MENA 101: Making Friends in Your Host City

We hope you enjoy another installment from the MENA 101 series. This is a series of featured articles about living in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), including MENA history and culture, as well as advice for students preparing for travel to the MENA region. The entry below was crafted by Education Abroad interns and former participants Grayce McGregor and Rachel Durning. We welcome submissions from alumni of AMIDEAST Education Abroad Programs—please send your articles and photos to!


A group of friends in Rabat, Morocco.

So, you have arrived and settled into your new living arrangements in your new host city. Whether with a host family or in an apartment, you are ready to go and start experiencing all the city has to offer. Just one issue – who can you call to adventure with you?

There is nothing wrong with some solo exploring, but it can be intimidating and possibly even unsafe in an unfamiliar city. Making friends is one of the most fun ways to immerse yourself in your host country’s culture! It can be difficult, however, to make the move from meeting someone to forming a real friendship. Here are five tips to help jumpstart those relationships when staying in the Middle East.

  1. Don’t be afraid to make plans, and keep them.

How many times have you suggested “Let’s hang out sometime” to an acquaintance, only to lose touch for months? Take responsibility here, and follow up with real plans. Mostly likely, people will be flattered that you think they are worth your time, especially if you already seem to have a bit in common. This can be as simple as inviting them to do something you planned on already, or asking where their favorite coffee shop is and meeting there sometime. Visitors should be aware of local social norms in which inviting members of the opposite gender to a solo coffee date may be taboo; usually, group activities are a safe bet. And plan to be flexible on the timing; you will need to adjust to the local attitude about time, which is generally less strict than the typical Western focus on punctuality.

  1. Latch on.

No one likes feeling like they are being clingy, but the most surefire way to make lots of new friends is to be persistent, especially in the early stages of meeting someone. Past alumni have found success in asking one friend to introduce all their friends. You could also start by hanging out with your host siblings’ friends and working from there. Just be consistent and clear that you are interested in a friendship by getting in touch regularly, every week or so. Soon you will have a group of new friends.

  1. Break the language barrier.

The language barrier is aptly named, as it can act as a wall between you and potential friends–but it will just take a little effort to break through it. A great icebreaker in new groups is card games. A deck of cards is a really simple thing to carry everywhere, and if you and your new friends know different games, teach them to each other! Games may seem a bit forced at first, but they are a good way to get conversation started and make you forget about feeling awkward, which can make the language barrier seem insurmountable.

  1. Always get phone numbers.

This is a no-brainer. If you like the person and want to stay in touch, say so and ask for their number! If Facebook seems more acceptable, that is also a good way to chat with new friends. It is always good to have people you can ask language or culture questions, or a buddy to explore with. Remember—once you have someone’s contact information, make sure to follow up and make plans.

  1. Remember: If you don’t reach out, no one will.

Take the initiative! You will be waiting forever for your new friends to make plans with you—they have friend groups and social lives already established. Local students may not be thinking of inviting a foreigner into their world, until you make them a part of your world. So, assume that nobody is going to do the planning, unless you do. It takes effort, but you won’t regret it.

Once you’ve made these friends, make sure to read our post about the different expectations for friendships in the Middle East.  Social relationships are different in every culture, so be sure you are aware of these differences and make sure not to accidentally offend anyone in your new host country!

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MENA 101: The Oud

MENA 101 is a series of featured articles about living in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). These posts include MENA history and culture, as well as advice for students preparing for travel to the MENA region. We welcome submissions from alumni of AMIDEAST Education Abroad Programs. Please send your articles and photos to!

Looking at the oud from another angle.

Looking at the oud from another angle.

If you do not know much about the Middle East or you are not a musician, you may not know about the oud. The oud is said to pre-date the lute and guitar. It is a stringed, gourd-shaped, instrument with four to six pairs of strings tuned to the same note. There are several regional styles in which the oud is played, among these are Syrian, Turkish, Egyptian, and Iranian. These styles are much like Arabian dialects; indiscernible to the foreigner, but to an expert, they tell stories about where the player is from. Since the oud has pairs of strings which are played together instead of individual strings like the guitar, the tone has a unique echoing sound which sets it apart from other stringed instruments.

