Arabic and Life Lessons: My Summer in Lebanon

I finished my second year of college feeling as if I was about to loose something dear to me. I had completed the Arabic program at my university. Some of my favorite memories formed in the Arabic classroom. Fortunately, this wouldn't be the end of my Arabic study.

My parents encouraged me to study Arabic abroad. Grateful for my parent's encouragement and after a few Google searches, I decided exactly where I wanted to go -- Beirut, Lebanon. That summer I would spend six weeks in a Middle Eastern country, studying Arabic at the Lebanese American University.

I travelled to Lebanon to learn Arabic, but also because of my interest in The Middle East. In Lebanon, I learned much about the simple concepts of sharing, understanding, and living. On the smallest of levels to the most complex, these concepts offered a rich educational experience. All the while, I searched for potential links between the West and the Middle East.

In brief, the land of Lebanon conveys a unique spirit and stunning scenery. Its cuisine is as bold and rich as its culture.

After drives up the country's coast or a walks along Beirut's corniche, the Mediterranean Sea greeted me. It's waves crash with both fury and grace. Cities like Beirut, Byblos, Jounieh, and Tyre welcome its embrace.

During Eid weekend, some friends and I made a slight deviation away from the coast, and moved a bit inland. The landscape shifted, bringing us uphill and then through olive groves. Eventually, we arrived in Ehden, Lebanon. The mountain village provided a gentle breeze and its nature, a rural comfort.

In addition to Lebanon's landscape, the many sounds and flavors of Lebanon enriched my stay. I soon became accustomed to the sounds of Beirut: traffic, the roosters outside of my apartment, and the Islamic call to prayer. In Lebanon, Fariuz's voice held more power.

In itself, Lebanese cuisine provided adventure. While sipping Lebanese coffee, I thought of how I always considered cardamom's aroma to be a method of transportation. This time, I was already there. Similarly, thyme and sesame never bored my taste buds. Za'atar is lemony-herby perfection.

It was common for a group of friends of mine and I to visit cafes and order an array of cold and hot appetizers. As soon as a bowl of hummus or labneh (kefir cheese) was served, we all gathered around, pita bread in hand. Subconsciously, we all ate out of the same bowl. We all shared food and memories too. In ways, it felt like an altruistic and unifying practice.

The concept of sharing appeared in more complex topics as well. During my trip, I became more acquainted with the subject of power sharing in the Middle East. In Lebanon, this topic is an important political reality.

The Lebanese political system has divided key government roles to different religious groups. For fifteen centuries, Lebanon has housed a multitude of religious sects and ethnic groups. Druze, Maronite Christians, Shias, and Sunnis, among others, make up the threads of Lebanon's social fabric.

Throughout Lebanese history, the Lebanese people have endured much pain, lost much blood, and suffered from divisive societal toxins. It is true that elements have disrupted political balance, yet the concept of power sharing persists in Lebanon. Arguably, this system of governance has only intensified political unrest. Today, Beirut is suffering much from a trash crisis. Additionally, The Lebanese parliament has yet to elect a president. Broken politics have become all too real. In part, factional divisions underlie this political dysfunction. It is crucial that political change takes hold. With this in mind, Lebanon should seek a democracy and order intrinsic to its own society.

Over time, these tensions have experienced some remedy. Yet even a bit off balance today, all of the religious and ethnic forces of Lebanon contribute greatly to the country's mosaic, and to its beauty.

Coupled with Lebanon's diversity, the Arabic language deserves much credit for its contribution to Lebanon. Simultaneously, Arabic is methodical, rhythmic, and deep. Traveling to an Arabic-speaking country was the ultimate test of my language abilities.

I was amazed to see my vocabulary words from my textbooks and flashcards suddenly appear on street signs, buildings, and street art. I came to Lebanon to thoroughly learn a language I loved -- to understand its depth and power and to intimately experience its beauty.

Naturally, the concept of understanding permeated in other forms during my trip as well. After exploring a small bookshop in Byblos, I came across a book written by Amin Maalouf (a Lebanese-born French author) titled Disordered World.

In his book, Maalouf stresses the importance of human dignity. To allot each member of society their entitled human dignity, mankind must be respected and understood. Commenting on the matter Mallouf pleads: "If we want human diversity to translate into harmonious coexistence... we need to know [others] subtly, up close; I would go as far as to say intimately."

Throughout my Arabic study, I always felt the learning of a language gives one the keys to a culture, its people, and their history. Maalouf emphasizes the need for people to understand each other by knowing about their "dreams, frustrations, and vision of the world." Because of my acquired Arabic knowledge, I did feel an unexpected closeness to Lebanese society.

Through my own observations and learnings about Lebanon, I noticed the themes of both life and sorrow. For instance, the environment at cafes in Beirut displayed friends enjoying each other's company or live music encouraging individuals to move to the beat. It was obvious that the Lebanese people simply want to enjoy life, valuing the moment. Additionally, intellectualism and attitudes for change are palpable too.

At the same time, sorrow is felt or remembered. Syrian refugees beg in the streets. Bullet-holed buildings, now remnants of the civil war, leave scars. Shop owners wait outside their shops, anticipating business.

I constantly wondered how a single place could have experienced being both heaven and hell on earth. But that is Lebanon, a place of both pain and beauty.

It was not until I began my Arabic study that I could really connect with this part of the world. The Arabic language gave me a key. With such a key, I unlocked much about Lebanese society and the Middle East.

Having an allegiance to the Western World, I have grown to distaste the disconnection between the West and The Middle East. In part, my desire to witness a bridge being built between these two worlds inspired my interest in the region.

Upon arriving home, I thought more deeply about the concepts of sharing, understanding and living that I recognized and learned from in Lebanon. This fight towards bridging two worlds will be a shared one. Through understanding each other, diplomatic change will come more easily. And perhaps if we commit to such a task, living harmoniously seems like less of a naïve dream.

Thank you Lebanon for the Arabic lessons and, equally, the many life lessons.