Photo courtesy of Austin Bodetti

Getting LAUSTIN the Middle East with BC Senior Austin Bodetti

Few Boston College students can say that they have traveled to Myanmar, South Sudan, and Iraq on separate trips, and it’s likely that only one BC student, Austin Bodetti, MCAS ’18, can say that he has done it all solo. From being stopped by a plain-clothed police officer in a Burmese concentration camp to facing threats after refusing to pay a corrupt Iraqi translator, Bodetti’s past few years have been exciting, to say the least.

Bodetti diverges from the typical BC student in more ways than one. While others may receive a few head nods or waves while sitting on the Gasson quad, it proved near impossible to get a focused interview with Austin Bodetti in such a public location.

At one point, Bodetti asked a friend walking by if she really was indeed fluent in Spanish and after confirming she was, he replied, “Good. My Taliban book is in Spanish but I rented it from the library anyways, so I’m going to need your help."

People congregated around Austin through the interview, some simply sitting and listening to his stories about traveling in the Middle East, some bantering with him about his recent LAUSTIN email installment, others demanding to get coffee with him later this week. One quickly realizes Austin is a captivating force of charisma on the BC campus.

Bodetti first got his name out on campus freshman year when he began sending out a weekly email update on the Syrian Civil War named Seriously Syria. He originally created Seriously Syria during his senior year of high school, when he was deeply moved by the civilian casualties in the Syrian Civil War.

Seriously Syria soon became the precursor for what has now evolved into LAUSTIN, which has expanded its news section to highlight stories occurring all across the Middle East. Bodetti and his sometimes-comical-sometimes-serious email chain are best understood straight from the source.

Bodetti’s January 23, 2015 installment of LAUSTIN explains, “Welcome to Week 13 of Lost with the Last Austin (LAUSTIN), the email list about Islamic wars and warzones. LAUSTIN provides informative weekly updates on this topic and a 'joke of the week,' which is never funny.”

Bodetti’s rampant self-deprecating humor and intense understanding of the Middle East draws in a cult-like following, which has resulted in others demanding to be featured in the jokes section, yearning for their own short moment of fame.

“Being featured in LAUSTIN was a real honor, considering his viewership consists of around half the population of a small New England town,” jokes David Fu, MCAS ’18.

Avid reader Andrew Cammon, CSOM ’18, commends Bodetti’s ability to be both comical and informative. “The central story is funny and ropes readers into the news and his articles,” says Cammon. “I’d almost liken it to a good satire routine: come for the comedy, stay for the news.”

LAUSTIN’s impressive fan base is not limited to BC students. “As far as weekly emails that combine stories about cats and Middle Eastern politics are concerned, LAUSTIN is easily among the best,” quips Bodetti’s senior honors thesis advisor and political science professor, David DiPasquale. “Austin combines humor and seriousness in a manner that is rare in my teaching experience.”

With some heavy recruiting and a persuasive personality, Bodetti has had over 1,000 people sign up for LAUSTIN. “Oftentimes the first thing he’ll say to someone when he meets them is, ‘What’s your email?’” describes Riley Soward, CSOM ’18. “You’ve got to love that hustle.”

However, Bodetti’s weekly email chain hardly scratches the surface of his involvement in Middle East studies. Bodetti explains, "LAUSTIN is the public facing side of what I do."

Bodetti started his freelance journalism career during high school by talking to Syrian-Americans whom he found in Facebook groups. At the time, he did not know any Arabic, so there was a lot of Google Translating required; despite this, these interactions taught him the value of talking directly to sources. Through his ventures domestically and abroad, Bodetti has been inspired to study both Arabic and Persian in order to better communicate with his primary sources.

Bodetti explains that when he started talking to Syrians, he finally “got the human element of the conflict.” This grew into his passion for freelance journalism, as well as his drive to travel to the Middle East and talk to people in their homes and villages—and sometimes even concentration camps, as was the case in Myanmar.

As DiPasquale puts it, “Austin's interest in the Middle East can be characterized as fearless: he's fearlessly curious, and his travels throughout the Muslim world in search of a story exhibit a kind of fearlessness.”

While Bodetti may be fearless, he didn’t just dive into his most dangerous trips. “It wasn't like I was going to school for two years and then boom, I'm going to Iraq," says Bodetti. His first solo journalistic experience abroad was the summer after his freshman year, when he received four grants that covered the cost for him to travel to Southeast Asia.

Just four months later, Bodetti decided to go to South Sudan, almost entirely self-funded. The main conflict in Darfur had escalated in 2003; when Bodetti did not see many people discussing what was happening since then, he was determined to look into the ongoing conflict himself.

