By Ioanna Moriatis
“Ma ismak?” Diplomat Dhruv Mishra (ALI ’21) remembers being asked this on the very first day of his Arabic Language Intensive Program (ALIN) at AUC’s Tahrir Square campus in 2019. “That was the first question I answered in Arabic, and from there, we would keep building and building. Every day, something new used to happen,” Mishra reflected.
Since that first day at AUC, Mishra’s Arabic vocabulary has expanded to a conversational and almost fluent level, helping him settle into his new position with the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi as the second secretary of political affairs. Aside from the Arabic skills he was able to gain during his time in Egypt, Mishra was exposed to an entirely new world, meeting people from different backgrounds who helped him cultivate a new understanding of the region and perspective on his career as a diplomat.
As a member of the foreign service, Mishra’s training required that he study a new language, and he was immediately drawn to Arabic. “I had some exposure to Urdu as a language in my school years. I was interested in Urdu poetry, and Urdu has a lot of Arabic and Persian influence,” he explained, describing his interest in exploring the links between the two languages.
Beyond his personal interest in the history of the Arabic language, Mishra also saw immense professional value in the opportunity to study Arabic as a diplomat. “The Arab-speaking world is a very interesting place in terms of its history, culture and people,” he said. “It’s also an important place because of the political and economic realities that we live in today, and it’s significant for India and its people.”
Mishra is not the first member of the Indian foreign service to have spent time at AUC. Over the years, cohorts of diplomats from India have enrolled in the Arabic Language Intensive Program. “For the last two decades, if not more, new Indian diplomats who choose Arabic as their required foreign language have studied at AUC,” Mishra said. “After two years of Arabic-language training, they come out of the University well versed in Arabic. Those who invest their time and effort have been a good asset to the ministry, and that’s why we have continued to study at AUC.”
For Mishra, AUC’s Arabic Language Intensive Program is unique in that it is tailored to the specific needs and interests of members of the foreign service.
“My colleagues and I have been lucky that the program is designed for diplomats,” he said. “The content is very contextual and relevant to what we do as diplomats, and now I am able to read local media and listen to people in their own language. The experience has been enriching for me.”
Although his time on AUC’s campus was cut short by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mishra remembers his experience in Egypt as an eye-opening period during which he was able to familiarize himself with the country. “I met so many people from different backgrounds and countries,” he reflected. “Apart from that, AUC made sure we visited a lot of other places. I remember the University arranged trips to Alexandria, Saqqara and Memphis; cultural walks through Old Cairo; and other visits. That immersion into the country and culture was a great help.”
This infusion of cultural experiences into his academic program significantly shaped Mishra’s growth as a foreign service professional, helping him strengthen his language abilities and deepen his understanding of the Arab region. “First and foremost, the Arabic language opens a lot of doors,” he said. “Then there’s the cultural part of it. It has informed my understanding of the Arab region. You realize some cultural nuances. During the courses, there were some modules that had components on Arab and Islamic history and on verses from the Quran. These are the things that help you have a better understanding of cultures, people and what is important to them, and what the sensitive issues are.”
Mishra’s cultural immersion in Cairo was exactly the kind of experience he was in pursuit of when he began his journey with the Indian foreign service in 2018. “Now that I’m almost beyond the training stage, I realize the opportunity of being in the foreign service is very unique,” he said. “I get to experience cultures around the world, whether it be the Arab world or let’s say after three or four years, I will be posted in another country and maybe another region. It’s a constant learning experience.”
As Mishra explained, this opportunity to build knowledge also feeds directly into his work, helping him increase his understanding of global affairs and impact his own country. “You get to meet so many people and experience different cultures. Then you go back to your home country with your experiences, and you spend time there, contributing in terms of what you learned. As diplomats, words are all we have. There is no stick that we carry, except our pens and words, so it’s a cerebral exercise. I’m grateful that I landed here.”
Now in his first posting in Abu Dhabi, Mishra has a range of responsibilities, including monitoring the bilateral and multilateral engagements of the United Arab Emirates on issues relevant to India. “A typical day in my job would consist of remaining up to date on media coverage and anything that concerns the host country and my own country — to analyze issues that are going on and report them back to my country with actionable input,” he explained. “I am also responsible for reaching out to my counterparts and fellow diplomats working in different countries to understand other parts of the world, how the host country is engaging with them, and how we can learn from them or what we can contribute.”
In the current context, Mishra’s priorities have also centered around India’s recovery from the detrimental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Now that we’ve lost so much time, so many lives, so many loved ones, and even in terms of the economic progress that has been wiped out because of the lockdown, the major focus is how we can work with friendly countries and partners to get out of this faster and build back better,” he explained. “We want to try to get back to where we were in terms of our trade relations and the movement of people, helping those who have been adversely impacted by the pandemic.”
Looking forward to his future career, Mishra reflected on his desire to continue growing through exposure to new environments. For him, the prospect of more travel and exploration is valuable in that it can bolster his ability to serve his own country and the foreign service. “I would like to see as much of the world as possible and interact with as many different people as I can,” he said. “Moving forward, I would like to become a little more opinionated based on experiences that can help me build an informed perspective and add value to how decisions are made.”
In the meantime, as he prepares to take on new parts of the globe, Mishra is concentrating on making use of his newfound Arabic abilities in his current role. Thinking of all he absorbed during his time at AUC and in Egypt, Mishra emphasized the importance of spreading his learnings and widening people’s perspectives of countries outside of their own. “I want to break stereotypes,” he said. “When people think of Egypt or India, for example, they have a certain vision in their minds — so the more people you know, the more you see the world, the more you realize that this is an armchair view of life. People who don’t know have created these stereotypes.”
Photos courtesy of Dhruv Mishra