"A Semester in the Arab World"
Ben Goldberg, Class of 2018.
Double major in History and Africana Studies; Minor in Arabic.
This past year I was given an amazing opportunity to study abroad for a semester in the North African nation of Morocco at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane. Being a student of Arabic with a strong interest in the region I was determined to take full advantage of this experience. Before I had even bought my plane ticket, I began planning a post-semester trip across North Africa and the Middle East. The outcome of this planning was a three month long trek that took me to six different Arab countries from Mauritania in the west to Jordan in the east. One thing I was often asked about before, during and after my trip was safety. It was a natural question! After all, four of the countries I visited had active travel warnings and most were still dealing with the aftermath of the Arab Spring in some way or another. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous almost every time I entered a new country, but each time my fears quickly gave way to how kind most people in these nations were. In Morocco I once asked someone for directions to a train station, the man began explaining but then decided to go out of his way and drive me two kilometers to my destination. There was the woman who worked in a bakery in Boqaata, Lebanon, who, when I asked if she had baklava, proceeded to give me one of each variety free of charge. In Tozeur, Tunisia, practically everyone in the city said hello to me and in the evening when everyone was breaking their Ramadan fast I was asked to sit and drink tea by the patrons of virtually every cafe. There was even the time I arrived at the American War Cemetery in Carthage fifteen minutes after it closed and the sole remaining employee, who was about to go home, instead offered to give me a private tour of the grounds. These experiences were just the a few of the moments of kindness that marked my journey at every turn to the point where I could honestly turn this entire piece into a list of them. One of the best aspects of the trip was being able to experience Arab culture and witnessing life in the region first hand. Walking in the streets of Cairo or Alexandria, you begin to notice little aspects of everyday life such as the way people in lofty apartments lower woven baskets to street level to receive or deliver items. In Cairo, I witnessed Coptic pilgrims kissing the hands of clergy and performing religious rites and ended up learning a lot more about the faith. In Lebanon, I saw how deeply ingrained religion and politics were with geography. If you're at any point unsure what the predominant religion of the area is in most of the country, just look around and see the massive posters of influential Shi'a Muslim clergy next to posters of deceased Hezbollah fighters or the statues of the Virgin Mary and icons of Saint Charbel that grace every Christian town alongside banners supporting Samir Geagea. In Beirut, I was able to visit the Armenian neighborhood of Borj Hammoud which was full of Armenian flags, newspapers and even record stores. I also visited some of the city's world class Arab art galleries. I was able to experience Ramadan in Morocco where in the evenings, I witnessed the normally bustling streets of downtown Casablanca become entirely devoid of human life, which coupled alongside the haunting Ramadan sirens and the Islamic call to prayer (and occasionally cannons as well) gave an eerily post-apocalyptic vibe. Likewise in Tunis, I gathered in restaurants with locals at dinnertime where we were seated and eagerly awaited the television countdown to iftar time. Being able to use the Arabic language was also eye opening. On a personal level, I found that my degree of fluency varied wildly. There were times where I could have an hour long conversation and understand basically everything that had been said and times when I spoke to someone for five minutes and didn't understand anything. Despite this I really enjoyed watching people's expressions become both bewildered and ecstatic when I started speaking the language with them and I learned a lot about the different dialects. For example I learned that the phrase "thank you very much" changes from "shukran bezzaf" in Morocco to "shukran bachara" in Tunisia, to "shukran gazeeran" in Egypt and "shukran jazeeran" in Lebanon and Jordan. I also had the opportunity to learn little bits of non-Arab languages from the region such the indigenous Tamazight language of Morocco, the Siwi language of Siwa oasis in Egypt and Kenzi, a Nubian language spoken in Southern Egypt. Anyone who's been to the region knows that one of the highlights is the food and whether I was trying camel meat couscous in Mauritania or eating homemade falafel in Jordan I rarely tired of it. I learned a lot about cuisines that I'd never had a chance to sample before, particularly in places like Tunisia where I fell in love with the ubiquitous appetizer brik, a kind of triangular shaped fried pastry bread usually stuffed with some combination of eggs, tuna and harissa. In Mauritania, I was able to try a number of West African dishes such as chebujin,a spicy mix of fish and rice and served in a communal bowl to be eaten by hand. Morocco has an amazing selection of dishes including the pancake-like bread msemen, which goes really well with honey or fruit jam. However my personal favorite Moroccan dish is pastilla, a type of flaky pastry bread coated with powdered sugar and usually stuffed with a mix of either chicken or (traditionally) pigeon and a variety of spices to achieve a delicious mix of sweet and savory. Further east there was the standard Middle Eastern fare of freshly fried falafel with hummus and all the shawarma you could handle as well as more filling meals such as the Jordanian national dish, mansaf, cooked lamb marinated