Behind the flashy international travel is hundreds of hours of labor on Bodetti’s end. Countless hours of research were invested in planning every minute detail of his trips, down to figuring out which hotel would be the safest to stay at, finding a good translator and, most importantly, contacting American journalists based in the city to get information on the area.

In early 2016, Bodetti applied for a visa to go to Iraq, assuming it was unlikely he would get it. A month later, the Iraqi Embassy called him and told him to mail in his passport so they could send back his visa.

Bodetti was in shock. Reflecting on the experience, he says, “It never felt like it was a realistic option.” However, with the visa approval, Bodetti knew he couldn’t pass up this opportunity. He immediately began searching for accommodations and contacting journalists from the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post based in Baghdad. “Iraq was the best planned trip, partly because it had to be,” explains Bodetti.

Oftentimes, a sentence in the body of email would mention, “I’m a freelance journalist and also 20 years old,” a line these high profile international correspondents likely did not see often. The journalists were helpful, telling him that while Iraq was dangerous, the trip he had planned was feasible.

Bodetti was advised to stay at a news bureau adjacent to the French Embassy, piggy-backing off the embassy’s high security. This nighttime accommodation came in handy when a lazy and aggressive translator Bodetti whom had hired failed to show up, yet threatened to track Bodetti down and take his full pay anyway. Luckily, Bodetti was safely inside the protected street of the French Embassy, but he acknowledges that the situation would have ended differently had he been a Westerner staying at an Iraqi-owned hotel in Baghdad.

In terms of other threats and various safety precautions, Bodetti concedes that he had a few close encounters. Some Middle Eastern interviewees accused Bodetti of being an American spy, which he brushes off by explaining that “journalists and spies are looking for the same information.” He concludes that while the appropriate level of caution is always necessary, conducting his research truly isn’t scary or unsafe.

However, while trying to talk to people over the internet, Bodetti explains, verification is a challenge. People online can claim to be part of Al Qaeda or ISIS without using real profile photos or real names, so the information obtained from those sources cannot be printed or used in his research.

Conversely, Bodetti can never lie about who he is as a journalist. Certain anti-American groups have refused to talk to him due to his identity as a Westerner and a non-Muslim.

When he was reporting from Iraq, he had the opportunity to meet with fighters from Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, which the U.S. Department of State designates as a Foreign Terrorist Organization under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Regardless of their designation, Bodetti’s role as a journalist allowed him to set up a meeting with them through the group’s press spokesman, whom he found on Facebook. Yes, terrorist groups do have spokespeople and Facebook pages—Bodetti even has an ongoing conversation with the Taliban spokesman.

When Bodetti finally met with the Hezbollah, they were surprisingly nice and excited to talk to him. “They had never met a Westerner before, and most journalists who go there are thirty or forty, not twenty, so it was a pretty novel experience,” Bodetti recounts. “I got asked to take selfies everywhere I went. It was funny at first but got old pretty fast.”

While Bodetti’s research and journalism is innovative and somewhat risky for a college student, what he does is also totally legal and mirrors what older journalists do all the time. All his articles are for the public record and are published online for anyone to read.

His articles cover a wide range of unique issues in the Middle East, and they’re made digestible for the average citizen. Article titles range from “The Toy Drones of War and Terror to “The Iraqi Fighter Who’s Either a War Hero or a War Criminal”.  Surprisingly, even after all of this time in the Middle East freelancing and doing research, Bodetti’s future goal is not to be a journalist. However, he is thankful for the great experiences he’s had and the new doors he hopes will open in the future.

“Austin is one of the most driven people I have ever met,” says Fu. “He has the dedication to independently search out answers to questions he has about the Middle East, especially in areas of the world that most others consider dangerous to travel to.”  

Professor DiPasquale reiterates his respect for Bodetti and hopes for his future: “Austin is very smart, but he wears his intelligence lightly—and that's appealing, especially at a time when ponderousness is more often than not taken to be synonymous with wisdom.”

Currently, Bodetti is working on his senior honors thesis, which addresses if the United States could ever make peace with the Taliban—which he concedes is very likely a no. He has applied to be a Fulbright Scholar post-graduation and hopes to travel to Jordan to research their current youth unemployment. He also plans to continue his education with a graduate school program in Middle Eastern studies.

In the meantime, Bodetti plans to continue his weekly installments of LAUSTIN, and he is always looking for more subscribers. For those looking to learn something new about the Middle East—and maybe even laugh while doing so—subscribe through this link.

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