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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Becoming a Jedi Knight pt. 2

Summer 2008

June 29, 2008 – Syria

In addition to Arabic, I have also decided to pursue studies in Jedi Knightism. Actually, this photo was taken at the Umayyaed Mosque, one of the holiest and largest in the world, and particularly breathtaking for a structure finished in the seventh century.

I have to say, I was a little nervous starting this trip (wasn’t Syria an original member of the Axis of evil?) but, once there, was relieved to find it totally safe. My hotel – get this – actually has air conditioning. The nice man running a pastry shop across the street from my hotel gave me a free kanafa when I said I was American. And the local wine is delightful.

Damascus is reminiscent of Cairo, particularly in the Souq El-Hamidiyeh. It’s crowded here, and the exchange rate actually works in my favor (1 dollar to roughly 50 Syrian pounds). There is, however, one important variation from Cairo: the food here is incredible, and (knock on wood) hasn’t made me sick. For my first meal, I had chicken fattah at Leila’s rooftop terrace in the Old City. This was perhaps one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, until dinner when I had my first taste of mohammerah (think salsa, but creamy, served with fry bread.)

Today, I spent a relaxing day wandering around the crowded markets and steaming in a Turkish bath. Meanwhile, my travel partner was off an hour outside Damascus visiting Sayida Zeinab, a shrine to the daughter of the founder of Shia Islam, where he stumbled upon a funeral for a Shia imam attended by literally thousands of Iranian and Iraqi pilgrims. While this wasn’t the most welcoming environment in Syria, he was allowed to take several pictures of the shrine and go inside to view the body. Later, he slightly rattled, and me relaxed to the core, we finished the day with dinner on a rooftop terrace overlooking the Old City. I feel somewhat silly for being nervous about coming here; Damascus is a bustling city where I feel entirely safe. More exploring tomorrow….

July 10, 2008 – Petra and Aqaba

This is the hotel where I stayed in Aqaba. No, I’m not kidding. Really. Five to a room. No door, no electricity. Great view, though. Aqaba was unbelievable; from the water, there is a view of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel. Under the water are miles of reefs and exotic fish. I snorkeled for five hours, and could have done more, if I wasn’t completely exhausted from hiking through Petra the day before. Petra was beautiful, but after five hours of hiking through the Jordanian desert, I was ready to hit the beach.

July 20, 2008 – Israel and Palestine

My friend Rachel is studying Hebrew at the aptly titled Hebrew University in Jerusalem, so thankfully I could crash her couch this weekend instead of getting an Israeli hostel. The exchange rate is not my friend right now – especially not in Israel, where a falafel sandwich (around 50 cents in Jordan) is 25 sheq, or 8 (8!) dollars. The first night, Rachel took me to a wine tasting on a hilltop overlooking the city – amazing! This goes right up there with climbing Mt. Sinai on my “coolest experiences ever” list. (This was also the perfect end to a long day of being detained at the Israeli border for six hours… a quick word about the Israel-Jordan border: it’s operated almost entirely by young women just out of high school. They have no sense of humor, and were none too pleased with my Syrian visa. I asked that they not stamp my passport, as many countries deny entries to anyone who has visited Israel, and they grudgingly obliged.)

Friday, Rachel and I walked all over the city, visiting the Wailing Wall, the Church of Mary Magdalene, the garden where Jesus was betrayed, and the gate where, according to some, Jesus will descend to the earth upon his return. That evening, we went to a Shabbat dinner held by an organization that serves free Shabbat dinners to students and visitors. I was a little unprepared for this experience. I’ve attended a number of Shabbat dinners, but this was by far the least welcoming. A number of people, Israeli citizens and others told me they hated America. Also, they believed all other countries in the region to be subject to Sharia, or Islamic Law, a huge misconception. I wondered how they could be so ill-informed about places just miles away. Also, of the now five countries I’ve visited in the Middle East, how is it that I’ve only seen anti-Americanism in Israel?

Surprisingly, the next day, my sixth country was a friendlier experience. On Saturday, I ventured to the Palestinian territory. For less than a dollar, I took an bus (clearly labeled “Arab Bus”) into Ramallah. First stop: Yasser Arafat’s grave, where a number of women were grieving. Later, I did what I always do in new cities: just wandered around with my camera. On the streets of Ramallah, a number of people implored me to take pictures of the area. “Show your friends,” they said. So I will.

July 23, 2008 – Syria, revisited

Not wanting my Syrian visa to go to waste, I decided to venture back this weekend, this time to see a little more of the countryside. On Thursday morning, my boyfriend, my best Jordanian friend, and two friends from Yale set off to Deir Mar Musa (the Monastery of Saint Moses). This required a taxi from Amman to the border, from the border to Damascus, from Damascus to Nebek, and from Nebek to the Monestary, where we then trekked up a quarter-mile of sandy stairs through the Syrian mountainside to finally reach the Monestary. I can say with complete sincerity that this is the most beautiful place I have ever been; the mountains are miles from “civilization,” and the night sky is clear enough to allow a clear view of the Milky Way. We stayed for two nights, and I had so much fun hiking and stargazing that I didn’t mind the absence of electricity or clean water, or even having to scrub dishes for two hours on Saturday (the Monastery doesn’t charge so guests must work for their stay). After my stint in the kitchen, I listened to Father Paolo, the head of Deir Mar Musa, deliver a lecture on Middle Eastern politics, focusing on Israeli-Palestinian relations and western involvement.

I’m really glad that I took this trip because I feel that you have to get out of the big cities to get a real feel for a country. I enjoyed Damascus for the food and the shopping and the cites, but had no idea how breathtakingly beautiful the rest of the country was.

August 15, 2008 – Amman

I finished my last final yesterday, and can’t believe my summer is almost over. I finished the semester with a 97, which hopefully serves as a testament to the fact that, between travels, I did a lot of studying.

I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to return to the Middle East, to explore more of the region, to improve my Arabic, and to grow up a little more. Another scholar once told me that you can learn a lot about yourself by plunging into a totally unfamiliar culture. That’s not what happened this summer; Amman no longer feels unfamiliar, it actually feels a little like home now. Granted, I’m thrilled to come back to Dallas and see my family and friends. At the same time, I feel like this summer was just the beginning, and I’ll be back as soon as possible. Until then….