Meet Reem Abbas, Yemen | PhD in Modern and Contemporary Literature (Previously MPhil)

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

"A brilliant woman, so passionate and full of energy" and at once "a ray of sunshine - soft spoken and sweet". Read on to hear Reem talk about her experiences and hopes - for herself and for Yemen -, all in her own beautiful words!

What’s your story before you started your degree in Cambridge?

Reem from her matriculation day to Jesus College!

I grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in several different apartment buildings where my tongue tangled syllables of Yemeni and Syrian Arabic. Three-year-old me spoke Yemeni قُح before my mother’s دِمَشقي persuaded me to stretch letters like chewing gum. Then international school happened where I was introduced to a cocktail of Arabic dialects that fascinated me, and so I adopted elements of them too.


My English is as varied as my Arabic, thanks to cultural imperialism, where I went through long periods of alternating between imitating either Hallie or Annie from The Parent Trap (1998). I grew up watching Harriet the Spy (1996) and reading “The Adventures of Mary-Kate and Ashley”, both of which convinced me that the only way to be a proper Elementary School Child was to carry a Mead Composition notebook and be suspicious of everyone.

Hi, I’m Reem and it’s nice to meet you. I’m doing a Ph.D. in Modern and Contemporary Literature, but that doesn’t come as much of a surprise, does it?

Was there a defining experience that made you want to apply for Cambridge?


Silly as it is, my desire to study at Cambridge began with my obsession with Annie. As I matured, I came to understand that Cambridge is one of the best universities in the world, and with that I saw the gap between my reality and ambitions multiply.


As a Yemeni, getting a place to study at Cambridge isn’t the only parameter to consider during the application process. Visa considerations as well as financial limitations dictate many aspects of my life. A family history of visa rejections and difficulties with border control discouraged me from sending out an application in the first place. Cambridge became so out of reach that I didn’t even consider applying until two Assistant Professors (if you ever see this, thank you) at my undergraduate university in Turkey encouraged me to ‘give it a shot because I had nothing to lose’.


How did you find out about the Rowan Williams Cambridge Studentship?


I didn’t find the Rowan Williams Cambridge Studentship until very late in the process. By very late, I mean just before I was about to submit my application on the day of the deadline. At 4.00 am on 4th of January 2019, to be exact. I found the RWCS because I decided to rake through the Trust’s scholarships one by one until I was absolutely sure that I had applied to each scholarship that I was eligible for. My heart fell to the pit of my stomach when I realised that I had almost missed the RWCS. It was, by far, the only scholarship that seemed to recognise the complexity of my personal circumstances.


I spent another hour and a half writing up the scholarship statement, said بسم الله‎ and clicked the ‘Submit’ button 6.5 hours before the deadline.

How would you describe your first month at Cambridge?


My first month was such a whirlwind. I arrived at Cambridge with no expectations and it immediately became clear to me that I had to leave my comfort zone.

Now that I was at Cambridge, I couldn’t hide in libraries and dedicate all my time to studying.

If I wanted to make the most of the astounding opportunities available to me, I had to become an expert juggler.


The clown metaphor is especially appropriate for describing my first few weeks here. I felt like I stuck out and struggled to find my place, but once I set my own insecurities aside, I realised just how incredible this place can be. If I’m a clown then everyone here is too, and the best way to overcome hiccups is to laugh at them (from a place of compassion) and move on. I think having this sportsmanship when it comes to academics as well as social life is extremely important for making the most of Cambridge (and life in general).


What was the biggest challenge that you faced?


It was a struggle getting over the inevitable imposter syndrome. When you come to Cambridge be prepared to be haunted by it to some degree. Having come from a background which did not resemble a roll call of the World’s Top Universities, the feeling that I didn’t belong was acute. It kept me from speaking up in class and introducing myself to new people. But when I did find it in me to share my thoughts in a seminar and introduce myself to others, I realised a crucial fact:

my thoughts and experiences are valuable not in spite of my background but because of it.

People in seminars often positively engaged with my ideas, helped me develop them further and recognise my own academic interests. People in my social life found my honesty refreshing and I made some of the deepest friendships I’ve ever had because of it. I learned that being true to myself, cliche as it may sound, gave me an edge and made me interesting.

What are you most proud of yourself from your time in Cambridge?


I’m so proud of myself (ما شاء الله تبارك الله). People often express this by feigning humility, but I don’t think there’s a need for that. My MPhil year was challenging and rigorous in every aspect — as it should be — and I’m glad that I made it to the other side with enough introspection and humility to be able to say that I achieved something wonderful.


What I’m most proud of is actually my personal growth. Being at Cambridge forced me out of my shell by creating safe spaces within which voicing critical thoughts and engaging in dialogues was encouraged. I learned to question my thought processes better and to challenge others when I felt it was necessary. This was especially big for me since I was used to silencing my own thoughts, a phenomenon which, as it turned out, was annoyingly gendered!


Has Cambridge affected the size of your dreams, imaginations and your own potential?


Short answer: absolutely. Long-ish answer:

it taught me valuable lessons about the hard-work that bolsters ambition, and that practicality is not synonymous with giving up on dreams. Cambridge, and Jesus College more specifically, revived the child-like excitement in me about making my dreams come true.

It reminded me that enjoyment is always the best condition for good quality work and that all (good) work is collaborative. I mean, being at the university made it possible for me to meet Ali Smith and thank her in person (!!) for writing the important novels that she does. Little Reem would never believe that she’d meet a real-life author!

Last question, what are your ambitions for the future?


As a child I begged my father to take us back to where ‘home’ was supposed to be, but he never deemed it safe enough. It’s easy to sustain an emotional baritone of helplessness when ‘home’ is war-torn and economically devastated. As an adult, however, I have hope that someday I will be able to go to Yemen to see it for myself.

Being surrounded by a culture of possibility, hope and innovation at Cambridge fostered in me a desire to someday open a school in Aden. This dream seems so out of reach that I wouldn’t even know how to go about beginning, but I trust that I’m on the right path. Little Reem never thought she’d be sitting here typing this, either.

If you relate to my circumstances in the slightest, I urge you to apply. Give it a shot and give it your all because you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.


***Post scriptum***

To the Trust: thank you for opening doors, giving hope and changing lives.

To the Rowan Williams Scholars: we did it and I can’t wait to celebrate your next achievements ;)

To Jacqui, Flo, Anki and the Gardoms: you are amazing. I don’t want to imagine what my first year at Cambridge would have been like without you.

Other Rowan Williams scholars have described "Reem's curiosity to know more and learn more incredibly amazing".

Here's our quick message back to Reem: Reem, having journeyed with you this past year, we have every reason to believe that you have all that it takes to someday, somehow turn that dream into reality. We will be cheering you on, wholeheartedly.

Has Reem's story spoken to you? Do you have questions for her or other scholars? We'd love to hear from you! Drop us a message at rwcambridgescholars@gmail.com and you can also sign up to our mailing list here. If you found this interview helpful and uplifting, we'd also encourage you to share this with your friends and loved ones!

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©2020 Letters from Rowan Williams Cambridge Scholars