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Photo by Please Don’t Smile. Feature photo by Ahron.

Learn Arabic. Get a job. Contribute to world peace. Shatter your preconceptions.

Last week, Matador editor Sarah Menkedick wrote a controversial essay about why young travelers shouldn’t study abroad in Western Europe.

Sarah’s piece generated some controversy, and got me thinking about unconventional study abroad opportunities. Clearly, students who make the brave choice to travel far out of their comfort zones will experience more personal growth than students who spend a semester drinking wine in Florence.

Photo by place_light

Perhaps the greatest travel opportunity for this generation of students is to study abroad in the Islamic world. Here are ten good reasons why:

1. Contribute to World Peace

Between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the horror of terrorism, there is a great deal of mistrust and animosity festering between America and much of the Islamic world.

Authentic connections between American students and local communities in places like Syria or Indonesia will go a long way towards building a more peaceful and understanding world.

(For more on this point, please check out my article Youth Travel Programs are Vital to Our Security.)

2. Shatter Stereotypes

Too often, the Islamic world is caricatured in the West as a monolithic threat, with Muslims portrayed as angry and reactionary.

The truth is infinitely more subtle and multifaceted. First-hand experience and genuine interactions are the best ways to counter malignant stereotypes.

3. Build Your Resume

My cousin chose to study abroad in Jordan, and landed a great job right out of college in Washington DC.

If you’re hoping for a career that involves intercultural relations, politics, international business and travel, experience in the Islamic world will really make your resume stand out.

4. Discover Complexity

The Islamic world spans the globe and includes thousands of unique cultures, many of which are characterized by a fascinating blend of tradition and modernity.

Traveling in the Islamic world is a great way to discover the rich depths of complexity that make our world so enthralling. Just ask President Obama, whose time in Indonesia was a formative experience.

Photo by Alena Bartoli

5. Learn Arabic (or Bahasa, or Uighur, or Pashtun)

If travel experience in Jordan looks good on a resume, imagine how fantastic Arabic language skills would be!

I’m not sure if there’s any program to learn Pashtun while studying abroad, but I guarantee that an American student with Pashtun skills would find dozens of intriguing doors open upon graduating.

6. Save Money

A friend of mine from Williams College spent his junior year at the American University of Cairo. He saved several thousand dollars because of the lower tuition costs, enjoyed a fantastic time and landed a high-powered job after college.

7. Hookah and Shwarma

Chilling in a sidewalk cafe and smoking hookah with your friends is a brilliant way to pass an afternoon, and shwarma might just be the tastiest lunch ever.

Of course, hookah and shwarma aren’t available throughout the Islamic world, but wherever you go, you can count on enticing delicacies and exciting new cultural routines.

8. Confront Gender Roles

Great, you say. It’s all well and good for men to lounge around with water pipes all day, but what’s a woman to do?

Well, for both men and women, travel in the Islamic world presents a fascinating study in gender roles.

There are plenty of modern, feminist women in places like Lebanon and Cairo, but perhaps the most lasting lessons of your experience as a female in the Middle East will come from understanding first-hand the frustrations of discrimination.

9. Tradition and Modernity

The tallest skyscraper is in the Islamic world. So are most of the world’s oldest cities. The contrast and tension between tradition and modernity at this moment of time is utterly fascinating.

10. Reassure Your Parents

You will be safe traveling and living in an Muslim country. Really!

There’s a tradition of hospitality in places like Syria that will make even the most nervous traveler feel welcome and at ease. Apart from a few danger zones, even places like Amman or Bali that have suffered terrorist attacks are just as safe as, say, Buenos Aires, Houston, or Rome.

Reassure your parents by doing some extensive research on your destination, and by getting in touch with people who have already traveled there.

You can find many travelers with travel experience in the Islamic world right here on the Matador Network.

Community Connection

The youth travel company I work for, Where There Be Dragons, is launching new high-school summer programs in the Islamic world in an attempt to build genuine connections and promote mutual understanding.

Our summer program in Morocco was a big success last year, and in 2010 we’re adding an educational travel program in Indonesia and an Arabic program in Jordan and Syria.

Please get in touch with me or leave a comment below if you know of more opportunities for youth travel and study abroad in the Islamic world!

About The Author

Tim Patterson

Tim Patterson is a long-time contributor and former contributing editor at Matador Network.

  • JoAnna

    Western Europe, Islamic World or otherwise … I wish I’d studied abroad in college.

  • Eva

    “Clearly, students who make the brave choice to travel far out of their comfort zones will experience more personal growth than students who spend a semester drinking wine in Florence.”

    Clearly. Always. Because what students get out of a study abroad experience is totally dependent on location, not on a whole array of factors including (for a start) personal disposition, the support network they find/create for themselves, and the academic program they’re enrolled in.

    Tim, what I liked about Sarah’s piece is that she grounded it in her own experiences – contrasting her two stints spent studying abroad – and drew conclusions based on them. Sure, the article sparked some debate, but (as someone whose study abroad time was spent in England) I never felt like she was belittling the European study abroad experience out of hand. This, on the other hand, is flippant and reductive. It should be possible to express enthusiasm for an option without tearing down somebody else’s choice. For some people, a semester in Florence IS a “brave choice to travel far out of their comfort zone.”

    • Tim Patterson

      I hear you, Eva. That “wine drinking in Florence” comment was a bit flippant. I’m not sure what reductive means.

      You’re totally right that everything depends on perspective, and that for some students Florence is a brave step outside their comfort zones. It would be for me!

