My graduate program offered a study abroad opportunity in Lebanon and I knew that I needed to have a high level of Arabic to graduate, so I decided the best way to reach that level was to live in the Middle East again. I grew up abroad when I was a teenager and I developed a travel bug at a young age to see the world, and study abroad is a great way to go to school and travel at the same time.
Why did you choose the American University of Beirut?
I had wanted to go to Lebanon for a long time after hearing friends from Jordan tell me about how exciting it is to be in Beirut, specifically. I wasn’t able to travel there while I was abroad, so I thought that a full five months was a better option than only a weekend.
I was also interesting in learning the local dialect since I kept hearing about how it was one of the easier dialects to learn because of how close it is to Modern Standard Arabic.
What was your favorite part about Beirut?
I loved the history of Beirut. I’m really interested by the history of the city because it’s something that doesn’t really exist in the United States. Right in the middle of downtown there’s a mosque that was built in 2008, right next to old Roman baths, and a clock tower from the 1930's.
Beirut has a way of being very modern but also steeped in history at the same time. Beirut Souks is a perfect example of Beirut embracing its history. You can come out of the Nike store and see ancient architecture and old buildings with bullet holes in them from the civil war.
What made your experience at the American University of Beirut unique?
My previous experience limited me to only classes with other American students, but at AUB my classes were also filled with local students.
Being exposed to different perspectives on Middle East politics and affairs was the most valuable part of my time in the classroom.
Outside of the classroom, hearing the stories of the mentors and other students and their families was incredibly interesting. One of the students told me the story of how her father had escaped the civil war by taking a different name and hiding in a nearby village until the fighting stopped. These are the kind of stories I wasn’t exposed to in the United States.
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
University staff members were always there to help with anything I needed. At any given time, I was only a phone call or an office visit from any support staff. They were more than happy to guide me through the university procedures to register for classes, set up my university email, and everything else.
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I wish I would have joined some of the clubs that AUB offers. There’s a really wide selection and it would have helped introduce me to more AUB students and integrated me into the community more fully.
Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
Most days, I would wake up and go to the AUB gym. It’s a nice gym and was fairly close to my apartment at the time so I would go there most mornings. After the gym, I’d head home and hang out with my roommates before going to the library to do work. I’d grab lunch with some friends at Café Younes or another restaurant close by and head home for the night. If it was the weekend then I’d make plans to meet up with friends at a local bar or plan out a weekend trip somewhere in Lebanon or another country nearby.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
I loved travelling around the country with my friends. We took buses and taxis to get outside Beirut into the other cities in the north and the mountains. Once, I hired a cab for the day with some friends and we drove to the Jeita Caves, Byblos, the Harissa, and Batroun. I even managed to make it over to Cyprus for the weekend.
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
I managed to find an apartment close by the university with two roommates. As a graduate student, I would have been low on the list to receive accommodation with the university so I went through Airbnb to find an apartment. Luckily, I found a relatively cheap room close to Hamra and the university with two great roommates. I had a room to myself and the building had heating/AC and a generator that was really quick to switch on during power outages. I also had my own balcony with a view of the small courtyard just outside the apartment.
What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?
You don’t have to know Arabic or even really study the Middle East to enjoy yourself at AUB or in the city. Beirutis and Lebanese people are supremely accommodating and love to talk with foreigners about world affairs, music, food, or basically anything at all. I was sitting in a café with a friend talking about books and we got in a conversation with a complete stranger about Lebanese literature. All you need to appreciate this city and program is an open mind and an adventurous spirit.
Now that you're home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?
I feel far more confident in my Arabic skills than I did before my time at AUB. In the US, I’m really limited to practicing in the classroom or with one or two people, but in Lebanon I got to practice every day. I forced myself to use Arabic as often as I could to put me out of my comfort zone and really improve my abilities. It’s also one of the best ways to get to know people.
Lebanese people are immediately more accommodating when they find out that you are committed to learning Arabic and speaking with them in their language. Sometimes, I had to switch between Arabic, English, and French all in the same conversation. It was great practice not only for my Arabic but also for getting to know more people.
Would you recommend AUB to others? Why?
I would definitely recommend studying at AUB. Even if you don’t have any prior experience with the Middle East or Arabic, getting out of your comfort zone is absolutely essential for traveling and Beirut is the perfect destination for that. If you want to immerse yourself in the culture, you can, but there are also small ways to make yourself feel not too far from home. It doesn’t hurt that they make awesome burgers in Beirut either.
Jackson Doering is a graduate student at the George Washington University in the middle east studies program. He grew up in Portland and Amsterdam, before settling in Washington D.C. He is interested in Middle East political movements, identity formation, and the politics of militias. He has previously studied in Amman, Jordan, and earned his undergraduate degrees from Indiana University Bloomington.