Podcast: An American Living and Teaching in the Middle East

Author: Dr. Bjorn Mercer
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Podcast with Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University, and Dr. Jaclyn Fowler, Faculty Director and Associate Professor, School of Arts and Humanities

Picking up and moving to the Middle East to teach would likely be far beyond most people’s comfort zone. Dr. Jaclyn Fowler thought it was beyond hers too until her children encouraged her to take the chance. Together, they moved to Dubai where she spent four years teaching.

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In this podcast, American Public University Program Director Dr. Bjorn Mercer discusses life teaching and living in the Middle East with Faculty Director Dr. Jaclyn Fowler. Listen to this podcast to learn more about Dr. Fowler’s experiences in learning Arabic, teaching a diverse group of students, understanding cultural differences including gender issues, and how it changed her and her children’s outlook on the world forever.

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Bjorn Mercer: Welcome to the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University System. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today at The Everyday Scholar, we are talking to Dr. Jackie Fowler, Faculty Director and acting Program Director over English, Literature and Humanities at American Public University System.

Today, we’re going to be talking about her experience in living in the Middle East, specifically the Gulf region. Welcome, Jackie.

Jaclyn Fowler: Hey.

Bjorn Mercer: So I’ll just jump into the first question. What did you learn about yourself from your experience in the Middle East?

Jaclyn Fowler: I learned a lot about myself, but I wouldn’t say I knew I was learning while I was first there. I’m a pretty confident academic, and I love to write.

I thought I knew who I was until I was introduced to a culture that was so different than what I was used to and to a language that I just couldn’t crack for the longest time. So I learned I wasn’t as confident and as self-assured as I thought I was.

But the cool part, Bjorn, was that I learned to accept what was different. I eventually grew to love what was different and embraced it. So I guess what I learned about myself most was that I’m flexible and adaptable and willing to learn, which I think is a good lesson for an educator to know about herself.

Bjorn Mercer: Oh, for sure. Now, where did you live and where did you come from? So why did you go there?

Jaclyn Fowler: Yeah. I went from northeastern Pennsylvania, where I had lived most of my life. I did a study abroad in the Soviet Union, if you can imagine. It was the first time I ever stepped on a plane, but that was in college.

And then I lived the rest of my life in northeastern Pennsylvania. I was offered the ability to teach in the Middle East. Originally, I turned it down, but my two teenage children were shocked when I said that I didn’t want to work in Dubai. They thought, “Oh my God, Mom, take the chance.”

So we all went and I lived in a little northern town right on the Arabian Gulf. The name of the town was Ras Al Khaimah. It was about an hour from Dubai, and I worked in Dubai.

I guess I went for adventure, and it was one of the greatest things I had done. I not only learned how to live in another culture, a really different culture and speak the language, but I got the chance to travel to places that I would never have been able to travel to had I not been in the Middle East.

I went to places like Nepal and Oman, a little country in the Middle East. I was in Tibet and China and all over East Africa and Northern Africa. So I made a really good choice. I have to daily remind myself that I owe it to my children that I did make the choice and take the adventure on.

Bjorn Mercer: That is wonderful. Our children should push us to experience new things, to be better.

Jaclyn Fowler: It’s interesting; my son was a junior in high school when the opportunity came up. So he would have finished his junior year and been a senior.

I said to him, “Well, listen, if we’re going to go to the Middle East, you’re going to have to do junior year again so that you have at least two years in a high school in the Middle East. You can’t apply to college without having at least two years in the school.”

He agreed. So I thought if he’s willing to make that sacrifice, I’m willing to make the move.

Bjorn Mercer: That’s great. Now, for those who are listening who aren’t as familiar with the geography of the Middle East, where is Dubai in relation to Iraq and what is their government like in comparison to what we’re used to here in the U.S.?

Jaclyn Fowler: Yeah. Dubai is the major economic powerhouse city in the country, the United Arab Emirates. The UAE shares borders with Saudi and with the little country, Oman.

Actually, it’s a fairly big country, but it’s one that we don’t hear of as often. It is in the Gulf region, right on the Arabian Gulf. Or, here we call it the Persian Gulf, but they don’t call it that in the Gulf region.

The UAE is not far from Iraq. In fact, I had many, many Iraqis in my classroom. Some wonderful stories I could tell you about them. Many Iranians, many Kuwaitis, people from all over Africa.

So we were right in the heart of the Middle East, but not close to, for instance, Lebanon and Syria and Jordan. They were farther. They were about a three-hour flight to get to that part of the Middle East.

