“I wanted to give her a hug,” said Mollie as Amira walked towards the elevator. “She’s my new sister.” Taking my cue, I call out her name and Amira turned around. Mollie hesitated at first, then ran up to her. While the rest of us waited on line for the bumper cars at Cairo’s Dream Park, the two had gone off to grab lunch and in the process discovered that a Jewish American and a Muslim Egyptian had more in common than they ever imagined. They hugged and tearfully said their goodbyes – in Arabic.
The Pittsburgh Middle East Institute achieved this summer something no other overseas program has ever achieved. In one short month, students who had never studied a word of Arabic had built up a network Egyptian friends – most of them speaking little to no English – mastered the complex Egyptian public transportation system, attended lectures on Islam from a Sheikh at Al-Azhar, studied Islamic history and the literature of its Golden Age, learned to cook Egyptian food in the house of a professional chef, hit all the spots that make up Egyptian night-life for ordinary young adults and brought back to the United States an inexhaustible fund of memories, new perspectives and enthusiasm for a brighter and closer relationship between our countries.
All that for barely a quarter of the price of most equivalent programs. How did it happen? First, Egyptian society is based on who you know. The impersonal method of doing business in the United States guarantees that most other programs have to pay much higher fees for basic expenses such as living accommodations, transportation and language instructors. In addition, the goals of most programs are undefined or limited to learning some degree of the Arabic language. Instead, PMEI explained to each of our Egyptian collaborators that we wanted our American students to develop personal relationships with Egyptians their age, understand Egyptian culture from the inside, respect and appreciate their religion and cultural values, and participate in good will programs towards less fortunate members of society – refugees from Iraq and Sudan, orphans, child laborers. Many Egyptians volunteered and contributed to our student’s experience because the believed in the PMEI mission. Finally, we were not afraid to stretch the students limits. In many respects, the intensive language and cultural studies were demanding and exhausting for the students, but the benefits reaped were exponentially larger with the greater investment.
The Pittsburgh Middle East Institute plans to expand its programs to provide broader and more intensive contact with the Middle East to as many residents of Pittsburgh are interested in expanding their sights and points of view.
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