Tomas Morgan, Sarah


Name: Sarah Tomas Morgan
Language: Arabic
Location of Study: Amman, Jordan
Program of Study: Summer Intensive Program at Qasid Arabic Institute
Sponsors: Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures

A brief personal bio:

I am a freshman from South Bend, IN majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and Peace Studies. Though I am not an Arabic major I intend to become proficient in Arabic and to take classes in Middle Eastern and Islamic politics and culture through Peace Studies. I believe in a liberal arts education which facilitates studying big questions and ideas. PLS and Peace Studies allow me to pursue this kind of learning. It is my hope that Arabic will open up both a new region of the world and a new realm of ideas for me to explore.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

The SLA Grant gives me the opportunity to live in an environment where I can practice colloquial Arabic (amiyya) while taking classes in Modern Standard Arabic (fusha). This will challenge me to immerse myself in the language and make it part of my everyday life rather than just part of my studies. The experience will help me to contextualize my learning once I return to Notre Dame and continue my classroom studies. I hope that it will also boost my confidence in speaking Arabic. Eventually I hope to pursue the interest I have in human rights law, especially as it relates to women, in a career with an NGO, international organization, or the UN. Arabic skills and exposure to Arabic culture gained through my SLA Grant experience will be invaluable to this long-term goal.

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

After spending the summer at the Qasid Institute I hope to progress to late intermediate or advanced studies in Modern Standard Arabic. More importantly, however, I hope to gain confidence in my speaking abilities and significant exposure to colloquial Arabic. I am eager to gain a greater understanding of Arabic culture as I experience Amman this summer and have the chance to make my own observations. I intend for this stay to be the first of many in the region and a catalyst for my continued studies in Arabic and Middle Eastern culture.

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

  1. At the end of my summer study abroad, I will willingly engage in conversations with native Arabic speakers and make every effort to communicate in Arabic to the best of my ability.
  2.  At the end of my summer study abroad, I will be able to speak, read, write and listen at the level of Third Year Arabic I, two semesters beyond my current coursework placement at Notre Dame.
  3.  At the end of my summer study abroad, I will feel comfortable and have gained significant experience with sources of Arabic language such as newspapers, radio, TV news, and music as ways of practicing Arabic apart from textbook learning in order to continue to follow these sources at home.
  4. At the end of my summer study abroad, I will have a greater appreciation for Arabic culture and the desire to immerse myself in experiences such as this in the future. 

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

I intend to hold myself to speaking Arabic as much as possible and English as little as possible this summer. I hope to practice this policy with my classmates and housemates and encourage them to adopt the same policy. I would like to explore Amman as much as possible in order to both experience the culture of the city and learn to speak Arabic in a diversity of situations. It is my hope that I will have the chance to take trips to Jordanian landmarks of culture and history such as Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba. I also intend to explore the possibilities of either volunteering with a service organization or helping a Notre Dame professor with research this summer in order to have more direct contact with native speakers of Arabic.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: 

One week here in Amman has shown me that even ten will not be enough to explore all that this extraordinary city has to offer! As I start to become familiar with the streets to and from Qasid, I realize how much I have yet to discover. Amman is like a maze—no two streets are parallel and the only way to get around (especially by taxi) is by approximates rather than addresses. Though this means I have trekked up and down a few more hills than were strictly necessary, it has also led to the discovery of a few gems off the beaten path. One such discovery in an area called Weibdeh was the Catholic Church I returned to yesterday for mass; another was a friendly and grandfatherly shop owner who gave us the names of all the best restaurants in the Balad (downtown). These chance discoveries and interactions are more than enough to keep me upbeat as my housemates and I learn to navigate the city!

