Popular television shows and films frequently paint an image of the Middle East that is inaccurate, incomplete, and misrepresentative. News stories often fail to include context about the region. There are many local and foreign journalists doing excellent, rigorous work in the Middle East, and yet, sometimes these stories don’t circulate widely. Though it is our responsibility to research, weigh, and consider what we consume in the media, in an age of limitless and nonstop information, it can be a challenge to sift through the white noise. As a result, the idea of studying in the Middle East may be unclear, conjuring up reinforced stereotypical images, and raising questions about risk, safety, and community.
For students keen to challenge and investigate the status quo, studying in the Middle East provides a special opportunity for participants to gain insight into day-to-day living. It is a chance to explore how the Middle East expresses itself through culture, conversation, education, cuisine, business, religion, fashion, research, nightlife, art, and politics.
French writer Rene Daumal said, “You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
Prospective study abroad students are invited to ascend, to challenge what they think and know, and to dive into an astonishingly eye-opening region of the world by studying abroad in the Middle East. But first, they must uncover the truth behind the most common misconceptions about the Middle East.
Are these misconceptions about the Middle East true or false?
1. International students should be nervous to study abroad in the Middle East.
Are Americans nervous about studying in the Middle East? Not at the American University of Beirut (AUB). In January 2018, AUB will welcome approximately 22 U.S. study abroad students, its largest U.S. visiting cohort in the past five years.
Students from North America journey to the Middle East for many reasons, including, but not limited to, studying Arabic, public health, nursing, political science, medicine, and public policy. They wish to open a door and gain a deeper understanding of a region of the world, where only 1.9% of U.S. students study. Contrary to perceived fears about study abroad, especially in the Middle East, many North American undergraduates who study in the Middle East often return for graduate studies. After experiencing it for themselves, they see the benefit of returning to diverse and inclusive student bodies in the Middle East.
Mike Avanzato is a UMASS Amherst graduate now obtaining his master's degree in public policy and international affairs at the American University of Beirut (AUB). His classmates hail from over 75 countries, including Italy, Yemen, Denmark, Sierra Leone, France, and Jordan. Mike finds it “...shocking to watch foreign media sources discuss clouds of war hanging over the country, while everyone here remains quite calm.” He went on to say, “Though some in the foreign press seem to enjoy imagining that the Civil War never ended, nothing could be further from the truth. Traveling across Beirut, to Tyre in the far south, to Baalbek in the east, or Tripoli in the north, I never felt more danger than when I was living in Massachusetts or Rhode Island. To be fair, I am not sure if I am more likely to be hit by a reckless driver in Beirut or Boston, but that assuredly is the greatest danger.”
“In order to do things that otherwise would be completely denied to you,” astronaut Chris Hadfield says in his TED talk, you must investigate “the difference between perceived danger and actual danger,” and question “where’s the real risk, what is the real thing that you should be afraid of?”
How can students drawn to schools in the Arab region differentiate between perceived and real danger, and know how to evaluate a travel warning? Students who choose the Middle East as a study abroad destination because it matches their academic needs and individual aspirations must be prepared and oriented for their new environment. For example, the Office of International Programs (OIP) at AUB, along with other universities in the region, welcome students into a supportive and accessible community with an emphasis on safety and integration. OIP equips students with the knowledge to navigate Beirut and Lebanon successfully, covering items like local “do’s and don’ts,” Lebanese law, transportation and traffic safety, and what to do in an emergency. International students are also paired up with OIP mentors who guide them throughout the semester, and facilitate cultural trips around the country.
2. The Middle East is geographically and culturally homogenous.
Is there diversity in the Middle East? Yes! The ethnic, religious, geographical, and cultural diversity that exists within each country of the Middle East is astounding. And, international students value this multiplicity, as it provides various perspectives and realities to learn about and from while studying in the Middle East.
