Allison Swaim

About Allison Swaim

Allison is a senior at Portland State University majoring in Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. On her 22 birthday, she will make her first trip abroad to Lebanon. While the emphasis of the trip is to expand her Arabic skills, she is excited to experience the culture of Beirut. She is interested in post-colonial political movements, nationalism and conflict analysis. Having strayed very little from the Pacific Northwest, Allison is ready for a new adventure. While she has prepared as much as she can for her journey across the world, she accepts that she has no idea what she's getting herself into.


After two plus months of travel, I have learned some key things about packing for trips abroad. Now, I was bit constrained because I was packing both for a two month stay in Lebanon as well as a month and a half backpacking trip through Europe. That said, here are a few key things I will remember next time I pack for abroad:

  • Know the weather and know the itinerary. If your trip has a hike up the tallest mountain in the Middle East planned, you’ll need a jacket and tennis shoes.
  • Know what you’ll need and what’s not available in the country. If you like NyQuil when you’re sick bring it with you.
  • Eliminate, eliminate, eliminate. You’ll add to your luggage so leave some room and eliminate what you don’t need from your bags.
  • Pack everything in advance so you know how it all fits and if it will work. Don’t leave anything to the last minute. 
Here are the things I was unsure about packing, but am so glad I did:
  • A neck pillow and an eye mask, which are still very handy past the transatlantic flight.
  • A towel
  • An extra pair of sunglasses
  • Extra socks
  • Vitamins and emergency medicine
  • A journal
  • Extra pair of headphones
Things I wish I hadn’t packed:
  • Text books, I should have researched it and known I could buy them cheaper abroad. Also, biggest mistake of the trip was renting a text book, which now has to trek through Europe with me so I can return it when I return to Portland.
  • Too many blouses
  • Too many electronics and valuables (these add stress and concern)


Goodbyes to Lebanon

My last days in Beirut were lovely. I spent the weekend in a tiny Druze village in the Lebanese mountains with a group of friends. We spent all night discussing Lebanese politics, language and video games. My farewell to the Lebanese mountains was the most difficult. As we drove down the mountain with Beirut and the Mediterranean in the distance, I couldn’t help but cry. I really didn’t want to leave. My final night was spent walking the corniche with close friends and drinking nescafe. I then took my final crazy taxi ride to the airport and proceeded to take take the worst red eye known to man.

I’m now sitting in a Parisian McDonald’s, utilizing free wifi anywhere I can find it. No longer am I surrounded by Arabic, now I hear twenty different languages a day in a bustling city full of more foreigners than French (apparently that’s what it’s like every August). Every time someone speaks to me in French, my brain immediately takes me to Arabic and I attempt to speak to them in Lebanese. No one seems to appreciate my Bonjourain response to daily hellos.

While France is great, I find myself missing Lebanon an incredible amount. I miss the comfort of Hamra, the crazy taxi rides, rooftop hookah, and cheap shawarma. It’s amazing how at home I felt after two short months. The biggest comfort is that I know I’ll be back. My trip to Lebanon solidified my academic interest in the country and my passion for the culture and language. Hopefully during graduate school I can spent a larger chunk of time in my new favorite country.

My next two months will be spent exploring parts of Europe. I keep studying and reviewing Arabic to ensure that I don’t forgot anything and I maintain all the skills I picked up after living abroad.  My goal today is to find the Arabic Cultural Institute in Paris and make some new friends I can speak Arabic with.

McDonald’s is getting pretty crazy as the lunch rush begins. When I have wifi again, I figured I would share some of my best packing pointers since I learned a great deal in the last few months.

Merci Katiir

Northern Lebanon

I just had one of the best weeks of my life. It may sound silly but it’s completely true. Let start from the top, shall we?

