Examining belief in the Middle East
Varying beliefs have been a source of controversy worldwide for thousands of years, and still are today.
However, Arabic-speaking nations are free of such controversy (at least nominally) simply because of semantics; in Arabic, there is no word for “beliefs,” only a word for belief as it relates to God.
Minnehaha alum Brady Ryan (‘12) made this distinction early on in his stay in Jordan.
Jordan, a Middle-Eastern nation bordering Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, is the place Ryan is calling home from September 2013 through June 2014 through the Qasid Arabic Institute.
After graduating from Minnehaha, Ryan spent his freshman year of college at Michigan State University and declared an Arabic major.
The whirlwind of language, politics and cultural awareness that stemmed from his decision led him to Jordan.
After declaring his major, Ryan enrolled in a 10-week summer Arabic program at the University of Texas.
“I knew early on that I wanted to advance quickly in Arabic because I felt like I wouldn’t get up to speed fast enough if I was just doing the regular one class a semester,” said Ryan. However, the intensity of the Texas Arabic program took some getting used to.
“It was crazy,” said Ryan. “I had class for about five hours a day and I had about five hours of homework every day and double that on weekends. It was really draining.””
The intensity of Ryan’s time in Texas caused him to evaluate what he wanted to do with his life.
“ My plans have changed a million different times since I started university and they probably will continue to, and that’s fine,” said Ryan. “At first I wanted to be a translator; my focus had been that [Arabic] is a hard enough language, and if I can get really proficient in it that will be my job skill and I’ll be able to apply that to whatever field I decide to go into.”
Ryan originally wanted to be a translator, then considered using his Arabic skills to practice international law, but stated that his career options resemble a “double-edged sword.”
“I’m undecided about how badly I want to live in the U.S.,” said Ryan. “Being [in Jordan] has changed things all over again because for a while I really didn’t want to work for the government, but now I’m realizing how good the practices and institutions we [Americans] have are.”
Ryan is considering living and working in Washington D.C. using his Arabic skills based on the perspective he has gained through being an American in the Middle East.
“There’s a lot of respect in the United States for individual difference in that we have a really tolerant society,” said Ryan, “with different religious views, different ways of living life. We have a lot of respect for individual freedoms, and there’s not that same social value [in Jordan]. More than any other country in the world we value free speech, but I don’t want to paint the picture that [Jordan] is a place where there’s no freedom. There’s just not the same cultural understanding or fervor for these values that we have.”
Ryan’s increased understanding of the differences between Jordanians and Americans impacts his views of his family and friends as well.
“Brady has posted very informative and reflective things on his blog that further helps us appreciate the similarities and the drastic differences in our two cultures,” said Ryan’s mother Pam. “He has a way of always teaching us about tolerance, justice and humanity whether that is his intention or not.”
The cultural discrepancies between Americans and Jordanians extend to the realm of religion.
“I was riding a bus yesterday and this guy tried to get me to convert to Islam,” said Ryan, an example of how most Islamic Jordanians assume Americans are Christians. Another difference is the way Americans construct their belief systems.
“In Arabic you can only say ‘belief’ referring to belief in God,” said Ryan. “That word is religiously connotated; there’s no plural for it. We were trying to say how your beliefs might change, but you can’t really express that idea using that word. Americans have a more multifaceted way of how they construct their belief systems, taking bits and pieces from reason and whatever spiritual [belief] you ascribe to or the things that your family teaches you and the things you just feel in your gut. You construct this huge thing, and I don’t think there’s that diverse construction [in Jordan].”
Ryan’s perspective as an American affects the way he views religious institutions as they exist in Jordan, but also impacts how he views the conflict in Syria, barely 100 miles from where he lives.
“It was weird to be here and not really know what the implications of that would be, and I’ve never been this close to a conflict zone,” said Ryan. “The uncertainty of what would have happened if there was a U.S. intervention [provided] an interesting perspective.”
Though Jordan is one of the most stable nations in the Middle East, Ryan’s family still worries about him.
“Safety is my main concern,” said Ryan’s brother Davis, a junior at Minnehaha. “Brady is independent enough to have a good time, learn a lot, and become a better person through this experience. All of that will happen. Staying safe and unharmed is the only thing that I worry about. [But] if anything starts to go wrong, he knows that leaving, regardless of his previous plans, is the right choice.”
Ryan went to Jordan well-informed of the situation he was getting into, and only a few months into his experience began to question and contemplate his own values and the values of his country.
“I have a [greater] sense of what it means to be an American,” said Ryan. “For a lot of people our age, America’s place in the world focuses around the Iraq war and that’s something we’ve all grown up with. It makes me and a lot of my peers question the value of America on a global scale and if America is a force for good in the world.”
Life in the Middle East is strapped with uncertainty.
However, Ryan’s curiosity and willingness to ask the big questions, regardless of if he finds the answer, is what his adventure is all about.