Many students take advantage of Western Michigan University’s study abroad programs to explore other places and experience other cultures. One student found herself in a completely different world. Magen Dennis, senior, studied abroad and experienced a new culture at the American University of Sharjah, located 20 minutes outside of Dubai. For over six weeks, from June 15 until July 23. Dennis was in the Intensive Arabic Program in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), experiencing a completely different world.
“It was a growing experience, in that it was my first time overseas,” Dennis said. It was difficult for Dennis to adjust to a different culture, she said, describing first arriving at UAE. “Because of the cultural differences, we really didn’t interact much with the local students and it got kind of lonely sometimes,” Dennis said. Despite the initial cultural shock, Dennis would say there were people who did help with adapting to the culture, including her professors.
“The courses themselves were very intense and difficult,” said Dennis. “The professors were very good and knowledgeable in the language and the culture. They did a lot to help us adjust to the culture.” A comparative religion and global and international studies double major with minors in Arabic and nonprofit leadership, Dennis was able to witness firsthand the Islamic culture, including participating in the holy month in Islam, Ramadan. “As a religion student, it was really cool to experience that first hand,” Dennis said. “There was a mosque on campus I visited four or five times. The people there were very friendly. I had really positive experiences with the people.”
On most days of Ramadan, Dennis fasted along with the people and also took part in a nightly meal called Iftar. “Iftar is a meal at sunset when people would break fasting,” said Dennis. “It was like Thanksgiving every night.” After attending a few formal Iftars, Dennis described them as culturally engaging. “There were lots of traditional dishes served. All the meats were halal, [permissible by Islamic law] from cow meat to meats I wouldn’t otherwise try,” Dennis said. “We would have all these people who didn’t speak English on the floor, sharing a meal. It was really cool.” Along with studying and engaging in rituals, Dennis also got to visit surrounding areas. She traveled to Oman, the neighboring country, which she described as the “most culturally engaging [part] of the trip.”
Dennis also had the opportunity to engage in the culture by visiting the second and third largest mosques in the world. “Those were really cool,” Dennis said. “One Friday during Ramadan, we went to second largest mosque for afternoon prayer. It was really awe inspiring to be a part of it. There were so many people there to worship at once.” The religious impact on the country was very apparent to Dennis. “There were calls to prayer five times a day to stop and focus on their faith which was really neat just to be immersed in a totally different culture,” Dennis said.
Dennis also said that gender roles was another greatly respected aspect. “They have so much more respect for the way women are treated,” Dennis said. “Women always got priority seating, were treated very well, like a protected guarded asset and appreciated. To experience that first hand was really cool.” An example she gave was on a two hour bus ride from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. “Men weren’t allowed on the bus until women were seated and if a man does not know you, they’re not allowed to be seated next to you,” Dennis said. “[I] went to a buffet and if woman was in line, she was allowed to be served first instead of waiting in line.”
Among the cultural differences, Dennis and her group went to Shisha cafes or hookah cafes. “We’d go out to tea shops, play cards and smoke shisha,” said Dennis. They also witnessed sea turtles laying eggs. “We went on a tiny boat, and went for a boat ride out to watch the sea turtles mate and they were popping up everywhere, you’d see one head then two heads then more heads,” Dennis said. “At night, the sea turtles came onto beach, and there would be 50 to 100 sea turtles out there to dig out their nests.”
Dennis and her group got to see the higher lifestyle of the country, including the largest skyscraper in the world, The Burj Khalifa, and the nicest hotel in the world. “We got to tour the only seven star hotel in the world, The Burj Al Arab in Dubai,” said Dennis. “It was the nicest hotel in the world. Each suite has its own butler, and it cost over $2000 a night for a single room, not even a suite.” Dennis noted that the economic style of the country was all quite luxurious. “Everything [in Dubai] is really over the top,” said Dennis. “On campus we had Marble and Granite sidewalks and they’d pay people to mop the sidewalks. Porsches and Lamborghinis were seen all the time.” Upon returning to America, memories created with friends were a major thing Dennis brought back with her, and getting to embark on unique adventures.
Story from Western Herald, Vol. 98, Issue 2
by Richard Garza (Creative writing major, journalism minor)