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Sunday, July 8, 2012

An Article

Before James, Kelly, and I left BYU in June, a student from the media department interviewed us regarding the scholarships we were awarded to study out here in Morocco.   Following is the article they concocted from our interviews, which I thought some of you might enjoy reading.  Just to be clear, I've attached the picture from the BYU homepage to prove that I really am famous now.


Students traverse the globe to learn languages that most Americans don’t

Flying from Moscow to Moscow isn’t your typical itinerary – but senior Elizabeth Nielsen did just that, traveling from her Idaho hometown to Russia’s illustrious capital, a city Nielsen has been itching to see ever since watching spy movies as a young girl.
She’s not going just to sightsee, though. She’ll be dunked head-first into the Russian culture for two months, and her main objective is to become fluent in the Russian language.
“My ultimate career goal is to use Russian in linguistics field work,” said Nielsen, who’s studying linguistics and a minor in Russian. “It’s not just a party trick, but an extremely useful skill. Plus I love learning about languages even more than I love speaking them.”
The best part? The trip is completely paid for. Nielsen and four other BYU students were selected for the U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program to study across the globe this summer. Senior Alex Williams took his soccer cleats and harmonica to Tajikistan to study Persian, while Kelly Danforth, Robert Bonn and James Juchau are enjoying the Moroccan coastline while learning Arabic.
The CLS program is a U.S. government effort to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering critical foreign languages. The program accepted only 11 percent of its 5,200 student applicants this year. Nielsen doesn’t think she earned the attention of the CLS program on merit alone.
“I’m an investment,” she said. “I have a story and a goal and every intention of making them come true. I think my determination may have sealed the deal for my application.”
It’s perhaps not that surprising that several BYU students would snag such scholarships. BYU teaches more students at the intermediate and advanced levels in more languages than any other university in the country. Sixty-one languages are taught on a regular basis with a course enrollment rate of 32 percent (significantly higher than the national average of 9 percent). Overall, BYU students speak 111 languages.
Additionally, BYU offers a university-wide, competency-based language certificate program – the only one in the nation. Last year, 200 students in more than 60 majors earned the certificate to document their proficiency in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
Other students go straight for the language degree. For instance, Kelly Danforth recently graduated with a degree in Middle Eastern Studies. Her studies became her passion, and from her ventures to the Middle East, she has learned most how language and culture go hand-in-hand.
“Arabs especially love their language,” she said. “It’s sacred to them. You can’t truly understand their culture until you understand their language.”
After this summer’s adventures, Danforth hopes to utilize her passion for language and culture by joining the Foreign Service, working to keep the peace between countries and governments.
Robert Bonn from Henderson, Nevada is excited to trek to Morocco this summer, but it’s not the first time he’s made such a voyage, having already traveled twice to the Middle East with his friend and fellow CLS recipient James Juchau. Bonn is double majoring in Middle East studies and Arabic, while Juchau is double majoring in economics and Arabic.
“Whenever you come in contact with different cultures, your eyes open to all there is to see in the world,” said Juchau, who is most interested in the economic development of the Middle East. “It broadens your perspective on life and ways of thinking. Every time I go, I learn a lot about myself.”
Bonn agrees, adding that he gained a love of culture and sense of adventure through a childhood game he used to play with his dad.
“We had a map on the wall, he’d point to a country, and I had to say what it was,” Bonn said. “The mysteries of the world really built my interest in geography, culture and just everything about those different places.”
The CLS program offers an opportunity to explore such mysteries. The seven- to 10-week, fully-funded, group-based intensive language and culture immersion program takes students to countries all over the world. Students participate in classroom study for five hours a day but are then free to enjoy in-country excursions, community service, or walks downtown.
From this kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience, Bonn hopes to advance his Arabic and acquire a “good sense of the Moroccan culture,” including developing friendships with the native people.
“The best part about traveling is the people you meet,” Bonn said. “I’ve made some really great friendships abroad.”
He’s not all business though. Bonn will “definitely bring home some Aladdin shoes,” and on his down time, he has plans for a camel caravan through the Erg Chebbi with native Moroccan Berbers.
During the same summer months, senior Alex Williams will perfect his Persian language skill by staying in Tajikistan, a country bordering northern Afghanistan. Williams began learning Persian (also known as Farsi) while serving an LDS mission in India for two years. He has also taught himself Hindi and Urdu, languages spoken in India and Pakistan, respectively.
Williams loves the Persian language to the point of writing his own poetry and calligraphy in Persian.
“I love the language most for the people who speak it,” he said. “They’re so welcoming and loving that I love being able to communicate with them. It’s almost as if they accept me as one of them because I’m showing effort to connect with them.”
Williams’ passion for making such connections led him to study international relations in hopes of landing a job overseas in government, translation, or international business. The preparation, however, has not been easy. Middle Eastern languages such as Persian are often considered the hardest to learn.
“The difficulties are more than worth it,” Williams says. “Through learning languages, I’ve had many opportunities to learn about who people really are and to tell the rest of the world. It’s impossible to learn the same things through English alone.”
Williams’ fondness for travel doesn’t overpower his other passions. A music lover, Williams will bring his harmonica to Tajikistan, where he also plans to purchase a Persian drum set and a three-stringed guitar-like instrument called a tar. In addition, his soccer cleats are likely to tag along so he can join in on local games—though the competition is likely to be rough.
“They really love their soccer,” Williams admits. “The main thing, though, is I’m just excited to see that part of the world again and make new friends. It’s remarkable that I get to do something most people never have the chance to do.”
The five scholarship recipients are participating in the CLS program from June 19 to August 22, with all CLS students from across the United States first meeting for orientation in Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Welcome!  I’m once again sending a transmission to any person interested in my experiences and impressions abroad.  This summer, my studies have taken me to Tangier, Morocco where I’m engaged in a two-month Arabic/cultural immersion program operated and funded by the U.S. Department of State.  The Critical Language Scholarship, as it’s called, aims to increase the number of Americans who have mastered languages deemed critical to American interests.  As someone striving to become an expert in international relations, politics, and development, with particular emphasis on the Middle East, studying here will continue the eternal process of honing my formal Arabic language skills, expose me to a new dialect, and acquaint me with North African culture and issues.   I hope to eventually do some good in the world with this kind of knowledge.  Besides all of that, I get to see some beautiful country and make new friends both Moroccan and American.

