What I Learned Studying Abroad in the Middle East

What I Learned Studying Abroad in the Middle East

When someone mentions the Middle East, words like war”, “terrorism”, “oppression”, and “extremism” come to mind more quickly than “peace be unto you”. I admit that I thought the region was a place where Islam controlled the population and somewhat legitimised oppression and brutality. In my mind, it would be somewhere defined by tension and warfare. I assumed the people could only be angry and unapproachable.

Despite these assumptions, there was something inside me drawing me toward that region of the world. I was going into my third year of university and I needed a change. I needed real-life experience. I was tired of taking everything from textbooks and professors; I was ready to form my own worldview based on experiences. I enrolled in a Middle Eastern study program based in Amman, Jordan.

Before beginning my study abroad program, I thought of myself as an open-minded person. I had Arab friends. I was partway through a postmodern, liberal-arts education in Canada and I felt reasonably non-judgemental and accepting of difference. I thought by going to the Middle East I had so much to learn about conflict, change and oppression, but I had everything to give when it came to open-mindedness, peace, and tolerance.

Ironically, the thin, heavily-moustached, Jordanian officer behind the customs desk in the Amman airport provided the first extension of peace on my journey. “Assalam Alaikum,” he said as he stamped my passport with a student visa, “Welcome to Jordan.”

Assalam Alaikum means “peace be unto you”, which seemed oxymoronic. Peace and the Middle East seem to be in complete opposition to one another. The only thing they have in common is that they rhyme, sort of. And contrary to the extension of peace from the customs officer, the first few weeks of my semester abroad were anything but peaceful.

It all started when my checked bag never made it around the baggage carousel on that first night in the Amman airport. I left the airport that night with only the clothes on my back and my small carry-on bag. I stepped into the foreign city feeling alone and naked.

During my first weeks, every Assalam Alaikum seemed to sting a little bit. “Yeah, thanks for the peace. It would be nice to have a pair of clean underwear, but peace is great.”

I felt vulnerable so far away from the comforts of home. I was adjusting to the intense August desert heat. I was trying to get used to the sandstorms that came silently in the night and awoke in the morning with a hacking cough and a film of dust on every surface. I was exhausted from waking up in the middle of the night to the call to prayer alerting the faithful to complete one of their five mandatory prayer times for the Muslim faith. I was growing frustrated at never being understood, at hopping into taxis and ending up on the completely wrong side of the city. I was uncomfortable, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Within these first few weeks, I realised I had more to learn and overcome than I’d originally thought.

Through the program, 20 of us students from different schools across North America lived in apartments together in Amman with a professor or taught us classes: Islamic thought and practice, peoples and cultures of the Middle East, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Over the course of the semester, we also travelled to Israel, Palestine, Morrocco and Turkey. The classes were eye-opening. We had guest speakers almost every day: professors from the University of Amman, American diplomats, Imams from local mosques, NGO workers, members of Hamas, Israeli settlers, journalists and many more. Every day, we were exposed to new perspectives on topics that are increasingly relevant and decreasingly black and white.

We also had Arabic classes three times a week. In these classes, we were divided into groups of four and were assigned an Arabic instructor. For four hours our instructor would talk to us in Arabic without us being allowed to speak a word of English. Using small figurines and pictures our instructor helped us develop a vocabulary; using actions we learned verbs by following instructions. It was a completely immersive language learning program, intended to help us learn Arabic the same way a baby naturally learns to speak from their parents. Listening, repeating, understanding and developing from there.

Every day, I dreaded hopping into a taxi in the peak heat of the day, sitting shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder with my fellow classmates in the dense Amman traffic, going to sit in a room and desperately try to understand what the nice lady in a headscarf was telling me. It was my first experience where mental exhaustion affected me physically. After the four-hour session, I would walk out to the street zombie-like, hail a taxi with my Arabic group, and my head would physically throb from the strain of trying to understand and be understood. On the way back to our apartment, we would often attempt to practise what we thought we might be learning with our taxi drivers and end up laughing and conversing in the broken version of basic Arabic and English that we called ‘Arabish’.

The language barrier was a strain, but I think the more challenging obstacle I faced was trying to understand Islam, in light of all the preconceived ideas I had. From the moment I stepped off the plane in Amman I was confronted with a drastically different culture than my own. This was a place where religion and nationality were synonymous. To be Arab was to be Muslim, and vice versa. Women dressed modestly, normally showing no skin from ankle to wrist and often covering their heads with a hijab. Fridays, the holy day, the entire city shut down, nothing was open and there were no people on the streets or cars on the road. Minarets decorated the skyline the way skyscrapers do in big cities, and five times a day melodic Arabic prayers blared from their speakers.

During lectures, we learned about Islam as this religion of peace. We learned the three main dimensions of the religion are submission, faith, and doing what is beautiful. This concept contrasted starkly with the images ingrained in my head from the news. Peace and suicide bombings did not seem to go hand in hand. However, the more I learned about Islam, in class and from the Muslims who surrounded me, the more I realised I was basing my beliefs on uneducated assumptions.

What I had thought of as “Islam” before only represented a minority of the Muslim population.  One of the lecturers I heard was a journalist from Turkey. “I feel like you would if you heard that people around the world assumed you were a white supremacist because you were a Westerner,” he told me and my class, “You are so quick to ascribe generalisations to Muslims based on the Islam you see in the media, and yet reject the idea of the same being done to you.”

His words stuck with me. Why was it okay for me to lump all Muslims and Arabs into the same category when there were a lot of North Americans that I really did not want to be associated with?

Islam the religion of peace was exactly what I experienced during my time living in Jordan.

When I was cat-called on the streets by young men, older shop owners would admonish them and shame them for disrespecting me. If I was lost and asked for help finding where I was going, anyone would be happy to guide me exactly where I needed to go. I was invited to birthdays, weddings and family dinners — fully embraced as one of their own. This acceptance and extension of peace undermined my pre-existing worldview. Going into the Middle East, I had wanted to categorise Arabs and Muslims as ‘other than’ me. I had assumed their way of life was wrong and oppressive and that my way of life was the right one. However, when I was face to face with the hospitality and care extended to me I was forced to reconsider. When I opened my mind to the otherness I was surrounded by, when I let my personal experiences transform my worldview, I found peace. It was an encounter with otherness that transformed me.

My bag eventually arrived in Jordan — three weeks after I did. However, when it arrived at my doorstep, it did not bring me the comfort and peace that I thought it would have. It was not in the familiarity of home but rather in embracing and being embraced by the difference that provided peace. Neither my physical belongings nor my pre-existing worldview kept me comfortable. I did not want them to. I opened my bag, having forgotten everything I had packed and realised I didn’t actually need any of it anymore.

Cover by Maria Darii