Bjorn Mercer: When you’re talking about that, it reminds me of my father, who worked in UAE for several years. He would go over there, but he never talked about it. He worked in Iran when there was the, oh my gosh, before the current government. I’m sorry, I’m blanking. When there was the King, which they called the Shah?

Jaclyn Fowler: Yeah, the Shah.

Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, the Shah. Wow, I apologize for that.

Jaclyn Fowler: No, it’s totally okay. It’s a really interesting thing. I mean, you asked about the government structure, and I forgot to answer that part.

But, when you go to the Middle East, you expect that everybody is Arab and in fact Iran, which is so huge, they’re not Arabic. They’re considered really different. The Arabs still call them Persians. So we may call the country Iran, but the Arabs call the people Persians and Iranians call themselves Persians.

It was an interesting collision with history from the books that I had always read and learned from. I was living it firsthand. So it was a really cool, brilliant piece of life to be able to see the things that you’ve heard of all your life or you read of all your life come to life in the Middle East.

There, in the Middle East, most governments are autocratic. So the UAE was no different. It was an autocratic government, which was good in a lot of ways. I know this sounds crazy for someone who is a democracy lover to say this, but it was so safe. It was so safe.

Even walking in Dubai or the capital city Abu Dhabi, you could walk at any hour of the day or night and be safe. I mean, literally be safe.

I had one time bought a new iPhone. I left it on the counter at McDonald’s in the morning and didn’t realize I left it until maybe six hours later. When I showed up back at McDonald’s, it was in the same exact place I left it.

So nobody touched it. Nobody touched it, well, because they were afraid. You don’t want to go to prison in the middle of the desert. That would be a bad place to go.

So the government was authoritarian, but it was also unlike what we think about authoritarian. There was the Sheik, the King there, shared the life, shared the surplus of life with his people. So they were fairly contented with their life. It was an interesting experiment that I lived through.

Bjorn Mercer: I think one of the fascinating things about the Middle East, a large swath of area, which I think most Americans would call, is that we don’t know that much, for as long as America, the United States has been over there now for decades.

We all probably know where Iraq is, where Iran is, where Saudi Arabia is. But do we know the differences between the people? Like Farsi, a beautiful language.

Jaclyn Fowler: Yeah.

Bjorn Mercer: Absolutely beautiful language. Very different than Arabic.

Jaclyn Fowler: It is. It’s interesting they share a lot of the same script, Arabic and Farsi. But I took Arabic classes when I was there in Dubai, and everybody had a speaking partner and my speaking partner was from Iran. He spoke Farsi.

So while he could understand some of the written language, he couldn’t always understand the spoken language, because they were two different languages. So it was an interesting perspective to be able to see is somebody who we expect to be able to understand Arabic, struggling to learn.

Bjorn Mercer: No. I mean, in a simple way to compare it, it’s when you hear somebody from Scotland talking. You understand them, but you don’t always understand them.

Jaclyn Fowler: Right. Actually, the greatest part about Arabic was there were so many dialects. So when you first start to learn Arabic, you learn the Arabic of the Quran. Because, in the Quran, the first prayer of the Quran, which Muslims say every time they pray their salat, which is the word for prayer there.

My first test while I was taking Arabic was I had to learn to recite it in the full Arabic of the Quran in front of everybody in the school building. So there was this really cool, scary moment where this really white, unveiled, American girl, non-Muslim was standing in front of a whole auditorium of Arab men mostly and some women, and I had to do the prayer out in front of everyone.

My first step was I had to write the prayer and then I had to turn around and literally pray it in the way that it was prayed there. It was a pretty daunting moment. It was a pretty daunting moment, but I did all right. Everybody clapped, which meant that I passed the exam.

Bjorn Mercer: That really makes me think, so as an American with whatever problems we might have in this country, what was it like as a female in the UAE? And then, what did women in UAE, what was their experience like, for those who were from UAE in UAE, if that makes sense?

Jaclyn Fowler: It does.

Bjorn Mercer: Because Americans will be treated differently, I’m assuming. Just kind of the reality of it.

Jaclyn Fowler: We are; we’re treated differently. It takes a little while for Americans to be accepted.

We tend to be really loud, which is not considered a good thing in the Middle East. We laugh very loudly, for instance. Men and women and, in particular, women laughing very loudly is considered crude, maybe.

We also don’t cover. So it takes a long time to break down the cultural wall around Arab Muslims, in particular.

But once you are accepted and I was accepted…I’ll tell you a quick story about it in a second. I was accepted fairly early. It took me about a year and a half to break in.

