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“Chance of a Lifetime”: Where Are They Now? with Johnny Yaacoub

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. We’ve been checking in with BTL alumni for our blog series, Where Are They Now? This week we catch up with BTL alumnus Johnny Yaacoub of Tourza, Lebanon, who participated in BTL Arabic in the summer of  2011, when he was 17-years-old (pictured here with his 2011 BTL Arabic cohort, back row, third from right).

WP: What was your BTL experience like?

Johnny: BTL was like nothing I’d ever experienced before; it was the best thing that ever happened to me. When I was 17, my life changed forever. I had so much fun learning about American culture and meeting different people from all over the world. I always wanted to attend writing workshops in my country but there were almost none, going to the US…never crossed my mind. BTL really did change me, and I’m so thankful for that.

Memories are now rushing back while I’m writing this! I wish I could live those memories again! We had this morning writing activity, before going to the workshops at 9 am, and it was about replying to [fictional] letters from old people. My reply was to an old lady from Texas; it was kind of rude, but funny, and the room gave me a big round of applause; it was the first time I read something I’d written in front of more than 50 writers; I was thrilled.

IWP: Had you been to the US before?

Johnny: I’d never been to the US; I’d never been outside my country! When I got accepted to the program I didn’t Google Iowa City; I wanted to keep it a mystery in my mind. I started picturing giant buildings, a lot of traffic jams (reading into the word “City”). But Iowa blew me away, it was nothing like I’d expected. It was more like a town, no traffic jams nor city noises, clean air… I guess no words can describe my “OMG“ moment when I woke up in the morning; nature has a place in Iowa City. Squirrels and rabbits ran around houses when I went outside Currier Hall. I tried to catch a squirrel since It was the first time I’d see one in front of me, silly me. Frankly, I was surprised by everything, so I took a lot of pictures.

I really loved walking downtown, going to bookshops and libraries; I miss Prairie Lights and The Haunted Bookshop. After a year, I Googled places in Iowa City and I said to myself yup, I was there! I loved the museum next to campus, oh and the big malls; the mall was bigger than my whole town Lol! I loved all the activities, the morning writing exercises, readings sessions from amazing writers who participated in the IWP fall residency and the Iowa Youth Writing Studio (IYWS) program, going to watch the last Harry Potter movie, karaoke, 2 talent shows… I was totally into this program and never missed a thing (well maybe just one English workshop because I was so exhausted and sick but it happens, right?).

IWP: How would you describe your BTL cohort? (Are you still in touch with any of your BTL peers? What kinds of things did you do together?)

Johnny: I had two Arabic teachers, Yasser Abdel-Latif and Khaled Khalifa, amazing writers (I learned so much from them), and one workshop with Ibtisam Barakat, a truly phenomenal woman. She helped me to be the best me. I was trapped and by reading what I wrote for an assignment she’d given, I started crying (that’s another story to tell). The English teacher I had for creative writing was Dan Rosenberg, a truly awesome, funny guy. The way he gave workshops was unique and I had a great time. The chaperones Mohammad Al-Hemaid and Ghada Abdel-Aal [also an instructor for BTL Arabic 2013] were great companions and we are still in contact via e-mail. As for my BTL friends, we became friends the first day. We shared our stories and writings, went downtown, to bookstores, restaurants, malls, and The Java House (everyone is obsessed with this cafe). We had this writers’ connection, maybe because we were almost the same age, coming from the Arab-sphere. They were beautiful friendships, friendships you want to hold onto for the rest of your life; they are now a piece of my heart. I wish I could live the moments with them again, because in these moments I never felt so alive before, so independent. I miss them every day and I can’t wait to meet them again.

IWP:  Why did you come to BTL?

Johnny: Learning English on my own and reading a lot of books weren’t enough for me, and BTL was the chance to improve my English writing, ask writers for advice, learn from them, and know about their journey in writing. I mean, I didn’t run into writers in my small community, so I was really fortunate. I became very open minded and I accepted their criticism. Going to a place where people appreciate writing and writers is a place where you wish you could live forever. Before my trip I asked a few BTLers about their experience, I like to call them “The Elders.” Lol! So they gave me an idea of what to expect. The only thing that bugged me was the two weeks; I wished the trip lasted a little bit longer. It was really frustrating to leave everything, the friends I made, the PIESHAKES!

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

Johnny: I’m now first year science student. Yeah I know, science and literature geek! I’m studying to get accepted in pharmacy. I’m working on some short stories, some of which I’ve been revising since Iowa, but I’ve gotten really busy with college, tutoring. Being a science student ain’t that easy in The Lebanese University (LU).

IWP: Advice to young people applying to BTL?

Johnny: To my fellow writers, this is a chance of a lifetime; this program is amazing. You will be really fortunate if you are accepted; I really wish I could apply again! I would give anything to go back; well, it wouldn’t be the same without my friends. Be yourself in your application and in your writing and I wish you all the best.

IWP: Anything else you’d like to add?

Johnny: Students can always contact me through Facebook. If you have any questions, I would love to give you advice about the BTL program. I might give you some long comments and posts that I wrote for students last year!

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