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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.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Adventures and Self-Discovery in Morocco

So I know it looks like I do nothing but blog on the EMPSN, but we are all required to write blogs when we study abroad there should be a dozen or so of doing the same thing. I highly encourage you all to post your blogs on EMSPN so we can have share stories on this 'social' network :)

So about my summer, I was fortunate enough to receive the Critical Language Scholarship this summer, and I was sent to Tangier, Morocco. At first I was SUPER upset about being sent to Morocco because I don't know the local dialect at all and I am not really interested in North Africa. But alas, the scholarshp was a GREAT opportunity to learn Arabic, and my goal/I WILL be fluent in arabic by the time I graduate UTD... so I took it. And I am SO glad I did.

The program itself was intensive, as promised. We spent the first 10 days traveling through about 5 major cities in North Morocco (the South is mainly desert), and then we finally settled in Tangier. Classes were 4 hours a day, followed by about 4-5 hours of homework 5 days a week. CRAZY I know. We barely had time to leave the campus to go experience the culture... we basically just went out to grab dinner. Eventually, we got more efficient and started spending more and more time out which was fun.

We traveled almost every weekend and had some 'fun' ADVENTURES: sitting 7 people in a taxi (me being the lucky passenger in the front between the driver and another passenger that was 6 feet tall... and yes the stick shift was on my tush the whole time!), getting offered illegal drugs like 10 times in one night... including at dinner by my waiter, riding on a camel to watch the sunrise at 4 a.m. over the Sahara (real Africa one might say :) ), going to local homes for interesting local cuisine and AMAZING hospitality, cold bucket showers, etc. One of my favorite adventures was throwing my bags into a moving train and then jumping into random local Moroccan men arms after the train started to pick up speed because I got off at the wrong stop. Or getting into a fake taxi and almost being kidnapped with friends. Needless to say, we had our adventures in Morocco.

This is where the blog gets corny... so forewarning.

The best part of the trip though was what I learned about myself. This trip, more than my previous two trips, really changed me as a person. It was so powerful to be around such AMAZING people that had similar interests and passions as me, and I re-discovered my love for arabic and the middle east by staying in the region and by constantly being around them. I now KNOW I want to end up working in the region or at least towards improvement and greater universal understand of the traditions of the peoples of the region. I gained a new-found appreciate of the traditional culture and a hightened appreciation of the differences between the lifestyles in East and the West. I gained self-confidence in my language skills and started realizing the power of communication with peoples of such different background. The opportunity to speak with fellow americans that just love what the language and culture as much as I do was a very beautiful thing. We started throwing in random arabic words in our everyday english conversations (similar to when we say "hola" all the time), and we all internalized the 'arab way' when it came to greetings (cheek kisses), sharing, giving, and just loving each other. I met americans from states like Montana, Ohio, Indiana, etc of which I know NOTHING about, until now. Also, of the 45 or so of us, only like 4 hadn't traveled before, so everyone had something to give intelectually to the group. I made some great friendships that I know will last forever, and I rediscovered the type of person I am and want to be when it comes to relationships with elders, family, friends, etc. I am an Arab-American, and I have developed a greater pride and understanding of what that means and how that forms me as a person. How that makes me 'unique'. Both sides of that hyphen is special and I have started to internalize that. I only hope that each of you have the opportunity to go out and meet some people in the middle of nowhere (like North Africa for instance) that will make you look inside yourself to further understand the person you are and the person you want to be in the future. I know it sounds corny but it can happen, and it did happen to me in Morocco.

The Explorer

So I know I have already written a few blogs about the Middle East, but this year I have had such a different and such a wonderful experience that I feel like I need to share with you guys.

A quick pre-summary of what I am about to talk about, I took a month traveling around the Eastern Mediterranean region of the Middle East. That is, I traveled through like six cities in Syria, went back to Amman for a more local experience, failed to get to Lebanon, and went to Egypt for almost two weeks.

