After his study of Arabic was interrupted by turmoil in Egypt three months ago, Tik Root wanted to resume his studies in a Middle Eastern country believed to be more stable.
He'd spent the previous summer in Yemen, but civil strife there was growing. He considered Morocco, but there were signs of instability there. He chose Syria, where the University of Damascus had an Arabic program for which he could receive credit at his home school, Middlebury College.
Soon after he arrived, March 8, the regional unrest flared in Syria, and 10 days later he found himself incarcerated.
The two weeks he spent in a Syrian prison were, he observed Tuesday in an interview with the Burlington Free Press, "a different kind of language-immersion experience: mandatory immersion."
When he got to know a few of his fellow prisoners, it was in Arabic. His three interrogations — which lasted half an hour to an hour — were in Arabic. He pegs his level of fluency at "high intermediate or low advanced." He could pretend not to understand when it suited him.
Now Root is decompressing at home in Ripton and telling his story, after his release late last week.
"My hope is to help create an understanding of the challenges that Arab people face, and not to sour anyone's view of the region," he wrote in a "personal statement" issued Tuesday.
He plans to resume his studies at Middlebury in the fall, as a senior. He hopes eventually to return to the Middle East, a region he said he loves.
His career at Damascus University was brief. He attended only three days of classes. Then March 18, he was exploring Damascus' Old City when he saw some sort of commotion in the distance — a demonstration, apparently, but he didn't know whether it was pro-government or anti-government. He took out his BlackBerry smartphone and held it up. The result was five seconds of indecipherable footage of some activity more than 100 yards away.
"Contrary to some reports," Root said, "I was not there for the purpose of taking pictures."
An undercover policeman grabbed him, took his passport and shoved him head-down into a Chevy Suburban. The ride to the prison took about five minutes. The prison guards took everything but his clothes — shoelaces, camera, wallet, BlackBerry.
Root was wearing a Middlebury College sweatshirt. He kept pointing to it as evidence that he really was a student — not the CIA agent or journalist his captors accused him of being — but it apparently made no impression on them.
"They didn't read much English," Root said. "I never saw a translator the whole time."
The Middle Eastern stamps in Root's American passport aroused some suspicion — from Egypt and Yemen, plus Saudi Arabia (where he'd interned in the summer of 2009), Lebanon and Jordan (where he'd spent a day in transit).
Root said he stuck to his story, which happened to be the truth: He was a student studying Arabic at Damascus University.
His ethnicity seemingly confused his questioners. Born in India, Root was adopted by American parents at age 1. The interrogators kept asking about his family history. Adoption was not a familiar concept to them.
"I kept trying to explain," Root said.
He was not abused — and he attributes that to his U.S. passport. About three-fourths of his fellow prisoners were beaten or shocked, he said.
Most of the first week, he shared a 3-by-7-foot cell with a 19-year-old Syrian who'd been merely a bystander at a protest demonstration. Then Root was moved to a larger enclosure — about 12 by 12, underground — that held 22 other prisoners. Some had been there a week, some a year.
The place smelled like a basement. There was room for everyone to sit during the day, but sleeping was a challenge.
"Not a single one knew when they were going to leave," Root said.
"I had two really big downs, preceded by two big ups," Root said. "The ups were when I thought I was going to get out for various reasons." When that didn't happen, his spirits plunged.
"I just had no idea what was going on," he said.
Finally, he was taken to an immigration building, where he spent two hours before he was met by a representative of the U.S. Embassy. It was only when he arrived in Boston, this past Saturday, that he was sure he was home free.
"I was always expecting something to go wrong," he said.
"The hardest part for me was mental," he said of his imprisonment. "The lack of information was stunning. They wouldn't tell you anything."
When released, he got all his belongings back, including the BlackBerry.
"They never confronted me with the picture from it," he said. "They tried to erase all the pictures from the camera, but failed. I had pictures from the revolution in Egypt."
Harrowing as the experience was, Root did pick up some Arabic.
"I learned the word for 'feather,'" he said, in the course of explaining that he was not, in fact, an American Indian.