Once I was, I was treated like a family member. I know we can say that here in the U.S. and kind of mean you’re part of the family. But there it’s offered so infrequently that when you are offered family membership, it’s for real.

The women, in particular, are very strong in the UAE. Not everyone of course, but most women are very, very strong. They have strong, dominant personalities. All of our stereotypes over here is because they wear a hijab or are covering that they must not be strong.

But actually when you talk to them about wearing a hijab in the Gulf region in particular, it’s kind of a national dress as well as the religious symbol. They choose to wear the hijab a) because it’s religious, but b) because they feel like they’re looked at for their humanity, for their intelligence, for their heart, and not just for how their makeup is applied or their hair is done.

Bjorn Mercer: I’m really glad you brought that up, because this leads into the next question. How did the experience change you as a person and as a professional? I’ll also lead in with what do you think of Americans who view other countries through our cultural lens and how dangerous is that?

Jaclyn Fowler: Let me start with that one. I think it’s natural. I mean, I really do. I think it’s a natural thing. I think as long as we’re aware that that’s what we’re doing and we’re open to the possibility of changing our perceptions, then we’re okay.

When I went over there, they had this image of Americans as people that they see in the movies. They had all of these ideas about American women in particular. I kept trying to say to them, “Look, we don’t live that action-packed kind of life over in the U.S.”

So I think it goes both ways. I think as long as you’re open to recognizing that you’re viewing each other through those cultural lenses, then it’s normal.

And then, once you learn to see people, not through just your cultural lens, but through a different… You can never really look through it from their cultural lens, but you could be introduced to the people and the culture and the language and the religion in a way that takes you out of what’s normal for you and allows you to accept what’s normal for them. I guess that’s the way to say it.

Let me give an example of this. When I was in the Middle East, of course, your name, my name is Jackie, which is a funny name in the Middle East because it’s a man’s name.

My dad’s name was Jack. So my name should have been a female name, and then Jack. Everybody carries their father’s name as their middle name. That’s how they know who you are. You’re the daughter of Jack or the son of Jack.

So the students I taught used to think that was really funny. But I was very close to my father, I used to tell them. The first year I was there, my father died unexpectedly. The Arabs say, “Your father tethers you to the earth.” So when my father died, I had never experienced such an outpouring of love from anyone.

But the whole community that I lived in took care of me when my father died. Later, when my mother died, about a year and a half later when my mother died, I was invited to the home of an Emirati colleague, a woman.

When I got there, most people live behind these high walls of a courtyard. It’s because women can take their hijabs off if they’re not seen outside their compound. So I went behind the wall and it had to be 25 of her female relatives, her sisters, her nieces, her cousins. Everybody was there.

When I walked in, I didn’t want to be there. I wasn’t yet ready to interact with people after I had just gotten home from my mother’s funeral. My husband was the one that pushed me to go.

So I went and when I saw all these people, I kind of froze in place like, “Oh my God, I’m going to have to be social and I’m going to have to do it in Arabic,” which doubles the difficulty.

The woman walked up to me and she touched me on the face, which never had happened before. She said, “You no longer have to go home for sisters. We’re here for you.”

Every single one of those women touched me. They didn’t say a word. They just walked up to me one by one and touched my cheek or patted my back or put their hands on my head. At the end, I was invited to join their family.

It was the most beautiful understanding. They were heartbroken. Their mother had died five years earlier, so they understood where I was and I was alone in their country. So they invited me in.

From that moment on, I spent lots of nights sitting around there, open fire in the courtyard and… Well, they did all the cooking, because I can’t cook. But I ate the food that they cooked. That’s what happens if you’re willing to trust that your cultural perception may not — or not even cultural perception — but that your personal understanding of the world may not be exactly right.

Bjorn Mercer: Thank you for sharing that experience. I mean that must have been, obviously, life-changing. Obviously, losing your parents and then being accepted over there. Now, how did your experience over there also change your kids? Because then they spent two years there with you.

Jaclyn Fowler: Right. Well, actually, we were there four years.

Bjorn Mercer: Oh, four years. Sorry.

Jaclyn Fowler: Yeah. My son, actually, when it came time for him to go to university, he didn’t limit himself to the United States. He picked the 10 best universities in his subject area, and he ended up going to the one in Paris.

So he’s in a senior year now in Paris. What a good senior year he’s had, right, with the COVID-19. But he’s in a senior year in Paris, and my daughter went to school in China. So she spent a year in China and then went to Colorado College out here in Colorado.

Bjorn Mercer: Great school.

