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!


Protests & Progress – مظاهرات والتقدم

Sometime last week, I received the following message in my inbox:

“After exhausting all alternatives with the students insisting on closing the gates, the American University in Cairo is suspending operations, including all classes, because of the danger posed by the continuing closure of the campus.”

For over a week, the entire university –rumored to be the best English-language university in the Middle East– was shut down by a group of 50-300 student protesters. These students blockaded all entrances to the main campus with cars and padlocks, demanding, among other things, a reversal of this year’s 7% tuition increase. While I too wouldn’t mind paying 7% less tuition, the tactics of the protests were ill-conceived and inconsiderate of the thousands of students, faculty members, and staff whose lives were put on hold during the strike. Alhamdulillah (praise god), classes have resumed as of today, after a harrowing week of budgeting debates and dialogue between the protesters and administration. Unfortunately, however, this week off has put classes behind for the semester, and caused deep rifts within the campus community members, many of whom feel understandably put-off and unrepresented by the protesters.

Since classes were cancelled and there wasn’t much we could do about it, some friends and I took the weekend off to explore Alexandria– a beautiful and ancient city 3 hours from Cairo in the Nile Delta, along the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Iskanderiya (Alexandria) was a much-needed breath of fresh air from the smog of downtown Cairo. I slept outside under the stars, and every morning I woke up to a breath-taking view of the ocean.

The view from our private terrace overlooking the Mediterranean shoreline.

Having a week off of my graduate school course-load also freed up some time for me to explore Cairo a bit. Unfortunately, when school is not being cancelled due to protests, I spend almost all of my time either at school or doing schoolwork– the life of a graduate student is not exactly glamorous. But, I digress. Cairo is massive (8 million people, by most counts), so there is always plenty to explore. And since everything is still fairly new to me, everywhere I go feels like an adventure. The process of getting a cab, convincing him not to rip you off (while simultaneously convincing him not to fall in love with you because you have blonde hair and speak sweya Arabic), finding where you are trying to go, keeping your game face on just in case you have to haggle along the way.. Needless to say, there is never a dull moment. Here are a few pictures from last weeks Cairo adventures:

Moorish architecture in Khan El-Khalili, one of Cairo's oldest marketplaces.

Post-revolutionary graffiti in Tahrir Square.

Painting ceramics at an artists' café with my friend Parsa.

In some ways, the last month has flown by, and it feels as if it was just yesterday that I stumbled off of the plane into this new life, and in other ways it feels as if I have been here for years. I have three classes, a job, a workout routine, a group of friends, and–perhaps most importantly–a gorgeous balcony to bask in the sunshine and take cat naps on. Moving to Egypt has really shown me how significant one’s conceptualization of a place is to defining their overall experience with it– when I arrived in Morocco for the first time two years ago, I had my return ticket in hand before I ever left. I always knew I would be leaving six months later to return to the City of Roses and my wonderful friends back in the States. I wanted to see everything, be everywhere, meet everyone, but I did not invest in relationships because I always felt my time in Morocco was temporary. By contrast, a month into this, and I already feel like Cairo is home. Accordingly, I do not feel the familiar study abroad impulse to whirlwind tour the country and see-everything-all-at-once. I have time here. Metaphorically, my heart is playing backgammon on the street, smoking sheesha with a greying Egyptian man. Contemplating every move. Taking my time. Moving with the alternately chaotic and slow rhythm of life in Egypt.

Football in Jerusalem

My Arabic intensive course has now completed week one. Originally I was signed up for the intermediate Arabic course at Hebrew University, but it was cancelled due to low enrollment so I have switched to the colloquial intensive. The Arabic spoken in Jerusalem is part of the Levantine Arabic dialect, which is spoken in Palestine/Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Specifically, we are learning an urban Jerusalem dialect and although it would be understood well in the countries mentioned above, there are even significant differences in lexicon and pronunciation in the West Bank, Gaza and up north in Galilee. The course is about ten students and is six to eight hours a day (five days a week), including breaks. It is split up between three teachers we rotate through each day and then a guest lecturer once a week about the history of the language in the region. Two of the teachers are Israeli and focus more on grammar and vocabulary, and the third teacher is Palestinian and her teaching is entirely conversational. So far the days have not seemed long at all and I think this is largely because the day is split up into three different teaching styles. It has also been fascinating to observe the (sometimes tenuous) relationship between Modern Standard Arabic and colloquial Arabic.

