Unlike many Bloomsburg University students who study abroad each year, Madalyn Goss and Robert Nixon found their pathway not through an academic department but through participation in a campus organization. Their first impressions of the countries they visited focused on the differences in culture and climate. By the end of their stays, they had also discovered similarities.
“Even though I expected the difference in women’s clothing,” Goss says of her trip to Saudi Arabia, “it was still startling.”
The sheer amount of diversity and history fascinated Nixon, who visited Lebanon. “There’s a Phoenician port, a Maronite church, and an Ottoman government building just down the street from Roman bathhouses,” he says of Beirut, the capital city.
Nixon attributes his interest in the Middle East to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and his search for answers to the complex question of why someone would fly a jetliner into the World Trade Center. For Goss, the Middle East was a dream destination for travel.
Both wanted to experience the region firsthand, but were stymied by logistics, including the expense. The closest they could come was enrolling in Arabic language classes at BU. There they met Nawal Bonomo, assistant to the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, who introduced them to the Model Arab League (MAL) and encouraged both students to seek out opportunities to study abroad. As a result, Goss, a junior from Mifflintown majoring in political science with a minor in Middle East studies, toured Saudi Arabia for 10 days during the 2013-2014 winter break. Nixon, a senior from Millville majoring in history and French with a minor in Middle East studies, went to Lebanon during summer 2012.
“Learning does not end when the class is over,” says Bonomo, who advises MAL. “When I began teaching Arabic in 2008, I looked for ways to engage students outside the classroom. Model Arab League was the perfect venue to introduce students to the various aspects of the Arab world.”
The MAL, sponsored by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, brings together college and high-school students to participate in discussion and decisions about the countries in the Middle East. The students take on the personas of Arab League delegates, representing nations ranging from Iraq in the eastern Arabian peninsula to Morocco in northern Africa. They discuss important issues, then research and write position papers as actual delegates would do. They also write and pass resolutions – a formal, regimented procedure.
“There are so many myths and misconceptions about the Arab world,” says Bonomo, a native of Lebanon. “It is refreshing to see how students’ views are affected when they represent a country and speak in that country’s voice.”
Goss and Nixon confronted those myths and misconceptions during their visits to the Middle East.
Goss believes Americans’ biggest misconception about the Middle East is that the region’s citizens hate Americans. Her experience proved otherwise. “Everywhere we went, we’d get coffee and dates,” she says of her tour with nine other American students. “One storekeeper even gave us a bag of dates. They want to talk to you, want to get to know you.”
“I think the biggest misconception Americans have is this tendency to see everything as a monolith, that the Middle East is a ‘thing,’ ” Nixon adds. “There are so many countries, languages and cultures. It’s not all one place.” But in the most important ways, it’s not that different from America. “It is people who are trying to get a job, make money, maybe go out in their free time. That makes it more real.”
History and politics in Lebanon
Nixon found the layers of history amazing, especially on a visit to Byblos, which dates to 10,000 B.C. and is believed to be the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world. “There’s a Neolithic village buried under a Phoenician ruin buried under a Greek ruin buried under a Roman ruin and offset from Persian ruins,” he recalls.
Beirut, the largest city in Lebanon, still bears many of the scars of war, he says, and some of the city’s new development uses parts of the ruins, rather than demolishing them and starting anew.
His visit included trips to the border between Israel and Lebanon, some of the rural areas of the country, and some time in the north. “Things are different when you head up into the mountains,” he says. “There are picturesque villages built on the side of mountains, like something out of a storybook. The Bekaa Valley, just 19 miles east of Beirut, was much more arid, and there were people herding goats, but the cities on the coast could have been any city in America.”
Lebanon’s stress on political balance fascinated Nixon. Parliament’s 128 members – 64 each from Christian and Muslim denominations – serve four-year terms. “Parliament has a certain number of seats for each religion, and you must say what religion you are when you vote,” he adds.
Women in Saudi Arabia
During her visit to Saudi Arabia, Goss wore the traditional hijab, a head covering, and the abaya, the black overdress with snaps down the front. The dress itself was hot, she recalls, but the place where the hijab and the abaya met was “really, really hot.” Sometimes she wore the traditional veil, which leaves only a woman’s eyes uncovered. “I kind of liked the veil,” she says. “You feel mysterious and protected because they can’t see your face. Would I like to wear it the rest of my life? No!”
Interested in women’s rights around the globe, Goss was happy to get an inside perspective. She observed that Saudi Arabian women seem to be most concerned with their careers and being equal in the business and political sector, and that the younger generation is determined to close the gender gap.
Only when her group stopped at Al Baik, a fast-food restaurant, did she find being female inconvenient. With four registers on the men’s side of the store and only one on the women’s side, Goss and the other women in her group waited 40 minutes for their food. She found the separation issues to be more between single men and families than between men and women.
Back in the U.S.
Nixon’s trip was sponsored by the Lebanese Renaissance Foundation, which works to rebuild Lebanon’s cultural prestige, bring democracy back to government, and help nongovernmental organizations and private businesses thrive. Goss’s trip was paid for by the Saudi government. In return for the trip, she is asked to share her experiences in articles, blogs or presentations. Both credit their participation in the Model Arab League for giving them the chance to travel to the Middle East.
“The fact that I have this experience on my resume is going to say that I’m committed to working in the Middle East and northern Africa,” Goss says. “It’s also going to say I’ve had a cultural experience other than my own – some basic knowledge of what to expect.” •
Laurie Creasy is a freelance writer and social media professional based in Bloomsburg.