Jaclyn Fowler: It’s a great school. It’s a great school. So, for them, they changed, too. I would say they’re no longer really full-out American. They’re more international. Much more than me, and I’ve traveled all over the world.

But I watched them interact with people from all over the world and it’s just natural for them now. So I’m so happy we did it.

Bjorn Mercer: It reminds me; my family lived in Greece for two years. Although I was young, my brother and I have both shared a passion for Greek and then Roman history. Which is good stuff to learn, which is part of the foundation of what we would describe as Western philosophy and history is wrapped up in those two countries. But it really gives you just a different context of the world when the world is complex.

Jaclyn Fowler: The world is complex, but it’s also really small. Let me give you an example of that. I taught in the university. My joke on when I was over there was I was the granddaughter of Irish immigrants from America, married to a Palestinian, living in the UAE and teaching at Canadian University in Dubai.

I had a classroom that was filled with people from all over the world. Dubai is such an international, cosmopolitan city, that when I say from all over the world, I mean it. From everywhere, from Mali and Kazakhstan and Egypt and all over Africa. Just an amazing, amazing group of people.

One day, I was traveling in Ethiopia, and I usually went by myself. My husband’s a Palestinian refugee, so he can’t always get visas to go places.

So I was in Ethiopia and I was walking along the streets. I heard in Addis Ababa, this amazingly huge city, “Dr. Jackie.” I turned around to see one of my students from the university, and that’s not the only time something like that has happened.

It always amazes me how small the world really is. It was a wonderful day, because it was Christmas day for me. But Ethiopians celebrate Christmas later. They have eight days before their Christmas.

So on my Christmas day, I sat in the home of one of my students with his parents and told stories of their son in school. It was lovely; I wasn’t alone.

Bjorn Mercer: For the last question, Jackie, how did teaching in the Middle East shape your concept of teaching in general?

Jaclyn Fowler: That’s a really good question. I think I’ve been a teacher my whole life, but I wasn’t the best teacher I could be. I’m still working on that, but I wasn’t the best teacher I can be or even on the path until I taught in a classroom that was so diverse. I can tell you little things that needed to change, for instance.

Over in the Middle East, women and men don’t touch; you can’t. I was used to putting my hand on my students’ shoulders, male or female, when I was talking to them. Or leaning into them to explain something. Or dealing with them through touch, which we do often in the United States.

But I had to learn very quickly over there that that wasn’t acceptable. There were other ways of — I guess — touching without touching, right?

Just knowing everybody’s name, which was something in an Arab classroom, that wasn’t normal. They were shocked that I could remember everybody’s name. To me, that was a little thing I could do to touch without being physical.

So that’s the little stuff. But then there’s the bigger stuff, where I might have people from 15 or 16 different cultures in a classroom.

So one of the things I learned to do very early on was to explain my expectations for how the classroom would run. I used to give them funny anecdotes about being an American teacher and what kinds of things we expect in the classroom. And then, after a little while, I asked them what they expected in the classroom, which shaped me even more.

So we were able to meet in a way, kind of in the middle, where we were able to all get what we needed in the classroom. That was really…I learned as much as they learned that way, which was really fun.

I had students who came from all different walks of life. One of my favorites, he is someone I will never forget. His name was Emmanuel, and he was a child soldier in Africa. He was taken so young — he was stolen from his parents, from his village, so young — that he couldn’t remember his parents’ names or the names of his village.

He was liberated, but had nowhere to go. He didn’t know how to go home.

One of the things I loved about the Middle East is that they invited these children to come and learn in the school where I taught. They paid for it, for them to come. He was a monster of a child. Not a child anymore, he was a monster, maybe 20 years old. He was really tall and really big and he had tattoos all over him, which is considered — the word is “haram” in the Middle East — sinful.

But he didn’t have any choice. They were put on him. After skipping my class, he’d sign up and then drop out and sign up and drop out, and finally he had to take it. There was no other way. He had to go through it.

He was afraid of an American woman. He didn’t know how to deal with an American woman. He was very shy despite his size.

So when we had our expectations talk and I would remind them regularly what my expectations and what their expectations were for me, he said to me one day, “I have something to show you.” I taught English, and he pulled out pages and pages and pages of song lyrics that were simple, but beautiful and heartbreaking.

He had been doing that the whole time he was a child soldier. It was a moment where I realized that I had crossed a divide, as just someone who stood in the front of the classroom and someone who had become a mentor and a teacher.

I think that moment is the moment that I look for in all of my interactions with students now. That moment where a student would trust me so much that he or she will let me in on their deepest, darkest secret, as far as learning goes.

