Eli Bratsch-Prince Returns from Jordan
Written by: Eli Bratsch-Prince
University of Iowa '20, BA Political Science
In April 2019, one month prior to completing my Political Science degree at the University of Iowa, I was notified that I won a Boren Scholarship which I had applied for the previous winter. This came as somewhat of a surprise and a giant relief, as I still didn’t have solid post-graduation plans. The Boren Scholarships and Fellowships, funded by the National Security Education Program, are monetary grants given to U.S. undergraduate and graduate students to pursue full-time language study and focus on issues sensitive to U.S. national security in foreign countries. In exchange for receiving a Boren grant, the Boren awardee has a one-year service commitment to the U.S. federal government upon returning from their study program. As awardees must remain matriculated university students throughout their period of study, I postponed my spring 2019 graduation and traveled to Jordan.
Upon arrival in Jordan, I moved in with a Jordanian host family in the capital city of Amman. It is said that living with a local host family is the best way to learn a language and culture, and that was certainly the case for me in Jordan. I often sat with my elderly host father in the evenings as we watched the Al-Jazeera news channel in Arabic. He would rant about politics and Arab history and I would soak up all the information I could. In Jordanian society it is common to talk about your political opinions quite openly with people. I often would be berated with political questions while taking taxis around town. Initially I was overwhelmed by the passionate political talk, but by the end of my time in Jordan, taking the taxi had become my favorite daily routine, as it was a great way for me to practice my Arabic vocabulary.
From August to March I spent four hours per day in one-on-one Arabic classes at two different language institutes. There are dozens of local Arabic dialects across the Arab world and it is extremely difficult to become fluent in Arabic if one only studies the standard, formal Arabic language. Therefore, I spent half my time focusing on the local Jordanian dialect, which has evolved into a very different language than standard Arabic. Speaking like the Jordanians, I earned more respect from the local shopkeepers and taxi drivers. I was able to sustain conversations and bargain my way out of rip-offs with my local language abilities. While it was strenuous to learn virtually two different languages, it paid off as I became more comfortable living in Amman.
Islam permeates all segments of society in Jordan, even the language. This is something I had experienced in my previous travels to the Middle East. People greet one another with the words “assalamu alaikum,” or “peace upon you,” which is a traditional and respectful greeting in Muslim culture. When I used this phrase, I often got questioned about my religion – are you Muslim? Christian? Atheist? This always made me uncomfortable, as I was not used to speaking openly about religious beliefs. On some occasions, I got negative responses after stating my religious affiliation. This open talk of religion was one of the more uncomfortable challenges I had to deal with while living in Jordan. However, in general, Muslim-Christian relations are excellent in the country, as around 5% of the Jordanian population is Christian.
In mid-March, the Boren staff announced that all awardees needed to return to the U.S. due to the COVID-19 crisis. It was a sad day when I packed up and left my family of seven months. Upon returning to Iowa, I have been planning my next step, which is to apply for language analyst positions in the intelligence agencies. I continue my Arabic daily with various Jordanian Arabic partners and I plan to visit them again when I am able.