Because I had to switch courses so late, I had a week of unexpected free time before my course began. I took a trip to the Palestinian Christian town of Birzeit, which is outside of Ramallah in the West Bank where the 5th Rozana Heritage Festival was taking place. The small town has a beautiful old city which is exceptionally free of garbage compared to Jerusalem. Palestinians in the West Bank are so far either much more inclined to “play along” with me when I try and speak Arabic or really don’t speak any English which has been an excellent test. The free week also coincided with the end of the Euro Cup and, since I am staying near a substantial population of lively German volunteers and workers, all the games were watched outside with a projector and much cheering and booing. Also present at the games were many bottles of Taybeh beer, the only Palestinian beer. Early tomorrow morning a few of us will drive to their brewery for a tour, a small hike outside the town, and a complimentary beverage of “the Finest in the Middle East.”

Below is a little travelogue video of the past week featuring nuns, football, snakes, fire, etc.

My first week in Amman

my view of Amman - near the Jordanian University

I arrived in Amman, Jordan about a week ago, and I have already had too many adventures to tell! The first three days here were spent doing a crash-course on orienting ourselves to Jordanian life, culture, and language. On the first day we were immersed with an orientation and a 2-hour session with Jordanian speaking partners. This session involved learning how to find our way back to our home for the next 2 months–that is, the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman. ACOR is an old institution and has played a significant role in archaeological work in the region, among other things. We learned directions such as; “turn left,” “turn right,” “turn around,” and “go straight.” We also learned the important words for bridge, tunnel, and roundabout, of which there are many. Amman is a city of “circles”–the main roundabouts labeled first through eighth.  Like in many other cities in the Middle East, streets in Amman are not based on a grid system at all and generally the streets do not have names, or at least the names are not used. I’m not even sure if the street I live on now has a name at all. Directions are given in terms of landmarks. After our first speaking session, two other students and I were pushed out of our comfy nest and had to get in a taxi (by ourselves) and direct our taxi driver in Arabic to a restaurant determined by our speaking partner. I guess you learn most quickly when you need to! Luckily, we made it to the restaurant, where we ate a delicious snack of kanafa – a Jordanian pastry dessert made with a lot of cheese, oil, butter and sugar. I have a feeling my figure may change while I’m here.

Kunafah pastry dessert

Amman street

The CLS program planned a few more adventures for us during our initial time here, including a trip a couple days ago to As-Salt, a historic city that used to be the capital of Jordan. There, we visited the Historic Old Salt Museum, located at the Abu Jaber house at the center of town. The museum was large and elaborate, with tons of information about the history of Salt. I was surprised at how extensive the museum was, as well as how nicely done the rooms and posters were put together. After the museum tour, our large group of 40 broke up into smaller groups to go off and explore the city on our own. Two others and I  decided to follow the “Salt Heritage Trail,” which was on a map given to us by the museum staff. This self-guided tour of important Salt buildings was a bit strange. The buildings on the map were not only historic, but they were also mostly occupied by residents! They are not museum buildings that you can tour inside, because they are still homes to Salti people. We quickly discovered this after knocking on a couple doors and meeting confused people wondering why we would possible want to go into their house. We walked all around the city, marveling at the beautiful sights.

a view of Salt, Jordan

After the first three days of orientation, our Arabic classes officially began. The CLS program in Amman works through the Qasid Institute, and every week day (Sunday through Thursday here) we have 2 hours of fusHa (modern standard/written Arabic), 1 hour of ‘amiyya (spoken, colloquial/dialect Arabic), and 1 hour of media Arabic. I was placed in one of the advanced sections, which is extremely difficult. At this level, we spend most of our time in fusHa and media Arabic reading news articles. This week we focused on a highly topical issue, al-intikhabat al-masriyya–the Egyptian elections (my reaction to the elections would be an entirely different post, so I won’t go into it). The teachers speak only in Arabic to us, and new vocabulary words are explained in Arabic. This was a bit shocking at first, and I’m still struggling a bit to understand the exact meaning of some words, but it is definitely an excellent way to really get the language into your head when it’s constantly in your ears. On the first day of class, we signed the infamous “Language Pledge,” which says that we will only speak in Arabic for the next two months.

