Taking a World View from the Heights
ByWhen Alexander Guittard ’11 made his way to Chestnut Hill three years ago, he thought he was just coming to Boston College. Instead, he wound up seeing the world.
Not all the world, to be sure. But during his time at BC Guittard has traveled to places like Lebanon, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kuwait, Yemen and Egypt. Along the way he’s amassed memorable, enlightening experiences: interviewing Afghani politicians; being mistaken for a journalist and shuttled to a Hezbollah rally in Beirut; and enduring a tense police interview in Tajikistan.
To say that these journeys, along with his classroom and extracurricular activities at BC, have broadened Guittard’s worldview is putting it mildly. The San Diego native feels he has undergone the intellectual growth hailed as the hallmark of a classic Jesuit, Catholic liberal arts education. But it’s not something that just happens, Guittard says: You have to seize opportunities, take some risks, and above all be prepared to think. A lot.
“My mindset starting out at BC was, ‘How can I develop a skill that will serve my country?’” says Guittard, a member of BC’s Army ROTC program who is majoring in political science and Islamic Civilizations and Societies (ICS), and who has served as editor of Al Noor, BC’s undergraduate Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies journal. “But then it became far more important to develop a more comprehensive and realistic understanding of the issues that have interested me.”
For someone drawn to international affairs — especially the Middle East, in Guittard’s case — experiences abroad are an absolute necessity, even if your itinerary doesn’t always work out as planned.
“It’s like studying art history and never painting, or never setting foot in an art museum,” he says. “You have to go see for yourself what the Middle East is like — or Africa, or Asia, or whatever part of the world. The more you go, the more you’ll get it. Even after all my travels I still don’t completely get it, but I certainly do a lot better than before.”
“Alex is an iconoclast of sorts who always bent the rules a bit, always pushed the boundaries of what was offered to him as a student at BC, and always brought fresh interpretive thinking into his area of study,” says Assistant Professor of Slavic and Eastern Languages Franck Salameh.
“He went to study at the American University of Beirut when no one at Boston area universities was going to Beirut. His insatiable curiosity took him into ‘forbidden’ areas of Beirut where not even local old-hands would dare venture. When most students at BC and elsewhere were mobbing Arabic language courses in a frenzy to learn Arabic, Alex was studying dialects, and exploring Eastern and Islamic languages besides Arabic — as always, thinking beyond the neat little boxes into which we generally like to put our Middle East.”
Guittard’s interest in the Middle East bloomed well before he arrived at BC. As a seventh-grader coping with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he read a book about Al Qaeda — the first of the 150-plus books related to Middle East politics, history and culture he estimates he’s read. At 16, he started taking Arabic language courses at a local community college.
After he finished his freshman year at BC, Guittard sold his car so he could take part in the summer course in Kuwait taught by Political Science professors Kathleen Bailey — who is associate director of ICS — and David Deese. Instead of returning to the US, he decided to pursue research on Hezbollah, the controversial Shi’a Islamist political and paramilitary organization, and wended his way to Beirut.
One day, he set out to attend a Hezbollah rally, and wound up sharing a cab with some journalists. When they came to a security checkpoint, he was pressed into service as the group’s translator — being the only one who could speak Arabic — and the Hezbollah guards assumed he also was a journalist, despite Guittard’s denials. He and the others were put into a van and driven to the rally site, where Guittard finally accepted a press pass — and got what turned out to be “the best seat in the house.”
It was a jarring introduction to Hezbollah, but during the weeks Guittard spent in Beirut he came to see other dimensions to the organization.
“You form an impression, based on what you read or see in the media. So hearing the name ‘Hezbollah,’ you might simply think of a savage, homicidal terrorist group. In fact, they are a multi-faceted organization that is involved in numerous community-related activities, and they were pretty cooperative for my research.
“You have to take some things with a grain of salt, obviously, because they’re happy to show you only what they want you to see. And you certainly can’t overlook the less savory parts of their operation. But when you see the bigger picture for yourself, you start to think critically about what you’ve read and heard, and you draw your own conclusions.”
Guittard’s travels also have been full of subtle insights into life in other societies. In the summer of 2009, with a BC Advanced Study Grant, he went to study Persian in Tajikistan and arranged to stay with a host family.
One night, Guittard got caught in the middle of a brawl that broke out in the bar where he was visiting, and suffered a minor injury. He and his hosts — who didn’t know about the incident — were more than a little taken aback when police showed up next morning to question him. It became quite clear to Guittard that the wife of the family was “petrified” during the police interview, which did not result in any problems for Guittard.
“Most of the family remembers what it was like when Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union,” says Guittard, who returned to Tajikistan last summer to study Islamism. “The police are still known as ‘KGB.’ It’s one thing to read about life in an authoritarian state, but another thing to see evidence of it, even after so many years.”
Other revelations while abroad have helped crystallize some of Guittard’s views and beliefs, such as his study of the elections in Afghanistan, which took him not only to Kabul but other parts of the country to interview local and country government leaders.
“Talking to people and hearing about their lives, I felt better about our involvement in Afghanistan,” he says. “Every BC student has a counterpart there, who want nothing but good for their families and have a desire to be evaluated on merit, rather than on status or reputation. I do think we are helping provide a space in which that can happen.
“It’s become kind of a cliché to say that our being in Afghanistan is allowing girls to go to school, but to see it happen is extraordinary. There’s a lot of cynicism about our presence in the world, but millions of people are not cynical about our values. They’re attaching their hopes and aspirations to things we may be taking for granted.”
After his graduation in May, Guittard hopes to obtain a commission in the army and work in Washington, DC, and gradually make the transition into diplomacy. He credits faculty members like Salameh, Bailey and ICS Director Political Science Professor Ali Banuazizi for helping him further develop his perspective on the Middle East and elsewhere.
“I think the best students of the Middle East have a deep love for the people, the languages and the cultures,” he says, “but at the same time they can take a step back and be critical, rather than romanticize. I’m really fortunate to have had these kinds of learning experiences while at BC, and I truly feel prepared for the next step.”