Massad, Joseph

Name: Joseph Massad
Location of Study: Amman, Jordan
Program of Study: Qasid Institute
Sponsors: Susan Scribner Mirza & Bob Berner


A brief personal bio:

I am a Junior Political Science and Arabic double major.  I have taken many classes on comparative politics and will be writing a Senior Thesis on Islamist political parties and their effect on the consolidation of democracies.  Specifically, I will investigate Hizballah in Lebanon, the Islamic Action Front Party in Jordan, and the Islamic Renaissance (Ennahda) party in Tunisia.  These three parties provide a wide range of Islamist orientation and vary in their contribution to consolidating democracies.  I was supposed to have traveled to Cairo this semester, but due to the political instability I was not allowed to.  I am very thankful for this opportunity to visit the Middle East this summer.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

My SLA Grant is important to me because of the experience it will yield.  Some of my classmates have traveled via the SLA grant and they loved their time abroad.  It is especially important to me as it is my only chance to study abroad during my time at Notre Dame, something I wanted to do since Freshman year.  For my future plans, I would like to work in the creation of foreign policy at some level.  Whether in a think tank, NGO, or governmental agency, my time abroad will give me certain insight that would be otherwise unavailable.  Not only will my Arabic comprehension improve, but the exposure to another culture will be an added bonus.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

My language goal is to improve one year of Modern Standard Arabic language ability in the course of the summer.  This will catapult me into fourth year Arabic, helping me to master the language more quickly.  My other goals include immersion into Jordanian culture and life in order to grasp different concepts of political, social and international norms.  I hope to understand more about the recent uprisings throughout the Arab world and learn more about domestic politics that I have only read about through books.  Hopefully, I will be more a global citizen who can understand the challenges of modernization in developing countries.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1.  At the end of the summer, I will be able to communicate in Arabic on political topics such as comparative politics, international relations and governmental structures.
  2. At the end of the summer, I will be able to discuss ethical concerns of religion and violence, especially with regard to Islam and Christianity.
  3. At the end of the summer, I will be able to adapt to other cultures more readily and loosen my western perception of global issues.
  4. At the end of the summer, I will be able to read, write, speak and listen at a (completed) third year level of Arabic.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

I plan on maximizing my SLA Grant experience by immersing myself into the Jordanian culture. In more concrete terms, I will volunteer with Jordanian NGOs that are helping to develop the foundations of democratic institutions in order to consolidate their electoral democracy.  I also hope to interview a number of Jordanians on their views of Jordan and democracy as well as their opinions on the role of religion in democracy.  A third way that I will immerse myself is by attending the Melkite Greek Catholic masses at the several Melkite churches in Amman.  Additionally, I will reach out to fellow students and take excursions to the various parts of Jordan, notably Petra, Aqaba and Wadi Rum.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: Outline Expectations
For my summer study abroad session, I expect to be challenged on many levels. I realize that the classroom Arabic will be academically rigorous, but I also know that using the lessons learned in class on the streets of Amman will be equally as difficult. Since a large percentage of Jordanians know English, it will be very tempting to rely on this instead of practicing Arabic. Even more than this, I think that my ability to adapt to the local customs will be tested too. The change in physical environment will likely be as stressful as the mental change. I hope that I will be able to adjust to the cultural norms so I do not stand out as much. There is also the possibility that I will get sick from the food and drinks, whether from improper preparation or from the sudden change in diet. To be honest, I am less worried about my use of everyday Arabic than for the exceptional times, such as if I need to visit a hospital or I am looking for a specific landmark.