Our latest adventure outside of class was a trip to wasat al-balad, or the downtown area of Amman. This area has tons of shops, restaurants, and also houses a large mosque and the old Roman theatre. The trip was required as a “language socialization” activity, which is a requirement of CLS that encourages us to go out into the city and speak to locals in Arabic about certain topics. We were given a list of possible places to visit–including the Hamoudeh DVD shop, sweets store, a bookstore, gold souq, vegetable market, and more. We only made it to a couple places, my favorite of which was the DVD/CD shop, where you can find any film on DVD that you could possible want, each for 1 Jordanian dinar (~$1.40). I bought the movie “City of Life,” made in Dubai, along with seven CDs of Arab singers, like Nancy Ajram, Amr Diab, Elissa, Tamer Hosny, etc. I can’t wait to listen to them all. The downtown area is exciting and a great place to be immersed in Arabic, because everyone around is Jordanian. I will definitely be going back, to visit the Roman threater and explore the shops and restaurants more.

Wasat al-balad - downtown Amman

Hamoudeh DVD - any film you want, you can find it here!

halwiyat - Arabic sweets

Next Year in Jerusalem

Next week in Jerusalem, as it turns out. On June 20th I will fly out of New York and make my way to the Mount of Olives to study Arabic for five weeks at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. From 1998 to 2002, my parents were Lutheran pastors in the Old City, and I was an 8 to 12 year-old American boy living in East Jerusalem, playing in the Israeli Juvenile Baseball League, and generally confused about my living situation. A decade later, I am hoping to improve my Arabic but I also wish to learn more about the region as well as my own past within it. I will be living next to (and volunteering in some manner at) Augusta Victoria Hospital, the second-largest hospital in East Jerusalem and one which primarily serves Palestinians. In mid-August I will travel to Cairo to continue my Arabic studies at the Arabic Language Institute for the fall semester.

The author at a Coptic monastery in Egypt around the turn of the millennium.

Do I really leave tonight?

In just a few hours I will be embarking on my latest journey–a trip to Amman, Jordan with the Critical Language Scholarship program. I will be there for 2 months, studying intensive Arabic at the Qasid institute in Amman. I am currently in Washington, D.C., wrapping up a two-day orientation for the program. I’ve met my 39 colleagues for the next two months who will also be doing the program, and am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to improve my Arabic with such wonderful students.

The CLS program is funded by the State Department and implemented by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC). It provides scholarships for students at all academic levels to complete intensive programs abroad in languages deemed “critical” but the U.S. State Department. Of course, this includes Arabic–along with Turkish, Persian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Punjabi, Russian, and Urdu. At yesterday’s orientation session, we were told that 5,280 students applied for the program across all languages, and just 631 were accepted. I applied for the program last year and did not receive an award, and when I was notified of my award for this summer I couldn’t have been happier or felt more lucky.

Having been to Jordan before last year, I know a bit of what to expect. I was only there for 5 days, but saw many of the common tourist sights. I’m looking forward to delving deeper into the city of Amman, becoming acquainted with more locals, and learning more about the city and the country. I will also be completing a PSU capstone course during my time in Jordan, called Museum of the City. While it is not typically an online course, I was able to work with the professor to complete it during my time abroad. The course centers around the ideas of city development and city museums, and through the course students are expected to engage with the community and ultimately develop an online “exhibit” about a city or element of cities. There are endless possibilities in Amman and the surrounding area, so I am anxious to begin the course. Coinciding with the capstone course and my goals to learn more Arabic, I hope to volunteer with a local organization in Amman called Carboun. This initiative promotes sustainability and environmental protection in the Middle East. It was founded recently and I’m hoping to learn more from them about sustainability initiatives in Jordan and around the region.

Next post will be from Amman, Jordan–I can’t believe it! Ma’salaama – goodbye!