And let me tell you, Tangier is beautiful.  Perched nine miles away from southern Spain on the Strait of Gibraltar, Tangier is a Mediterranean paradise.  Tangier is complete with swaying palm trees and a mild climate that has attracted explorers and conquerors for millennia.  Its inner medina (Arabic for “city” connoting a traditional Middle Eastern layout) is bemazed with twisting alleys, colorful souqs, and those smells that spark immediate recall of the Arab world and its cuisine.  The romantic/mystical atmosphere of the city is probably what attracted a load of beatnik writers and artists in the 1950s, several of which stayed until their deaths.

The culture of Morocco is equally as nuanced and fascinating as its urban and natural landscape.  Morocco is termed an Arab country (even though its population is a mix of Berber and Arab ethnic components), yet the culture in Tangier differs markedly from that of Jordan.  The atmosphere here is much more European.  The legacy of both the French and Spanish colonists in Morocco has left a more potent legacy here than the legacy left by colonists in other parts of the region.  Most people in the cities speak French or even Spanish in addition to the local dialect of Arabic.  Although a larger portion of the population is Muslim (99%), fewer people are as conservative as those from the traditional Middle East.   When compared with Jordan, fewer women where the hijab (hair covering) in Morocco, and the weekend is N*Sync with the Western Saturday/Sunday weekend.  The most noticeable cultural difference is the nearly Western level of interaction that exists between the sexes.  Generally speaking, Moroccan youth interact openly one with another, a phenomenon usually restricted to wealthy, cosmopolitan Jordanian families.  Arranged and consanguineous marriages appear to be much less common in Morocco, and dating before marriage is more acceptable.

