Istanbul (image credit: Behrooz Ghamari)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Experiencing the Intersections of Spain and Morocco

Tariq Shihadah, Class of 2015

It is one thing to learn about a culture from the outside, and another thing entirely to be deeply immersed in a world different from your own. There is no textbook nor lecture that can compare to smelling the fragrance of a land, walking through its streets, and meeting the faces of its people. This past summer I had the chance to do just that, as I, along with four other students and Professor Mark Dressman of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, trekked through the lands of Andalusia and al-Maghreb.

After learning one evening of this unique opportunity to study the historic intersections of Spain and Morocco, I immediately completed my application and got in contact with the professor hosting the trip. When I applied for the study abroad trip that night, I didn’t necessarily have any intentions of pursuing it seriously; I only wanted to open the opportunity for myself for consideration in the future. However, as time passed and I was accepted to the program, I began to realize just how remarkable an option it was for me. As the day approached for me to make a decision, I nervously chose to join the trip -- a choice which afforded me one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.

Our journey began the week after the Spring semester had ended, when we met in the Chicago O’Hare airport and flew overseas to the culturally rich city of Madrid, Spain. From this day on through the next two and a half weeks, we explored and immersed ourselves deeply in the cities, towns, and cultures of the Andalusian and Maghrebi regions, leaving no sound unheard and no dish untasted. In Spain we discovered the intricate beauty of the Al-Hambra in Grenada, visited the peculiar and fantastic cathedral within a mosque called the Mezquita, and even had the chance of visiting the British enclave of Gibraltar, named after the famed Muslim conqueror from the Maghreb region. In Morocco, we did everything from spending a night in an Amazigh camp in the Sahara Desert, to washing in a community bath house called a hammam, to wandering through the streets of historic cities such as Fez, Marrakesh and Rabat, intimately encountering exciting history and vivid culture.

As we travelled, we had the opportunity to meet and engage with several locals, who were able to teach us a great deal about the regions of Spain and Morocco, their histories, and their cultural intersections. We collected recordings and other media as we proceeded with our trip, and are now in the process of creating a curriculum supplement for teachers and students to learn about these topics through engaging and relatable materials. Collecting the media and information for this initiative has been a challenging yet exciting and very rewarding experience, and the chance to contribute to the world’s library of educational resources has been an honor and gift.

This spectacular trip was made possible in part for me by the CSAMES Undergraduate Scholarship for Study Abroad. I learned about this scholarship through the professor in charge of our study abroad program, and decided it was imperative that I apply for it to help make the trip a more financially feasible option for me. Shortly after completing a simple application on my computer, I was informed by the CSAMES department that I had been selected for the $1000 scholarship, which was to pay for more than 30% of the costs of the program.

This is only one example of how supportive the University of Illinois and its many departments of study are, as they help their students pursue cultural and academic enrichment. The opportunities for programs and trips similar to mine are everywhere, and the financial and advising support is accessible to all students. There are countless extraordinary and life-changing adventures out there, only waiting for students who are willing to take a step outside the normal and take a step into the breathtaking world around us.

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