in yogurt and served with rice. Naturally the region is also steeped in thousands of years of history. In Mauritania, I visited the medieval Saharan oasis cities of Ouadane and Chinguetti and saw ancient Saharan cave paintings hidden in mountains in the desert. In Lebanon, I toured Ottoman houses and soap factories in the ancient port city of Sidon. In Tunisia I visited the massive Roman colosseum at El Jem and visited one of the most important mosques in the region at Kairouan. In Tunis, my Airbnb was just down the street from the mosque where the renowned medieval scholar Ibn Khaldoun studied. In Egypt, I wandered all over the twisting streets of Islamic Cairo visiting world famous sites such as Al Azhar mosque and almost by accident entering the tiny Mustafa Kamil museum where the surprised and enthusiastic staff gave me tour and brief biography of the eponymous Egyptian nationalist. Along with a guide I descended down a Roman era water tunnel that had been dug underneath the eventual site of the crusader era Shoubak Castle in Jordan and ambled into churches and Ottoman war cemeteries in the provincial town of As-Salt. The sheer diversity of the historical sites in the region is truly mind boggling, in Cairo alone you can find Byzantine era churches, pharaonic and roman ruins, medieval schools and fountains alongside grand Ottoman and colonial era mansions. Although I loved visiting beautiful mosques and churches, as a Jew I was particularly interested in finding traces of the once massive Jewish communities in the Arab world. In Egypt, where there are today fewer than fifty Jews left, I visited the ancient Ben Ezra synagogue of Cairo where the famous Cairo genizah was discovered and while I couldn't go inside I was also able to admire the impressive neo-pharaonic facade of the Sha'ar Hashamayim synagogue of downtown Cairo. In Alexandria, home to just seventeen Jews today, I managed to get inside the beautiful Eliyahu HaNavi synagogue which is currently undergoing repairs from damage caused by a collapsed tree. Inside I found chairs inscribed with the names of the congregation members who sat there. The surnames belonged to Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrahim from all over the Mediterranean world a testament to the immense diversity that once flourished in the city. I also managed to find the city's Jewish cemetery and was let inside by the caretaker, a middle aged Muslim man who lived on the grounds with his children. He told me how his family had been watching over the tombstones for three generations and how his grandfather had been great friends with the city's Jews. Morocco and Tunisia have the second and third largest Jewish communities in the Arab world with approximately 2,500 and 1,500 respectively. In Tunisia the majority of the Jewish community live on the island of Djerba where they openly wear kippot and worship at one of the world's oldest continually functioning synagogues, El Ghriba. I was also shocked to find the city of Sousse still has twenty practicing Jews. I met three of them by sheer chance and we conversed about topics such as their relationship with Israel or what the American Jewish community was like. Unlike other countries in the region Morocco hasn't shied away from its Jewish heritage, indeed the Arab world's only Jewish museum can be found in Casablanca. During my semester there I was able to attend Shabbat services at the last operating synagogue in Fez, a city with two hundred remaining Jews, as well enjoy a passover seder with a Jewish couple and their visiting relatives from Israel, an experience I'll never forget. Indeed most cities in Morocco were home to mellahs or Jewish quarters and many such as those in Fez and Essaouira still have synagogues that have been restored by government initiatives in recent years. Indeed in a few mellahs you can still find older wooden door frames with holes left from where mezuzot used to be. None of this is to say that I was at any point sheltered from the political realities of the region. Indeed while I was in Egypt, two German tourists were stabbed to death at a beach in Hurghada. In Tunis, I visited the famous Bardo museum which in 2015 was the site of a terrorist attack that killed twenty one people, the aftermath of which was still visible in the form of bullet marks in several galleries. Military checkpoints were common in Lebanon, Mauritania, parts of Egypt and the Western Sahara region which is disputed between Morocco and the local Sahrawi people. Everywhere I went I was told of economic troubles and how there weren't any good jobs available, people who majored in engineering at university were forced to sell photographs to tourists. This situation was visibly exacerbated by the massive drop in tourist numbers since the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, I saw rows of five-star resorts sitting abandoned and decrepit and met former employees who were now scrounging jobs as fishermen or street vendors. Everywhere I went young people told me how they wanted to go to Europe to study or find a job and that they couldn't envision a real future for themselves in their own countries unless things changed. All this being said, most people were incredibly proud of their culture and were usually conscious of how they were perceived by or portrayed in Western media and culture. Many went out of their way to tell me how much they loved people of different faiths and backgrounds as well as American people and culture (if not necessarily the American government). Indeed I received a ton of queries and opinions about Donald Trump from the bemused to the hurt and even occasionally the supportive such as in certain Christian parts of Lebanon. Overall I found North Africa and the Middle East to be incredibly welcoming, stunningly diverse and beautiful, and would absolutely recommend more people give it a chance.