I had a typical friday morning Arabic class that included a weekly exam and cutting out early. Prior to the exam my professor talked Lebanese (in this case, Druze) politics and the mood was happy. After class I took my typical mid-day Lebanese nap to dodge the heat. Once the sun was down, I had a full meal of delicious Lebanese cuisine and proceeded to a classmates apartment for the evening. After an hour of girl talk our friends picked us up and we ventured to the Gemmayze bar scene. Our guy friends took us to a bar that made us slightly homesick, but in a good way. It was a rooftop dive with a DJ from Seattle blasting Pheonix and Arcade Fire on their speakers. While we felt like we were home, it only made us more weary of the fact that we only have two more weeks in Lebanon. After we got over what felt like an alternative reality, we enjoyed cheep drinks and quality time. The night ended and we returned to our friend’s rooftop apartment. I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing beats an evening on a Lebanese rooftop. I’ve also come to the conclusion that I will sleep when I get home. Why waste my time in bed when I can stay up too late chatting with friends in the perfect temperature?

Nightlife on Beirut's rooftops

Saturday, my classmates and I boarded a bus in the early morning. Our first stop was the Port of Tripoli. Due to the tense political environment, we were unable to spend any time in the city, but we boarded a boat and headed out to sea. The occasion marked my first time on a boat in the ocean/sea. The experience was not a disappointment. There were a number of tiny rock islands full of locals swimming. Once the anchor was dropped myself and a few classmates jumped into the Mediterranean. The water was the perfect temperature, refreshing yet warm. We swam to a small island, walked around for a bit and then swam back to the boat. While I’m not the strongest swimmer in the world, the Mediterranean is so salty that floating seems easier than walking.

Tripoli off in the distance

Tiny islands off of Tripoli

The next part of our trip included a hike through the Cedar Forest of Lebanon which is often called the Cedars of God. While the amount of cedar trees has dwindled due to consistent deforestation, the forest has a rich history. Lebanese cedars were used by the Phoenicians to make ships and legend has it that Gilgamesh used the cedars to build his city. Hence the deforestation started early and continued through the 20th century when the British used the forest to build railroads during WWII. While I am used to forests full of trees in Oregon, our hike was beautiful none the less. We saw the oldest tree in Lebanon and the cedar that the Lebanese flag is modeled after.

Cedars of Lebanon

After a short hike through the forest we ventured to our hotel for a long night of bonding and wine drinking. The view from our hotel was incredible. Northern Lebanon is probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. The slow drive up the mountain was breathtaking. I found myself tearing up a bit at the sheer beauty of it all. At the hotel, were surrounded by mountains and Qadisha valley was resting towards to the west. The peeks that were around us are some of the highest in all of the Middle East and the Qadisha valley is full of small and ancient villages carved into the cliffside. Early in the morning we began a three hour hike up the mountain and along with ridge-line of the range. Again, the view was astounding. While my ears were cold and the wind fierce, the hike was incredible. At the end of the hike we enjoyed a family style lunch in a quant mountain town near a small lake. The food was delicious and nearly everything we ate was produced in the farms surrounding us.

Sunset and a round of Backgammon

View from the mountain-top towards Qadisha Valley in the West

Friends enjoying the view towards Bakaa Valley and Syria

We arrived back on campus late in the evening on Sunday. While I was exhausted and in desperate need of a hot shower, it was easily my favorite weekend of the trip so far. From the rooftops of Beirut to the mountaintops of Northern Lebanon, no moment was dull.


مغارة جعيتا وجبيل وحريصا

Yesterday my class and I had a lovely adventure in Lebanon. We visited a couple of sites just North of Beirut, such as Jeita Grotto (مغارة جعيتا) and Harissa (حريصا). Afterwords we visited Byblos (جبيل), a 45 minute trip from LAU and debatably the oldest inhabited city in the world (some argue that Damascus holds this title).

We arrived at Jeita around 10:00am to beat the heat and the crowds. The site is one of Lebanon’s most popular tourist attractions and lines fill quickly. It was about a thirty minute drive from central Beirut and is considered one of the new seven wonders of the world. Jeita was amazing, possibly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. There are two parts of the trip: a walk through the caves and a boat ride through the grotto. Jeita is dated back to the middle-lower jurassic period, which means you’re looking at rock formations that are around 200 million years old. I took me about 45 minutes to walk through the cave and I was taking my sweet time. If you look at certain rock formations long enough you begin to see things in them. One of the park workers pointed out snoopy, santa clause and Jesus Christ. Formation take millions of years to form and continue to grow ever so slowly today. I had never been inside a cave before so I feel very lucky that my first trip inside one was so special. The boat ride was also amazing, the water was a spectacular blue and cold to the touch. The ride itself lasted about 15 minutes and was awe inspiring.

