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!

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