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Introducing "Where Are They Now?" with Ali Alawi, BTL Arabic ’12, Bahrain

Since 2008, the International Writing Program has hosted Between the Lines (BTL), a program that brings young writers, ages 16-19, to the University of Iowa for creative writing study and cultural exchange. As young people from the U.S., Russia, and 17 Arabic-speaking countries prepare to apply for BTL 2013, we’ll be profiling BTL alumni in a new blog series, Where Are They Now?

We begin this week with Colgate University-bound Ali Alawi of Bahrain, who participated in BTL Arabic 2012. Ali was 16 when he entered the program, and celebrated his 17th birthday (party and all) with BTL friends in Iowa City.

IWP: What was your BTL experience like?

ALI: It was honestly life-changing. I learned so much and got to meet so many amazing people who offered me so many different perspectives on life generally and writing specifically. One of my favorite BTL memories is of visiting the Black Angel sculpture in Oakland Cemetery. I remember being so obsessed with this urban myth that I even went to the public library and did some research about it. And on the last day of the program, a bunch of my close friends and I went there early in the morning, to pay tribute and say our farewell. It felt cinematic—the kind of memory that beckons to be turned into a piece of writing.

IWP: Had you visited the United States before?

ALI: No. This was my first time. When I first learned that I’ll be staying at Iowa, I was a little disappointed. I mean, when you hear the USA, you think about New York City or Chicago, these major cities. But when I got to Iowa, it amazed me how different it is from the way the media depicts it. It’s a beautiful place and the people are the nicest. And no they don’t have that hardcore accent! My favorite place in Iowa City was the Java House. An Iowan School of Athens, it’s where writers and artists gather to drink coffee and share their musings. 

IWP: How would you describe your BTL cohort?

ALI: The teachers [Marcus Jackson and Iman Humaydan] were inspiring. I learned so much from them. I loved how our relationship wasn’t strictly pragmatic. We got to learn so much about them and their journey in writing and they really got to know us. And of course I’m still in touch with my BTL friends. We did everything together, from a failed fossil hunt to a shopping spree. We shared our writings and maybe, indirectly, wrote about each other.

IWP: Why did you come to BTL?

ALI: I came to hone my writing ability and to become more confident about my craftsmanship. But I got so much more. I met friends who I’ll never forget and it changed my perspective on the purpose of writing.

IWP: How have your goals/your writing/your writing life changed since BTL?

ALI: It’s funny how, before this program, I’d never dared call myself a writer. Even though I started writing at an early age, it just intimidated me. This word. But now, not only do I call myself a writer, I’m even considering majoring in English literature with an emphasis on creative writing.

IWP: What are you doing now? Any writing projects?

ALI: I’m still a senior in high school. I have numerous writing projects, but they’re still too premature to talk about.

IWP: What advice would you offer to young people applying to BTL?

ALI: Don’t procrastinate about writing and editing your writing samples. Please. I was unfortunate. I only learned about the program two day before the deadline. Guess who didn’t sleep for two days? Guess who started mildly hallucinating?

Ali Alawi will enter Colgate University in the fall of 2013.

This summer, IWP will host two sessions of BTL:  BTL Arabic, which brings U.S. participants together with Arabic-speaking youth representing up to 17 different countries in the Near East; and BTL Russia. For more information, please visit:

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