John Davison's time at Edinburgh included a lot of rugby and the unexpected inspiration to study Persian. Both have stayed with him as he has pursued his career as a news journalist. He now manages a news bureau in Baghdad, a role that has made him reflect on global inequalities.
Arabic and History
|Year of graduation||2008|
At the moment
I write this from behind blast walls at the Reuters Baghdad bureau. I’ve been working here as Iraq Bureau Chief for the international news agency. The past year has featured COVID-19, US assassinations of militia leaders, and unease over tension between America and Iran. Hoping for a little break...
Your time at the University
I’d only been to Edinburgh once, aged eight. When I arrived to study what first struck me were the spires and Gothic buildings in the Old Town of this stunning city. What a place to come for a university education. And it’s because Edinburgh is a vibrant city in its own right that it provided a great balance between academia, extra-curricular activities and a life not limited to campus walls.
I sat in my Director of Studies’ office in week one to begin my Arabic and History degree. My DOS suggested I take Persian as my outside subject. I’d been thinking of Spanish, but said, “yeah, ok”. It was the course I enjoyed the most, and a language I later picked up and learned fluently, poring over grammar books and half-wishing I were back at university.
I played rugby for EURFC in my first and final years, and spent two seasons in between at an Edinburgh club – a move that helped me meet people outside university circles, which might not have been possible at many other universities. Bumping into EURFC pals years later (including facing-off on opposing rugby teams in London) was an unexpected joy, and a reminder of the enriching extra-curricular options at Edinburgh.
I spent several months in Cairo and Damascus to study Arabic, which was eye-opening and maturing (I hope), and created bonds with Edinburgh classmates and a shared fascination with a region that I returned to cover as a reporter when it descended into mayhem.
After Middle Eastern forays, I always loved coming back to Edinburgh. The first-rate teaching, education and resources; the sport; the Jazz Bar; and curries at the mosque for lunch with classmates, teammates and flatmates who have become lifelong friends are among the memories I’ll always cherish.
Your experiences since leaving the University
I left Edinburgh knowing I wanted to use and improve my Arabic, keep up sport, and keep in touch with friends I made. Beyond that, I didn’t have a plan. I’m not sure I’d have imagined one day running a news bureau in a conflict-hit country.
That took time and experience, a lot of hard work and some luck, like most things do. After graduating I made several failed attempts at applying for the civil service and foreign office. I began a job translating Arabic financial reports, improved my language in my time off, and picked up my Edinburgh Persian books from first year.
It was my languages that helped pursue a career in journalism. The Arabic and Persian paid off – after many applications I started working as a researcher at the BBC, inputting data and doing some translation. I learned to write better. I built on the skills I’d gained through my degree.
I eventually took a six-month editing contract working for the French news agency AFP and embarked on a reporting career. I’ve since worked out of four Arab capitals, learned different dialects, met presidents and prime ministers, covered the Pope saying mass in Bethlehem, and been shelled and shot at by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The job can be incredible, but takes its physical and mental toll. What has always helped is that sense of balance that Edinburgh fostered. I’ve kept doing sport, and when I can (as in Beirut and northern Iraq) picked up some rugby again. I’ve kept in touch with classmates and sometimes professors, and sought to have as wide a variety of interests and curiosities as possible.
Life during Covid-19
It made me appreciate how lucky I am. Covid-19 has disproportionately hit those worst-off in the world, physically and financially.
When a local Iraqi shopkeeper loses relatives and then loses his income of 300 dollars a month, it puts things in perspective. His children won’t get to study at a good university. It makes you feel both grateful and guilty. I wrote about him and impoverished Iraqis hit by Covid, hoping that might make a difference.
It has made me want to spend more time with family and loved ones, having been mostly unable to see them with travel restrictions.
Perspective, patience and balance.
Work hard, but realise things don’t usually come exactly when you want them. It takes time and experience, sometimes doing things you’re not crazy about. You might also find a calling you’d never considered, so be open.
Be persistent. Be a good team worker or team player. Develop the skills you love using, because that’s what will help you enjoy whatever it is you end up doing after Edinburgh. Keep learning.
And life advice I’d give to anybody: switch off your phone.