It seems like yesterday that I was getting on my flight to begin my semester abroad in Amman, Jordan, but I’m already closing out my first month here and the semester is flying by.
I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk a little bit about the process of choosing a study abroad program in the Middle East. It’s a lot harder to study in this region than on other continents simply because of conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, Egypt, and Lebanon, so there are a lot of considerations for students looking to spend a semester in the Middle East.
If you’re going to the Middle East, chances are that you’ve either taken previous Arabic courses or are interested in starting. Therefore, it’s important to note that the Modern Standard Arabic taught in schools and universities in America (Fus’ha or MSA) is not the Arabic spoken in any Middle Eastern country. While Fus’ha is used in the news, scholarly articles, and university texts, day-to-day life in the Middle East operates on colloquial dialects which can differ broadly from the Fus’ha you may have studied in school. These dialects vary from country to country with various degrees of similarity to Fus’ha, and generally the more different the dialect is from Fus’ha, the more difficult it will be for you to study both Fus’ha and dialectal.
Choosing a specific Arabic dialect is a personal decision that depends a lot on what you want to get out of the program. Generally, Egypt – the American University in Cairo, to be more specific – is considered the gold standard for Arabic instruction, and Egyptian dialect (MaSriyya) is sometimes taught side by side with Fus’ha in the US. However, the recent bombings in Egypt have placed it on the Level 3 Travel Warning list, meaning that you will probably have to fight long and hard to get to study there. Syria was also a center for non-Arab speakers to learn the language, but almost every American program has ended its Syrian affiliation because of the war. Lebanon is also considered unsafe by many programs, but it may be easier to study in Beirut and I have heard of people who have managed to successfully argue their case.
When I was looking at programs, I had four essential choices – Jordan, Oman, the UAE, and Morocco. I ruled out Morocco fairly quickly because Darija, the Moroccan dialect, bears almost no resemblance to Fus’ha Arabic due to its French influence. I ruled out the UAE as well because of its huge expatriate population, resulting in very little spoken Arabic and a less immersive Arabic experience. While Oman has several good Arabic programs, I chose Jordan because of its more central location, its mixed population of Iraqis, Palestininans, Syrians, and native Jordanians, and its geopolitical importance, which I’ll talk more about in the next section. All of these factors result in Jordanian dialect being more widely understood. Jordanian dialect (Aamiya) overlaps pretty well with Fus’ha, and communicating with my host family and people around Amman has been significantly easier than it would have been had I been studying in Morocco.
If you’re going to the Middle East and want to study something in addition to intensive Arabic, there’s a good chance you’re a political science or international relations student with some kind of focus in the Middle East, peace studies, conflict resolution, foreign affairs, refugees, or a similar field. Therefore, it’s important to note that just like European countries – and American states, for that matter – each Arab country has its own unique emphases, political considerations, and alliances. Studying abroad in the Middle East – even if you are just studying Arabic language – will inevitably open your eyes to the political landscape of the country, whether it be through the news on TV or the conversations you have with your taxi drivers.
Gulf countries like Oman and the UAE face very different political and economic issues than Jordan, which in turn faces different issues than Morocco and Tunisia. The decision depends on personal interests in the various geopolitics of the region. I chose Jordan because I had taken classes and written several papers on the conflict in Israel and Palestine. Jordan, with its peacekeeping role and status as a home for Syrian and Palestinian refugees, seemed to fit my interests better than countries in the Gulf or in Northern Africa. Do your research on the various countries you are considering – if you have an interest in your country’s politics, you will get a lot more out of a study abroad semester there.
This is a big one for students, particularly on financial aid. When I talk about cost, I’m talking not only about program cost but also about expenses outside of the sticker price for academics – taxi rides, dinners out, attractions, and entertainment.
I can’t speak a whole lot about comparative costs for different countries, but I know that Morocco’s exchange rate is the best for American students, and the UAE isn’t bad either. Personally, Amman is more expensive because the dollar is weaker against the dinar, but my program also gives us a weekly stipend to use for transportation and food. Do your research into your program options, and try to calculate how much you’ll spend. If you have the opportunity to work a remote job, which is what I do, definitely take advantage of the chance to make some cash and save up for some fancy nights out on the town.
This isn’t so much a country-to-country comparison as it is a program-to-program comparison, because many study abroad programs tend to have branches in various Middle Eastern countries.
My goals for the program were to vastly increase my Arabic skills and learn about Jordan’s role in regional conflict. My program, SIT, is exactly what I was looking for. The guest speakers we’ve had in class as well as the intensive Arabic curriculum have ensured that I will meet those goals by the end of the semester.
The most valuable part of SIT, however, is the chance to conduct a month-long independent research project on a topic of your choice. For me, a political science/IS double major with a focus on education policy, that meant the chance to study the education crisis for Syrian refugee children in Amman up close. I’ll be walking out of the program with a 50-page writing sample, experience conducting, analyzing, and presenting my own research, and a solid grounding for my senior thesis and any research endeavors I might want to explore after college. The intensity of the program means that I don’t have a lot of time to travel outside of the country, but that didn’t stop me from planning a trip to Israel and Palestine for after the program ends, and I’ve come to know Amman relatively well in the last few weeks.
For other people who might want a less academically rigorous semester with more travel opportunities, there are other programs with more emphasis on traveling and less on classes. Just make sure you do thorough research into the different options you have – read testimonials, talk to former students, and try to speak to advisors – so that you know that you’ll get the study abroad experience that you want.
My first month in Jordan could not have been more amazing. I’ve met incredible people, learned so much about Amman and myself, and I don’t regret my choice for a single minute. Here’s to two more months of Jordanian culture – all I can say is that I hope they go by slow enough for me to savor every moment.
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