The benefits and drawbacks of studying abroad in the Middle East

By The Team
Published May 2, 2011

Say the words "Middle East" in conversation and you're just as likely to bring the dialogue to a screeching halt as you are to elicit a knock-down, drag-out argument. Indeed, there are few other regions on the planet that cause such divisive, personal, emotional reactions. And while this may seem unique to our times-every generation has its geopolitical hot-spots-the role the Middle East plays as the fulcrum of all things politically controversial and militarily frightening is nothing new. It has, in fact, played this role for millennia.

But there is more to the Middle East than trouble. And in order to appreciate it, to appreciate all the beauty, history, and potential this region has, a brief accounting of its past is necessary.

And that past goes back an almost unfathomably long way. In fact, from the earliest days of humankind, this part of the planet has played a role far greater than its relatively small size would seem to imply, or even allow.

When people speak of the Middle East, they are generally referring to "a cultural area, so it does not have precise borders. The most common and highly arbitrary definition includes: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Palestinian Territories. Iran is often the eastern border, but Afghanistan is also occasionally included because of their close relationship (ethnically and religiously) to the larger group of Iranian peoples as well as historical connections to the Middle East including being part of the various empires that have spanned the region such as those of the Persians and Arabs, among others." This area is also occasionally referred to as the Near East-such is the nature of geographic relativism that some amount of linguistic confusion will inevitably arise.

Within these countries, there exists a widely divergent, highly varied range of cultures that run the gamut from the undoubtedly eastern to the decidedly western. Indeed, any region that includes Israel and Iran within its (arbitrary) borders is bound to be quite more than multi-faceted.

And it is this multi-faceted nature of the region that makes it so appealing for students from all over the world. If you would like to study the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in their historical homelands, then Israel is the place to go. In fact, this small country, barely the size of New Jersey, is home to a richer cultural and historical record than (arguably) anywhere else on earth. Nearly every significant western civilization, it seems, has passed through this land, leaving its footprints on both the land itself and in the culture. Qatar, that slice of land on the Persian Gulf, is becoming as modern as any country in the Eastern world. Turkey is home to some of the grandest architecture and examples of human religiosity and ingenuity anywhere (i.e., the Haggia Sophia, the Obelisk of Theodosius, among many others). The point is this: For variety of culture, and richness of history, there is no place in the world as breathtaking as the Middle East.

Of course, these days, it may not seem like the smartest place to visit, what with all the news reports of violence, bloodshed, and enmity among its constituent nations. And while there certainly is a great deal of violence in some parts of the region-traveling to Iraq, for example, is a very, very bad idea...if you could even get in-there are also many others that are as safe as anywhere else in the world. These days, after all, terrorism can strike anywhere and at any time, so traveling in the Middle East is likely to be just as safe-or dangerous-as anywhere else. Just keep your eyes open, use your instincts, and you should be fine, whether you're living in Jerusalem, Cairo, Amman, or anywhere else in the safer parts of the region.

Plus, there are several distinct advantages to attending college in the Middle East, not least of which is an improved understanding of the forces that are shaping the world and of the cultures in this region that are playing such an increasingly important role on the international stage. Indeed, if you learn to speak Hebrew or Arabic, as you probably will if you attend college in the Middle East, then your ability to make sense of the world will not only be improved, but you will also become a much more desirable job candidate when it comes time to graduate and make your way in the so-called real world.

Really, the benefits of studying in the Middle East far outweigh the drawbacks. From the earliest days of human civilization, people have been drawn to this part of the world. Their traces are still there today, as are myriad reasons for you to follow in their ancient footsteps. It may sound counterintuitive, but now is an excellent time to consider attending college in the Middle East. You have the entire world to gain from the experience.