Shalem College
September 6, 2016

Arabic Immersion Without Borders

Arabic Immersion Without Borders
Shalem students building toward fluency in Arabic during a recent summer trip to Jordan. Photo credit: Rotem Bar-Lev

Each July, when final exams are behind them, Shalem’s Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies majors can at last take a breath. Just in time, that is, to get back to work. “If the heart and soul of MEIS is its Arabic studies, the heart and soul of Arabic studies is the intensive summer immersion program,” explains Dr. Martin Kramer, Shalem president and chair of the department. “The emphasis on fluency in Arabic as the key to understanding the region, its religion, and its peoples is part of what sets Shalem apart.” The same might be said of its students’ enthusiasm for taking up the challenge: Building toward fluency was precisely the motivation for a recent four-day trip to Jordan initiated by thirteen Shalem MEIS majors, prior to the start of the immersion program itself.

Alyssa Symon, who together with fellow Shalem sophomore Yonina Cohen envisioned—and then executed—the trip, described it as quest for a “more real picture of the Middle East than is possible to glean from a vantage point in Israel.” Their itinerary reflects that sense of curiosity: lunch with local Bedouins, who discussed the impact of Israeli tourism and of the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement on their lives; a conversation with a Jordanian professor whose field of expertise is the Jewish contribution to Jordanian literature; a visit to the largest mosque in Amman; and a meeting at the Israeli embassy, where students glimpsed an insider’s view of the state of Israeli-Jordanian relations today.

“It was the Middle East in living color,” says Symon, who arranged for a guide—Times of Israel Arab Affairs reporter Elhanan Miller—to accompany students, and enlighten them on Jordanian history, politics, and culture at every stop on the way. “It’s one thing to learn about the people, ideas, beliefs, and customs that populate the region from inside a classroom, and another thing altogether to experience them,” explains Symon. “The goal of the visit to Jordan was to bring that fuller, more nuanced picture of the region back to Shalem, which will hopefully remind us to be attuned to the complexities and contradictions inherent in what we’re studying.”

Lest it seem as though the trip was all study and no fun, the students did manage to sneak in some just-for-interest’s-sake attractions, such as the Nabatean rock carvings in Wadi Rum, the Madaba Greek Orthodox Church (home to a large Byzantine-era map of the Holy Land), and finally, Matam Hashem, the legendary hummus restaurant in the buzzing heart of the Amman shuk.

Cohen, who utilized several existing relationships with Jordanians in order to facilitate the group’s encounters, says: “We went open to the possibility that our assumptions would be overturned. Knowing that reality is usually far more complex than it is represented in the classroom or in the media, we hoped, through this trip, to experience the culture, meet the people, taste the foods, and gain a deeper understanding of Jordanian reality. And that,” she concludes, “is exactly what happened.”