My name is Thomas, and I am a 2021-2022 Gilman Alumni Ambassador from Alabama. I graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2020 with a degree in International Studies and a minor in Anthropology, which is the field of the master’s program that I am actively pursuing at the same university. As a Gilman Scholar, I studied the Arabic language abroad in Amman, Jordan in 2019.
What are your first thoughts when you think of the Middle East? Maybe your first reaction is that of sand and intense heat, or maybe your knowledge comes from news regarding the Arab Spring, refugees, wars, and displacement. My perspective on the Middle East was always of fascination. In my undergraduate program, I studied the region intensively, from culture to politics. As I studied the on goings of the Middle East from my dormitory in Birmingham Alabama, I had a skewed perspective, having never been to the region. I studied events in the region daily, both for and in and out of classes, studying the languages, the histories, and the peoples. I had begun to think that I would never fulfill my dream to visit the region that I had studied for so long, at least until on a whim I attended a Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship informational event hosted by my university study abroad office. What I learned that day went on to change my life completely, very much for the better.
After having attended the informational sessions on the Gilman Scholarship, I learned that I could fulfill my goal, by applying for the Gilman Scholarship and working with my university to not only visit the Middle East but spend months there studying Arabic, immersing myself in the culture, and soaking up every moment of life in Jordan. I applied for the Gilman scholarship, along with support from my university and professors, and cautiously awaited the decision, which was an acceptance that came sooner than I thought. With an acceptance letter in hand and an open mind, I traveled the farthest I’d ever had, a 25+ hour journey that found me in the capital of Jordan and near the heart of the Middle East.
Over the course of my time in Jordan, a re-occurring event happened to me and my fellow students, near-daily, hospitality. My own and others’ initial perspectives on the Middle East or Jordan did not initially contain thoughts of the people and their hospitality, but they do now.
Often, my classmates and I would hop on a public transportation bus or van and go wherever it took us, sometimes hours outside of the capital of Amman, to explore. No matter where we ended up, we discovered a street lined with shops and stalls, a bazaar, a market, or a trading place. We would walk along the shops and look at the interesting items up for trade or sale. At almost every shop we stopped at a shopkeeper and/or its owner would strike up a conversation, not about what they were selling but about us and our lives. Many of the Jordanians we came across sincerely were interested in our backgrounds and how we ended up in front of them. These pleasantries and introductions ALWAYS resulted in numerous offers of hospitality and generosity from the shopkeepers. Many times, the shopkeepers would decide to close their shops to sit with us and drink tea or call their families to prepare dinner or lunch for us as they had met new friends, as they wanted to break bread with us. If we were purchasing a small scarf or item ofttimes the shopkeeper would attempt to give us the items for free saying they did not want our money, that they were happy to meet us.
The people of Jordan and the greater Middle East are filled with such niceness, hospitality, and generosity that we were left speechless. Jordan and its people are truly one large family, excited and happy to meet foreigners, such as myself, who want to learn more about them and their beautiful country, culture, and traditions.
No matter your initial reactions or perspective on a country, people, or region, put it away and attempt to be unbiased, as only good can come from it. Coming to Jordan with an open mind and pure excitement provided numerous unique opportunities of sharing tea with a jewelry shop owner, breaking bread with a neighbor’s family who saw me walking by, and countless wonderful conversations with strangers I would not have otherwise had. No matter if you are traveling across the world or just a few hours away from your home, keep an open mind, an open heart, and surely you will have wonderful experiences that you will treasure for the rest of your life, like I was able to experience in Jordan.