In the words of AUB alumnus and former OIP mentor Mikhael Monsef, “There seems to be a misconception that there is very little diversity in the Middle East and that everyone shares the same beliefs and faith. Countries in the Middle East have a rich diversity of religious and ethnic groups living side by side. Not everybody belongs to the same heritage and this contributes to the interesting mix in the society that is awaiting your discovery.”
The region’s geographic diversity extends beyond camels and deserts. Oman is known for its stunning beaches, and Jordan for its winding wadis. In Lebanon, locals and foreigners alike enjoy skiing in Faraya, hiking in the Cedar forests, and biking along and swimming in the Mediterranean coast.
As for cultural diversity, the differences that exist in Middle Eastern regional norms encourages international students to bear witness to challenges and opportunities that are universal, but also unique to the region. What are the questions that can be asked about countries that absorb refugees at a rate disproportionate to countries that are objectively better off? How does the Middle East relate and respond to its environment, to its food production, to its public infrastructure? Students who delve into these implications can learn and try to make a difference. The challenges and strengths of each Middle Eastern country can then be compared with students’ home countries, where students can apply their learning. This is where civic engagement begins.
3. There is a strict dress code for women in the Middle East.
This is true in some places, but not in others. Consider AUB alumna Razan Ghalayini’s unexpected viewpoint: “When I decided that I wanted to cover my head and wear the Hijab, my family refused. The hijab can be seen as oppressive, and the irony is that while this tends to be a Western view, Westerners are often surprised to learn that pressure NOT to wear the hijab is prevalent in Lebanon. My family worried it would hurt my career, as some Lebanese companies require women to forgo their head covering. As an act of defiance, some women therefore choose to wear the Hijab.”
Are some women required to wear it in the Middle East? Yes. Do some women feel pressure to? Of course. Gender equality is still a work in progress all around the globe, and the Middle East is not unique in the sense that law enforcement, religion, tradition, family, education, and media shape cultural norms.
Razan added, “I don’t think it is widely understood though, that many women choose to wear the hijab. The hijab is a physical and symbolic way to tell the world that we want you to see beyond our outer appearance. We want you to see our intelligence, personality, and inner beauty. We challenge you to look beyond the surface and see our depth.”
Razan’s message is an invitation to explore the questions: How you know what you know? What known and unknown agents of socialization have shaped your worldview? What, So what, and What now? Studying in Lebanon empowers women and men with tools to navigate thorny and complex situations, because there will be no avoiding them. This intellectual and emotional rigor equips students to learn how to respond, and not react.
MORE READING: How to Pack for a Multi-Cultural Study Abroad Experience
Challenge the misconceptions → Study Abroad in the Middle East!
If the thought of studying abroad in the Middle East inspires you, learn more by reading stories and testimonies that illuminate the Middle East (but are not widely circulated in the West).
Consider Werner Herzog’s film Lessons of Darkness, an exploration of the fires that laid waste to post-Gulf War Kuwait. Dig up articles and books by the late journalist Anthony Shadid, known for his innate curiosity and peerless work in the Middle East. For creative nonfiction, look no further than Nietzche’s Camel Must Die, written by AUB alumna Rewa Zeinati. The verve and pluck of the band Mashrou’ Leila resonates in their sold out concerts, with lyrics and energy that speak to regional concerns. Meanwhile, in response to community interest, Beirut-based calligraffiti artist Yazan Halwani paints murals of revered local and regional cultural icons.
Most importantly, seek out those students who have gone before you. Ask questions, listen, engage. There are thousands of students whose lives have been enriched by studying abroad, in the Middle East and specifically in Lebanon too. There’s no substitute for being in the region, so you’re invited to discover the Middle East, far beyond the misconceptions.
This article was sponsored by American University of Beirut and written in collaboration with various alumni students. Home to 8,000 students from around the globe, AUB opens the door to a transformative educational experience, offering more than 120 programs leading to bachelor's, master's, MD, and PhD degrees. In 2016, AUB celebrated its’ 150th year as a pioneer and leader of education in the Middle East.