“So why are you here?” It’s a question I get all the time living in Amman and I can recognize why. I run around the city with a mess of blond curly hair, a cross around my neck, and functional but far from fluent Arabic. Understandably, people get curious. I am grateful that Fulbright placed me at my school, the Islamic Educational College for Girls in Jabal Amman, one of the oldest and most well-respected secondary schools in Jordan. Several members of the Jordanian royal family even studied there at one time or another. The school had their first Fulbrighter the previous year, an Iraqi-Muslim-American woman, who they adored. I was a little nervous to come to my school as the only Westerner and non-Muslim faculty member; would they accept me? Fortunately, the community welcomed me with open arms as a part of the family before they got to know me, but eventually my curious colleagues also asked, “Maddie, why are you here?” While my reasons for applying for Fulbright in Jordan are not immediately obvious, to me it makes perfect sense. I am interested in interfaith studies, particularly Christian-Muslim relations, and my school is a great opportunity for me to engage in informal interfaith dialogue and learn more about Islam in a non-academic setting. I am proud to wear a replica of the cross of my church in Maryland, where the church community sponsors a Syrian refugee family to live on church property. It reminds me that my faith calls on me to love everyone, always, with no agenda or exception. I appreciate when people ask me why I chose Jordan because it gives me an opportunity to explain that I happen to share a lot of the same values that are prevalent in Jordan’s Muslim-majority culture and that studying Islam and my conversations with Muslim friends help me to grow in my faith as a Christian.
I love living this life where my existence confuses people. I’ve learned cultural exchange takes many forms. I once played tug-of-war twice in one week as a twenty-two year old (at my Arabic institute and at a charity bazaar at my school). At the end of lessons, where I volunteer-teach refugee girls, I reward good behavior by teaching them dances I learned doing Rangila at Georgetown. In turn, they teach me debkeh dance steps, which I later practice as I dance around the teacher’s room at my school. Sometimes my best Arabic lessons happen when I throw on a fluorescent yellow construction vest to join hundreds of people, mostly Jordanians, to speed walk around Amman with friends.
Being a Fulbright ETA is wonderful because my teaching responsibilities are part-time, enabling me to engage with other activities outside of my formal assignment. I also intern at Jordan’s Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies, helping research and write reports on different religious groups in Jordan as well as assisting with events the institute hosts. Participating in social justice and interfaith programs at Georgetown was something I loved and now I get to continue to utilize my dialogue skills through both my work at my school and my internship. It has been a great experience to do research with the goal of disseminating a crucial truth about religion: there is no single story of how people living in Jordan worship. This is so important to me because the goal of Fulbright is to increase mutual understanding between the people of United States and people from other countries through international exchange. Often, my least favorite question to answer is where I am from because, even though I am grateful for my country, I frequently do not agree with the government. With many historical and recent US policy decisions that cause hurt and displacement in the Middle East, I can mourn with my friends in Jordan as we cry out for justice and peace. When there are hateful campaigns in the West like “Punish a Muslim Day,” I denounce these events and promise to share my experience in Jordan back home to aid in the fight to end Islamophobia. Being a Fulbrighter in a region where US policies are often unpopular, I have the opportunity to be an unofficial representative of the US government and show that there is also no single story of what it means to be an American–the American people are not our administration nor its policies.
I first heard about the Fulbright Program the fall of my first year at Georgetown when Jordan Denari-Duffner, who I look up to for her work at the Bridge Initiative and the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding, walked into my Arabic class to say hello to my professor after returning from her tenure as a Fulbrighter to Jordan. I scribbled into my Arabic notebook, “Figure out what Fulbright is and then apply for it after graduation.” Five years later I am still studying Arabic while in Amman, thanks to having the Critical Language Enhancement Award. This part of my grant allows me to take Arabic classes and receive tutoring in order to strengthen my colloquial, spoken Arabic. I would highly encourage anyone who is passionate about education or researching in a specific country to apply for Fulbright. While my experience with Fulbright has been pretty ideal, it is also important to note that this is due to a lot of things that are out of my control. There are so many more challenges that my friends face because they are people of color, are at schools where they have to fight to be respected and given meaningful work, identify as queer, practice a religion that is not officially recognized, or live in an area with less Fulbrighters in close proximity. I have learned so much throughout my time in Jordan and it is an honor to be a part of a network of American Fulbrighters in the MENA region and MENA region Fulbrighters in the US.