Walk through Jeita Caves

Boat ride through the grotto

After Jeita, we trekked to Harissa, a beautiful Maronite monument on the hills overlooking Beirut. We were greeted with spectacular views and a monument to Mother Mary, which was a gift from the French. It reminded me of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro except on a smaller scale. After a short visit (our tour guide pressured us along quickly), we took the telepherique down the hill side back into the city.

Mother Mary atop Harissa

View of Beirut and its surroundings from the top of Harissa

Telepherique ride down the hill

After the steep ride down the hill, we hopped back on our bus and ventured to Byblos. The city is beautiful and carries such amazing history. We were able to visit a Phoenician castle on the coast line and walk through the old city souk. The only aspect that was disappointing was that I saw our tour guide paying off all of the shop keepers, which slightly cheapened the experience, making it feel less authentic. The history of the Phoenicians in Byblos is impressive. Not only did the castle we visited witness years of history and invasion, but it was also home to the invention of the Arabic alphabet.

View towards the sea from Byblos Castle

On a final note, I finally touched the Mediterranean.  It was terribly painful looking at the sea everyday in Beirut but not be able to touch it, but yesterday my dream was realized. A small group of student and I visited a public beach in Byblos. The water was the perfect temperature for a hot day but the waves were much more violent than I expected. I was told this was uncommon for the area and it made it difficult to get past the breaks and really swim. Luckily I adapt quickly and I found the amount that I fell on my face and got salt in my eyes due to clumsiness amusing more than anything else.

Gazing out at the Mediterranean

Hope everyone is having a great weekend. Enjoy your Sundays wherever you are in the world.

Lebanese American University’s Cats

I forgot to mention, there are cats EVERYWHERE on campus. The university takes great care of them. They are all fairly clean, well fed and affectionate. There is one cat that lives right outside our dorm and loves to snuggle. I checked with security to make sure they are safe to pet and they quickly reassured me that there is no danger.


Sorry for the late notice. I just got my internet up and running here in beautiful Beirut, Lebanon!!

After 32 hours of intense traveling, and the scariest flight I ever experienced, I have arrived. I’ve been in the city for three full days now and have been spending my time exploring the city with my new found friends. The first hours after my arrival were slightly daunting, I knew no one and had no access to the internet, which meant no access to my world in Portland. I never realized how attached I was to the internet and technology until I was without it. What a wake up call! I have to break this ridiculous addiction to technology!

Anyways, I eventually made friends with a lovely Syrian-American named Lena and we decided to hit the down. The city is incredibly open and welcoming. Most dress like Westerners and the neighborhoods surrounding the university are incredibly safe day and night. While some Lebanese were surprised when a pale redhead attempted to speak Arabic with them, everyone seemed willing to help me out with my language skills.

On to the excitement! Below I’ll break down some of the sites we (my friend Lena and I), saw in bullet form. I figure the simpler the better, because I could write for hours about my first few days here.

  • We visited the Blue Mosque (مسجد الامين), but we have yet to go inside. In the picture below, you can see some old Roman ruins as well. I’m not sure what the site is called or what the ruins are, but it’s pretty cool to see the ancient history.

    Blue Mosque

  • We walked the boardwalk and visited the chic Zaitunay Bay.
  • I had the best burger EVER, in a restaurant called Classic Burger Joint
  • We ate at a Lebanese staple: Barbar (بربر). I had the shawarma, of course.
  • We witnessed a massive wedding full of diplomats and politicians.
  • We visited the head quarters of Elie Saab, my favorite designer! Dream come true.