  • Kevin Post

    Tim, thanks for the post! I am going into Middle Eastern Studies myself and greatly look forward to living and traveling throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. I am going to share this article with friends and family. Thanks again.


    -Kevin Post

  • http://w Sophie

    Interesting piece and timely advice.

    Big fan of the Middle East myself and I’ve travelled there heaps, either as a single female or with my kids (also girls). I’ve never ever been met with anything but warmth and generosity. Furthermore, I’m convinced Arabic (along with Chinese and Russian) will be among the most important languages in the future. Speaking any of these will be a huge huge advantage in the job market.

    Eva: Your comment made me curious. I had to reread the piece to find what (I think) you refer to. And while I agree the piece could probably lose the “drinking wine in Florence”-bit, that’s hardly enough to qualify as flippant and reductive, is it?

    On the other side of the coin: I think the cultural differences between the USA and Western Europe tend to be underrated. At 17, I was a high school exchange student (in the USA). Before being dispersed around the country, a group of us were gathered for 3 days in NYC for fun and sightseeing, but also for briefings on what to expect and how americans really were quite different from us (Scandinavians). Essentially, it was about how we should expect lots more rules and a lot less freedom than we were used to, in the families, at school, generally.

    • Eva

      Sophie – The section I quoted is all I’m referring to. I have no issue with Tim’s positive points about studying in the Islamic world – I just don’t see a need to take a cheap shot at the European study abroad experience in the process.

      And I agree with you about the North American-European cultural gap being under-rated. I was shocked at how different things were, and how isolated I felt, during the year I spent studying in England – which, in turn, is why I don’t like to see generalizations about my experience amounting to a boozy, valueless cakewalk.

    • Tim Patterson

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Sophie! I agree that cultural differences between America and Western Europe can be underrated.

  • Ryukyu Mike


  • late_stranger

    I’m a freshman in high school and already dying to study abroad in the Islamic world. I almost went to a high school specifically to learn Arabic, but the other school I got accepted to was better in every subject (and I ended up taking Chinese and Spanish, so not much of a loss, considering I’m American).

    I was actually really surprised my parents allowed me to apply for Arabic because there is a study abroad component, which would have been in Cairo, and my dad was scared. But I’ve only ever been fascinated by everything to do with Middle Eastern culture. I want to spend at least a year of college, if not more, in the Middle East (no idea what country, yet, but I’ve got some time…).

  • Amanda

    Also, there are Muslim countries outside of the Middle East: Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh.

    • Tim Patterson

      Very true, thanks for making that point, Amanda!

  • Tim Patterson

    Hey, thanks for your comment. I’m really glad to hear that you’re pursuing Arabic in high-school. The world needs more young Americans like you!

    Feel free to get in touch with me if you’re interested in traveling in Morocco this summer –

  • Andrew Farrand

    Great article – I hope more young Americans find this and follow your advice.

    My perspective on the world in which we live was completely transformed by my studies in Syria and Jordan during college, and Morocco a few years after.

    In the hope that it might be useful to students aspiring to go there, here’s my advice for studying in Syria ( ) and Morocco ( ).

    Cheers and safe travels to all.

  • Heather Carreiro

    Amen to this. I was one of only two Middle Eastern Studies majors at UMass-Amherst when I was there, although I must admit that I’ve found my career options limited considering I don’t want to work with anything government sponsored.

  • Kelsey

    Love this list. Couldn’t agree more with #8, understanding first hand the “frustrations of discrimination” was critical to my understanding of this fascinating part of the world. In Morocco, I became acutely aware of my female-ness – much of my journaling and reflection after my time there was centered on my own biases and understandings of womanhood/feminism.

  • Amber Dawn Buchholz

    I do appreciate this article, but I wish you’d rethink the wording of point #8 – I think you’re perpetuating more stereotypes here than you’re breaking.

  • Erin

    First thing: Will Matador ever get past doing the “why you should or shouldn’t [study in the Middle East, study in Western Europe, travel alone, travel with a buddy, etc, etc, etc]” articles and the articles that begin with “10″ (as in “10 reason to…”, “10 things to bring to…”, “10 things I learned in…”). I don’t check this site regularly, maybe a couple times a month, but when I do there’s inevitably an immediate link to one of these SO overdone, cliché articles.

    Thing two: At least if you’re going to do this kind of overdone article, make the content relevant. I agree with Amber – talking about how there are “modern, feminist women” in cities is definitely NOT a modern way to put things. So I guess all those other women in the countryside are lost in the dark ages? This could have been an interesting article but most of its points could apply to almost any other non-Western nation in the world.

  • Mayena

    Need Money to Volunteer? American’s Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA) encourages Americans to volunteer in Muslim-majority countries by offering the Mosaic Scholarship. The scholarship helps volunteers cover the cost of program/travel fees.

    Apply for the Mosaic Scholarship today! You could be headed overseas to experience an adventure of a lifetime.

    Tim: We’d love to use your post on our blog with your permission.

  • Pingback: 10 Reasons to Study Abroad in the Muslim World « americasunofficialambassadors

  • Ben Orbach

    Tim -

    Great post, thanks. I’m really happy to see this and appreciate the points, especially contributing to world peace and shattering stereotypes. At Creative Learning, we’ve built an initiative around this concept and the idea that more Americans should volunteer, short-term in the Muslim World. In order to facilitate, we spent a year researching organizations that send or host American volunteers in the Muslim World and compiled The America’s Unofficial Ambassadors Directory of Recommended Organizations that work in education, community needs, youth empowerment, and other key areas throughout the Muslim World. The AUA Directory is a free resource, available at

    Thanks again for the article -


  • Zuha1998


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