‘Something about her that was so ageless’: Samar Zora remembered for outgoing nature, intellectual curiosity

Samar Zora was a fourth-year doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology. Photo courtesy of Demi Vrettas.
Samar Zora was a fourth-year doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology. Photo courtesy of Demi Vrettas.

Anyone who knew doctoral candidate Samar Zora deeply understood that she was an intellectual force to be reckoned with, with an ability to connect with people from all walks of life.

“She was a teacher to all of us … we all learned something very different from her,” said one of Zora’s best friends, Demi Vrettas. “Being together with her friends is kind of like a mirror of all her pieces together.” 

Zora, who was born in Kuwait but moved to Canada when she was five years old, moved back to Kuwait during her sophomore year of high school. At Duke, she was a fourth-year doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology and had been conducting research in Hatay Province, Turkey, when the Feb. 6 earthquakes hit Turkey and Syria, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 

Her body was found on Feb. 14. She was 33 years old and is survived by her parents, three brothers and two sisters.

“She was one of those friends where you see them and you’re just like, ‘This is going to be my lifelong companion,’” said another one of Zora’s best friends, Mohammed Alrashed. “There was something about her that was so ageless.”

The two had instantly disliked each other at first, Alrashed said. They met in Kuwait when they were sophomores in high school and hung out in the same friend group. 

“Samar came to change things up. She came to be like, ‘Ok, you’re all in Kuwait. But do you realize that … you guys are really in your little arenas, that you can’t see there’s a larger world out there?’” Alrashed said. “I just really disliked it when I first saw it.”

But as he interacted more and more with Zora, he came to understand her as a very socially aware person, gifted at befriending people across an entire spectrum of beliefs and personalities. Eventually, the two became indistinguishable as two separate people — it was always “Hamoodi and Samar are going here, Hamoodi and Samar are going there,” he said. 

According to Alrashed, an ideal day for them would involve hanging out in his basement with his pets. Even though Zora was allergic — he had an antihistamine station just for her that would last her five hours, he said — she had so much love to give to Alshared’s Yorkie dog. Alshared recalled that Zora would use them as “affection batteries,” though she always paid for her love with an allergic reaction later.

“Samar was a part of my family, so my sisters would come, especially my little sister. They were really close, and [we’d] talk, watch TV, do some game night activities, but mostly [we’d] just enjoy the company itself,” Alrashed said.

Zora got her bachelor’s degree in finance at the American University of the Middle East in Kuwait but felt unfulfilled with her degree. What she really wanted to study was the humanities.

“She had this almost pathological need for finding the truth,” Alrashed said.

This drive propelled Zora to obtain her second bachelor’s and master's degree in anthropology at McGill University. Whenever she learned something new that “rocked her worldview,” she was compelled to share it.

“I was just really, really blessed to be one of those people that she would share those things with,” Alrashed said.

At McGill, Zora met another one of her closest friends, Demi Vrettas. The two were always the earliest to their “Anthropology of Theory” class. Little chats before class evolved into a deep friendship, with anthropological thought always being a strong connection between them.

“[Zora] was always curious and open to learning about people and their culture. Raised as a Kuwaiti-Canadian, her dual perspective was especially special and unique to her,” Vrettas said.

Vrettas’ fondest memories with Zora were from when she and their group of friends would try new restaurants of different cuisine within the multicultural metropolis of Montreal. As graduate students, at the end of their umpteenth late-night writing sessions, Vrettas and Zora would walk to Thomson House, McGill's graduate student lounge, where they traded studiousness for more casual conversations about their lives and many bouts of laughter.

Zora, far right, Vrettas, bottom middle and some friends at a Peruvian restaurant. Photo courtesy of Demi Vrettas.

Vrettas said it was Zora’s dream to be a professor in anthropology. Zora came to Duke to work with Engseng Ho, her doctoral advisor and professor of cultural anthropology, and immediately formed a connection with him.

Ho attested to this, saying that Zora “just seemed to choose me.”

“She was very intense intellectually. But she had a light-hearted, humorous sense about her,” Ho said. “She very quickly became someone I considered a very good friend.”

Zora’s research was about the combination between money and magic in Kuwait, according to Ho. There were “magicians” in Muslim countries that acted as intermediaries to help people with financial services. Zora was studying the role they played in Kuwait’s bureaucracy, and she had been in Turkey to broaden her work.

“She was learning so much and she was very happy. I spoke with her the night before she passed, and she had finally made major advancements in her fieldwork — it's unbelievable to me that she's gone now,” Vrettas said.

Anthropology, however, was Zora’s way of understanding herself and understanding life better. Seeing how many people had connected with her through her love of the discipline was touching to see as a friend, Vrettas said.

Ultimately, Zora taught Alrashed how to be aware — that everything in the universe did not have a right or wrong answer, but could still be approached with an empathetic, 360-degree view. Even now, Zora’s memory continues to push Alrashed to break out of his comfort zone in all aspects of his life.

“I can just imagine a world where she's still advising me,” Alrashed said. “She's still flipping my world on its head.” 

Katie Tan profile
Katie Tan | Digital Strategy Director

Katie Tan is a Trinity senior and digital strategy director of The Chronicle's 119th volume. She was previously managing editor for Volume 118. 


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