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Cultural Encounters in the Middle East

Last summer, Dr. Kim Jarvis, associate professor of history at Doane College, was one of 14 faculty members from colleges and universities around the United States chosen to participate in the 2009 Fulbright-Hays Seminar Abroad Program called "Middle East Neighbors: Jordan and Oman." She met a broad section of residents, from government officials to entrepreneurs. Through those interactions, she gained insight on topics such as Islam and its role in society, economic and educational reform, environmental preservation and international relations. In the speech below, she reflects on the difference between her first and second trip to the Middle East, influenced by changing U.S. foreign policy issues.

Sipping Pepsi, Roasting Goat: Cultural Encounters in the Middle East

Kim in the Middle EastThis particular Fulbright-Hays Seminar was designed to allow faculty members whose major area of study is not the Middle East the opportunity to learn more about these two countries and to develop curriculum projects to be used after the trip had ended.  Over the course of five weeks my group met with scholars, judges, legislators, business people, and many others through a series of seminars and visits to embassies, government ministries, and private organizations. 

We also had the opportunity to learn colloquial Arabic.  Since very few of us spoke the language, our Arabic classes proved to be among the more amusing parts of our trip.  The high point of my time in Arabic class was when I remembered the Arabic word for chicken, which is dejaj. 

I knew dejaj  -- I had learned it on my 2007 trip to Jordan, for a seminar sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges, the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, and the U.S. Department of State.  At that time, tensions between the Bush administration and governments in the region were a subject of conversation with those we met.  During my recent trip, however, many of the people with whom we spoke reflected favorably on the speech that President Obama gave in Cairo in June.  In Oman, a member of the Majlis Ashura, Oman's parliament, who had, by the way, visited Lincoln some years ago, told me that the speech the President gave was well-received in the Arab world and was viewed as a hopeful beginning of a new relationship between Arabs and Americans.

A former member of Jordan's parliament also spoke to us.  When I had visited Jordan previously, this same senator had noted her disillusionment with the United States, telling us that although she has once seen America as the conscience of the world, by January 2007 she no longer believed that.  This time, her words were far more optimistic.  But, like others we met, she recognized that actions speak louder that words, and many in the Arab world are waiting to see what the United States does next.

The river.While a good part of my trip focused on lectures, there were other cultural experiences that were just as important to my understanding of Oman and Jordan.  Oman is a beautiful country, almost surprisingly so.  Located on the southeastern and southern coast of the Arabian peninsula, Oman has impressive mountain ranges, banana and date plantations, deserts, and a dramatic cliff-lined seashore.  When we arrived at the Arabian Sea in southern Oman in late June, the monsoon season was just beginning.  In Oman, this means a constant mist and very large waves.  I stood on the shore of the Arabian Sea and was almost pulled in by a very strong undertow. 

The Omani people were very welcoming.  Our guide in Oman, a Jordanian woman named Dina, had married an Omani named Jamal.  Jamal, it turned out, was the poster boy for Petroleum Development Oman, Oman's oil company.  We saw Jamal's picture on an advertisement for PDO at a convenience stop on one of our trips away from the coast.  Jamal and Dina delighted in showing off their country to us. Dina, unlike many young Omani women, does not wear hijab, the veil, or an abaya, the long black robe which Gulf women wear.  She spent several hours telling us about her experiences as a woman in a moderately conservative Muslim country, the opportunities that she had, and her decision to wait to wear the abaya and hijab until she was a little older.  Her insight allowed us to see beyond the sometimes inaccessible media images of Muslim women swathed in black veils.

In Jordan, too, we met kind and generous people.  One of the best moments of the trip for me was when I walked into our first Arabic class in Jordan and was delighted to see Khulood, the Arabic teacher who had been a part of my first trip to Jordan.

Her willingness to share with us her views on Islam, her patience and her sweetness and kindness made a lasting impression on all of us.  For us, Khulood was Jordan.

The fire pit.While in Jordan, we saw some of the ancient and Biblical sites for which the country is known. But if there were a single defining moment of my trip, one that offered an authentic experience, it had to be, for lack of a better word, the picnic in Oman.  On our last day in the southern part of Oman, we took four-wheel drive vehicles to visit the Jebalies, the people who lived in the mountains. When we arrived, the mountains were covered in the monsoon mist.  A fire pit had already been prepared to cook our lunch of...goat.  Yes, an entire goat, very fresh and in pieces, was on a tarp, waiting to be put on the hot rocks to be roasted.  As I looked a bit closer I saw that my lunch was smiling at me - the goat's head was at the top of the fire pit.  Let me tell you, it was something to see.  Fortunately for all of us who had to spend several hours on a plane the next day, another goat had been prepared and cooked ahead of time for us.  This, along with mashkhoul, a wonderful fragrant white rice, fruit, and, of course, Pepsi, was our picnic lunch.  The day ended with a discussion with the local sheikh or tribal leader and an impromptu song and dance performance by the men who were roasting the goat.

The goat with a side of Pepsi was not the only incongruous east-west experience I had during my trip.  But what I left both Oman and Jordan with was the impression that in spite of the religious, political, and cultural differences between these countries and the United States, there was far more that we had in common than not.  We enjoyed talking about our jobs and families and asking questions about our differing perspectives.  We made friends with our hotel staff in Jordan and somewhere out there is a picture of me dancing in a circle with my colleagues, local villagers, and our Jordanian guides.

Kim with group in the Middle East.It is because of these experiences and these people that I met, that I can tell you and my students here at Doane, some of whom will travel with me to Egypt in January, that we have friends in a part of the world that is sometimes portrayed as sinister and unsettled, that there are people there who laugh about the same things that we do, and who are concerned about the same things that we are concerned about.

And it is these experiences that allow me to hope that relations between the United States and the Arab world will continue to improve.