Mervin Jebaraj opens up about stuffing, music, mornings and his path out of Dubai

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,539 views 

Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas.

If the path to the heart is through the stomach, stuffing might have Mervin Jebaraj’s heart. And sweet potato pie.

“Stuffing. That’s the best part of Thanksgiving,” Jebaraj noted when asked about his favorite food, adding that “sweet potato anything” — especially pie or casserole — also is never a wrong choice. Were the American dishes a choice during his life’s first 17 years in Dubai?

“No,” he said with a laugh.

“That was a recent acquisition.”

Or you could take him to Cafe Rue Orleans in Fayetteville. It’s Jebaraj’s favorite Northwest Arkansas restaurant, primarily based on how often he eats there.

“I love New Orleans. It’s probably my favorite city in America, partly because of the variety of cuisine. And Maudie’s [Schmitt, owner and chef] shrimp po’boy is better than what you can get in New Orleans,” he said.

Jebaraj, one of Arkansas’ best-known economists and director since April 2017 of the University of Arkansas’ Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER), recently opened up about his world beyond the usual business and economic headlines. Inflation, GDP, supply chain snafus, and the potential growth stymieing half-a-million dollar two-bedroom, one-bath homes too typical in the region were not discussed.

His mom moved to Dubai from India to work as a nurse in a government hospital. His father followed later and worked as an engineer in a firm that made steel reinforcement used in construction.

It wasn’t football or basketball or a woo pig that lured a 17-year-old Jebaraj out of Dubai to travel more than 7,700 miles to Fayetteville. He is in Arkansas because a neighbor in his Dubai apartment complex graduated from the University of Arkansas. The neighbor talked about the university, the town and his experience. Jebaraj’s older brother liked what he heard.

He applied and was accepted. A few years later, Jebaraj applied to several universities. The UA offered him a deal that made sense financially, and he could be with his brother for a few years.

“So, here I am,” he said. “It certainly was a big change, going from Dubai, in 2003, to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Dubai in 2003 is not the Dubai that you see today. But for that matter, neither is Fayetteville. For lack of a better term, Dubai has been Vegas-fied in the last couple of decades.”

It’s a move he does not regret. Jebaraj, a U.S. citizen since 2014, professes to loving the region. When asked about a perfect weekend in Northwest Arkansas, he had a quick answer.

“Fall. Leaves turning,” Jebaraj responded immediately. “But basically, late October, go for a hike, get to a vantage point where you can see all the colors.”

Devil’s Den State Park near West Fork is one of his favorite hiking spots. His favorite vacation spot is Morocco. Jebaraj and his wife, Teryl, from Fort Smith, traveled there earlier this year.

When he’s not hiking or traveling overseas with Teryl, Jebaraj reads mostly fiction. One of the most impactful books he’s read is Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children.” It’s a fictional story based on the British partition of India in 1947. It has been estimated that more than 20 million people were displaced when the British government established arbitrary borders.

He’s also up for good conversation.

“But then, nothing beats a drink at a bar with some friends,” Jebaraj said, finishing his answer about what he does outside work.

That he likes the diversity of New Orleans and travel is not a surprise, considering he speaks fondly of “a great group of friends” during his high school days in Dubai.

“It was a school full of ex-pats, just from all over. Well, not all over the world, but mostly Asian countries and some Middle Eastern.”

He also likes different music but says Americana music is his favorite. According to the Americana Music Association, the style is “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues.”

Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell and Lyle Lovett are some of the more famous names in the genre. Rodney Crowell has been credited as its founder.

“What might surprise people is that I really like Americana. I didn›t grow up here, but I really like Americana.”

Americana musician Shakey Graves and U.K. artist Jade Bird are two of the best live music shows he’s seen. He saw Graves at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville and Bird several years ago at a small music venue in Paris, France. He and his wife saw Bird there before she made it big and moved out of small venues.

“It [Bird in Paris] was the best show I’ve ever seen,” Jebaraj said.

Jebaraj was not initially interested in economics but knew he liked traveling.

“I really like traveling, and I had this idea that I wanted to be a diplomat who traveled a lot. I like international politics. I did come here to study international relations. Economics was a thing I found while studying international relations,” he said. “What does a 17-year-old really know about careers?”

He had to take two econ classes as part of his international relations path.

“After I took the two, I was like, ‘Wait. I like this stuff.’”

He also liked the stuff because, at the time, an international music star was “making it cool.”

“This is only partially a joke. But one of the reasons I got interested in economics is because one of my favorite bands, U2, the frontman was hanging out with economists a lot in the early 2000s, and so it put that idea in my head,” Jebaraj said.

Like his move to Fayetteville, Jebaraj does not regret the switch to economics. While he “really enjoys” CBER research projects, he’s grown to like public speaking.

“It’s probably the best part of the job in the sense that you get to go around the state and meet all kinds of different people from all sorts of sectors of the state’s economy,” he said. “That’s part of what I enjoy doing, is talking to the general audience that doesn’t pay that much attention to economics, about why it matters to their lives [and] what these obscure stats and graphs have to do with their day-to-day existence.”

Part of his job includes frequent interviews with the media to discuss any number of reports about state, national and global economic conditions. That part of the job once followed him on a pre-pandemic vacation with his wife in Dubai.

“My wife and I were on the beach, and when I went to get a beer, the guy insisted that he had seen me, and I was convinced he was confused. But he correctly identified the Talk Business and Politics (video) I was on. I stood there shocked, so clearly wherever the network, he saw something,” Jebaraj said.

A few other things about Jebaraj: He “religiously follows” Manchester United, an English football [soccer] team that plays in the Premier League. He’s fascinated by the life of Thomas Cromwell, who served as a chief minister to King Henry VIII until the king had him beheaded for alleged treason.

Jebaraj is most interested in recent revisions of Cromwell’s history. He likes “The Godfather” movies — even the third one.

One other thing to know about Jebaraj is that he’s not much for mornings.

“So, for those who talk to me before 10 a.m., know that you’re getting a subpar experience,” he joked. “But if you talk to me at 2 a.m., I will give you a very cogent response.”