The neck of the oud has no frets, so it is played completely by ear. It can be a quite a task for one learning how to play, especially when tuning the oud. The lack of frets also allows for more fluidity in the Middle Eastern scales than Western ears are used to. In Middle Eastern music, they have quarter tones. They sit between a note and its flat or sharp. To a Westerner, it may sound off-key. Played in context as a scale or song, the note has a unique sound that creates a step between the moods of major and minor keys.

Music in the Middle East is said to have gone through a ‘dark age’, during the time of the Ottomans and the British/French mandates (spanning around 700 years). This has not been helped by the fact that history in the region tends to be passed down orally. As a result, much of the traditional music history has been lost, although the songs have not. The most famous oud players have made their names in the past 100 years, unlike the great Western musicians, such as Bach, Mozart, and others. A few famous oud players are Nasseer Shamma, Farid al-Atrash, Mohamed al-Qasabgi, Riyad al-Sunbati, and Munir Bashir. Despite these expert oud players, there are many songs that are very old, but are not attributed to a particular artist.

The cultural role the oud plays is similar to a piano, as the music played on the oud tends to be considered more traditional whether or not the musical piece is old. You can find the oud in ensembles, but often if you stumble across a cafe or restaurant with an oud player, it will be played solo. As a traveler to the Middle East, you will likely see ouds, whether they are being played by a musician in a cafe, or hanging from the ceiling in the tourist shop. If you get a chance to visit a Bedouin camp overnight, they will often play music and dance around a campfire in the evening. Especially for the musically inclined, it is a definite treat to see an oud in action.

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Memories of Jordan

Sharon Hoeck, of American University, studied abroad in Jordan a year ago, in the summer of 2014. Here are some of the places in Jordan that left the biggest impression on her.

Temple of Hercules

Temple of Hercules

One of the first things that struck me about Amman is the juxtaposition of old and new. I took this picture in the Temple of Hercules at the Citadel—in a place that has been continuously occupied since the Neolithic Period—to remind myself of the civilizations on which our modern world stands. This column has seen thousands of years of history and continues to stand over a city of cell phones, satellite dishes, and honking cars.

Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum brought more adventures outside Amman: climbing up rock formations to find a rare spring in the desert, setting off fireworks after dark to celebrate the 4th of July, sleeping under the Milky Way, and a pre-dawn hike to watch one of the most spectacular sunrises I have ever seen. The quiet of the Wadi at sunrise drew a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city, leaving each one of us with our own thoughts to witness the reds, blues, purples, and oranges of the sun painting the desert.

Ajloun Nature Reserve

Ajloun Nature Reserve

For the Eid al-Fitr vacation, eight of us went camping in the Ajloun Nature Reserve. Four days of my friend cooking gourmet meals over a coal-fire camp stove and listening to the wolves howl at night culminated in a six-hour hike that four of us undertook. Halfway through, after eating our fill of wild figs and pomegranates, we rested in the shade of an olive tree and looked over the valley we had just traversed.

Arabic Carving

Arabic Carving

All the travel and trips aside, most of my time was spent studying this ancient language. With the help of my classmates, my teachers, and my host family, I was able to make gains beyond anything I expected. Although I was frustrated at times because of vocabulary words that slipped my mind after hours of study, the complexity and beauty of the language only increased my love for it and for this country.

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Big Things and Football

While abroad during the summer 2014 semester in Morocco, the grand size of the country’s sites impressed Mitchell Oeler, of Duquesne University. But Mitchell found personal connections when discovering American football on the beach.

Hassan II Mosque

Hassan II Mosque

The first weekend in Rabat, a few of my friends and I made the trip down to Casablanca. After a fun Friday night on Avenue de la Corniche, we woke up Saturday and took a walk to see Hassan II Mosque. It was easily one of the largest things I had ever seen! (That little man in the grey shirt is me; needless to say, I felt tiny.) When we tried to go inside for visiting hours, we were turned away because, as it turned out, the King of Serbia was visiting that day!

