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From BTL to Harvard: Where Are They Now? With Amr Bennis

The Between the Lines (BTL) program 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 are profiling past BTL alumni in a blog series, Where Are They Now? 

This week, we feature Amr Bennis of Tripoli, Libya, who participated in BTL Arabic 2010, when he was 18-years-old.

IWP: What was your BTL experience like?

Amr: I had a wonderful time at BTL and in Iowa City. It was really great to be a part of the Young Writers’ Workshop and BTL at the same time. I learned different things at both workshops and I feel that they really complimented each other and helped me become a better writer. I was quite fond of attending readings and just walking around the university campus.

IWP: Had you been to Iowa before?

Amr: No. I had been to Huntsville, Alabama, in the summer of 2009 for a trip to Space Camp organized by the State Department. In Iowa City, there were a couple of cafes (Java House, Times Café (inside Prairie Lights Bookstore), Teaspoons) where I just practiced sitting and writing everything that was going on around me (that really helped me with paying more attention to detail in writing). Also, if I remember correctly, there was a mural that was very inspirational and definitely helped with creativity during my stay in Iowa City as well as a cigar shop that I loved writing at. Behind the dorm (where BTL students live in Iowa City), there are some basketball courts where I played 5-a-side street football (soccer!) which was really fun. Also, weather permitting, there's a huge grass field that would be on your right if you're walking towards the city hall. It was always nice to just sit underneath some shade and write or play full-team football. 

IWP:  How would you describe your BTL cohort?

Amr: I am still in touch with most of my friends from BTL. Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to attend BTL with. They really made my experience at Iowa wonderful.

IWP:  Why did you come to BTL? What were your expectations?

Amr: I didn’t have any real expectations (I guess that’s what made it such a thrilling adventure!) I came to BTL because I loved to write. Writing was the one thing that I was serious about outside of school at the time and I saw BTL as an opportunity not only to become a better writer, but as a way to interact with other writers my age. It was difficult for me to find someone to read what I wrote at 17 or 18 years of age and provide constructive feedback. However, at BTL I found a group that was warm and welcoming and that provided me with the motivation to keep writing and with skills I still use today in my writing.

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

Amr: My writing life changed dramatically since BTL. Immediately after attending the workshop I started attending college and I was writing more academically than I was creatively. Perhaps that is why over these past couple of years I slowly transitioned from fiction writing to journalism, creative non-fiction, and blogging. However, whenever I feel the need to take a break from all the serious writing I would write a short story and it would be the perfect writer’s pick-me-up! From BTL, I learned that I had to write some things in Arabic, or else I wouldn't be able to create them at all. Since BTL, I have kept a separate journal of my writings in Arabic. Language is a funny thing. I thought that I was very close to having native command of English, but after BTL I learned that some things can only be expressed in my mother tongue. 

IWP:  What are you up to now?

Amr: I’m currently a junior at Harvard where I’m studying Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Over the next couple of months I will be starting to conduct research on the revolution in Libya and its aftermath. My long-term project is to use my research to write and publish a book that examines the political sphere in Libya post-revolution.

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

Amr: Iowa City is a magical place, and you will be surrounded by people who share your passion for writing. Simply walking around the city will flood your head with all sorts of crazy ideas. So my advice is this: let yourself go and use that creative energy to write whatever you like. Don’t limit yourself to anything. Learn from the work your peers give you to read and offer them constructive advice. Don’t shy away from sharing your work; the feedback you’ll get will be phenomenal. BTL is an opportunity to become a better writer and help others be better writers as well.

And, more importantly, have fun!

This summer, IWP hosts BTL Arabic and BTL Russia. Click here to learn more. In other news, BTL is now on Facebook. We hope you’ll visit us there soon.

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