،اهلاَ و سهلاَ

Hi, I’m Tommy Collison, a writer and editor. I study Journalism and Arabic at New York University.

I’m interested in the Middle East and digitally-enabled social change. Previously, I was the opinions editor of Washington Square News, NYU’s student paper.

This blog is equal parts a journal, portfolio, and travelogue. It’s organized by category — I suggest starting with my columns or journals. Keep scrolling down to get to my recent posts.

I keep a list of the books I read here.

You can also find me on Twitter or get in touch via email. This is my PGP Key.

Why It’s Important for Journalists to Speak the Language of the Region They Cover

Zeynep Tufekci, writing for The Huffington Post on the Wikileaks/Turkey email dump:

“We are talking about millions of women whose private, personal information has been dumped into the world, with nary an outcry. Their addresses are out there for every stalker, ex-partner, disapproving relative or random crazy to peruse as they wish. And let’s remember that, every year in Turkey, hundreds of women are murdered, most often by current or ex-husbands or boyfriends, and thousands of women leave their homes or go into hiding, seeking safety.”
“WikiLeaks Put Women in Turkey in Danger, for No Reason”

This came to me via Jon Evans, who makes an excellent point that reporters who cover a region risk making these sorts of mistakes when they don’t speak the language of that region. The beginning of the 21st century, the creation of Twitter et al. and the proliferation of new, online-only media outlets has changed the face of journalism, and mostly for the better, but it’s worth remembering that the same period has seen cutbacks in newsroom staff and the shrinking (if not the doing away outright) with foreign bureaus.

The news today reminded me of this passage from an Arabic textbook I use. The reference to Ted Koppel dates it somewhat (I think it was released in 1997 or thereabouts) but the message here is the same, and the book is used fairly frequently here in Middlebury in 2016.

If you master even just the material so far presented in this text, you will have made a great stride toward becoming proficient in this language in terms of reading. If you do not master the material presented so far in this text, you will never be able to do anything in Arabic. If you do not have the will to learn the material, which is fine, as one’s individual worth should not be based on whether one wants to be good at any one particular thing, then forget about it and go do something else. I just hope that I will not one day see you on Ted Koppel’s Nightline in the role of “The Middle East Expert” who is illiterate and unable to communicate in the language of the people on which the expert is supposedly so knowledgeable.


Work Ethics

CC-BY. Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Lin-Manuel Miranda hard at work. CC-BY. Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Recovering today from a Friday evening and night spend feeling totally lousy and sick. I don’t think it was anything in particular — more likely a culmination of a crazy 10 days where I wrote half a paper, presented a stanza of poetry in front of 100 people, took an exam, gave a 15-minute on the issue of conflict in Arabic filmmaking, and did 2-3 hours of homework each and every evening.

At the beginning of that stretch, Lin-Manual Miranda, the Hamilton wunderkind, tweeted that he was taking a vacation after leaving the show on July 9.

That the idea for the hip-hop musical came to Miranda while on vacation from his previous show is now part of the musical’s folklore. Miranda got the idea for Hamilton some time in 2008, and spent the intervening 7 years between then and the show’s 2015 Off-Brodway opening working on it.

He obviously deserves the vacation, but I’m willing to bet that Miranda won’t rest of his laurels or coast on his Hamilton fame for long. Give it six months at most, and he’ll be working on what’s next.

I love that about theater people. The actors and producers I know in NYC are among the most hardworking and dedicated people I know. They work just as hard, for just as many hours than the Silicon Valley success stories we love to talk about. Art is work, too — but that’s what makes it worthwhile.

Longer report on Middlebury to come after the program, but suffice to say their claim that the program will be the most physically, emotionally, and academically demanding thing you’ve ever done is not hyperbole. I’m taking three or four days off in August and then we’ll talk about what’s next.

Alright, Go

Arabic language pedagogy in the US is fairly uniform — go to an Arabic class on Monday in NYU, Tuesday in U Michigan, Wednesday in Duke, and Thursday in UCLA, and you’ll have a reasonably uninterrupted week of Arabic education — more so than Spanish or Biology or Journalism, I think: there’s only one good textbook for learning Arabic, called “Al-Kitaab,”* and most students tend to follow the same path, with small variations due to language skill and background.

The “Al Kitaab” series comprises 3 books, the first of which I finished today, almost exactly a year since I bought it from The Strand in NYC. This afternoon, I dug into the second book in the series, which raises the stakes across the board — longer, harder vocabulary lists, more involved grammar, more complicated readings, including this one on the history of Damascus. For I believe the first time, the authentic texts are not edited for content, only length, which means we’re getting the warts-and-all Arabic texts, the ones that actual Arabic speakers read in newspapers and magazines each day.