So that’s one of the reasons I think I’ve come back a different teacher. When I teach in the classroom at APUS, it’s not just about content and meeting learning objectives, although that’s part of it. It’s also about finding a way to have that content, that learning, touch the heart of the student and in so doing, touch my heart as well.

So it inspires me when I see students take a love for something that I love so much, literature and English and writing. So I guess I’ve come back a learner as well from the Middle East. Although I always loved to learn, I think I’m much more aware that it should be happening for me as well, in a classroom, virtual or traditional.

Bjorn Mercer: For any of our students that might eventually be interacting with people from the Middle East or going to the Middle East — for say, work — what do you suggest to them on how to learn more?

Jaclyn Fowler: That’s a really good question. I hadn’t thought about it before. I suppose my first thing, is not to fear. Don’t fear some difference. That’s okay. It’s okay to be different.

I guess — in the Middle East — we’re the different ones. Americans are different and be okay with that. Be okay with who you are.

I would say one of the things I’ve learned in all the travels that I’ve done is that it’s much better to approach people with a smile and a little more quiet than we tend to be in the United States. We kind of scare people with how loud we are.

And then just to be open to learn from people. A lot of times I saw Americans in the Middle East, in universities or were in schools, they couldn’t make it. The reason was they expected everything to be the same as it was for them at home.

I remember there was a British guy who worked for me and he kept saying, “This is not the way we do it. This is not the way we do it.”

I finally said, “You’re not in England. You are in Dubai right now, so it’s not the way you do it. If you want it the way you did it, you need to go back to England.” It was the moment where he was like, “Oh, oh, I didn’t think about that before.”

People do things differently, and you have to be okay with that. You have to adapt to their world. They don’t need to adapt to you.

Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, and I think that’s a wonderful final thought, is we have to adapt. Living in the U.S., we’ve got many blessings, many, what do you say, experiences that are easy compared to other parts of the world.

But at the same time, there’s a lot we could share it and a lot we could learn. There’s a lot which we could do to adapt to other peoples of the world. This sounds idealistic, just to make it a better place.

Jaclyn Fowler: Bjorn, it’s not idealistic. I think it’s for real. I think it’s the most realistic thing we could believe in. Being kind to someone and smiling, it changes the dynamic in any kind of relationship.

I remember when I was in Zanzibar and the people, it was extreme, dire poverty and they were the happiest people that I had ever met. I mean, that’s the area, Tanzania. Zanzibar is in Tanzania.

Tanzania is where they say Hakuna Matata, and they mean it. They mean it. The smile and the kindness and the simple humanity that comes through in that kind of exchange is, I hope, the way I face the world now. I hope, I hope I learned that lesson.

Bjorn Mercer: No, and I would love to talk to you for hours and talk about your experiences traveling. But the world is connected. I think for a lot of people in this country, because of COVID-19, we realized how connected it is and how traveling can spread something like COVID-19.

But, just in how, unlike the olden days — when I say old days, let’s say like 100, 200 hundred years ago — people could travel. There’s no better way to learn about people, besides obviously learning about them. I always say this and it sounds cheesy, but sharing a meal.

Jaclyn Fowler: Yes.

Bjorn Mercer: And listening to their music.

Jaclyn Fowler: Yes, I agree.

Bjorn Mercer: If you could do those two things, you’ll understand someone. I’m probably idealistic, but 99% of conflicts can be resolved if people just talk.

Jaclyn Fowler: I agree. One of the things I loved about the Middle East is they have this really cool way of looking at the world. There’s a bit of fatalism in the Middle East like, “Well, if this is the way it is, this is the way it is.”

But going along with it, they recognize the difference between the government and the people. I think that’s an important thing to remember is that people are, we are so much more alike than different.

The story I told about the women who accepted me into their family, they understood the heartbreak I had from losing my parents and they understood how a daughter feels when she loses her mother. That bound us together. We became sisters because we understood the pain each other felt.

I think it’s not cheesy, it’s not idealistic. I think it’s real. It’s realistic. If we could recognize the essential humanity in each of us, all of this stupidity that goes around, what happens between countries, would just be gone. It would just be gone. Anyway, that’s what I hope for the world.

Bjorn Mercer: No, thank you. Thank you for sharing about your experiences about living in the Middle East, specifically in the Gulf region. Thank you, Jackie.

Jaclyn Fowler: Thank you.

Bjorn Mercer: Today at The Everyday Scholar, we were talking to Dr. Jaclyn Fowler about her experiences living in the Middle East and specifically the Gulf region.

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Podcast: An American Living and Teaching in the Middle East

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