Cascade d’Akchour

Cascade d’Akchour

In keeping with the theme of things bigger than me, this one is of Cascade d’Akchour in the Rif Mountains near Chefchaouen. After hiking for 2 ½ hours, we were presented with this awesome sight! Of course after a long hike nothing sounds better than jumping in the cool mountain water, so with very little forethought we all hopped in. How I didn’t come out with hypothermia is still a mystery to me, but nevertheless the Cascade was one of my favorite things in Morocco.

New friends made playing American football.

New friends made playing American football.

My roommate and I ran into this bunch on the Rabat beach playing football. American football. Wait, WHAT?? We went over to talk to them, using our best Darija of course. After a little chuckle, one of the players introduced himself in perfect English as Medhi. He and his friends are trying to get American football more popularity in Morocco by forming a league. After a pretty intense game (which we won), we rinsed the sand out of our mouths and took a team photo! They were a great group of guys, and I hope their league keeps on growing.

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Filed under 2014, Morocco, Summer

Why I (Still) Live in Morocco

Eleanor Easton, originally from University of Chicago, studied abroad at Al Akhawayn University in the fall of 2012. Three years later she decided she wasn’t done with Morocco, so she made Casablanca her home.

Looking out across Casablanca, Morocco

Looking out across Casablanca, Morocco

Casablanca is a big, sprawling, and complicated city.  Sometimes the stoplights and walk signs don’t match up, sometimes simple tasks take hours to complete, and sometimes the garbage collector doesn’t come for weeks.  But it also has some hidden gems: organic fruit stands on every street with the sweetest fruits I’ve ever tasted, markets tucked into corners of the city, waiting to be found and explored, and incredible diversity of language, culture, and history.  There is always something new to discover or somewhere new to explore.

Nearly three years ago, I decided to apply for AMIDEAST’s direct enrollment program at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco.  I chose the program because I wanted to be an exchange student at a university instead of traveling with a group of Americans.  I thought I would learn more from being in a situation where I couldn’t easily rely on what I already knew.  But the greatest benefit of choosing this sort of program was not just that I was able to experience life as a student in Morocco, but also that those I met during the program were people who lived semi-permanently in Morocco, and so are still here.  After I finished my program with AMIDEAST, I returned to the U.S. just long enough to graduate from my university, and then came right back to Morocco.  I started teaching English at AMIDEAST in Casablanca this fall, after a year of teaching at an American school, also in Casablanca.  I am lucky to have old friends from my semester in Ifrane as well as new friends from my job in Casablanca.

Although there are moments when I feel like my classes are as chaotic as Casablanca at rush hour, teaching is one of the best ways to feel connected to Moroccan culture.  I teach several different classes, and each one has to be approached totally differently.  In my morning class, my students speak Arabic more fluently than French, so sometimes they teach me words in Arabic while I teach them English.  In my children’s classes, most students prefer to speak French.  In my business classes, I sometimes learn from adult students about their jobs and the companies they work for.  I have students who are studying English so that they can live outside of Morocco, and I have students who are studying so that they can find their dream jobs without leaving Casablanca.  Even though I am no longer in Morocco as a student, I feel like I am always learning something new.

Life in Casablanca is totally different from life in Ifrane; Ifrane is quiet, clean, and friendly, while Casa has too much traffic, too few trashcans, and not enough stop lights for its many busy intersections.  But my time as an exchange student in Ifrane prepared me in many ways for life in Casablanca, despite how different it was.  When I returned to Morocco as a teacher instead of a student, I felt that I was continuing something I had already started.  And now it’s not just a place I live for the duration of a program; it’s my home.

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Filed under 2012, Morocco

Religion, Art, and Books in Jordan

Summer 2014 brought Mark Hoover exploration and surprises in Amman, Jordan. Coming from the University of Pennsylvania, Mark discovered a new perspective on religion, historical art, and which books to add to his personal library.

St. George / Al-Khader Church

Inside St. George / Al-Khader Church

IMG_0350 mark hoover 2

Al-Khader Church Sign in English and Arabic

When I announced to my host family that after visiting the place where Jesus was baptized I would visit the town of Salt, I received an interesting assignment. I was to burn a candle in the church of Kidr (Moses’ mentor in the Quran) there and say a prayer for them. Strange, a Muslim family was asking me to burn a candle (a Christian practice) in a Christian church dedicated to a Muslim figure. I knew that Middle Eastern Muslims often conflate Kidr with St. George, and had even heard stories of Muslims showing up at festivities in churches on St. George’s day in Syria. I assumed that something similar was going on.

