The ambiguities of studying abroad in the Middle East

Story and photos by Aaron Weintraub

“How was it?”

Ever since I returned from studying in Jordan, I get irritated when someone asks me that question. My irritation is not with the person who asks the question — they’re just curious. It lies more with myself for not having the perfect adjectives and stories to describe living in the Middle East. I study journalism and I can’t describe a country to a friend?

For a bit, I just responded with a one-word quip: “Hot.” It’s a lazy answer but accurate, and I delivered the line emphatically. I met so many diverse characters and experienced a society so different from my own that it was the only word to surface from all of the submerged memories that still flip through my head like a YouTube loop someone forgot to turn off.

I’ve been studying Arabic since my freshman year at the UO, and it’s become a bit of an obsession. This summer, I had the opportunity to study Arabic at the Qasid Arabic Institute in Jordan’s capital city, Amman. The program included four-hour intensive Arabic classes Sunday through Thursday (Thursday is the Friday of the Middle East) in both classic (Qu’ranic) and vernacular Arabic. I also worked as a volunteer counselor at a camp for refugee children primarily from Iraq and Syria.

In my free time, I wandered around the city finding interesting individuals from all walks of life to interview for my blog, A Pale Man in a Shadeless Land. These interviews began as a way to practice both journalism and Arabic, but over time they developed into the best self-training I’ve ever had in any subject. I was able to hone my writing and interviewing skills while working with language and cultural barriers that became less and less daunting as my time there wore on. The interviews were also what allowed me to explore Jordanian culture in depth, from Amman’s hip-hop scene and the politics of tea in the Middle East to the disenfranchisement of the Bedouin community in the south and so many other subsections of the culture.

A state of nebulous identity

I began this post with my struggle to answer the everyday question “How was it?” instead of a description of open markets that smell of lamb and falafel or waking up to a call to prayer blaring through speakers in the street because I think it displays an honest aspect of study abroad that’s difficult to put into words. Education is steeped in ambiguity, not certainty. Unfortunately, this is not the stuff of easy conversation. Last week someone asked me casually how Damascus was this summer, and I had to explain that there was a revolution happening there. It was a brief conversation that surprised both of us.

For me, studying in Amman was hard, except for the times it felt easy. The city was beautiful, except for the uglier areas. The people were nice, except for the ones who weren’t. It’s hard to hold a society to a certain set of standards after living in it. The reality shifts your standards for you. I travelled to discover another culture, only to find out there wasn’t just one culture present. Amman, like essentially any major city, is a complicated patchwork quilt of identities and ideas.

It’s estimated that about half the Jordanian population is actually not even Jordanian, but of Palestinian origin — a demographic that, as time has gone on, has become both more obscure in its roots and more outspoken about its rootlessness. The Jordanian government is centered around a reasonably popular king who heads up a horrendously unpopular parliament. There are tensions bubbling between refugee groups due to a huge increase in population density, which has happened because the country is a strangely appealing spot due to its lack of unrest. It’s a city striving for contemporary, secular culture in a country that’s over 97 percent Sunni Muslim. There are laws during Ramadan that forbid public drinking and eating, while Jordan was one of the first countries in the world to decriminalize homosexuality.

The conversations I had with the people of Amman reflected these diverse views of Jordan. It’s a country that exists quite comfortably in a gray area. A taxi driver once told me that Amman is like a salad, and it’s a fitting analogy: lots of ingredients, always present at the table. Jordanian culture comes with ancient roots and a strong presence in a region that feels both notorious and forgotten to people in the United States. In trying to focus on one aspect of the culture, I find myself forced to look at a hundred.

You can’t go home again, but you’re here anyway

I want to thank all of the people I had the privilege of meeting while living in Amman, especially those who allowed me to interview them. Each person I spent time with had something unique to provide; their opinions and stories were all challenging and inspiring in different ways.

I found that studying abroad destroyed the preconceived notions I had in my head about the Jordanian culture. Maybe that’s why the questions I’ve been asked since I have returned home bother me — they reflect those preconceived notions yet conflict deeply with the truth, and I can’t even begin to close the gap between the two.

To live in another culture for a period is to imprint that culture on one’s self, which complicates how one perceives his or her own culture. The minor identity crisis I had when I came home after travelling a long time was difficult, but it has broadened my perspective. I believe it’s the most unfiltered way to get an education. That’s why now, when someone asks me, “How was it?” about my time in Amman, I just tell them, “You should go.”Aaron Weintraub is a senior in the SOJC studying journalism and Arabic, which he hopes to use as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. This is his first year working as a digital media intern for the SOJC’s Communications office. In the past, he studied Arabic and Islamic studies in Keble College at Oxford University and at the Qasid Arabic Institute in Amman, Jordan, where he worked as an independent feature writer during the summer of 2016. He has also served as a writer and photographer for the UO’s environmental publication, Envision Magazine. When he’s not writing or shooting photos, he enjoys climbing, biking and other activities that occasionally injure him.