I really enjoy getting deep into the atmosphere of the places I visit.  Befriending locals is the most rewarding and enjoyable way of viewing the reality of a new environment.  As I’ve noted in the past, friendship possesses its own eternal significance, but it also gives a foreigner a glimpse of social problems, traditions, virtues, and stereotypes.  My first night in Tangier (June 23), I had the opportunity to chat with Hudeifa, one of the twenty Moroccan speaking-partners that live on the campus of our school with us.  I discovered that his father was the conductor of a traditional Arab music ensemble and told him that, as an amateur musician, I’d be interested in listening to the group.  Three days later, he arranged for my roommates and I to watch the group practice for an upcoming annual music festival.  We made friends with the family who then invited us over for a tradition-style dinner that lasted until midnight.  Later last week, we attended two nights of the festival to support their group.  I already feel as if we’ve established a fantastic relationship with this welcoming family.  This kind of interaction and friendship is what I relish.  


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rebels with a Cause

Last weekend, I met two Libyan rebels on the street. These two, along with 500 other Libyans, are in Jordan receiving medical treatment for the various injuries they incurred during the revolution. They gave me the name of the hotel they were staying in and invited me to stop by. There's no way I could pass up an opportunity to get the inside scoop from two revolutionaries who'd been on the ground when all the action happened. So, a few days later, I went to their fancy hotel and walked in to find what looked like a rehabilitation center. There were tens of injured Libyan men sitting or hobbling around the lobby. Some had bandages around their heads, burn gloves on their hands, or missing limbs. It was a moving sight to see. These guys had really risked their lives to protect their families, and, as they see it, to fight a despotic regime that had crippled their country. I asked one of the injured men in the lobby if he knew Hakeem, the guy I'd met three days earlier. Before I could finish my question, though, he asked where I was from. When I told him that I am an American, his already friendly demeanor changed to enthusiasm as he began to praise America's support in the resistance effort. He gladly took me to Hakeem's room. There, I heard his story.

Hakeem is a 29 year old tug boat captain from Misrata. When the revolution broke out, he began transporting weapons on his boat between Misrata and the capital, Tripoli, in support of the revolution. When Tripoli fell, he joined his fellow revolutionaries in Sirt to make the last push against Qadaffi's forces. While in battle, he was shot by a Sniper in the foot as he was climbing into a military truck. If I understood him correctly, the door of this vehicle blocked two other bullets that could have been fatal. Hakeem's friends who came in the room to visit shared similar stories. Abd Al-Qadr had 14 pieces of shrapnel enter his body when an enemy rocket struck a vehicle just meters away from where he was standing. He proudly displayed one piece the size of a quarter that had already been removed and had us feel a piece still lodged in his hand. Ali, another friend of Hakeem’s, had burns covering the entirety of his right arm and much of his legs.

But, they were all smiles. It was interesting to see how hopeful they are in Libya's future. Despite a crippled oil industry, possible tribal conflict, and an economy that will need to be built from the ground up, they believe their country will become a working democracy. Like the experts, they realize it will take years for them to create the prosperous, liberated state they imagine. In their conversations with us, however, they sought to quell concerns held by many international by-standers. They pointed to the fact that each of them was from a different tribe, that they fought together, and that the idea of tribal conflict after the war was unfounded. Although they are all religious Muslims, they, surprisingly, claimed that political Islam in general would not make it far in Libya, or any radicalized form of religious government. If the tribal and political powers now deciding the fate of post-revolutionary Libya were as cooperative and idealistic as these foot soldiers, then a stable Libya would be much more imminent.

