well as a number of different spoken varieties, but the teaching of Arabic as a second language has nearly always focused on written Arabic. I realized that to learn spoken Arabic, I would have to live in a place where it was used in daily life. And I was getting tired of developing banking software.

Moving to Egypt

So, in 2005, having saved some money, I quit my job and moved to Cairo to study Arabic for two years.

Egypt was, then as now, an authoritarian state, but in those days it was easy, safe, and inexpensive for foreigners to live, study, and do research there. I enrolled in an Arabic language school run by the French consulate in Cairo, and took many private lessons.

As I had done with French, I learned the dialogue in Egyptian films and imitated the actors. I ended up feeling very much at ease in Egyptian Arabic, and spent many late nights in cafés with Egyptian writers, artists, journalists, activists, and academics.

In Cairo with Ahmad Ismail, my Arabic teacher and dear friend, in 2007.

In 2007 I returned to London and did an MA in Middle East Studies at SOAS, University of London, where I read more and more Arabic literature. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t possible to understand cultural production since the 19th century, in Egypt or elsewhere, without a good analysis of nationalism, and that existing theories of nationalism couldn’t answer the questions I wanted to ask.

Trying to understand nationalism

I tried to solve that problem in my PhD, focusing on the history of Egyptian nationalism, and using sociological theory and cognitive semantics. I wouldn’t have been able to do that research if I hadn’t been able to work with written sources in Arabic, English, and French, as well as films in Egyptian Arabic. During my PhD, I returned to Egypt for a year to do archival research and spend more late nights in cafés with friends.

‘Home’ was now this alternation between London and Cairo, the two cities where I felt I belonged.

I now believed I was headed for a conventional academic career, but the academic job market turned out to be almost as difficult as the job market for jazz musicians. For several years I applied for about fifty jobs each year, many of which had hundreds of other applicants, as the rejection letters helpfully explained.

Giving a lecture on Arab media, at the National University of Singapore, in 2013.

I was fortunate enough to get one-year academic jobs at the American University in Cairo and the National University of Singapore. In 2013 I moved yet to another country, this time Germany, where my wife had found a job in Tübingen. I found myself learning yet another language.

Exhausted by the academic job search and by moving to a different country every year, I was now thinking about going back to software development.

Putting the pieces together

By sheer luck, I found out that there was a job opening for a software developer at the Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Basel. I had heard of a new field called digital humanities, but knew almost nothing about it. It turned out that they were looking for someone with a background in both software development and the humanities, and that they even wanted to use functional programming (remember, that obscure thing I had picked up in London).

To my amazement, several of the pieces of my previous work and interests suddenly seemed to fall into place in a way that I couldn’t have expected.

I’ve been working at the Digital Humanities Lab for four years now, and it gets more interesting every year.

The main force that has shaped my career has definitely been luck. It has probably also helped that I like teaching myself, and that I’ve been willing to repeatedly move to different countries, adapt to different social norms, and spend much of my life learning languages. Not having a clear idea of where I’ve been going has perhaps been an asset, too. It has allowed me to try all sorts of things, without needing to figure out in advance where they might lead.

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