So far we have only had orientation, one day of classes, and one outing with Qasid. I was thrilled by all of these experiences. During orientation, Qasid’s academic director explained Qasid’s theory of Arabic language learning as the development of the ability to move fluidly back and forth along a spectrum of fusha (Modern Standard Arabic), “educated” Arabic, and amiyya (dialect). Because all of these styles of speaking are necessary for living in an Arab country, fluency in Arabic is traveling this spectrum smoothly. I also learned that it takes a person whose first language is English approximately 1,000 hours of contact with Arabic to reach fluency. Spanish, in comparison, takes 500 hours of contact. I’ll admit, this is quite daunting!

My day of classes reassured me that my quest for Arabic fluency is not a lost cause, however. I had read that classes were taught in a mixture of Arabic and English, but the moment I entered the classroom I realized that this would not be the case—my classes are entirely in Arabic! This is very promising because I know it will strengthen my comprehension and speaking skills, which are my weakest areas.

On the third day of the week (which is Tuesday, as weekends are Friday and Saturday), Qasid took us on an outing to Ajloun castle, an ancient fortress built by Saladin for protection against the crusaders in the twelfth century. Several flights of crumbling stairs brought us to the spacious roof, and my mind spun at the view. From this castle on top of the tallest hill we could see all the way to Syria, the West Bank, and Iraq. All looked peaceful and fertile in the hot sun—a deceptive impression.

Thursday was the first day of Ramadan. It is a wonderful experience to be in Jordan during this very special month. The sense of anticipation came to a head on Wednesday when it was still unsure whether Ramadan would begin that day or the next. On Thursday we were lucky to be outside walking home as the sun set and the cars in the streets began honking in celebration. We’ve enjoyed watching the neighborhood children set off small fireworks in the driveway each subsequent night. One of my housemates is Muslim and fasts during the day. Tonight we plan to go to a restaurant near the University of Jordan for iftar. Ramadan Kareem!

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

The first full week of classes at Qasid has been quite a whirlwind of students switching in and out of levels, teachers moving classes, and classrooms changing. I’m glad to say, however, that I am beginning to feel at home here in Amman as my housemates and I settle in for the next eight weeks. My housemates are absolutely wonderful! We have bonded quickly through grocery shopping, taxi hailing, cooking, and exploring (mis)adventures and now legitimately love spending time together. We are all from the US but come from a variety of schools and backgrounds. My roommate, for instance, goes to Middlebury College and has taken two years of Arabic, and another one of my housemates is a grad student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We’ve had some great conversations about what it means to study abroad in the Middle East, whether the Middle East should even be called the Middle East, perceptions of American students in Amman and the “US privilege” that we ourselves have experienced here, and much, much more.

Classes have been consistently challenging but increasingly effective and fun. On Wednesday I had a breakthrough in my ability to understand my teacher, which felt very good. The first few days of classes I felt as if I was missing most of what my teacher said, but after this breakthrough the balance shifted the other direction. I hope the change is permanent! The next challenge for me is speaking. So far I have had to concentrate so hard on listening that I struggle to respond to my teacher in time. This next step will be my goal for this week.

On Wednesday we also had a grammar lesson on the ten forms of verbs in Arabic and I found a new reason to love this beautiful and logical language. What an amazing concept! I am happy to still be learning grammar because it gives me the vocabulary in Arabic to describe the language.

We also made the most of our evenings this week despite the large amount of homework we all have. On Monday my housemate Yasmine and I studied at a cafe near UJ (University of Jordan) and a few more of us returned there for Yemeni food at Baab al-Yemen the next night. Another night we went to a bookshop and cafe on Shari’a Rainbow where waiters were very willing to help students with their homework. On Thursday we had a late Ramadan night beginning with iftar at Hashem’s (a famous Amman restaurant). At the end of the meal our waiter asked us to take a picture with him—not the first time we had been asked to take selfies with Jordanians. I had my first piece of Kanafeh (so good but so sweet!) at a delicious bakery. Two of my friends who are Muslim then went to pray at King Husseini Mosque while the rest of us wandered around the outdoor souqs as we waited for them. We then proceeded to the Roman Amphitheatre, which was lit with strings of lights and full of families. I am amazed that even little children will stay out until 2 or 3 am these nights!