What actually comes of the Libyan conflict is still unknowable, but hopefully its transformation will go as smoothly as it has in Tunisia thus far. The fall of the old Libyan, Tunisian, and Egyptian regimes along with the continuing resistance in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain are altering the Arab world. The authoritarian leaders still remaining in the region realize that the old system of corruption and repression will no longer be tolerated by their people. Whether this leads to increased democracy and peace in the region remains to be seen. I am hopeful that it will. What is sure is that many people in these countries are giving their lives and allegiance to the ideals of liberty and representative government. As the United States deals sensitively with these events, it will gain more allies and favor in a region that largely mistrusts it. I see this positive result in my Libyan friends.

So, being out here is a ton of fun. It’s exciting to feel more and more that I am able to communicate with these people. One reason that Arabic is so rewarding is because, despite its many dialects, I’m able to speak with and understand people from many different countries, like Libya. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to write about all the other great experiences I’m having in Jordan because of my studies. I’ve learned much from my Jordanian friends, my BYU friends, my academic program, and my opportunities in the Church. I miss the States, and I’ll be back soon enough. Until then, thanks for reading.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Live from Amman

Greetings from Jordan!

Arriving in Amman two weeks ago was a bit surreal. I’ve been here before, but the sights, sounds, smells and what they all mean were once again a weighty yet welcome surprise. After my twenty-four hours in flight, I was ready to flop on my bed in the relatively posh new apartment at which I was dropped off and go to sleep. So I did that. Sometime around 4:00 AM though, I was awakened by the fajr call to prayer from a nearby mosque (fajr is the first of the five Islamic prayers in a day). I don’t want to get too artsy-feely on you, my loyal readers, but hearing that ritual performed by a skilled muethin is ethereal (a muethin is the guy who essentially sings the invitation to pray from a loud speaker). While laying in bed listening to this call, several thoughts crossed my mind. First, that the call to prayer is eerily beautiful; second, that I should remember God, and to pray to Him; and third, that I am a stranger in this land, not chiefly because of my religion, but because of my culture, nationality, etc. Anyways . . .

Perhaps you’re wondering what I do here exactly? My day is filled with intense Arabic learning. I have two classes every morning taught in a small group by an Arab Arabic professor named Doctor Muhammad. One is a political/cultural issues class, one is a speaking performance and response class. Both are held completely in Arabic. I have a three-hour break during which I prepare for other classes and explore the Jordanian University campus making friends and completing my required two hours of speaking with natives each day. Yes, I do make a fool of myself sometimes speaking with people, but I have fun with it! And they love it! In the afternoon I have a one on one speaking or writing appointment and another group class on grammar and culture - it’s the only thing in English. At night, I come home and complete my two-hour minimum newspaper translation assignments, and prepare for the issues class. Thankfully, I have some great roommates to take a load off with. The curriculum is challenging, but I feel myself improving by the day.

Studying in the Middle East is a rare and unique privilege. You are probably aware of the current problems facing the Middle East: the aftermath of the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan revolutions; the continued violence in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq; the diplomatic meltdown between the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the United States; and the precarious situation in Iran. Jordan is surrounded by political turmoil on all sides, yet it has thus far (knock on wood) remained stable. Why? There are many possible explanations, but they’re all too complicated and political for me to describe adequately. All I know is what I see here, and that, my friends, is loyalty to the monarchy. We all know that loyalties to any political entity can shift easily, but unlike in Syria where most people loathe Bashar al-Asad, people love King Abdullah II in Jordan. Unlike in Libya where we see people stomping on pictures of the deposed Colonel Qadaffi, I see people in their living rooms proudly displaying pictures of themselves shaking hands with the king. People believe that King Abdullah gives to his people, and that he has his people’s best interest in mind. He has made some valid movements toward reform and he navigates the tribal politics that still prevail in Jordan with remarkable savvy.

