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 All Ears for Arabic

Fulbright scholar puts listening to the test to research cultural conflict in Jordan

During her freshman orientation four years ago, political science major Emily Hawley ’13 told her advisor that she’d always been interested in Arabic. Professor Timothy Lukes “helped me get the courage to try it,” she recalled.

That beginning language class led to a yearlong study abroad program in Jordan and then, this spring, to a prestigious Fulbright fellowship—one of the world’s most competitive awards for international education exchange. “My college years have always driven me toward the Middle East,” explained the honors student.

Fulbright recipients design their own research projects, and when Emily leaves in mid-August for another year in Jordan, she’ll be equipped with a proficiency in Arabic, a list of Jordanian contacts, and a burning desire to test her theory that the country’s tribes have a leading role in the success or failure of democratic reforms.

“When I was studying last year at the University of Jordan, I saw how tribal conflicts could so easily shut down the whole school,” she said. “It might just be someone throwing a snowball at the wrong person, but suddenly, havoc would break out.”

The troublemakers, she explained, would be expelled, but then reinstated by the king, “because they came from powerful families.”

Such incidents led Emily to wonder what influence Jordan’s strong tribal system has on promoting or impeding the democratic reforms promised by King Abdullah II. “It’s an under-researched topic; the tribes often have an incentive to keep the system at its status quo,” she noted.

Emily’s academic curiosity puts her in a small circle of students Lukes considers to be his best. “Simply put, she is an intellectual,” he said. “It speaks well of her Jordanian hosts that they are disposed to receive this perceptive and inquisitive scholar.”

Emily will tackle her research project during the second half of her stay, after spending several months in intensive Arabic classes in the capital city of Amman. She plans to travel throughout the country, talking and listening to the people she meets.

“It will be important to approach this topic of tribal influence with a lot of awareness,” she explained. “It’s easy for an outsider to offend, but I’m a good listener and the connections I’ve made will help.” One of those connections is Mohammad Momani, a high-level government official recently appointed to the king’s Cabinet, who will help guide her research.

“Jordan is a nation of storytellers; they are great hosts,” Emily said, “and many will be happy to talk to me.” In addition, she noted that she’ll back up her conversations with statistical evidence in an effort to quantify her findings.

After spending so much time already in Jordan, Emily isn’t worried about traveling independently. “Jordan is safe as long as you take precautions; you have to know when taking public transportation is okay and when hiring a car is better,” she explained.

Her focus will be on maintaining the right mental attitude and developing “a higher consciousness of the Middle East,” a goal she believes to be critical for all Americans. Eventually, she hopes her research and experiences in Jordan will lead to work with the U.S. Foreign Service.  

While Emily will miss not being able to wear shorts when she goes running—in fact, she’ll need to be totally covered, even in the hottest weather—she said there is much to look forward to in Jordan. “I really love the people and I’m eager for the interaction with them; they are truly amazing, so hospitable and generous.” And then, there’s the food.

“They do wonderful things with the simplest ingredients, like pita and hummus; we don’t have anything like it here.”

The next fyi will feature Fulbright recipient Aven Satre-Meloy. Find out how he will use the grant to teach English in Turkey.

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