Reflective Journal Entry 2: Task 1
One word that I have kept hearing is “??” (bes) which does not have a meaning in formal Arabic, to my knowledge. I have heard it used when I ordered food, in a regular sentence, and even used as a command. I first sought to find out what it meant from my language teacher, who told me it has a variety of uses, but is mostly used for: “but” and “only”. In order to see if it differentiated in usage between different generations, I also asked a worker at one of the local food shops. He looked to be about twenty and said, in broken English, that it meant “only”. I also asked the director of student services at my program, a man of around forty, and he told me that it meant “only” as well, but it could be used to mean other things, such as if used “?? ?? ??” it could mean “okay”. Another word that has been frequently used is “???” (khalas). Like the other word, I do not believe it has a meaning in formal Arabic, but this word is used in many contexts. I have heard it used in shopping, as a playful retort, and in an exchange between two angry cab drivers. From these situations I believed that it meant something close to “complete”. I decided to investigate this one with different sources, so I asked an older waiter who looked at me strangely when I asked him the meaning. After some pondering he told me, “enough”. I also asked a local boy that we have played soccer with, and he said it meant “shut up”. Although my original guess was not too far off, I missed the contextual importance of the word since I was trying to interpret the meaning by its place in the sentences alone.

Reflective Journal Entry 3: Task 6
The first person I interviewed about his opinion of the United States was an elder man who seemed to always be at a local café that I frequented. After many brief conversations with him, I decided to pursue a more in-depth dialogue. He actually offered a perfect bridge into some questions by asking me about my thoughts of the U.S. and its global influence. I stayed as vague as I could, in order to prevent interference with this question. When I asked him for his thoughts, he said that he did not like the U.S. managing as much of the world as it does. According to him, every country should be able to pick its own government, without foreign influence. As the Syrian crisis was still fresh on his mind, he strongly disapproved of the perceived attempts to meddle inside a sovereign country. It is worthwhile to note that he also did not encourage Russian aid to Assad, when I brought up this counterpoint. We didn’t discuss much beyond government and foreign policy as these were very relevant to current news. Next, I asked one of my language teachers, a middle-aged woman, about her views on the U.S. She easily had the most favorable outlook on the U.S. I have heard to this point. She really seemed to understand the predicament of the U.S. as a world leader and a champion for self-determination. I was personally amazed by her liberal point of view, as she was a Muslim and I expected her to be thoroughly conservative. In this discussion, we switched between topics, starting on the government and moving toward culture. She really thought Obama was better than earlier Presidents, but she did not particularly like him. She had a favorable perception of the U.S. people, even though she thought they could lead astray at times by the U.S. media. Although she likes Disney movies and watches them with her kids, she disapproved of the music and some cultural aspects associated with it. The last person I discussed impressions of the U.S. with was a younger man, who studies in the U.S. and was home for summer break. Although he was Jordanian, he appeared to be completely American. Much like my language teacher, he understood the delicate problems of international relations, but he tended to criticize the U.S. slightly more, particularly on the issue of Palestine. This is an incredibly sensitive issue and I tried to remain as impartial as I could, but I found it challenging to remain dispassionate when he was clearly emotionally invested in the topic. His main complaint was the intimate relation between Israel and the U.S. When it came to other aspects of American life, as an American student, he was stereotypically a college student.

Reflective Journal Entry 4: Task 4
I attended a weekly Mass for Melkite Catholics in Amman where I was able to meet and discuss some aspects of a Catholic’s life in a predominately Muslim country. Jordan is about ninety four percent Muslim, while the remaining six percent is mostly Christian and small portions of other religions, although these numbers are greatly debated and vary according to the source. The Catholics I spoke to were minorities in two important ways: religiously and economically. The religious minority I expected, but I did not realize the extent of the economic difference between Muslims and Christians. As some parishioners told me, Christians were the most economically successful people in the country (apart from the King). Due to their disproportionate economic influence, they cited incidences of discrimination from other Jordanians. Although they considered themselves Jordanian, they told me that sometimes Muslim Jordanians would treat them disrespectfully. They made sure to clarify that this was rare, but not wholly unaccepted. They said that it was a fact of life given their residence in a Muslim-majority country. It seemed like they resigned to their fate of living in Jordan and being treated as a minority. I asked them if the discrimination they faced was due to religious or economic reasons and the consensus was because of the economic reasons. One in particular cited an incident when he was accused of deliberately hurting his business (I presume in order to hurt the Jordanian economy) during the economic recession. The international recession has also affected Jordan and this has heightened tensions according to the people at the church.