Yesterday my roommate and I returned to the Balad and climbed the stairs to the citadel. This has to be the best way to witness Amman—surrounded by ancient ruins from Bronze Age, Roman, Byzantine, and Ummayad times with a spectacular view of the modern day gold and white city. We ended our Jam’a (Friday) with a trip to Souq Jara, a wonderful local arts market, and shwarma at Reim. Inshallah this week will be just as good!

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

As I write this post on July 4th I can hear fireworks going off in the background. These fireworks, however, are for Ramadan, not American Independence Day! We celebrated the 4th of July with some other Qasid students tonight, including some British and Sudanese students. I think our party felt more conscientious because we were trying represent America in another country to non-American citizens.

This has been a full week, both in terms of classes and other activities. I have had a number of experiences and conversations while out and about this week which really helped advance my understanding of the culture in which I am living here. These experiences and conversations were also great exercises in language comprehension. In this blog post I will include an account of my first SLA Community Interaction Task: Ask three native speakers about a current and controversial social topic. This will allow me to detail said experiences and conversations. The topic I explored was Muslim-Christian relations. As it turns out, all of my conversations on this topic were in fact completely impromptu! This indicates to me that this is definitely a hot topic here in Jordan.

I had the idea to explore this topic after attending service at a Nazerene Church on Sunday with one of my housemates. I am used to the Catholic mass, so this very charismatic service was new to me. It was probably the best Arabic practice I have had since arriving in Jordan, however! At least half of the service was singing so I attempted to sing along. This was quite an exercise in reading and pronunciation, as the tempo was quite fast. The sermon was an even better exercise, however. The man who gave the sermon only spoke English, but this meant that a there was a translator and I was able to hear the English and Arabic side by side. This was enormously helpful because it was the first word-for-word translation in a’miya (dialect) that I had ever heard. It also helped me to understand some phrases and constructions about which I had been previously unsure.

The first person with whom I discussed the relationship between Muslims and Christians here in Jordan was “J,” the owner of the small market on the corner of our street (his real name is Jaffra, but he prefers J!). Our conversation actually began when J wanted to show us the faces of the kings on the different denominations of dinar. He called the current king, King Abdullah, “the sweet king,” so I asked him more about that. J attributes the good relationship between Muslims and Christians in Jordan to the stability which the Hashemites, whom he praised very highly, have fostered. J is himself a Christian (“the same kind as George Bush,” as he says) and feels very comfortable here. He did inform me, however, that in Jordan it is illegal to convert from Islam to Christianity, with a penalty of three years imprisonment.

The other two people with whom I discussed Muslim-Christian relations were my cab drivers at different points during the week. Both asked me upfront whether I was Muslim. When I told them no, I was Christian, both proceeded to explain certain aspects of Islam to me. The difference in tone between the two explanations, however, was like night and day. The first cab driver took it in his stride, saying that Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all “people of the book” who believe in the same God and explaining Islam beautifully as a religion of peace and happiness. Interestingly this cab driver was quick to say that Daesh (ISIS) is not Muslim and is skewing Americans’ perspective of Islam. The second cab driver, on the other hand, upon hearing that myself and two of my other housemates in the cab were not Muslim, launched into an explanation of the five pillars of Islam. This was very interesting although rather uncomfortable when it became clear that he had an interest in converting us. Although he was very cordial all along I decided not to purse the conversation much further with him.

