Ibtesam Moh'd Abdel Rahman Al Atiyat

Ibtesam Moh'd Abdel Rahman Al Atiyat
Program Officer, Jordanian National Commission for Women, Jordan
Discipline: Sociology
Lecturing: Women, Islam and Politics in the Arab World
Host: University of Wisconsin—Green Bay, Wisconsin
August 2005–May 2006

An adventure to the Land of “Cheese-heads”

I was awarded a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence (S-I-R) grant for the 2005-06 academic year at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. On my way to the university, a young American approached me on the plane from London to Chicago and said, “So, you are heading to the land of cheese-heads?” No reaction came out of me. I had no idea what he was talking about, nor did I even dare to ask. On that plane I learned my very first lesson about Americans: very straight forward, social and friendly. They will approach you without any previous knowledge with a friendly smile or a joke and start a conversation right away. This was something I am not accustomed to. Coming from an Arab culture, men approaching women with a joke or with direct conversation is not the norm. Even my six-year experience in a Western country (Germany) did not help in that respect, for Germans would consider such an action an invasion of their social distance, which they try hard to keep especially during interactions with a stranger. This incidence taught me also, that we Arabs, if I may generalize, also stereotype Westerners, despite some significant differences.

Back to the mystery of cheese-heads, the stranger’s comment did not leave my mind for a while. So, I asked my host as soon as I landed in Green Bay, Wisconsin,  “What is a cheese-head?” She laughed from the bottom of her heart. I was even more confused at this point, but also relieved with her laugh. It is then a joke not an insult. To make things more confusing she said, “Save the question for your students. So, I had to wait 10 more days to get an answer!!!”

The 10 days passed, and I met my students first in a class on “Women in the Middle East” and asked, “What does a cheese-head mean?” A wave of laughter came a cross the class. “What is it, people?” I ran out of patience. Finally, the cheese-head, as explained by my students, was an American football-fan ritual. Green Bay residents support their Packers (an American football team), by using hats literally made in a shape of big cheese piece. It also refers to their pride in producing significant amounts of milk products, such as cheese—Wisconsin is well known for that. Mystery solved.

That class was very dear to me, not only because it was my first exposure to American students, but also for the fun we had challenging all the stereotypic images of Arab and Muslim women in the Middle East. The thirst to learn about “us” made my trip to the United States really worth it. Seeing them struggle to spell names and concepts in Arabic and to be able to define them by the end of the course was more than rewarding. The very early weeks of the class made a huge impact on the students. I started receiving e-mails and cards thanking me for explaining things “better” for them. “Now the news makes much more sense,” a student said in one of her cards. “I talk politics now, and I even challenge views often delivered by my male relatives … I am very proud of myself,” a 19-year-old female student once said to me. A teacher cannot get any better feeling than that.

This class was by no means one way in its direction. Indeed, it was a cultural exchange by all the meanings of the word. Once, the class insisted on celebrating Thanksgiving (an American holiday) with me in the classroom. So, the turkey, the yams, the gravy, the eggnog, and not to forget the pumpkin pie, etc. were all brought to the classroom in exchange for a Jordanian traditional dish which was stuffed wines leaves. We enjoyed our “Thanksgiving brunch” and I realized listening to my students talking about their holiday plans, that family still matters in the United States. True, the stereotypic individualism and materialism of a Western society are present in Green Bay, more or less, but family and family relations are still respected there.

By the end of our “Thanksgiving brunch”, the students made me a surprise. They gave me a cheese head. This was the sweetest thing I was ever given. This cheese head, now hanging on the wall of my bedroom in Amman, is so precious to me to the extent I was hugging it the whole way back home on the planes and at the airports in Chicago and London. I looked funny no doubt, but I did not care. This cheese head has a huge sentimental meaning that no one could ever imagine.
Another class I taught was about the social change and development processes in my country of Jordan. The class also went very well, and was well attended; this time with more young male students. We discussed all relevant issues in society and culture in Jordan, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the war in Iraq, democratization and reform, women’s issues, and even my personal life. Never have I felt my life so interesting to someone, like the way I felt in Green Bay. “You are challenging all of what we assume we know about Arab and Muslim women … the way you dress, the way you talk and above all to see you so independent, well educated and multilingual. This is something beyond our imagination,” students said in their class evaluations. Some even did not want the class to end. This feels so great and breaks my heart at the same time. Would I be treated the same when I get back home? Would my work leave such an impact? I wonder.

The highlight in this class was a visit to a mosque in a town nearby. Preparing the student for the visit was so enjoyable. The mosque was so happy to receive us, the imam consented on letting my students dress the way they wanted i.e. no head cover or hijab was required for female students. My students, however, insisted on going through the whole experience. So many of them went shopping for a hijab, and asked me to demonstrate wearing it in the class, which I did. Some were even so excited about the experience that they used the hijab all day in their neighborhood, explaining to everyone who asked its real meaning. This was so exciting.

More exciting was also seeing my students (males and females) joining the people for a prayer at the mosque. I was moved by their openness and willingness to learn, and their respect to my religion and culture. Some reflected on the visit by saying, “I always wanted to see a Muslim prayer.” This trip showed me that there are almost no differences between “you” and “us”; it is obvious that we all are peace loving people­.

In addition to teaching, the Fulbright Program offers Visiting Scholars a special Occasional Lecturer Fund. Benefiting from this chance, I was not only able to see other parts of the United States (other than the very cold Wisconsin), but also to extend my impact and knowledge further. Logically, California was my first destination. My host, the California State University—San Marcos, was so excited to have me. They had a full schedule planned for me. Community colleges were involved. I lectured on three main campuses there in English and German. There was an added benefit there for me too, I asked my host to introduce me to the women’s groups in San Diego County, which she did. Amazing the things I have learned there. Things I will definitely use in my work back home.

Pennsylvania was another OLP destination. In both Philadelphia and Lancaster, I had the opportunity to lecture on women and Islam. One major experience that I did not expect was in one of my lectures in Philadelphia. I was explaining the meaning of the veil in Islam as it reflects religion, purity and chastity. I remember making this comment, “Veiled women are normal women.” I meant not oppressed nor secluded. This sentence caused a wave of applause that I did not see coming. “Tell them again that veiled women are normal women,” a religious female faculty member at Chestnut Hill College said out loud. “People tend to misunderstand us too when we use the veil.” I realized then, that women have many things to relate to regardless of cultural context. This is a good base for cultural understanding that needs to be enhanced further. We, all over the globe, tend to dramatize differences and neglect commonalties. This approach, if continued, will definitely lead us to a real “clash of civilizations.”

A Fulbright Scholar in the United States is highly valued, and people coming form different cultures are often treated as celebrities. My pictures and activities were always in the university’s newspaper, and Web site. People appreciated me so much that I was invited to lecture everywhere one could ever imagine: a museum, a library, a church, etc. It was a great time. I wish it never ended.

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