I grew up learning French, German, Latin, and Greek, and did a BA in Arabic and Persian at the School of Oriental and African Studies. As part of my degree, I studied Arabic at Damascus University in 2005–6.
I’ve always been fascinated with the different ways that one can work, think and study, so these come together in how I approach languages. Even though I studied languages at university in a full-time programme, I wanted to go beyond just learning on your own from books and figure out new ways of improving my language skills.
I came to Afghanistan as a tourist in 2004, where I had to grapple with Pashto, a language for which there were no useful textbooks or study materials at the time. This sparked my journey into self learning: I started going through language forums to learn about new methods, and started observing the language from daily conversations. Over the years, I’ve learned, honed and tried a variety of methods and techniques about linguistics and memory. Now I'm comfortable in several languages and I've managed to figure out some things that really work.
My language skills informed my work and research in Afghanistan, culminating in widely renowned books. I co-edited the memoir of the former Taliban envoy to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, published by Hurst and Columbia University Press to critical acclaim in 2010; a history of the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda entitled 'An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban - Al-Qaeda Merger, 1970–2010'; and Poetry of the Taliban, a volume of poetry written by Taliban members, published by Hurst (UK).
I’ve worked as a freelance journalist from Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and Somalia, writing for Foreign Policy, International Affairs, ABC Nyheter, The Sunday Times and The Globe and Mail. I co-host the Sources and Methods podcast with researcher Matt Trevithick, where we talk to interesting people doing interesting things get to talk about the what, how and why of what they do.
I’ve traveled, lived in, and spent extended periods of time in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Bosnia, Australia, Somalia, and across the Middle East and Europe.
In 2015, I decided to advance my Arabic, which had started to atrophy because of my years in Afghanistan working in Pashto and Dari. I spent nearly six months to get back into the language, using a mix of methods and approaches, from spaced repetition to online tutoring. I received a Kathryn Davis fellowship to study Arabic at Middlebury College’s Intensive Summer Language Program in the U.S., and was placed at the highest level in the programme.
In 2016, I successfully defended my PhD at the War Studies Department of King's College London. I currently live in Jordan, where I am continuing my study of Arabic, and host an Arabic podcast.
I’ve used memory techniques to learn Japanese, and to memorise Kanji. I currently speak English, Arabic, French, German, Dutch, Persian, Dari and Pashto.