ISA Students Speak Out: Busting 5 Common Misconceptions About Studying in the Arab World

Michael Stewart is an ISA Site Specialist for the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Michael works with students studying abroad in Jordan, Morocco and India.

Merzouga, Morocco.

1. Learning Arabic is Nearly Impossible

Learning Arabic can be fun! And it’s not as hard as you may think if you have the right teacher and resources at your disposal. In a survey of ISA students, 100% stated they agree their language classes helped improve foreign language acquisition over the course of my program and 88% agree foreign language courses were a significant component of their overall experience abroad. Studying Arabic opens doors for one-of-a-kind cultural experiences as ISA Amman student Elika Roohi (Spring ’12) reports on the ISA Student Blog:

Two weeks ago, my Arabic class went on a field trip to the town of Salt, which is north of Amman and right next to our university.  We learned about the history of Salt, how to make a delicious Salti (not salty!) dessert, and then we learned about traditional weddings and got to hold our own mock wedding.  My roommate Stephanie was the fake arooz (bride), and Adam, another student, was the fake areez (groom).  The rest of us got to be bridesmaids and groomsmen.  There was traditional dancing and tons of pictures!

2. I’ll have to worry about “Muslim Hostility”

With all the unsettling news coming out this region it is easy to get caught up in a frenzy and make broad-stroke assumptions about the people who call it home. ISA Amman student Lydia Shippen takes time to give her perspective on the matter from Jordan:

If you have been following the news then you should know about the movie “The Innocence of Muslims” and about the protests and demonstrations that are occurring in many countries in the Middle East in reaction to the video.  I get the feeling that the protests are being exaggerated in the United States’ media and that the numbers of the people protesting (maybe around 1000 total in a population of a couple million) are not being told along with the visually striking photos.  One example of exaggeration is Newsweek’s recent cover photo titled “Muslim Rage.”  I understand that people have died and that protests are still going on, so this is a serious issue, but I want to let you know that the majority of the people here in Jordan are not reacting in this way.

3. All Muslims are Negative Toward Americans

Not so! Returned ISA Amman students bring back stories of the friendliness and hospitality of the Jordanian people they met while abroad. One student commented “Meeting Jordanian students my own age, who spoke great English, and readily welcomed me into their lives, did wonders on reducing any sort of initial culture shock.” This is further evidenced by the efforts of our Resident Director Mohammed Naser and the folks at Jafra who worked together to have a very special celebration for our students. Read one student’s account of Thanksgiving in Amman:

Now, I am abroad on the biggest holiday in America second to Christmas. All the female students agreed that we would throw our own dinner party for Thanksgiving following a week of exams, papers, and presentations (our midterm week). Fortunately, the ISA program director, Mohammad, was awesome enough to plan a Thanksgiving meal at Jafra, one of the most well known and busiest restaurants in downtown Amman. Not only that, but he secured our reservation for Thursday, their busiest night (technically it is the day their weekend starts). He surprised us with a Thanksgiving feast, but surprises didn’t stop there…  We were told we were invited to the kitchen to observe the chefs cooking our Thanksgiving feast and we would be able to partake in cooking the meal as well.

4. The Arab World is a Hot, Dry Desert

The Arab/Islamic world stretches across thousands of miles and multiple continents. While you’ll definitely experience a healthy dose of desert sands and high heat if you travel to such breathtaking locales as Wadi Rum, there’s a good bit of variation in the regional weather pattern as witnessed by Elika:

I woke up this morning fully expecting all the snow to be melted, but there’s more snow than ever today!  Our landlord gave me a snowball as I was headed up to the rooftop to take some pictures of the snow.  Up there I ended up building a snow man with some friends and in general reveling in my favorite kind of weather.

5. People in Jordan Don’t Like Pigeons

Ok, maybe this isn’t a deeply-held conviction many Americans foster regarding our friends in the Middle East, but it will doubtless surprise many to learn of the Jordanian pass-time brought to our attention by Harold Lyons:

Pigeon-keeping is a common past time. I am not entirely sure I understand, since I have always viewed the birds as flying rats. In Jordan, this classification hardly fits. Groups of birds soar across the sky, in perfect synchronization. Watching the owners hail their respective flocks from the rooftops is a sight to behold. During a walking tour of downtown our small group stopped at one such flock. The owner of the fine, winged beasts exclaimed, “You have not truly lived until a pigeon has stood on your head!” Indeed.