Afghan Grill

Discovering my degree in the desert

At night, Wadi Rum seems to stretch on forever. The hard, flat sand leads into the soft ripples, and as you star gaze, you stumble at the texture change. I walked – flashlight in hand – calling out occasionally to figure out who was there. It was as if we were each walking alone: our footsteps were silent and the silence of the valley echoed for miles.

And then I saw it. There was something in the distance near the road. A tiny white speck hovering mysteriously above the street.

“I think it’s moving,” someone said.

We paused, all of us fixated on this strange object.

“It’s rising,” another added.

And as it rose, we all had the same sudden realization: we were witnessing a moonrise.

Camera flashes proceeded to go off, but none of us – myself included – were able to fully capture the spectacle.

They say the moon never really gets bigger at the horizon. Some swear the growth is real – as many of us may have that night – but scientists say it’s merely an illusion.

When I decided to study abroad in Amman, Jordan, I did so for a variety of reasons. I had initially signed up to study at the American University in Cairo. As a journalism student double minoring in international studies and Arabic, the prospect of witnessing the Arab Spring firsthand at a university with a strong media program seemed almost instinctual. Days before I bought my ticket, however, the program was cancelled. None of the other ones offered media classes, but I went anyway. What I didn’t realize then, though was how very related to my degree this experience would be.

Perhaps the underlining reason college students study abroad is to gain new perspectives. It’s a chance to escape the familiar and assimilate all over again, all the while accumulating memories. But studying abroad is not necessarily a choice tied with career pursuits. Some people just want to get a way from what might have become too routine or demanding. Many of the students in Amman were there because it was an exciting time to be in the region, and many were IR majors.

For me, the quest for understanding went beyond that.

Misunderstanding is rampant when it comes to the Middle East. History, Hollywood and hooligans – all have contributed to this contrived view of the region as either a hotbed for unabashed violence or a seductive mystique complete with belly dancers, pyramids, and exotic concoctions.

Like anything, perceptions about a country, a people and a region must be taken with a pinch of salt. For all of its messy uprisings and gender inequality, there’s something to be learned from this often-misconstrued area.

As I grappled for answers to my many questions in search of evidence to counter what I knew to be distortions of reality, I was left with more questions than answers.

Why is the Middle East a perpetual array of contradictions, and is the staidness just politics and religion at play or is it a testament to something much more complex?

With Facebook and Twitter documenting our every move and time management more key than ever, we often tend to simplify the information we receive and rarely take the time to actually digest it.

Arabs are revolting. More protests in Tahrir. More bloodshed in Syria.

There’s a saying in Jordan that goes something like this: IBM. And no, I’m not referring to the computer corporation. It stands for insha’Allah, bukra and mumkin: God willing, tomorrow and possibly. Such is jokingly the way things get done there.

In Jordan, it is not uncommon to get in a taxi and hear – upon telling the driver your destination – “insha’Allah.”

More often than not, you’ll get where you need to be – mumkin with a coffee or gas stop along the way. But insha’Allah isn’t easily defined. It can mean no, it can mean yes, and it can mean something somewhere in between.

At AU, stress is perpetual. Class, extracurriculars, internships and networking – it’s all about applying yourself and being successful, so that upon graduating maybe you’ll be equipped enough to outdo even the most depressing job market. Abroad, life was different. By not constantly checking to make sure I was successfully using my degree, I was succeeding in actually using it.

From the gas trucks that sounded like ice cream trucks to the badly censored films and the sexual harassment, I found myself questioning everything.

One year removed from that night in Wadi Rum, and my experiences – both rewarding and trying – are in perspective, an aspiring foreign correspondent’s perspective.

Just look to the local falafel shop seller in Amman – falafel man as we endearingly call him – or the sophisticated beauty of Petra, I tell myself, and you’ll see that it’s not quite so simple to make a judgment, to brand society guilty or to say that society will never change or has changed instantly.

The same goes for us college students forever stressing about what we want to be and what we’re supposed to do, and never quite knowing what’s right or wrong.

Like the moonrise, it’s the unpredictability that both frightens and captivates us. We watch it rise up until it’s so far up that it eludes us. Some are more successful and capture it midway, but even photographs are only snapshots of reality.

The moon rises up into a global chorus of “Insha’Allah, bukra, and mumkin.” And even as a graduating senior, I’m content with that.

After all, I discovered my degree in the depths of the desert.

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