    Elie Saab

  • We explored Hamra (شارع حامرة), which is full of shops, nightlife and restaurants
  • Finally, we visited Rafic Hariri’s mausoleum.

    Rafic Hariri's Grave

As mentioned above, I have had some delicious food in the city. I’m staying away from fresh fruits and veggies for a few days so my digestive system can adjust, as per the recommendation of my program. I look forward to devouring the mangos and giant watermelons I have been seeing. I want to try everything I can. I also figured it was fine if I get sick of eating authentic shawarma, because I’ll never find it’s equal in Portland.

I’m glad I arrived a few days early so I could soak in the city before classes start. After spending three days exploring the city, reality is starting to hit, however. While my Lebanese is improving everyday and I am becoming more comfortable testing the waters of speaking with locals, I have a long way to go. We had our first Arabic class today, which began with a massive (25 page) placement exam. I find out in a few hours what level I placed in, which is making me rather anxious. Tomorrow we have our first formal Arabic lecture and begin our studies. All of the instructors seem lovely and have made us feel comfortable, a characteristic key in any language instructor. We will have class every morning of the week for about five hours. It will be a combination of MSA and Lebanese. Each weekend, there will be an optional excursion to places around Lebanon. While many have been canceled due to safety concerns (Damascus, Tripoli  Sidon), there are still a number of places we are able to visit. I’m especially excited to visit Byblos next weekend.

I’ll keep you posted on my future adventures and my class schedule as everything begins to unfold this week. Today is my birthday, so my friends and I will most likely explore a new neighborhood and find some delicious Lebanese treats to celebrate. I’ll make sure to post some pictures of my findings!



Introductions and Nerves

!أهلاً وسهلاً

In exactly one month, I begin my 30 hour journey to Beirut, Lebanon. In the past few weeks, my emotions have been all over the place ranging from incredible excitement to worrisome anxiety. While I have been studying the Middle East for the past four years and Arabic for the past two, studying abroad will be a whole new experience. In the following paragraphs I will spew a few introductions about myself and my program.

The reason I chose Lebanon for my study abroad was because of its interesting colonial legacy and contemporary political movements. In my past several years of academia, I have focused my attentions of these topics and specifically on Lebanon. The political structures left behind by the French left the country with a difficult system that, in part, led to a fifteen year civil war. Today, Lebanon continues to rebuild and grow. While tensions are high with issues in neighboring Syria, Lebanon has been relatively stable for the past decade and is open to foreign tourism and study. I’m hoping that my time abroad will improve my ability to converse with locals in the Lebanese dialect and improve my cultural and historical knowledge of the country.

For months I have been discussing my trip to Lebanon with friends and family. I have endured many a lecture from those who rely solely on American media portrayals of the Middle East. While I chose Lebanon for a number of reasons, I chose the Summer Institute for Intensive Arabic and Culture specifically because of its language program. While other universities in the region focus on either MSA or colloquial skills, SINARC teaches both. I’m therefore hoping to improve both skill sets. Ideally, I will then utilize that knowledge in my masters program and future career.

I applied to SINARC almost six months ago. As per usual with a busy schedule, time has flown by since then. A few days ago, Lebanese American University sent me more detailed information about the program.  While I knew I was leaving for Lebanon in June, and I have been dreaming of studying Arabic there for quite some time, those forms from SINARC made it all real for me. I really can’t believe it’s only a month away.

My friend Nicole, who has traveled abroad extensively, told me it’s pretty normal to facilitate between nerves and excitement as my departure date approaches. Last week, I fell asleep anxious every night worrying about language immersion. This week, I’ve been nothing but excited. While full immersion into Arabic will be daunting, it’s the best possible thing I can do for my language acquisition. Aside from the language, the cultural experience of living in Beirut for a summer will be invaluable.

The next steps for me will be to fill out numerous forms (such as health information, roommate forms, etc.), and begin packing. While buying international electrical adapters has been slightly more difficult than expected, I know it will all work out. While packing perfectly is hardly the most important thing in the world, it’s an important next step and will get me one step closer to boarding a plan to Beirut!