IMG_0675[*] Arabic speakers usually refer to the Qur’an as “Al-Kitaab,” which literally translates as “The Book,” and so to call a textbook this strikes me as odd.

Attn American readers: Awya! Happy Independence Day.

Okay so the Middlebury Language Pledge starts in three hours so here’s one last English post about my first weekend before classes start

Do you ever get a hunch that you’re going to have a total blast for the next eight weeks? Me, right now.

I’m just back from dinner and a meeting with my two professors for the semester. They’re total delights, and I think they (and my nine person class) are going to be a total delight to work with. I think the program is also going to vastly improve my understanding of spoken Arabic — one professor is Bulgarian who speaks Egyptian Arabic, the other is Moroccan (although obviously they both speak الفصحة, or Modern Standard Arabic).

The students here are kind of incredible. I had a hunch that they were going to be excellent because honestly, you can’t give up eight weeks of your life unless you’re super dedicated (and/or like me and trying to be on the fast-track to fluency). Sure enough, a desire to speak a boatload of Arabic flings people from all round the world to Mills College in Oakland. Off the top of my head, I ate breakfast with two Americans, one Swede, one Egyptian, and two Australians.

I expect the days will be long and the weeks short. I’ve woken up around 06:30 both days I’ve been here, and I crashed out, almost-too-tired-to-do-my-teeth, after the movie last night. I don’t expect myself to be able to sleep past 07:30 any time soon.

The 4-hour 3-part placement exam seems to have chewed us all up, but it spat us all out into the level we were supposed to be, so all’s well that ends well. I’m in Level 2, where I expected to be. It’s a little under halfway through Middlebury’s offerings (they go from 1-5 in .5 steps) but arguably the most important course, along with 2.5. There’s this idea in language learning that you eventually reach a plateau, usually about a year in — your progress starts off super quick and then you master the basic grammatical sections and vocab but then your progress starts slowing, and you move from exploring wild new expanses of languages to the boring everyday stuff, filing in the blanks in the patchwork. As a Middle East talking head once said, it’s easy to establish democracies — maintaining them is the hard part.

Okay, it’s 9:12 here and I have a mingling event thing with the professors and directors. سلامات, English. Nice knowing you.

Let’s go.

Bots Ruin Broadway

By now, the difficulty in procuring Hamilton tickets for anything close to their original price is part of the show’s folklore. Part of the problem surrounding seeing popular shows like Hamilton or Book of Mormon is simple supply and demand — more people want to see the shows than there are seats in the theater. But the bulk of the problem lies in the resale market.

Some resales are legitimate, to be sure. If you buy a ticket and then miss your flight or your dog gets sick, it’s reasonable to try and sell on your ticket on, especially for in-demand shows. But when tickets on resale websites regularly go for between 5 and 20 times face value, something’s wrong.

When tickets are released online, so-called ticket bots swoop in, buying hundreds of tickets minutes, sometimes seconds, after they go on sale. These bots leave legitimate customers and fans empty-handed and out of luck.

It’s an enormously profitable endeavor, since those operating the bots can turn around sell those tickets at an enormous markup, sometimes over 1,000 percent. Who loses? Anyone who can’t pay the inflated price.

And it doesn’t just happen on Broadway. A report from New York’s Attorney General describes bots buying over 1,000 tickets to a U2 concert in Madison Square Garden in 2014.

In an op-ed for The New York Times, Hamilton wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda (amid several glorious musical references) describes how ticket bots are illegal under NY state law, but subject only to civil penalties, not criminal charges.

Happily, a bill, A09640, is under discussion in the New York State Assembly, seeks to end this. Among other changes, it adds criminal penalties (including imprisonment) for repeat offenders and requires sites like StubHub to post the original price they paid for the tickets. This, at least, makes the markup more transparent.

The operators of the ticket bots are the ones who pocket the enormous profit. It’s money that the cast and crew of a show (or performers of a concert) never get to see. Worse, it erects a barrier between artist and audience, and ruins the experience for both.

New Yorkers can call 518-455-4100 to find out the number of their Assembly member. It’s past time to get the bots.

3 sleeps until Muffinbuggy!

TL — DR: Finishing up my three weeks in Sonoma with my parents. How was? Was good!

It won’t be long now, as the cat who had its tail cut off said. It’s been a blast to spend three weeks with my parents — I caught up on reading and sleep and all that good stuff. There was a 13-day streak when I read a book, cover to cover, in a day. I’d wager that the couch in my parents’ living room will still bear my butt imprint when I come back in December.