It was, only more intensely. In the story I had heard from Syria, the priests officiating the St. George day celebrations were somewhat bemused by the Muslims showing up, thinking that Kidr was the focus of the day. In Salt the clergy clearly went a step further and used the Muslim conflation of the two to their advantage. While the iconography in the church clearly indicated that it was dedicated to St. George, the sign advertised it as “Al-Khadr Church” in both English and Arabic. Either it was an instance of shrewd taking advantage of (harmless) inter-religious misunderstanding, or of syncretism, the Christians of Salt absorbing the Muslim conflation of St. George and Kidr till it became part of their own Christian veneration. It was an interesting experience nonetheless.

Fresco scene in Azraq

Fresco scene in Azraq

During the Eid al-Fitr break, a classmate and I went to visit Azraq, an oasis in the Jordanian desert known for the old “castles” around it. The last of these we visited was actually a Roman-style bath house for one of the ‘Umayyad Caliphs in Damascus. Its interior was completely covered in frescoes like the one pictured. Clearly the Caliph had a rather sensual artistic taste when bathing in the middle of the desert. Fresco scenes much more salacious than the one shown imply that they themselves were only depictions of what he himself got up to there.

The most interesting thing about the frescos was how un-Arab they were. Sometimes the tell-tale Arabic script remained, but apart from that everything about them was Byzantine. I had read before that when the Arabs conquered the Middle East, they brought no artistic culture with them, and thus, before they developed one of their own, informed by Islamic values, they simply adopted the art of their subjects. The frescos were a powerful real-life demonstration of this.

Books acquired in Jordan

Books acquired in Jordan

This picture shows my collection of Arabic books at the end of my stay in Jordan. Apart from the Bible (the big blue one in the middle), I acquired all of them in Jordan.

My book buying spree started small with the purchase of the books lying horizontally: a Quran, a medieval Arabic equivalent to Aesop’s Fables, and Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (the tiny book vertically next to these is a miniature Quran the shop owner gave me as a present when purchasing those three).

I received the small blue book as a present by the pastor of the church I attended in Jordan. It was written by the pastor of the church I attended back when I lived in Lebanon. Small world.

That would have been it, but then my host father mentioned a poem, the Alafiyeh Ibn Malik, which described the rules of Arabic grammar and which religious scholars had to memorize. Of course I needed to buy it too (it’s the small pink one next to the miniature Quran), and with it I bought a commentary on it (second from the left) and another work of similar stature (the third from left).

In the last two days, my teachers mentioned two books I “needed” to have. This time an important collection of hadith (first from the left) and the some pre-Islamic poetry (fourth from the left) were my target. While I was there, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn (a short Quran commentary, fifth from the left) found its way into my possession as well.

This spree of book-buying, which make packing on the return journey much harder, was a wonderful excursion into the world of Arabic classics. Now I just need to read them.

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Photo Journey Through a Fall in Morocco

Kristin Licciardell’s time away from Rutgers University on the Morocco Area & Arabic Language Studies fall 2014 program was well documented through the lens of her camera. Here are her favorite moments from four months abroad.

Kristin Licciardello

Jumping Off the Edge

Jumping off the Edge:

Taken along the river separating the city of Rabat from neighboring Sale, this location is a hot spot for locals and travellers alike. The river is lined with cafes, a small amusement park for children, and small boats that take people from one side to another. On a casual afternoon walk, I spotted a group of young boys jumping off the sidewalk edge. I tried to sneak a shot without them noticing, but they quickly recognized the foreigner with a camera and began doing stylish jumps and flips to show off. I have noticed that cliff jumping is a popular activity for young boys throughout many Moroccan beach towns. A Moroccan friend of mine in El Jadida (one of the best places to jump, because of the old Portuguese fort walls) pointed out to me that there are often separate levels of jumping— the higher the jumper, the higher the level. The older boys like to jump from the highest levels, while the younger boys jump off lower levels.

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Filed under Adventure, Beauty, Education Abroad, Morocco, Photography