Despite living in the Middle East during last year’s Arab Spring, Sidney Ainkorn ’12 (Olney, Maryland) had a riot-free semester. This was probably because she was studying in Jordan, one of the Mideast’s most stable countries. “Classes and excursions continued as normal, so on a day-to-day basis it didn’t feel less safe than it would any other semester,” says Ainkorn.
She was part of a small SIT program called “Modernization and Social Change,” held in the Jordanian city of Amman. There were ripples from Arab Spring, however: A student fleeing a program in Egypt joined the Jordan program, and the 25 students also found that many class speakers wanted to discuss the political unrest instead of the topics assigned. It was all over the news, of course, and they didn’t get to spend a week in Egypt, as promised. But otherwise the students in Jordan, like Ainkorn, didn’t see much evidence of the large-scale protests wracking the rest of the region.
Ainkorn, a geography major and political science minor, chose a Middle East program in part so she could try out the Arabic she’d been studying at Macalester. Once in Jordan, however, she soon realized that what was needed to order food and talk to cab drivers was not the Modern Standard Arabic she’d been learning but colloquial Arabic. Luckily, her SIT program provided a great teacher for that, and the colloquial version proved much easier to master. “Plus everyone’s English is better than my Arabic, so you can often switch back and forth,” she laughs.
Like many study abroad programs, Ainkorn’s included a research project. She decided to look at the state of public transportation in Amman—still a work in progress, as it turns out. “Amman is very much a car city,” says Ainkorn. “We students got around in taxis and it’s hard to be a pedestrian there. The car is king.” Although a feminist professor had told her horror stories about taking the city bus, Ainkorn found it “uneventful” if rather hard to decipher in terms of schedule and routes.
She was immediately put in touch with a city official who shared with her a master plan for the future of public transit in Amman, which focuses on adding bus rapid transit in dedicated lanes. He ended up advising her throughout her research project. The entire experience, “definitely strengthened my interest in public transportation,” says Ainkorn, who also is completing an urban studies concentration at Mac.
Jordan is an easier place for an American woman to study than other Middle Eastern countries, says Ainkorn, who dressed modestly but in a Western style while living there. “It’s very diverse for women in Jordan,” she says. “Some wear the hijab, others go bare-headed. It’s really a personal choice.”
Not so in the more conservative nation of Oman, which the group visited for a week in lieu of the usual trip to Egypt. There the female students in the SIT program had spent months wearing the abaya in public. The fashion solution of Ainkorn’s group? “It was really hot there,” she says, “so we women ended up buying long skirts and wearing them every day.”
At the end of her Middle East stay, Ainkorn finally made it Egypt for a few days. Not surprisingly given the recent unrest, she says, “We hardly saw any other Westerners. There were almost no tourists left.”