On Friday we went to see the oldest map of this region from 6th century Byzantine times. It is a mosaic embedded in the floor of St. George’s Greek Orthodox church in Madaba, about half and hour away from Amman. The mosaic was both beautiful and astonishingly detailed. I couldn’t get over how ancient this masterpiece was. We then took a taxi to Mount Nebo, which quickly won my heart as the best place we have visited so far. Mount Nebo is where Moses surveyed the Promised Land before he died. We had a stroke of luck when a tourism policeman named Hashem took a liking to us and decided to give us a free personal tour of the area. From various points on the mountain we could see the large tree marking the rock that it is believed Moses struck to make water flow in the desert (still a spring to this day), the city of Jericho, a bedouin camp, the Dead Sea, and, of course, the “Promised Land,” Israel/Palestine.

Our minibus ride to Madaba and back also allowed me to see my first camels of the trip, tethered in the fields along the road! To close with a holiday greeting I learned today, Kul a’am wa antum bkhir!

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

Just returned yesterday evening from a weekend trip to the Dead Sea—but first, an update on classes!

This week of class felt very rewarding and productive because we learned another important grammar structure, al-i’rab. This is the case-marking system in Arabic, used infrequently in spoken and written fusha but essential to understanding classical and religious texts. From what I have gathered from my roommates’ reactions when I told them I was learning this structure (“Oh no, good luck”), the many rules of al-i’rab can be immensely confusing for everyone at first but it seems to be one of those things that get easier with time. Luckily, one of my classmates was willing to go through many sentences very slowly together so we could practice, which was enormously helpful.

I like learning grammar both because I enjoy the analytical thinking and because it helps me contribute to the class discussion more. I try to learn the grammar well on my own so that I can understand the lesson as it is being taught in Arabic and answer the teacher’s questions. This week I think I also did a better job of using spoken Arabic in class, which, as I mentioned previously, has been the biggest challenge for me. I am not afraid to use Arabic to get around the city, but in class it can be difficult because some of my classmates like to speak a lot and usually manage to get out an answer faster than me. I am also usually the only girl in class (the one other woman is in her 50s), which is not a problem but creates a different dynamic than I am used to.

To return to this weekend—Our itinerary in brief was: Rent a car Friday morning and hit the scenic Dead Sea Highway. Stop for a tour at the Baptism sight of Jesus on the Jordan River. Continue to a high overlook for a panorama view of the Sea over a picnic lunch, and then proceed on to our hotel to check in and take our first dip in the Dead Sea. Or, should I say, our first float—it’s nearly impossible to do anything but bob in the buoyant water! On Saturday we had an early swim, uh, float again and then packed up so we could hike Wadi Mujib’s Siq trail before returning to Amman.

If I had to recommend one thing to do in Jordan of what I have experienced to far, I would recommend Wadi Mujib to almost anyone! My roommates and I had the time of our lives climbing through this gorge (it’s really a swim/scramble, as the “trail” is the stream running down from a waterfall). The friendly guides at the end showed us how to climb behind the waterfall, which felt practically magical.

Visiting the Baptism sight of Jesus was quite beautiful and humbling. We experienced the most remarkable and almost unbelievable sights when we were actually on the banks of the Jordan, literally a stone’s easy toss across the water away from the West Bank. As we sat there, an international African choir came down to the bank on the Israeli/Palestinian side and, after waving vigorously at us and conversing a bit over the water, broke out in joyful song. I kid you not, at that moment three white doves flew across the river from the West Bank side to our side. And, lest the moment remain incomplete, a mother actually waded into the river to baptize her baby. My roommates and I still laugh incredulously at how stunned we were in that moment. Truly a once in a lifetime experience!

Reflective Journal Entry 5:

It’s admittedly been two weeks since my last blog entry, the reason for this being that I have been traveling for the last two weekends. Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be able to meet my parents and brother in Petra (my mother had work in Jerusalem so the three of them crossed the border in Eilat). We stayed at a beautiful Bedouin camp in the desert near Little Petra for two nights and explored the ancient city and wonder of the world Petra during the day. On our first day there we got into a conversation with the owner of a restaurant which ended in him taking us on a guided tour of Little Petra. After the tour he brought us to sit and drink tea with his family at a place where they were camped for the day. I tried hard to converse in Arabic with his grandmother, the smiling and wrinkled matriarch of the family, but her accent was one of the most difficult to understand that I have ever encountered. We exchanged some friendly inquiries over several cups of highly sweetened tea with fresh mint, however (as our restaurant tour guide told us, “no women no cry, no sugar you die”) and watched the sunset over the red rocks. Throughout the weekend I was continuously awed by the history and beauty of this desert city.