I got through a mix of fiction and non-fiction, a mix of stuff I’d been meaning to read for a while and stuff that I picked off a shelf because it looked interesting. As always, books in bold are the ones I’ll talk your ear off, given half a chance.

  • Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, by Mona Eltahawy.
  • Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, by Janet Mock.
  • The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program, by Jeremy Scahill and The Staff of The Intercept.
  • Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church, by The Boston Globe.
  • The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm.
  • The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis.
  • The Magician’s Nephew, by C.S. Lewis.
  • The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman
  • Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War, by Anthony Shadid.
  • Slouching Toward Bethlehem, by Joan Didion.
  • Drown, by Junot Díaz.
  • Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era, by Michael Mandelbaum.
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Three Stories, by Truman Capote.

I’ve been talking more with some of the folks in the Miggleblurry Arabic Facebook group. I ordered the second textbook we’ll be using which, true to everything else in Arabic-in-America pedagogy, was released in 2005, and started in on some of the vocabulary to get a head-start. (Incidentally, 39 Things Only Americans Who Study Arabic Will Understand is still my favorite thing and the only time you’ll ever see a Buzzfeed link on this site.)

I learned a new word today — ما عليه شي — which is used in a wide variety of circumstances/meanings (like all Arabic words — it’s the best worst part) and means something in the region of “it’s fine/no worries/np.” So essentially I just learned the Arabic equivalent of Hakuna Matata.

See you on the other side!

Jacob Appelbaum, Tor dev and Wikileaks rep, leaves Tor amid sexual assault allegations

Disclaimer: I’ve known Jacob Appelbaum for years and therefore can’t write neutrally about this, but I’m trying to be fair. Not neutral — fair.

Jacob Appelbaum, the journalist and activist known as being a high-profile American representative of WikiLeaks, has stepped down from the Tor Project, the nonprofit which maintains and operates the Tor Browser anonymity software.

Appelbaum denies the allegations, writing that “the accusations of criminal sexual misconduct against me are entirely false.”

Tor’s executive director, Shari Steele, wrote a long statement on Saturday:

We are deeply troubled by these accounts.

We do not know exactly what happened here. We don’t have all the facts, and we are undertaking several actions to determine them as best as possible. We’re also not an investigatory body, and we are uncomfortable making judgments about people’s private behaviors.

That said, after we talked with some of the complainants, and after extensive internal deliberation and discussion, Jacob stepped down from his position as an employee of The Tor Project.

Andy Greenberg, a tech reporter I respect who works for WIRED, has this report, in which he talks with Andrea Shephard, another Tor developer.

WIRED couldn’t independently verify the stories on the website created by Appelbaum’s accusers, who used pseudonyms, nor determine the creator of the site itself. But Andrea Shephard, a Berlin-based developer co-worker of Appelbaum’s at the Tor Project, says the site was created by a “longtime member of the Tor community” whom she knows and trusts. Shephard also says she’s spoken directly with one of Appelbaum’s alleged victims, who told Shephard in February of this year that Appelbaum had raped him or her. “Sadly…I think it’s the damn truth. He’s a charismatic, socially dominant manipulator,” Shephard writes to WIRED. “I absolutely believe the accusers.”

Shephard says that Tor’s management had suspected Appelbaum of sexual misconduct for months. And the revelation of another alleged victim in recent weeks had accelerated calls to force his resignation from the organization, a push led by Tor’s executive Director Shari Steele. The Tor Project’s statement, written by Steele herself, echoed that timeline. “These types of allegations were not entirely new to everybody at Tor; they were consistent with rumors some of us had been hearing for some time. That said, the most recent allegations are much more serious and concrete than anything we had heard previously,” Steele writes. “We are deeply troubled by these accounts.”

This is, all told, a fairly awful series of events. I have respect for Shari Steele, Tor’s ED, who’s caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. I’m holding off from saying more until I have something of substance to offer — but given my activism around sexual assault prevention & education on college campuses (I’ve previously worked with prevention programs at NYU and The New School), I couldn’t let the last few days pass without saying anything.

#IAmAnImmigrant Campaign

-uploads-PuLF0JouZvfsc3ORsvbyeQWz5LmAoV1MI like this a lot. Check out the photo campaign.

Now – more than ever – it is important to demonstrate how America’s diversity – fueled in great part by immigrants – makes us stronger and more connected as a nation.


This Immigrant Heritage Month, the #IAmAnImmigrant campaign encourages all of us to explore our individual heritage & recognize our distinct and shared experiences. We all have our piece in the American story, whether as a new immigrant, native to this land, a descendent of slavery or those who came to our nation seeking a better life