Attending the World Cup qualifying match between Jordan and China last week offered me a deeper look into Jordan’s loyalty to the monarchy and several other aspects of Jordanian culture. Getting into the game was an experience. Although some friends and I bought tickets to the game early in the day, somehow our seats had been filled by the time we got there. Gradually, a group of about two or three thousand angry soccer fans amassed outside the gates where they should have been admitted but had not because of overselling. Because the caravan of Hashemite royalty was about to show up, a human police blockade formed in the midst of this mass and literally pushed everyone out of the way. In the chaos, a friend I had made in line revealed to me that he worked for the police and offered to help me and my American friends get in. He spoke to one of the uniformed officers in the blockade, the police briefly separated, and we made it to a gate. Just at that moment, a black SUV rolled up with members of the awaited monarchy. For a moment, everything was peaceful, and the angry crowds clapped while the VIP’s, waving, made their ways into the stadium. After making it past a couple other obstacles, my friend, Sa’r, was able to get us into the game in one piece. In Jordan, if you make a friend, he will do almost anything for you. Also in Jordan, if you’re from the West, you’re given special treatment.

The match was fantastic. Jordan ended up winning 2-1 against a team ranked much higher than them. During the game, all 40,000 people would shout certain slogans of team support and national solidarity. One slogan I found interesting was “Aish Jalalit al-Malik al-Muathm! Aish! Aish! Aish!” (May the Majesty of the great king live! Live! Live! Live!). Soccernomics eh? How about Soccerolitics? Ha! . . . so, anyway. One would be hard pressed to find the popular support the monarchy enjoys in Jordan in any other Middle Eastern country currently.

Before I wrap this long-winded post up, I would like to address something more sensitive. Ten years ago today, an evil tragedy occurred in my country. The horror it produced is unspeakable. Its supposed motives were unjustifiable. It changed the world. It changed my life. Had it not occurred, my academic program would not exist, and I would not be here in Jordan. I invite you to consider what you can do to make your community and country a better place in response to that tragedy. I invite you to remember the greater dependence America felt, collectively, on God in that tragedy’s wake. I invite you to take stock of any resentment you may feel toward any group because of that tragedy, and reason whether it is justified or not. May we be conscious of these things, and remember the families of those lost in our prayers. If you’d like to email me personally about any of these thoughts, please feel free.

Thanks for reading.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Back in Action

Salaam and greetings friends and family! After a yearlong hiatus, and a barrage of fiercely adamant requests (only two to be perfectly honest), I’ve decided to start posting some new material up on my blog. In the past I’ve used this blog to chronicle my experiences in the Middle East and that’s what I’ll continue to do during the next four months.

I leave this morning from my “fabulous” hometown of Las Vegas to return to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. There I’ll be until Christmastime taking sixteen credits of Arabic language classes with BYU’s Arabic department. There are about 60 of us students and faculty engaging in this, hopefully, phenomenal experience. Completion of this program is the final step in finishing my Arabic degree.

Why am I studying Middle East Studies/Arabic? I find the Middle East fascinating. It is an immensely important region with many conflicts to be understood and resolved. Arabic is a world language spoken by around 500 million people making it the fourth most spoken language in the world. I hope to play some small role in helping bridge the gap between the West and the Arab world through whatever opportunities are given me. My plan is to apply to medical school in the coming summer and become a doctor, but I intend on always being informed of and connected with the people and issues of the Middle East. I thoroughly enjoyed the Jordanian people and their country last summer, and I am sure this fall will prove equally enjoyable.

Well, that’s all for now. I had a great two weeks at home with family and friends before taking off (Here's a picture of my brother Erik and I during our last jam session together for a while - photo taken by my sister, Sarah). I’ll see you all soon, but until then, check back here if you’re interested in how my experience is playing out.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Photo Phrenzy II