The Friday before last was Eid, the end of Ramadan and the beginning of Qasid’s four day midterm holiday. We woke around 6:30 am on Friday to the joyful sound of Eid prayers from our neighborhood mosque.When my housemate Yasmine, who is Muslim, returned from mosque, we departed via Jett Bus for Aqaba, the largest city on the Red Sea and one of the southernmost points of Jordan. From the beach of the hostel where we were staying we could see the Israeli city of Eilat, Taba and Sinai in Egypt, and the lights of a point in Saudi Arabia just 10 kilometers south of us. I had a wonderful and relaxing time in Aqaba with my housemates and several of our other friends. Some highlights from this trip included playing keep-away with close to twenty “shebab” (young guys/young people) at the beach and trying to learn their lingo and making our own Jordanian-style barbecue using a recipe and spices recommended to us by our taxi driver.

Life in Amman runs on a very different schedule after Ramadan, as I discovered while showing my family around the city. I may have thought that I had mastered the traffic schedule, but I was wildly mistaken. Though the streets seem ten times busier at all times of the day I like that the atmosphere seems freer, unconstrained by hours of fasting and iftar, and that it is no longer illegal to eat and drink on the streets (although the ban on smoking was nice!). The weekend that my parents were here also did a lot for my colloquial Arabic because I was the sole communicator in almost every circumstance. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, including, in particular, my first night of bargaining in the Balad.

Because of my blog absence I will include two SLA Community Interaction Tasks in this post: First, identify a dish that is unique to your location of study, order the dish, and ask the waiter about its preparation and significance, and, second, ask two people who are members of a social/ethnic/racial minority and ask them about their minority status.

While for the cuisine interaction it would perhaps have been most traditional to write about mansaf or kanafah, I instead chose to explore the “upside-down” dish called maqloubeh and sage tea. The same restaurant owner in Petra of whom I previously spoke enlightened me on the preparation and significance of these dishes. A traditional chicken (or beef or lamb), rice, and vegetable dish, maqloubeh is a meal of practicality. It can be made with any meat or vegetables readily available for the everyday but is distinguished enough to be served in restaurants as well. The story behind the sage tea was quite interesting. Apparently the grandmother with whom I was talking drinks a cup of sage tea (literally tea made from sprigs of sage—and at least two heaping teaspoons of sugar) every single day. It has huge health benefits, including, according to our guide, a sharpened mind and preservation of strength into old age. He proudly held up his grandmother and other elderly people in the region as examples.

I conversed with a few people of Bedouin heritage while in Petra and, coincidentally, in Amman as well. The first woman I talked to explained how her family (though not she herself) used to live in caves in Petra before the government relocated them for purposes of tourism. This was fascinating because I met her selling trinkets to tourists in the reserve itself. She now lives in a special village set up, as it was explained, by Queen Rania. She sounded wistful as she talked about their days living in Petra itself, but did not express any resentment toward the government. Just last night a taxi driver of mine claimed to be of Bedouin descent, but explained that he was born in Amman and has never lived in the South. I founds this to be very interesting because this man was clearly proud of his heritage but seemed to feel as if he could not claim it fully because he had never lived according to it. These conversations made me wonder if this relocation and understanding of heritage will lead, eventually, to the near extinction of Bedouins in Jordan, at least in the traditional sense.

Last week at Qasid we took our midterm exams and began the second book in the Al-Kitaab series, which certainly feels like a step forward! As of today I have exactly three weeks left in Amman. I can hardly believe how quickly the time is going. A belated Eid Mubarak to all!