First was SYRIA. I studied in Damascus, Syria last year for 3 months, but I was so focused on language study that I did not travel except for a quick bus tour through some sites in Jordan. This year, me and some friends and relatives rented a car and drove through all the big cities on the west side of Syria. (The East is basically desert). I was amazed to see how different each region was in a single country. There were very conservative cities were most women were in full black veil covering even the skin between the eyes (these cities include Hama and Aleppo), there were cities were music was more prevalent than others (Aleppo), there were beaches (Latakia) and mountainous scenery that could rival Switzerland (Somra and Mashquita), and I can go on and on. The food was AMAZING as Syria is known to have the best food in the Middle East. The people in the different regions have a few words that are different but in the most part they all speak the same Aamiya (dialect). It is kind of like the USA with our minor differences between the North and South (you non-Texans that say things like "pop" and don't understand basic words like "ya'll"). Now that my language skills are better, I was able to speak to more locals in their native tongue, and I think the biggest thing I noticed was their pride for their country, their unbelievable hospitality and love for friends, family, and even foreigners. What can I say? I LOVE Syria.

Next, I went to JORDAN. for a few days where I stayed with a friend of a friend. Unlike last year, I actually stayed in the city the whole time and went to most of the different areas in Jordan. I went to the old medina (old city) where the people were actually not too friendly and I was a little uncomfortable without a long sleeve shirt. I went to the new part of town and was AMAZED at how rich some parts of the city are. I saw the biggest houses I have ever seen IN MY LIFE in Ammann. I learned that there are a lot of investments in the city now, so that is why they are growing. I also experienced the Westernization of the city firsthand - I stayed with a family in which some of the elders were against the non-traditional advancements of the region whereas the teenagers were almost ashamed of the old parts of their city and were super proud and excited about the new things to come. While in Ammann, I also visited the major touristy sites (the huge amphitheater, the new mosque dedicated to the past king, etc). One thing I think is cool about Ammann is that the highest flag in the world is flown in the middle of the city. One side note - their main local dish (mansaff) is disgusting, in my opinion. It is a dish with a piece of meat, rice, a thin slice of special bread, and a weird yogurt that they pour over it that is basically fat. Yucky.

I wanted to go to LEBANON, but I because I was traveling so much the only times I had to go was near to another travel... and with the parliamentary election nearing and the daily bomb threats there was a big possibility that I would get stuck in the country and not be able to catch my flight to Egypt or back to the states. I hope to make that trip up soon though!

Lastly, I traveled to EGYPT with Mary Gurak (2007 McD scholar) and with my mother. The latter was an INVALUABLE asset, because I do not know the egyptian dialect and my mother was able to get us into a lot of local areas and knew how to steer us towards a less-touristy experience. I have to say, I was VERY disappointed with Cairo. The city is EXTREMELY dirty, and soooooooooooo crowded. There are 20 million people in the city! Also, the people there harassed us more than anywhere else I have traveled to in the Middle East. We not only got cat calls, but also we had people that were too pushy when trying to sell us goods. I was also the least comfortable in Egypt as far as not wearing a hijab. I have never had a problem with this before even in a very Islamic city like Damascus, but I got a lot of nasty comments and condemnations from the local Egyptians. To be fair, I did have some lovely experiences with some locals and I wasn't able to stay in a home and experience the hosptitality I have heard Egyptians offer, but I still was taken aback with the experiences in the streets of the city. When in Egypt, I did do a little sightseeing - we went to the Egyptian Museum, Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Hatshepsut's temple, the market Khan al-Khalili, etc. We also traveled to Luxor (another city) where we saw the ancient Egyptian Karnak Temple. The ancient sites are ABSOLUTELY worth seeing. Lastly, we took a day excursion to the city of Alexandria, a beautiful coastal city with an amazing history (guess who the city was named after) and few historical sites left. All in all though, I was most amazing with how pour the country is. With all we hear about Egypt and Cairo and all the money they get from other countries (they get like $20 billion from the US alone), the people are living in HORRIBLE conditions. The markets were full of rotting fruit and veges, we saw 'houses' that consisted of a single hall with a couch and mats on the floor for 6 + people to live in. The king is not very popular in Egypt, and we didn't see any pictures of him in the streets as you do with most other countries and their kings. I can go on, but this is getting too long.

All in all, it was an amazing experience and I learned a lot about both the persistence of tradition and the modernization of the Middle East. This region has become a big part of my life, and I would encourage anyone who has the means and interest to try to take a trip out to this side of the world at some point in their life.