Every fall, students studying Arabic have the opportunity to study abroad in Jordan. This year, four study abroad participants who received the Arabic Study Award by the Qatar Foundation International tell their stories.
PROVO, Utah (Jan. 29, 2016)—“I am actually here, at the Dome of the Rock, speaking Arabic,” recalled Arabic language student Rachel Lott after an unforgettable trip to Jerusalem last fall. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Moments of disbelief like Lott’s are all too real for Jordan study abroad students in Jordan, as each student’s unique experiences resonate with the same excitement of forging human connections in the context of the culture and language they study.
Every fall, students who hope to pursue the secondary Arabic language major are required to study abroad in Jordan for one semester. This year, four BYU students – Chase Adams (Linguistics and Arabic), Jamie Clegg (English and Arabic), Rachel Lott (Arabic) and Arianna Mueller (Middle East studies and Arabic) – received the Arabic Study Award from Qatar Foundation International, (Q.F.I.) making this trip possible.
Q.F.I. has created the Arabic Language and Culture program to provide funding for Westerners – typically undergraduate students – to learn about and foster genuine connections with the culture of the Middle East. Only 26 students around the country received the award this year, and these four from BYU made the most of creating genuine connections with the people they befriended while studying in Jordan.
Chase Adams found this concept of genuine connection to be true while working on an O.R.C.A. research proposal to determine the ways youth in Jordan are changing the Arabic language. In particular, he examined a dialect emerging from the confluence of Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi cultures.
Adams’ project required frequent visits to the University of Jordan, and it was there that he befriended an Islamic-born young man who had recently converted to Christianity. Adams said that this friend would call him regularly to play soccer or go running, but on one particular occasion invited him to participate in an aspect of his life that was much more meaningful.
“We took a taxi to a church,” Adams recalled. “He had converted to Christianity just a couple months before we had met, and he knew that I was a Christian. He showed me his new church family and all of his friends there. It was something that was deeply personal for him, and to be allowed into that connection was something that was really special.”
Adams continued that his experiences in Jordan also helped him to contextualize the Arabic language and his study of the Middle East.
“It was no longer this other-worldly place that wasn’t identifiable,” he explained. “Arabic was always this language of somebody else but taught to me by friends and professors here. But being there it was all contextualized, and so they became real people and faces and names and stories that really helped me understand the purpose behind understanding the language.”
He added that misconceptions of Islam are often formed because individuals cannot experience a religion or culture in the right context. He said, “When someone meets a person of another religion, it’s easier to humanize them. But as soon as we are apart, we dehumanize others.”
Rachel Lott found this to be true while visiting the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem during her last two weeks of the program.
A young woman recognized that Lott was foreign and started speaking to her in English. Lott switched to Arabic, and it was from that point on that Lott recalls experiencing one of the most meaningful Arabic-speaking moments of her study abroad.
“She was learning Hebrew so I asked her why, and she said it was to learn the language of the other side,” Lott explained. “She also talked about the occupation and their situation. As far as politics go, it was a super interesting conversation.”
Lott continued that going to the Middle East and talking to people about topics such as the Arab Spring or Israeli Occupation in Palestine provided valuable insight and learning opportunities for her.
She also learned the importance of speaking another culture’s language to truly understand others’ perspectives and avoid stereotypes. “I think that learning a language is the biggest thing you can do to understand a culture. Once you break that language barrier, you have reached the human,” she said. “It’s humanizing to be able to speak the same language.”
Arianna Mueller said that it is this same desire to have a deep understanding of language that persuaded her to study Arabic.
“I think if I didn’t have the language it would be a lot harder because I wouldn’t be able to communicate or build connections with people,” Mueller said. “A lot of times people would be surprised that I could speak Arabic, but they would also be overjoyed.”
Arianna recounted a conversation she had with a taxi driver in Jordan. She remembered how happy he was to have met her, to be reminded that there were people “working toward intercultural connections.”
“He was just this older gentleman that was really happy to see young people excited about learning about his language and his culture,” Mueller said. “It was cool for me to realize that two years ago I couldn’t have said a word to him – we couldn’t have communicated at all.”
Mueller also believes that it is important for people to realize that the Middle East isn’t monolithic. “When people think about the Middle East, they overgeneralize the people and the culture and don’t quite see the nuances. I think that’s a really important thing to remember – that things aren’t black and white.”
For Jamie Clegg, Jordanians were some of the most hospitable people she had ever met. Often she would meet someone on the street, and then the next moment they would invite her to their home to eat mansaf, the national Jordanian dish.
One of her favorite memories of her study abroad, however, was sharing dinner with the family of her Jordanian friend and Arabic speaking partner, Hiba.
Clegg said that though she knew her Arabic wasn’t quite perfect, she would never forget the genuine connection she felt with Hiba and her family. “The fact that I had gotten into this family’s home and made friends with Arabs, the fact that I love them and they love me, and that we were communicating somehow and having this great, positive relationship – making this connection – was to me the most rewarding day on my study abroad,” she recalled.
Clegg added that she wishes everyone in Western cultures could see moments like this. In regards to Arabic people, Clegg explained, “You just have to experience them firsthand to understand what incredible people they are. And obviously they have their flaws, and their culture has its flaws – but so does ours.”
Clegg, like so many other study abroad students, connected to her culture and language of study in ways that can’t compare to experiences found in a classroom.
She concluded, “It really opened my eyes to the things that you just can’t get out of a textbook – the smells, the sights, your interactions with people. I left a part of my soul back there.”
—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)
Sylvia covers the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.
Bottom photo from left to right: Hiba, Jamie Clegg and Jessica Wadsworth
Photos courtesy of Arianna Mueller, Rachel Lott and Jamie Clegg.