Reflective Journal Entry 6:

Today I explored the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, a gallery highlighting contemporary art from around the Middle East. The main exhibition was the work of Lebanese artist Hussein Madi. A beautiful description in the gallery noted that “the Madi line unmistakably echoes the rhythmic and abstract spirit of Islamic art…their strength derives essentially from a structural foundation shaped by abstract considerations rooted in universal concepts” (Helen Khal, “The Inner Structure of Madi’s Art”). I was very taken with Madi’s work. From the titles of the pieces I also had a chance to pick up some interesting new vocabulary.

On the way home I was driven by a kind young taxi driver who had learned some English in University. One of the first things he told me was, “I am an engineer.” He is apparently from Irbid and recently graduated from University. Because he could not find work as an engineer in Jordan he is driving a taxi. He asked me jokingly if I could help him find work in America. In his own words, “there is no work in Jordan” but it is hard to get a visa to leave. Though he was clearly unsatisfied with his current job he was very gracious and optimistic about the future. I have heard that it is very hard for young people to find work in Amman, and seemingly across the country. Unemployment is on the rise from 12.90%.

I enjoyed trying Egyptian and Lebanese food on different nights of this week. I ate a standard Egyptian dish called “koshari” which my friends who have studied abroad in Egypt have been raving about, and Lebanese “kuba,” which was delicious. Next we want to try an Iraqi place in Gardens.

I now have less than two weeks left in Amman. What with Qasid classes winding down and Notre Dame beginning just two days after I return I think I am ready to go home and see my family. I know that I will miss Amman, however, even more than I realize now. It is going to be hard to leave because this summer has done so much for me. Just last night, wandering through our favorite arts market Souq Jara, I marveled at how familiar the language felt compared to when I arrived. I felt as if I were on the verge of a new understanding—reason to come back, I suppose!

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

I returned from Amman a day and a half before moving back to Notre Dame. I have now been on campus for a week, have finally gotten over my jet lag (I think), and have had a little bit of time to reflect on and a lot of time to miss my summer in Jordan. Looking back at the pre-departure prompts, I realize that this summer has helped me find my purpose in studying Arabic as much as it has helped my Arabic language skills. I wrote at the beginning of the summer that “I intend for this stay to be the first of many in the region and a catalyst for my continued studies in Arabic and Middle Eastern culture.” My SLA experience has certainly deepened my love of the language and the region and will, indeed, I think, be a “catalyst” for the future. Meeting students of all ages and disciplines, all deeply invested in Arabic, encouraged me to find my own reason for studying Arabic. Finally, living in an Arabic-speaking country and making Jordanian friends cemented in me a desire to be able to communicate in Jordan’s language, out of respect as much as necessity.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

I wrote in one of my first in-country journals that even ten weeks is hardly enough to explore all that the country of Jordan has to offer. In ten weeks, however, I grew more in my linguistic abilities and cultural awareness than I ever imagined I would at the outset. This summer has made me more serious about my studies, both in Arabic and in my other classes here at Notre Dame, because it has given me occasion to think about how I want to apply my studies in the future and how fortunate I am for the educational opportunities that I have. I would advise someone considering or preparing for SLA language study to undertake the opportunity sensitive to the culture that you entering and the people you will meet, and willing to embrace your time in-country whole-heartedly.

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

While in Amman I was asked many times why I was studying Arabic. In all honesty, it took me a while to develop my answer to the persistent question. What I came to discover, and answer, was that my primary major, the Program of Liberal Studies, professes to be a Great Books program in the western canon. Arabic gives me access to another canon of thought, just as complex and worth studying. I would like to spend a good portion of my academic career exploring the intersection of these two canons. It is my hope that I will be able to use this understanding to bring others to a greater awareness of the ideas and culture of the Middle East region and counter the estrangement which is sometimes felt between it and a large part of the West.