‘From Midwest to Middle East’: Taylor Luck
I’ve been working closely with Taylor Luck, the Monitor’s correspondent in the Arab world, for five years. But we only met in person this summer. That’s how it often goes in journalism. To seal what had been only a long-distance friendship, I took this former Cubs and White Sox fan (an even-handed childhood!) to his first game at Fenway Park.
Another thing about journalism. Sometimes you fall into the best jobs, and well-prepared reporters fall into the best stories. One great pleasure I have as Taylor’s editor is having him excitedly pitch a story he just stumbled upon, whether it’s in his travels around Jordan, where he lives, or elsewhere in the Arab world.
He can do that, and he can deliver on what we are trying to achieve with our Monitor brand of journalism, because he is prepared. At a very human level, he understands the people – their lives, their passions, their philosophy, their dreams, their thinking. And he can recognize when something is new, or shifting.
And all that because he, literally, speaks the language and is totally immersed in the region’s culture. Please take a few minutes to hear Taylor talk with me about his reporting. (Then scroll down to find a few of his stories.)
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SAMANTHA LAINE PERFAS: So how did the Monitor’s Taylor Luck become a Middle East correspondent? In his own words, he “jumped from the Midwest to the Middle East with an open heart and an open mind.” Kenneth Kaplan, our Middle East editor, interviews Taylor about some of his most memorable reporting experiences from 2019, as well as what drew him to journalism in the first place.
KEN KAPLAN: So my first question, Taylor: How did a nice Chicago boy like you come to be a foreign correspondent, with a finger on the pulse of the Arab world?
TAYLOR LUCK: Well, I mean, in short, completely by accident. I didn’t set out to be a journalist. I didn’t even study journalism. But I studied international relations in college. I knew I wanted to do something either in diplomacy or something in international relations. I wanted to learn Arabic. We didn’t have Arabic in my school, and on graduation I was like, OK, well, let me go try to learn some Arabic. And, you know, basically, as you know, as silly as this sounds, looked at a map and looked at, you know, the region and Jordan made the most sense geographically because it’s right in the middle. And linguistically it’s kind of right in the middle. But so I went out to Jordan and I got a job at the English newspaper there called The Jordan Times. And what made it perfect is the fact it was all Jordanians. I mean, all my colleagues, it was attached to an Arabic speaking newspaper called Al Rai Newspaper. So literally all our conversations were in Arabic. All the editorial discussions were in Arabic. The interviews were in Arabic. So I was kind of put on the spot like you just had to speak it, you know, sink or swim, you know. But what made the whole experience special was that I wasn’t there to advance my career. I was just there to learn and listen. And more than just learning from the people, I was living with the people. They have a saying in Arabic that translates to “we have broken bread or salt.” So, you know, an important daily ritual. So just sitting around, having meals, relaxing and talking. So for me, literally I just hopped out from the Midwest to the Middle East with an open heart and open mind. And, you know, here I am today.
KEN: That’s a pretty amazing story. But I have to say that your understanding of the area from the ground up, I guess, is what makes your reporting so rich. So I want to ask you another question here. In the past year, you had two amazing reporting trips to Tunisia. You planned some stories and you stumbled upon others. And after your first trip, I was really struck by your enthusiasm for the country and its people and your eagerness to get back. So please talk a little bit about why you felt that way.
