Unpacking Preconceptions

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a late arrival in Amman, Jordan on Sunday night, students in the Regional Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East program hit the ground running on Monday morning. An orientation at the Columbia University Middle East Center was followed by presentations at the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature office–more commonly known as “Wild Jordan”–which helped to arrange many of the excursions to Jordan’s environmental reserves in which students will partake this week. One particularly moving presentation on eco-tourism was from an inspiring young woman named Muna Haddad, founder of Baraka, a sustainable tourism company, who spoke eloquently about the unjustness of the western media’s representation of Muslims and of the Arab Spring.

Muna gave a passionate rebuttal to the portrayal of Arabs in western media and her words resonated with many of us who, on a regular basis, see the images of what appear to be angry Arab youths on the news and hear the words of fear propagated by the commentators. Her words forced us to take stock of what preconceptions we had brought into the trip and how these could potentially affect our interactions with people during it–both in Jordan and later, in Israel. It was a powerful and well-timed reminder that the lens through which we see the world affects how we interact with it.

When images of protests are associated with the violent behavior of fundamentalists, Muna explained that the media does Arabs a disservice by making it appear that the entire Middle East is made up of extremists to be feared. This is not the case, as students are witnessing first-hand. Not only is it untrue, but this depiction is damaging to progressive countries such as Jordan. She lamented that the Arab Spring and its portrayal in the media has crippled the Jordanian tourism economy, which in 2011 made up 14 percent of the country’s GDP. With a decrease in tourism of over 35 percent, she confessed that 2012 had been the worst year yet and that 2013 was looking to prove even worse. However, she remained hopeful that by diversifying the market to focus on domestic travelers and more open-minded, young adventure seekers, Jordanian tourism would bounce back.

Later, at the Ajloun nature reserve, students shared their initial reflections on what they have heard so far. In addition to Muna’s presentation, students discussed the role and status of Jordanian women in society, and in contrast, how it feels to be identified and treated differently as western women; the presentations on the environment in the region, from which Israel, an important neighbor to the west, has largely been absent; the economic and environmental issues related to the influx of refugees; and how the country’s environmental goals of conserving biodiversity and providing a sustainable water source for its 6 million residents will be realized. Over the course of the next few weeks, students will learn more about these issues, and more.

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