I've been home in the U.S. for a week and a half now, but I thought a few pictures from the second half of my time in Jordan would be entertaining.
The neighborhood kids who helped with our trash clean-up project.
Helping the LDS humanitarian missionaries at a local girls school.
Three of Abu Zeina's ten children and the goat they had me milk. Zeina, the oldest daughter, is an ambitious twenty-four year old masters student who runs a local charitable society in her area. She is the second woman from her village to become educated, and she's doing amazing things.
Typical transportation: a self-decorated, privately-operated bus.
The baptism of Sister Hiam and her son Danni.
A view of the Jordan Valley and Lake Tiberias, or the Sea of Galilee.
The Al Madi family and I. The Al Madis are a large and influential family in Jordan who have helped BYU and the LDS Church. This connection led me to spend several days with them in their home teaching English to the children. They were a ton of fun to be with, and they treated me like family.
Some of my English students.
The Egyptian bakers.
Some friends who came to say goodbye.
The Husseini Mosque in downtown Amman during Maghreb prayer.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Jordanian Mormons? Indeed.

Thursday, I left Salhiyya early to begin my weekly trek to Irbid for church. Flagging busses down, waiting at police checkpoints, and meeting new locals along the way always makes for an exciting journey. This week I snagged the only seat left on the bus from Mafraq to Irbid, which was the flimsy foldout seat next to the driver. Of course, I was the only foreigner on board. Most people stay pretty quiet on these gender-segregated bus rides, but one of the men behind me broke the silence by striking up a conversation with me. Pretty soon I was chatting with all three men around me having a good ole’ time. After I dropped a couple of Bedouin phrases, the driver laughed in amazement, put a shmogh on my head, and called me Muhammad the rest of the ride. He was a proud Bedouin who claimed to have four wives and twenty children. When we arrived in Irbid, he refused to allow me to pay for the ride. Typical Jordanian hospitality.

You may be surprised to know that the LDS Church is active at all in the Middle East. There are two branches of the church in Jordan: one in Amman, which consists mostly of US government employees working in the capital, and one in Irbid. The Irbid branch consists of about five or six Arab families who are all related. The humanitarian senior missionaries, the Colsons, lead the branch. This Northern area of the country has a large Christian minority, and the few members here converted from various other Christian sects. Each week we spend Thursday night with one of the member families. We observe the Sabbath on Friday since that’s the day everyone has off work (It’s a day off because Muslims are to make a special effort to attend prayer services on Friday).

These LDS Jordanians face some challenges: no full-fledged ward/stake programs, almost no other young people to date inside the church, no temple close by (only one family has made it to London to be sealed), and on top of that, the LDS Church is not yet officially recognized in Jordan, which disqualifies Latter-day Saints from serving in the military. Despite the tough circumstances, there is a strong base of faithful members. The branch has one missionary in the field and two more who are preparing to leave. One of them, Samah Elyas, will be the first Arab sister to serve on Temple Square. It’s a pleasure to be apart of this branch. At the beginning of the summer, President Colson assigned me to be the Gospel Principles teacher. The class consists of the newer members and usually about three or four investigators each week. Our focus on the basics and class participation always seems to make the class a very edifying experience. Recently, some of the investigators asked to be taught in their homes, so President Colson asked Cyrus, James, and I to come up early each week to teach (Since proselytizing is illegal for us, we must be invited by interested Christians in order to teach). Last week I began teaching two families with Amr, one of the local returned missionaries. It’s exciting to be teaching the principles that are most important to me in people’s homes again.

Since most meetings in the church here are translated from Arabic to English, or English to Arabic depending on who is speaking, everyone must teach in short powerful statements. This is beautiful to me – sorry if my writing doesn’t show that sometimes. I’m learning more and more that simple, direct communication is in short supply. The beauty of words is in their expressive power, and simplicity usually enhances this power rather than diminishing it. Witnessing this phenomenon in the gospel context makes it so clear. Also, like my beloved town of Ft. Sumner, NM, the dynamic of the church here is very different from the average wards of the Western United States. Cultures are different, so the cultural frills of the Church change in different parts of the world. However, if we have a personal testimony of God’s truth and commandments then we’re on the strait and narrow. When the truth is present, cultural differences aren’t a hindrance, in fact, they’re a blessing!