Reflective Journal Entry 5: Task 3
With the start of Ramadan, I was very interested in the cultural and religious traditions and norms. Upon my visit to amphitheatre in the center of town, I decided to ask a tourism officer about the customs during Ramadan. He told me that all of the country either actively or passively participates in the traditions. I asked if Christians were obligated to abide by the religious laws during Ramadan and he surprisingly told me that they did. I was shocked by this answer until I realized that it would have been practically impossible to go against the customs if one had so wanted. I also thought that the officer had overstated the amount of decorations and celebrations that went on during Ramadan. As I lived in an area mostly for international students, there were not many street decorations which made my first nocturnal trip to the downtown area significantly more exciting to the see paper lanterns, streamers, banners, and lights. Additionally, the prevalence of fireworks was unnerving. The officer took a very practical stance on the issue, noted its historic and religious importance, but talked much more about its contemporary and cultural importance, such as the distribution of unique sweets and drinks during this time of the year. In the actual Arabic language class, we discussed much more of the traditional story and its religious significance for Jordanians. As the tourism officer was located at the Roman amphitheatre, I suspect that his direction was much more secular than the classroom discussion.

Reflective Journal Entry 6: Post-completion Reflection
My time in Jordan was a period of unprecedented growth. Although my learning started slowly, I knew that it would take time to adjust to the different surroundings. Once I became accustomed to the weather and daily habits, I noticed my learning increased substantially. I was able to focus on learning the material instead of concentrating on remembering where to go or what to do. I also cannot overstate the value of being immersed in an Arabic environment. Based on what I had heard of Jordan, I thought English would be more abundant, but it was reserved for the educated and those directly involved in the tourist industry. As a result, I was able to practice my informal Arabic nearly everywhere. At first, the differences between formal Arabic and colloquial Arabic were difficult to understand and even harder to use, but as time wore on, I was able to find little useful phrases that I understood and used properly. Although I was not originally keen on doing the exercises prescribed in this program, I found that they were a great help to expand my vocabulary and discuss topics that were useful and relevant that would not come up in everyday conversations. One peculiar part of my Arabic study I found distressing was that I felt as if my English sentence structure suffered. This was probably due to the additional emphasis placed on formulating longer thoughts and merging them into coherent paragraphs. In addition to the amount of Arabic I studied, I also learned as much about the culture and people of Jordan. I was overwhelmed, and at times frustrated, with their desire to talk to me about anything and everything. More than this, I realized that I have the ability to travel internationally, and I know that this summer gave the confidence and desire to continue to explore foreign countries.

Postcard(s) from Abroad:

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

I learned that the language acquisition process is much more dependent on one’s ability to practice and reinforce the lessons from class.  The immersive nature made the whole process significantly easier and the particularities discussed in class were used in outside of the room.  For me, the best way of engaging cultural differences was try to soak in as much of the nuances as possible.  I constantly observed what the local Jordanians did when they were together and when they were interacting with us.  I definitely met most of my language goals this summer because, although I took a slow start, I became very comfortable in Jordan and proceeded to use my new skills talking to people about things I would not have otherwise discussed.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

From this experience, I am able to step back from some of my Western perceptions and preconceptions.  The biggest insight is the amount of emphasis that the United States (and the West in general) places on the individual.  In many countries, especially developing ones like Jordan, the focus is on the community.  In addition, I better understand relations between differing religions and more clearly comprehend how various international events can affect individuals in another country.  In the United States, we are often insulated from international happenings, but Jordan was not nearly as protected and the people reflected this.  I would tell anyone considering applying that he or she should apply because it is a life-changing experience.  For someone who is preparing to study abroad, I would tell him or her to use the native language as much as possible in order to get rid of any embarrassment about using the language as it is only a hindrance.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

I will expand my Arabic by completing Media Arabic and then pursue a career that uses my Arabic language skills.  I also intend to volunteer at the St. Joseph’s Red Cross where I will tutor Iraqi refugees in English.  In the immediate future, I want to join the Peace Corps for a couple of years and proceed to graduate school to expand on my knowledge of developing countries and the internal democratic processes that coincide.  My SLA experience will serve as a base of international travel and has given me the confidence to continue to pursue incredible options.