BYU students reflect on time spent in Middle East

Zackery Rowley wears the traditional Arabic scarf, or Kufiya. (Maddi Driggs)

A group of BYU students gather every fall semester at the Salt Lake International Airport to embark on an unforgettable experience: a study abroad in Jordan. In this completely different atmosphere, students can take part in language dialogues and cultural activities on the opposite side of the world.

When Isa Abutaa, a junior studying Middle Eastern studies and Arabic, sat down for his Jordan study abroad interview, his motives were different than many other students who choose to study in the area.

“I chose to study Arabic mostly for personal reasons. I grew up being exposed to Arab culture because my dad emigrated from Palestine in the ’70s,” Abutaa said. “I could never understand Arabic, so I decided to make that my major at BYU so I could learn to communicate better with my extended family in the Middle East.”

BYU’s Arabic program is considered among the best in the nation, according to the Department of Humanities at BYU. Students go through rigorous preparation, including four semesters of intense language and culture preparation courses.

This year the program started on Aug. 26 in Amman, the capital city of Jordan.

Ryan Nebeker, a junior in the BYU Arabic program described his first month in the Middle East.”One of the reasons why I chose MESA as my major is because of the solid reputation it has compared to other schools in the nation. The faculty members who join us as well as supervise the study abroad program make sure we all go well prepared, not only for the language, but also for the culture and traditions of that part of the world,” Nebeker said.

Students said when they leave to go to Jordan, they use what they have learned in past semesters as a way to adapt with the traditions and cultures of the place.

Hussam Qutob, a junior from Jerusalem and a teaching assistant in the BYU Arabic program, said it is important to focus on the native people in order to learn about their language and culture.

“A big part of learning about the Middle East in general and the language in specific is acquiring more information about the culture from people who lived there their whole lives,” Qutob said.

Zackery Rowley, a senior majoring in the Middle East studies and Arabic, went on the Jordan study abroad last year. He shared why he was drawn to such a field of study.

“Studying Arabic was everything I wanted; it was really challenging, interesting, unique and beautiful,” Rowley said. “After one semester, I decided to dedicate my college career to studying the region and soon fell in love with the culture.”

BYU offers many study abroad programs. Students can go to the Kennedy Center to learn about the variety of study abroad opportunities availableJordan, a small country in the Middle East, was chosen as a study abroad location since it embodies the many problems taking place in that part of the world.

“So much is happening there,” Abutaa said. “There’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the civil war in Syria and ISIS.”

Nebeker said not a lot shocked him when he went to the Middle East.

“Most cultural differences are far less pronounced than I anticipated, so it hasn’t been too difficult to adjust to life here,” Nebeker said.

Many media outlets play a huge role in negatively portraying the Middle East as the extreme part of the world according to a study conducted by the Kuwaiti government regarding perceptions of Islam. The study says Arabs, as well as Muslims, are often misrepresented as radicals who hate the West.

Nebeker also shared his opinion regarding the negative picture many Westerns have of the Eastern Mediterranean area.

“I’ve really gained an appreciation for perspective, both individual and cultural. A lot of people I’ve talked to have very different opinions than I do, but hearing them explain themselves and their feelings is really valuable,” Nebeker said. “Hearing everyday people explain their perspectives is a great antidote to the way that much of the Western media presents the Arab world: full of backwards, irrational extremists. You really get a sense that people themselves aren’t so different, only their circumstances.”

While learning about other countries’ traditions and cultures, students like Abutaa, began developing a sense of appreciation for their own traditions along with the new ones.

“I gained a better understanding that people from all over the world, no matter how different they may seem, care about the exact same things that I do,” Abutaa said. “They care about family, living happy lives and gaining an education. I especially found that to be true in Jordan.”

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