TAYLOR: I think Tunisia, you know, it’s funny because it doesn’t really come to people’s minds when we talk about the Middle East, the Arab world in general. Right? I mean, it started the Arab Spring, it was the first protest that, you know, pressured a dictator, eventually brought down the dictator. But it’s very rarely in the news. But you go to Tunisia and I find it invigorating and inspiring every single time for one simple reason: people have the right to self-determination. They have the right to speak as they wish and they have the freedom to choose what they want, which you don’t see in any other Arab country. So for the rest of my reporting in these other countries, people are always self censoring. They’re always filtering. They’re always dictated by what they say, what they do and even what they study by either government pressures, cultural pressures or family pressures. Tunisia doesn’t have any of that. So you go there and it’s like this hub of creativity, of thought, of philosophy of art, of language. I mean, you just see all this potential and ingenuity and really, genius unlocked because a dictatorship at the top is no longer there. And so not only is it inspiring every single time, because there’s just a lot of stuff going on, but you kind of see the hope of what it would be like if the rest of the Arab world had this freedom. So if, for example, on one trip, I just happened to wander into this one neighborhood, which was the most marginalized and crowded neighborhood in North Africa. And literally people were just happy to meet me. Let me into their homes, talk about their problems, show me how they lived. You know, how they were literally living on state lands for free. And they were open. No one anywhere else in the Arab world would be feeling that free to talk like that, for fear of repression, for fear of reprisal.
KEN: I know one of your favorite articles that you wrote this year was one you stumbled upon in Tunisia and Morocco, about these still existing Jewish communities there. How did you find this story and why did you like it so much?
TAYLOR: Well, I mean, I found it first, you know, like everything with Tunisia just by talking or by mistake. But I found out that the Islamist party was running a Jewish candidate for the municipal elections one year. And then I found that the minister of tourism recently appointed then was of Tunisian-Jewish origins. And so that intrigues me because I mean, I don’t know about you, but you don’t really hear much about Tunisian-Jews or Moroccan-Jews in Morocco. It ended up being so rewarding because the community is completely open and very much intertwined with the rest of the society. So you don’t see divisions between Muslims and Jews, for example, whether economically or socially. They live the same way. They eat the same foods, they use the same words and dialect. Literally, you couldn’t differentiate between them and and non-Jewish, Tunisians and Moroccans. And you know what really caught my eye and I’m sure, I mean, you spent a lot of time in Israel living and working there, Ken. I mean, I don’t know about you, but for me, you hear the stories of pre-1948, how, you know, Jewish neighbors and Muslim neighbors and Christian neighbors lived together, celebrated the holidays together, worked together in the harvest. I mean, that’s what I heard from a lot of Palestinian refugees. I mean, you must’ve heard similar stories.
KEN: You know, the stories you hear from Moroccan-Jews is of of a life that they lost. And it was... They had a difficult absorption process in Israel. So it’s a story of woe. Most mostly you don’t hear... If there’s anything positive, it’s, you know, a fondness for days gone by.
TAYLOR: I mean, that’s what you know, that’s what I felt when I went there. I felt like almost I was traveling back through time, because I hear all these stories, and, you know, for example, I mean, a Jordanian or Syrian, you don’t go to the Arab doctor, go to the Jewish doctor back in the old days, or, you know, how people would celebrate the harvest together and holidays, you hear that, but when you actually see it, you know, in Morocco and in Tunisia, where it’s just, yeah, of course. We have the same identity, same shared history and people even say even in terms of religion, there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us.
SAMANTHA: Thanks for listening. To see more of Taylor’s coverage, you can visit csmonitor.com. This story was produced by me, Samantha Laine Perfas with sound design by Noel Flatt. Copyright The Christian Science Monitor, 2019.
This was by far the story Taylor most enjoyed reporting – mainly because it was such a surprise. He wasn’t expecting to see the Jewish-Muslim interfaith harmony and co-dependence of old still in existence. In North Africa, it’s a reality of daily life.
A polyglot who can joke in German, loves music, has working-class roots, and is just as comfortable talking about gay rights as he is Catholic liturgy? Tunisia’s Abdelfattah Mourou was one fascinating character Taylor found on the campaign trail.
One of the mosques targeted in the Christchurch shooting was founded by a Jordanian-Palestinian, and several victims were Jordanians. The event forced nations to address themes of Islamophobia and punctured the image of the West as a safe haven from violence. One of the victims was the same age as Taylor, got married in Amman the same year and month he did, and even frequented the same gym. For this reason, this story cut close to Taylor and moved him in unexpected ways.